Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar drivers eagerly anticipating return to Road America

1 Comment

Defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon doesn’t mince words. He says what’s on his mind.

So, when asked if all of his fellow drivers are looking forward to the first IndyCar race at Road America since 2007, Dixon put it very bluntly: “I’m sure every single driver will say so. If they don’t, they are just flat-out lying to you.”

That’s just a microcosm of how eager drivers have been anticipating the return to Road America, which has been one of the premier permanent road courses not just in the U.S., but the world since it opened in 1950.

And now that the Kohler Grand Prix race weekend is at hand, many of them are acting like kids in a candy store, ready to be unleashed on the legendary 4.048-mile, 14-turn permanent road course.

Here’s a cross-section of what several IndyCar drivers are saying about a track that Andretti calls one of the best in the world:

Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet): “I haven’t raced at Road America in quite a while. We had a teammate test there last week and it will be interesting to see what did and didn’t work well for them. It’s a challenging track that tests both the speed and agility of our DeVilbiss Chevrolet. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Helio Castroneves (No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s going to be fantastic to go back to Road America. We haven’t raced there in a number of years, but I’m excited to get out there and see how the Hitachi Chevrolet performs. It’s a big track, but track position, as usual, will be important.”

James Hinchcliffe (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “I’m so excited to go back to Road America. This has been my favorite road course in the country from the moment I first went there in 2004. It’s the kind of track that Indy cars are built for. I hope that it’s a great race and it stays on the calendar for a long time.”

Mikhail Aleshin (No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Honda): “I’ve never been to Road America before but I watched some on-board camera footage and the track looks pretty cool. There are a couple of very fast turns which is always exciting.”

Max Chilton (No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet): “After my first experience at Road America last Wednesday, I am super excited to finally get back this weekend to race it. It has a great flow to it and reminds me of my favorite circuit, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. It’s old-school, fast, hilly and rewarding.”

Scott Dixon (No. 9 Clorox Chevrolet, 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “I know for a fact that Road America is on the top of all the drivers’ lists, and we have been waiting to come back for quite some time. I think my last visit there was in 2002 with CART, and it was great to be back at the track testing again last season. This course is just amazing to drive.”

Tony Kanaan (No. 10 NTT Data Chevrolet): “I can’t wait to get back to Road America this weekend. This is one of the best tracks in the U.S. in my opinion. I was able to test there last week with the No. 10 NTT Data Chevrolet and it felt really good to be back after so long. The track is just so much fun to drive and definitely one of my favorites.”

Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “Even though I haven’t raced there in a while, I enjoy the track at Road America. I find it very challenging. Some drivers have tested there and some haven’t. We had a teammate there, so what worked for them will give us a starting point and we’ll go from there.”

Takuma Sato (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Honda): “Road America is very impressive and a great, fun track as expected. I’ve heard so many positive stories about this circuit since I joined the IndyCar Series, and I know everyone as well as the fans wanted INDYCAR to go back there. It was a nice experience that we had a great crowd show up at the test day last fall. I had a lot of fun driving this superb track and I’m looking forward to racing there.”

Graham Rahal (No. 15 Gehl/D-A Lubricant Honda): “Road America is my favorite track and the favorite of many drivers. It’s the best track at 4 miles long, with elevation changes and many challenging, interesting parts. If you ask my dad (Bobby Rahal) or many drivers, they will tell you it’s the best, pure road course. It’s another track that I went to a lot as a kid when my dad was racing. It was definitely one of my favorites as a kid.”

Conor Daly (No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda): “I think every driver can’t wait to get there. It’s going to be an incredible race. We’ve always wanted to go back there for many years. I can’t wait to get out there. I’ve won two races there, finished second in a sports car there so I feel pretty good about it. We just have to do the same in an Indy car and try to get ourselves back on the podium.”

Gabby Chaves (No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite tracks. I haven’t been there since 2009. It’s where I won the Formula BMW Americas Championship, so I’m definitely very excited to get back there and to compete with Dale Coyne Racing. … I’m just really excited to see what we can do out there. It’s going to be a fun track to drive and certainly one of the most enjoyable circuits that we go to this year.”

Spencer Pigot (No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It doesn’t get much better than driving an Indy car around Road America. We had a very good test there last week and I can’t wait to get back for the race with the Ed Carpenter Racing crew. It’s an amazing track and I think it’s going to provide some great racing for the fans.”

Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship leader): “I’m definitely excited to race at Road America. It’s a challenging circuit, but a really fun place with the Indy car. This event has been in the past and remains a classic event on our schedule.”

Marco Andretti (No. 27 United Fiber & Data/Snapple Honda): “We had a solid test at Road America last week and I am looking forward to getting the United Fiber & Data car back on track. This track is my favorite permanent road course to drive. I think it should be a great race with a lot of passing into Turn 5 and through Turns 12 and (Turn) 1.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I’m really looking forward to INDYCAR’s long-awaited return to Road America. Outside of Indy, this place has always been my favorite racetrack, so it’s been tough being away for so many years. It’s been 12 years since I last raced here, and I can’t wait to get the DHL Honda on track for the race this weekend.”

Jack Hawksworth (No. 41 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Honda): “I love Road America. It’s very quick, has a variety of corners and is the only track we go to that is over 4 miles in length. I had a fantastic time racing there in 2014 (in sports cars), made even better by the fact that I had a very quick car.”

Charlie Kimball (No. 83 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Since the return was announced last year, I think everyone, from drivers to fans, has been really excited to head to Elkhart Lake for the race. We had the chance to test there in September and get a feel for it, but I know there’s so much more to learn in a short time this weekend. You just feel the speed at the end of every straight and going into those long corners; it’s unlike anything else on the schedule.”

Alexander Rossi (No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda): “In the past, Road America has always been a race that I look forward to and this year is no exception. It is one of the flagship tracks not only in America, but globally, and I am so excited that the Verizon IndyCar Series is returning this year. We had a positive test there last week, so we will be doing everything we can to make sure the No. 98 car is at the sharp end (of the field). It is going to be an incredible event.”

Follow @Jerry Bonkowski

NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations, including NHRA Summernationals, effective immediately

Photo courtesy NHRA
1 Comment

If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”