MRTI: Title battles to reach crescendo after intriguing Friday at Sonoma

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SONOMA, Calif. – Friday marked a critical day for all three Mazda Road to Indy divisions at Sonoma Raceway. Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires qualified while both the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda had their second-to-last races of the season, each with way more drama than could have been forecast.

PRO MAZDA (Race 1, Updated Points)

Spencer Pigot entered Friday’s race one with a 19-point lead over Scott Hargrove, but the young American lost it all in one fell swoop, and in one lead battle with his title nemesis.

Polesitter Hargrove led Pigot, but Pigot was close and nearly able to catch and pass him through Turns 1 and 2. The two collided while battling over the lead, and both came out the other side of Turn 2 actually still running, but with Pigot’s left side pod and radiator damaged. He spun out of the race from there at Turns 3 and 3A, relegated to a 21st and last-place finish.

In the incident, respective teammates Kyle Kaiser (Pigot’s, Juncos Racing) and Neil Alberico (Hargrove’s, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) made it through the fracas to get ahead of Hargrove, who continued with only minor issues – he’d flat spotted his tires earlier and had braking problems.

Kaiser was left to take his first career victory at his home race, and with third, Hargrove moved into the points lead. Hargrove’s lead is two points, 294-292, over Pigot. Hargrove will have the pole for Saturday’s race two, by virtue of his qualifying time set Friday.

While Pigot and Hargrove’s battle has been clean and respectful most of the season, understandably, the two didn’t see eye-to-eye over what happened Friday.

“I got a great start but then I started struggling with the brakes, especially going into the last two corners,” Hargrove explained. “Spencer got a good run on me. I was a little ahead by middle of Turn 1, he tried to push me down, but neither of us was going to lift. Leading the chamoionship, I don’t think that was the smartest for him. Hopefully this doesn’t happen again for him.

“My only option (going in) is to win to claw back the points, if he finished the races. He didn’t have to win today to win the championship,” Hargrove added.

Pigot tweeted his thoughts Friday evening: “I was hit and taken out of the lead today. Now trailing in points but we’ll be fighting hard tomorrow. Not over yet! We have a good car, set fastest lap today by half a second and only completed a few laps. guys putting the car back together.”

Kaiser, whose first win was overshadowed, still was able to enjoy the spoils.

“Absolutely fantastic, I do feel amazing,” he said. “On the opening laps, usually we struggle, and struggled with the push. Then the car came to me with clean air.”

USF2000 (Race 1, Updated Points)

All Florian Latorre needed to do was finish ahead of RC Enerson and Jake Eidson in Friday’s race one of the Sonoma weekend. But a worst-case scenario happened for the 17-year-old Frenchman.

While going for the lead in Turn 2, Enerson, to Latorre’s inside, contacted the polesitter and sent him into the wall. Enerson gained the lead and the contact was reviewed with no further action taken. But Latorre was out on the spot, and the contact meant both Enerson and Eidson had a chance to gain huge amounts of points.

Enerson was able to control the 15-lap race from there after a restart, while a dynamic start from Aaron Telitz got the ArmsUp Motorsports driver into second. Telitz then held off Eidson and the second ArmsUp driver, Peter Portante, the remainder of the race. Portante was consistently seven to eight tenths per lap quicker than the three drivers in front of him, but unable to make a move stick due to the “aero push” that affects these cars.

“Yeah we were both going for it. It’s really difficult to pass here,” Enerson said. “So whoever took the lead on the start would run away with it. Like Jake said, we both fought for the same real estate. That’s not the outcome I was looking for. I wanted a good clean battle and clean race. That changed it.”

Latorre is still ahead of Enerson, and Eidson is within 10 points (279-275-269). Realistically both Latorre and Enerson would need to have problems for Eidson to snatch the championship. Latorre and Enerson start 1-2 on Saturday.

INDY LIGHTS (Qualifying Results)

This took a backseat to the Pro Mazda and USF2000 proceedings as it turned out, but Indy Lights may have a points shakeup of its own set for Saturday if qualifying results are any indication.

Jack Harvey, who seeks to overcome a 23-point gap to Gabby Chaves, bagged the pole for Saturday’s first race. Chaves is second while Zach Veach, who’s within seven points of Chaves, struggled to seventh on the grid.

Harvey swept the Mid-Ohio doubleheader and the young Englishman seeks to extend the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports championship streak to five in a row. Chaves and Veach also seek their first titles; Chaves would be the first for Belardi Auto Racing while Veach looks to deliver Michael Andretti his first title since 2009.

John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

Photo: Dreyer and Reinbold Racing
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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”