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DiZinno: Reflecting on Month of May 2016, and 100th Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Exhale. It’s over.

The month of May 2016, a month which promised so much, delivered even more and produced a wide swath of memories, emotions, surprises and story lines, is now as finished as Alexander Rossi’s fuel tank of his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda.

The unpredictable month had its final round of twists and turns during the race itself but produced quite a number of takeaways of note:

WHAT A SAFE MONTH IT WAS

Last year, safety was the buzzword leading into the Indianapolis 500. Three devastating looking, airborne accidents dominated discussion in the run-up to qualifying. There was the awkward Mark Miles and Derrick Walker, hastily organized press conference.

Then, of course, there was James Hinchcliffe’s accident on the Monday, that has been talked about, written about and discussed ad nauseam in the 12 months since. How “Hinch” handled himself throughout the process of being asked the same question, “Hey, what do you think about almost dying?” approximately 789 times is nothing short of admirable.

This year, the words “transported to Methodist Hospital” were never uttered. Once.

And you can thank INDYCAR for that.

Karam's crash was big, but still safe. Photo: Getty Images
Karam’s crash was big, but still safe. Photo: Getty Images

While the timing of the safety enhancements for 2016 being announced wasn’t ideal – late November around Thanksgiving – the trio of the domed skids, the rear wing beam flaps and the nose tethers successfully completed their jobs.

Cars crashed without getting airborne, from both manufacturers. There were hard hits but in each case drivers got out, walked away and completed the requisite trip to the infield medical center, concerned more for their crews in needing to repair the primary or assemble a backup.

All the while, the “infamous” domed skids made the cars harder to drive and truly revealed the caliber of talent from each of the 33 drivers who started.

It’s easy to rip on INDYCAR when they’re wrong, but the competition and operations side of the equation merits a round of applause this year for ensuring we made it through May entirely unscathed.

RACE CONTROL? WHAT RACE CONTROL? 

Remember how much consternation there was at Long Beach over just the warning call for Simon Pagenaud exiting the pit lane and emerging ahead of Scott Dixon? Yeah, a long distant memory now.

The only time we heard Arie Luyendyk’s name this month was in reference to being a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion. Max Papis and Dan Davis? Didn’t hear them once.

INDYCAR Race Control has a thankless job and is often first in the line of fire for critique and criticism when a questionable call occurs. It’s only fair, then, to give them extended kudos for their work this month. There were plenty of penalties called in the race – but it’s hard to say any of them were controversial.

IMS, CROWD LIVES UP TO THE HYPE

Welcome to the Indy 500 Snake Pit. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Welcome to the Indy 500 Snake Pit. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Preparing for 350,000 people on race day was no small feat. Neither was preparing for 100,000-plus on Carb Day – the day when drunken debauchery takes center stage along with the respective concert on display (this year, it was Journey).

Alas, it seemed that the IMS staff did a pretty good job of getting the message out about getting there early, dealing with the crowds, and keeping the track safe and fun for all associated events. Even the “yellow shirts” weren’t as trigger-happy on their whistles and nicer than usual for most of the month.

The witnessing of the crowd on race morning was simply incredible. As others have written, it was more the fact the crowd got to their seats so early that stood out. At about 10 a.m. the stands were I’d say 70-75 percent full; usually they’re 50-60 percent, there or thereabouts at that time.

Other than intermittent Internet outages in the pressroom – not ideal, certainly, when your job relies on it – it was a month that ran largely smooth and cleanly without interruption.

To track president J. Douglas Boles and his entire staff, I say thank you.

THE FUTURE WON OUT OVER THE PAST

Munoz, Brabham and Hinch.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Munoz, Brabham and Hinchcliffe. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

In a race that looked forward as much as backwards – yes, there was plenty to commemorate the past of the 99 previous runnings of the Indianapolis 500 – it was a future-looking top-five finishing order.

Race winner Alexander Rossi is 24, and the first winner under 25 since Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000. He’s the first under 30 winner since Scott Dixon in 2008, then 27.

Then consider the rest of the top five: Carlos Munoz (24), Josef Newgarden (25), Tony Kanaan (41) and Charlie Kimball (31).

Polesitter James Hinchcliffe is 29. He finished seventh. JR Hildebrand, the hard-luck runner-up in 2011, finished sixth on Sunday. He’s still only 28.

In Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power, the remainder of the top 10 featured drivers still in their mid-to-late-30s, and Ryan Hunter-Reay was another of those who was unfortunate not to finish higher than he did. Each of these four still has several good years ahead of them.

Although this year’s field featured eight drivers north of 40 – Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kanaan, Townsend Bell, Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani and Buddy Lazier – the vibe of the month felt more concentrated around the next generation of IndyCar stars.

Looking toward the future, that’s a good thing.

DON’T HATE THE PLAYER, HATE THE GAME 

Rossi and crew pulled it off. Photo: Getty Images
Rossi and crew pulled it off. Photo: Getty Images

It’s fine to not be a fan of fuel mileage races. But don’t hate the result just because a driver and his team nailed the strategy, then nailed the execution.

There’s been quite a bit written already about Rossi’s final stint, how it started earlier thanks to two prior bad pit stops where, ironically, refueling issues dropping him into the low-20s on the running order.

Still, the drama of whether he’d make it home or not was electric. It was fascinating knowing he’d start the white flag lap on fumes after doing enough to have saved enough fuel, then have to use the clutch and coast that final lap.

“I was experimenting out there, and it was actually a little bit of a fluke that I figured out how to save the most,” Rossi admitted on Monday. “I had a big moment in Turn 2 and I had to bail out of the throttle quite a bit behind Scott, and then I came across the line and I was still behind Scott quite close, and the fuel number was above what I needed, and I was like, all right, not that I want to try and end up in the wall in Turn 2 every lap, but I figured out a technique that worked quite well.”

In a strange way, the fact that Rossi crossed the finish line so relatively slow was almost a perfect homage to the past 100 runnings.

He’d gone as fast as the present allows – 230-plus and change thanks to a trimmed out, fairly low downforce setting having set both the fastest race lap and fastest trap speed in Turn 2 – but also slow enough as cars in the past once did.

For those fans who weren’t around to see what a winner at 135 mph looks like back in the old days, now we did… except with a car capable of so much more.

SOME ADDITIONAL LEFTOVER THOUGHTS

Dixon was hard to find .  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Dixon was hard to find most of May. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
  • All respect to him, but thank goodness Simon Pagenaud had an off day for the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series championship chase. After his incredible 2-2-1-1-1 start and qualifying ahead of Scott Dixon, Pagenaud held an 83-point lead and threatened to put a stranglehold the title before June. Leaving afterwards, the gap is just 57 points, and with 10 races to go we will have a title fight.
  • A driver that rarely figured in the month on-track? Dixon (above). Rare for the Target “lightning bolt” to be anonymous – and starting 13th and finishing eighth for a driver and team used to winning is just that. But the biggest story of the month for the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet crew was its heroic 64-minute engine change to get him out for qualifying. If he wins the title by less than 20 points, remember that effort.
  • Starting 10th and finishing 12th doesn’t sound like much, until you realize it’s a one-off entry driven by a veteran who undoubtedly – even if he wouldn’t admit it – helped Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this month. This is why Oriol Servia, who drove the No. 77 Lucas Oil Special Honda to those results this month, is still employable. Servia told me about his SPM bow pre-race: “Listen, I’d love to take credit. But when I arrived on GP weekend and entered engineering meeting, I cannot lie, I was impressed with the talent. The quality of people Sam and Ric have put together is no joke. If anything I hope I pushed more. Yeah, somehow I’m still not getting tired of this BS! Both of trying to get a ride, and getting it last second, and making it work.”
  • Two quietly good runs in the race? Englishmen Max Chilton and Jack Hawksworth both bounced back from early month adversity (a crash and an engine failure) to go P22 to P15 and P31 to P16, respectively. For Chilton’s first ‘500 it was a perfectly respectable result and after Hawksworth’s second successive month of nightmares, a better ending than expected.
  • Matty Brabham and the Brett “Crusher” Murray-led PIRTEK Team Murray brought a festive Australian flair, and a good amount of fun, to the Brickyard all month. The 22-year-old Australian American finished in the same spot as his age in the No. 61 Chevrolet, following a clean month.
  • Stefan Wilson, in the No. 25 Driven2SaveLives-KVRT Chevrolet, also ran better than anticipated early but retired with gearbox issues. It was a month for both he and his CoForce team around him to be proud of.
  • It was rare and odd to see Ed Carpenter, the driver, a non-factor both all race and all month. Qualified 20th and retired early with mechanical issues.
  • 13 different drivers led laps on Sunday. For 12 of them, all but Helio Castroneves, it was their first laps they led this season.
  • The Mazda Road to Indy’s nine races this month featured more drama in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires than in either the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires or Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda ranks. Enter Dean Stoneman as the story of the month here, having won both the Freedom 100 and one of the two road course races for Andretti Autosport.
  • There wasn’t a wide swath of negative news. Watkins Glen got formally announced during the Indy GP weekend and INDYCAR’s lawsuit against Boston got released/dumped at arguably the best time, mid-week, before the final buildup.
  • There’s no rest for the weary, with car changeover happening early this week before teams head out to Detroit for the traditionally backbreaking doubleheader weekend on Belle Isle Park.

A FINAL THOUGHT 

Having not done the full month personally until this year, it’s amazing how draining it is. But it’s also exhilarating.

The hangover from the high of the event lingers for a couple days, but the memories created last a lifetime.

Ironically, it’s the quiet moments of peace and reflection – more than the noise of 33 cars and 350,000 of your closest, screaming friends – that make you appreciate this place most.

Indy race morning starts like this....  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Indy race morning starts like this…. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

You feel the soul of the place most on race morning, early, pre-5 a.m., out on the course before the gates open to the public and you walk on the pavement, a track where so much history has been written.

Then you get the four-to-five hour rush of emotions in the buildup to race start, from watching Monaco in the press room, to the final stroll through Gasoline Alley, to then heading back on the grid hours later, the crowd beginning to fill in, the anticipation intensifying.

And then it gets like this.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
And then it gets like this. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The final bit of quiet and prayer comes as all the Memorial Day tributes begin. The songs before the command. Taps. The flyover. That’s when it hits you what’s about to take place.

The race goes green.

Three hours that you’ve been building towards all month go by in a blur.

Shock hits as the checkered flag falls with a surprise winner crowned champion of the 100th running, but one who in just a handful of days has already begun to properly understand and embrace the magnitude of what he has accomplished.

And then, you leave the track… back in quiet reflection after the track has written its latest chapter.

And you reset the countdown clock for when you do it again, 12 months later.

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

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SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

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Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.