The 2014 Milwaukee IndyFest weekend high on promise, with more positives than negatives

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Several factors need to be taken into play when doing a weekend debrief of last weekend’s Milwaukee IndyFest, the third crack by Andretti Sports Marketing in promoting a race at the legendary, one-mile oval.

One, the date changed. Date equity is often one of the keys to a successful event; it’s been something that Milwaukee is readjusting to. For ages, it was the week after the Indianapolis 500, but then it was shifted to later in June upon its return to the calendar in 2011, and then for 2014, switched to August.

Two, it didn’t rain pre-race. Each of the last two years, the Father’s Day Saturday, pop-up showers occurred and had an adverse affect on the walk-up crowd. With a glorious, sun-soaked Sunday this time around, the infield pre-race was buzzing.

Three, there is a general perception that oval attendance looks worse visually than at road and street courses. A road or street course race weekend may get as little as 10 to 15,000 patrons on race day, but if they’re neatly packed into say, three or four grandstands around a two-mile course, it looks like a sellout. But 20 or 25,000 at a Texas, Iowa or Milwaukee looks worse because the grandstand capacity is much bigger – either north of 30,000 on the short ovals or exceeding 75,000 at the 1.5-mile TMS.

So, consider those factors and the fact that visually speaking (top is 2013, bottom 2014), the grandstands appeared to be fuller this go around and you’ll have to say there were more positives than negatives to take away from the 2014 edition of an event that needed a big weekend.

Promotionally speaking, Andretti Sports Marketing had an active city presence for the better part of five months. Various driver appearances and other pre-race elements were chronicled throughout the process on MotorSportsTalk. There were at least some billboards present on the freeways driving up from Chicago/Indianapolis up north.

If there was one complaint I heard during the weekend, and perhaps fairly, it was that the event merchandise selection was lacking. So were the cream puffs for those outside victory lane. But certainly, the entertainment options weren’t. With rides, a Ferris Wheel, various food options, tweet-ups, the National Volleyball League and a concert stage all packed into the infield, there was plenty for families to engage in.

Crowd reports have been mixed. Honestly, I’d peg it a bit as close to 30,000. Robin Miller estimated a lower amount (18,000) in a piece for RACER.com but if event general manager Kevin Healy estimated last year’s at nearer to 28,000 (which seems high), and this one felt busier (believe me, it did) in a piece for the Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee, so it should be a little bit higher. And any growth, especially given the above factors, is a good thing. Estimates of 35 to 40,000, as ABC Supply Co. owner Diane Hendricks hoped for, were wide of the mark.

Did the fans get treated to one of the best races of the year? Frankly, no. Will Power checked out in one of his most clutch performances in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and he won with tenacity (he survived an early battle with Tony Kanaan), pace (consistent 150+ mph laps before the tires fell off) and fuel saving (going 62 laps on a final stint).

But that says something more to the quality of IndyCar races throughout the year than it does a lack of excitement with Milwaukee. The downside to the racing in Sunday’s case was that it required a second screen experience – generally the Verizon INDYCAR 14 app or a laptop – to enhance the viewing of the race, and follow the respective strategies and timing & scoring.

Perhaps the tires fell off too fast, and the horsepower isn’t high enough to where it could be. Still, neither Juan Pablo Montoya nor Kanaan blamed anything bad about Sunday’s race on the current package – they blamed it on drivers who were difficult to pass as slower traffic.

The corporate support for this race was up, and that is a big takeaway. Michael Andretti said pre-race how happy he was with the uptick, and considering events need all the local and corporate support they can get, it’s a positive sign. ABC Supply’s presence as title sponsor is a good thing – so is Direct Supply’s, Marcus Hotels, the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers, and on down the line. There was a street party on the Friday night, with a charity event for Racing for Kids also well-received.

Seeing news reports that “Milwaukee has just been confirmed for 2015” is erroneous. The race was announced as being locked into a two-year deal last October. The only new news this weekend about the event’s status was its reported 2015 date, initially pegged as August 22-23 (so a week later, but still a week after the State Fair) by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Dave Kallmann.

All told, while there continue to be elements the event needs to improve on, both on and off-track, I think Andretti Sports Marketing delivered another solid event overall.

As always, the fan interest needs to back up the promoter and corporate efforts – and that will remain IndyCar’s biggest challenge on ovals going forward.

Rossi: ‘It’s on us to help give Alonso the insight they gave me’

Alonso's seat fit. Photo: IndyCar
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The defending champion of the Indianapolis 500 was a rookie and the student in 2016. Now, a year later, he’s a teacher.

One of the cool angles among many for Alexander Rossi as he prepares to defend his win in last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in the 101st running is that he’ll have the opportunity to help two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in his transition to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as he’ll enter the Andretti Autosport team in the jointly entered McLaren, Honda and Andretti sixth car.

He obviously wants to beat him on track – same as the other 31 drivers including his four other teammates at Andretti Autosport in Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Takuma Sato and Jack Harvey – but he’s not concerned about being a teacher as part of the team’s heralded open-book atmosphere of information and data sharing.

Rossi came to Indy a year ago for what was only his second oval race but quickly absorbed every fiber of information he received from teammates Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Carlos Munoz and Townsend Bell, with Hunter-Reay and Andretti his two primary driver teachers in the process.

Rossi learned among other things how to run in traffic, save fuel and handle the draft – all of which paid dividends en route to his victory in his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda for the Andretti-Herta Autosport team partnership.

SINGAPORE – SEPTEMBER 17: Alexander Rossi of the United States and Manor Marussia walks in the paddock during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 17, 2015 in Singapore. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

And now for Rossi, he’ll have the chance to pay back Alonso for Alonso’s own welcoming of him when he arrived for his first Grand Prix start, at Singapore in 2015 with Manor.

Rossi singled out Alonso and Sebastian Vettel as the two drivers who made a point of helping his transition to a race seat for his first race start.

“It’s limited with other drivers; we don’t spend time together in F1,” Rossi told NBC Sports. “But Alonso and Sebastian came up to me at Singapore for my debut to offer their words of wisdom. He was the one guy I had more contact with than the others.”

Alonso made his first visit to the Andretti Autosport headquarters in Indianapolis on Monday, where he made his seat, met the Borg-Warner Trophy and began interacting with his Indianapolis 500 teammates away from the throng of activity on site at Barber Motorsports Park in a more intimate setting.

Rossi, for the first time, was able to impart the knowledge he’s learned at Indianapolis onto Alonso and said it’s on him and his teammates to provide the same tutelage to Alonso for his upcoming odyssey.

“I was visiting him yesterday at the shop, as we’re walking through our Indy preparations,” Rossi said. “He’s one of the best drivers in the world.

“It’s on us – Ryan and Marco mainly – to help give him the insight they gave me because they’re two of the best at that track. I was always in the best possible position as a rookie, and now he’s in the same position.”

Rossi said it’ll likely be the items away from the driving and engineering meetings that will pique Alonso’s curiosity at Indianapolis – namely, how dedicated the fans are throughout the practice days.

“F1 is very… you’re kept in a box. In some ways that’s good and others it’s not good at all,” Rossi explained.

“The big thing for him to see is how involved the fans are, especially during the month of May. That was the thing that surprised me – it’s awesome to see and it’s why it makes our sport so good to be that involved.

“It can be super frustrating. Say you’re running to take a leak, and it’s a 20-minute process. That will surprise him. He’ll be used to going into race car, pit lane, and the timing around being on track.

“But say it’s 7:30 p.m. and you’re in an engineering meeting and there’s 100 fans there still… that is amazing and incredible… and we’re still plugging away in our meeting.

“But he’s a super laid-back kind of guy.”

Herta, Telitz rivalry in Indy Lights has Yankees, Red Sox DNA embedded

Herta (far left) and Telitz (center) aren't just rivals on the track. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Today marks the first time the New York Yankees (11-7) and Boston Red Sox (11-8) square off in the 2017 Major League Baseball season, 7 p.m. ET tonight at Fenway Park.

Back down on the farm, however, they’ve already battled twice this year in St. Petersburg and Birmingham, Ala.

The tangential connection that manages to see this lede weave into a racing story comes courtesy of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ proverbial triple-A affiliate, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, and two of its top young American prospects: Colton Herta and Aaron Telitz.

Herta’s Yankees connection is well-documented, if not directly related to his own family roots, as Bryan Herta’s son is only 17 years old and hails from Valencia, Calif.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing team principal George Michael Steinbrenner IV (pictured above), just 20, is the grandson of the iconic owner of the New York Yankees; he’s the son of Hank Steinbrenner, part-owner and co-chairman of the Yankees now. George Michael’s mother was a cousin of the late Tony Renna, a talented up-and-comer who died in 2003. Renna’s teammate in Indy Lights in the 1990s was Chris Simmons, who’s now Scott Dixon’s race engineer in IndyCar. George Michael’s stepfather is Sean Jones, Bryan Herta’s long-time friend and business partner. It’s confusing at first glance, but when you put the pieces together there’s a huge passion and amount of racing blood for these families.

Herta in St. Petersburg, near the adopted winter hometown for the Yankees of Tampa. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

He drives the No. 98 Deltro Energy Dallara IL-15 Mazda for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing and while his car isn’t exactly painted in pinstripes, it’s blue and white.

Birchwood, Wisc.’s Telitz, 25, by contrast, has a lesser known but direct family lineage with the Boston Red Sox. His great grandfather was Fred Thomas, a third baseman for the Red Sox, who was on the 1918 World Series-winning team – the last Red Sox team to win it all before the team broke its 86-year drought in 2004 (the Yankees oh so happily won 26 of their 27 World Championships between 1923 and 2000 during this period).

Thomas was born in Milwaukee and was more known for a couple things he did beyond playing on the diamond itself. While on furlough from the Navy, Thomas coined the idea of playing the National Anthem at sporting events. Telitz explains it more in an April 2015 blog he wrote after winning the 2013 Team USA Scholarship, which also has a further explanation about Thomas’ and the National Anthem from ESPN.com linked within that blog.

BOSTON, MA – MAY 22: Members of all four branches of the United States military stand on the field for a pregame ceremoiney before the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox on May 22, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Before this series, the two teams haven’t played at Fenway Park since the 1918 World Series. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Thomas founded a resort in Northern Wisconsin in 1924; the Fred Thomas Resort stands proud today more than 80 years later, and it’s one of several associate partners (Rice Lake Weighing Systems primary among them) you can see on Telitz’s car this year. In no small coincidence, it helps that Telitz’s No. 9 Soul Red Mazda for Belardi Auto Racing isn’t that different a shade of red from the Boston Red Sox colors.

Telitz’s Soul Red isn’t much different from Red Sox red. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Among the cool items Telitz notes from his great grandfather’s lineage is that he had a “real life The Sandlot situation” come to life with one of the mementos from that 1918 World Series.

“Because of Fred, my Grandpa was always interested in what the Red Sox were doing. So they watched quite often,” Telitz told NBC Sports. “In 2004 when they won the World Series, I watched it with my whole family. We get mementos from Red Sox all the time and that year, they sent us an American flag, in honor of Fred’s service to the country.

“One of the funny things from 1918 was that Fred had two game balls and had everyone on the team sign them. He took them back home with him to Birchwood. They sat in the main lodge of the resort in a basket, and kids used to be able to play baseball with them… as they had no idea these’d be worth anything. Eventually my Grandpa did save one of them and put it in a case and our family. I think the other one got lost!

“It was a real-life Sandlot situation. But back then it wasn’t a big deal! Then it became, oh, it’s a huge deal.”

Telitz’s family has Red Sox roots. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

With Telitz having the Red Sox connection, finding out Herta – and more importantly, the Steinbrenners – were coming to Indy Lights this year as well, it was hard for him not to be excited about that. It would also rekindle a rivalry the two started to have on their own in their rookie season of Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in 2014, when Telitz won a race for ArmsUp Motorsports while Herta, then 14, scored a couple top-five finishes in a learning year.

“When I heard the Steinbrenners were coming in I was like, that’s so cool!” Telitz laughed. “It’s funny; Colton doesn’t exactly have a real connection, whereas I’m a direct descendent of the third baseman that won the 1918 World Series. So now here we are, and our paths have crossed again.”

Herta won Indy Lights’ 400th race Sunday at Barber. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Lest Herta be one to let the friendly jab come at him without a comeback, young “Hertamania 2.0” was quick with a comedic rebuttal.

“Well he’s running the red car, and I’m running a blue and white car. So, it’s kind of similar in that point as well. I think, just like many years before, we’ll see the Yankees emerge victorious over the Red Sox!” Herta laughed. “But no, I didn’t know that (about Aaron)! That’s actually really cool to see the baseball connections coming into racing.”

Herta expanded on his own upbringing and how the longtime Dodgers fan has adopted a different shade of blue.

“As a child, I grew up watching the Dodgers, with living just 40 minutes north of downtown Los Angeles,” he said. “Being the home team, that’s who I was always rooted for and growing up, that’s who my dad rooted for as well. I wasn’t as a child, but I’ve grown to be a Yankees fan this year.

“I’ve been able to go to quite a few Spring Training games, and have been fortunate to go behind the scenes with the Yankees and it’s really impressive. Plus, obviously, I kind of have to like them – I’m driving for their team! It’s not a bad team to like, they win a lot!”

On the scoreboard in Indy Lights this year, where the big league prize to graduate to IndyCar is $1 million from Mazda as an advancement scholarship for three races, Herta has won twice – including Sunday’s 400th race in Indy Lights history at Barber Motorsports Park – while Telitz can always say he beat Herta to winning in his series debut, as he dominated the season opener from St. Petersburg. Herta leads the points with 101 while Telitz sits fourth on 74.

So, it’s play ball between these two drivers with likely baseball’s most iconic rivalry as an intriguing subplot for the rest of the year.

BOSTON – JULY 24: Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees walks to first base with hitting coach Don Mattingly #23 after a fight with Jason Varitek #33 of the Boston Red Sox in the third inning after Rodriguez was hit by a pitch by pitcher Bronson Arroyo on July 24, 2004 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Both Rodriguez and Jason Varitek of the Red Sox were ejected from the game. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Red Bull GRC: 2017 Preseason Q&A with Anders Krohn

Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull Content Pool
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Red Bull Global Rallycross prepares to kick off its 2017 season this weekend at Memphis on the NBC Sports Group networks. Race coverage airs Sunday at 1 p.m. on NBC.

We checked in with NBC Sports analyst Anders Krohn, who will again call selected Red Bull GRC Supercars and GRC Lites races, for his take looking ahead to the new season (2016 midseason review linked here):

MST: A lot of change is coming to Red Bull GRC this year, with a number of different lineups. Do you see Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross well positioned to win its third straight title or are they vulnerable this year?

Anders Krohn: “The Beetles will definitely be hard to beat, but Honda and Subaru have stepped up their game, big time. It’s cool to see it becoming such a big fight between manufacturers, and one can only hope that 2017 is closer than in years past. Andretti Autosport recently took delivery of two brand new cars for Scott Speed and Tanner Foust, and I’m pretty certain the 2017 spec cars will be another noticeable step forward.”

MST: Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE should be much better in its second season. What are some of the goals and expectations here for this talented trio of drivers in the second year of the Honda Civic Coupe program? 

AK: “Almost to the detriment of their program last year, they got a podium at their first race weekend in Phoenix, so the expectations were already quite high from that point on. This year it’s quite simple, they need to win races. Last year they were quite a bit overweight, so if they’ve been able to shave those extra pounds off the car, they could be in good shape.”

MST: Subaru has made big improvements in the offseason with Patrik Sandell moving over and Chris Atkinson on for the season. Do you think they can return to winning races? 

AK: “Subaru have done more testing than any other manufacturer and this week we’ll get to see if the investment paid off. They’ve had a couple of tough years, and I know they are gunning for the title this year. With Patrik Sandell and Chris Atkinson they have a truly lethal combination and I like what each of them bring to the team. In 2016 we were left wondering too often if the lack of pace was down to driver or car, but for this year that certainly will not be the case.”

MST: There’s a lot of excitement with new faces coming into the series… Cabot Bigham, Oliver Eriksson and Mitchell DeJong all set to make their full-season debuts. Having covered them a bit in GRC Lites what is their potential like when they step up to Supercars? 

AK: “Mitchell DeJong obviously crushed the GRC Lites field in 2014, so his chance in a Supercar is well overdue and I give credit to Honda, Red Bull and OMSE for trusting in such a talented, young American to get the job done for them. Cabot Bigham and Oliver Eriksson finished first and second in what was probably the most competitive GRC Lites season ever. Having talked with Cabot’s new team owner Bryan Herta, he’s been massively impressed with Cabot’s outright pace and feedback so far. Oliver will be a natural fit within his already familiar OMSE home, albeit with an additional 350 horsepower under the bonnet. I genuinely feel as though these guys will turn some heads this year and show just how strong of a feeder series GRC Lites is.”

MST: Memphis kicks off a different schedule this year with a lot of new venues. What are some of the places for fans/series observers to be excited with this year? 

AK: “GRC is turning into a manufacturer dogfight and that is a great thing for the overall health of the sport, and should provide plenty of entertainment for the fans. I also like that the privateer teams of Rahal Letterman Racing with Austin Dyne, Loenbro Motorsports with Steve Arpin and Bryan Herta RallySport with Cabot Bigham, will have a chance to slug it out. All these guys are in Ford M-Sport Fiesta’s, which, under the right circumstances, could very well take it to the big teams with manufacturer support.

“Memphis looks like a super fast track, and using the oval part of the raceway means the wear on the tires will likely be extreme. With only 17% dirt, I expect a relatively stiffly sprung, low car to be the way to go, something that VW is obviously well known for. I’ve personally never been to Memphis, but it sure looks like a great chance to get some good BBQ, enjoy cars jumping 100 feet and banging into each other.

“If we can have three different manufacturers on the podium at the opening weekend, I think we’ll be in for a great season.”


Alonso gets seat fit, visits Borg-Warner Trophy in Indy

Photo: Michael L. Levitt/LAT Photo USA
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Fernando Alonso’s quick first visit to the U.S. before this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix continued Monday with a trip to Indianapolis with his Andretti Autosport team, following the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in Birmingham, Ala.

After a jam-packed Sunday packed with media commitments and observing from the pits, Alonso went to Andretti’s shop on Zionsville Rd. where he made his seat fit for his upcoming first test on May 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This was the only time this could be worked into his schedule before he heads to Sochi to resume his Formula 1 commitments in his day job, lead driver of the team’s McLaren Honda.

Alonso also met the trophy he hopes to win as part of his quest to capture the Triple Crown, the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Andretti Autosport is the defending champion team at Indianapolis with Alexander Rossi. Rossi follows Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Dan Wheldon (2005) as winners for the team in the ‘500.

“It’s a beautiful trophy that I would be proud to take home if I won the Indianapolis 500. There are so many familiar faces on the trophy from the past and present that represent the greatest race in the world,” Alonso said, via BorgWarner. “Can I please get a full-sized trophy to take home if I win the race? The small ones (Baby Borgs) are nice but a big one would be wonderful!”

As Alonso is a two-time World Champion, he wouldn’t be the first driver to pull off an Indianapolis 500 victory. Others that have done so are listed below:

  • Jim Clark – Formula One World Champion in 1963 and 1965, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1965
  • Graham Hill – Formula One World Champion in 1962 and 1968, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1966
  • Mario Andretti – Formula One World Champion 1978, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1969
  • Emerson Fittipaldi – Formula One World Champion 1972 and 1974, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1989 and 1993
  • Jacques Villeneuve – Formula One World Champion 1997, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1995

NBCSN videos from Alonso’s Sunday at Barber are linked below.

Press Conference

Grid Interview with Townsend Bell

NBCSN Booth