Photo: Tony DiZinno

Roar Before the Rolex 24 preview, pre-test notes

Leave a comment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – “Spring break” isn’t traditionally until March, but the kickoff to spring – or at least a break from the dreary weather that populates most of the country in January – comes this weekend with the annual Roar Before the Rolex 24, the warmup act for the 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona on Jan. 28-29.

It’s an interesting test because no one really knows each other’s hand. A fail safe is meant to be in place by IMSA’s data collection system, which is designed to monitor each car’s outright performance in the hope that the fear of sandbagging – not giving outright 100 percent performance – is alleviated.

As such, the Roar isn’t necessarily a guaranteed determination of outright pace going into the Rolex 24, but it does provide a baseline of things to look for later this month when all the chips are on the line, and the Rolex watches will be awarded, for the season opener of both the full IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season and the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

Some story lines to watch and observations of note are below:

THE FIRST TRUE TEST OF DPi VS. LMP2

Inevitably and invariably, even though both new prototype solutions (IMSA’s Daytona Prototype international and the worldwide for ACO-spec LMP2 chassis) are debuting simultaneously and under the Prototype category, equalizing two entirely separate platforms remains one of the bigger challenges.

An adjusted Balance of Performance table released on Wednesday should give the DPis (Cadillac DPi.V-R, Mazda RT24-P, Nissan Onroak DPi) a bit more power as the LMP2-spec cars are the baseline for BoP.

The joy and beauty, perhaps, is that certain cars will do better at certain tracks. Ultimate performance is still to come from the new beasts, and quick discussions with drivers from all three DPi models is that Daytona will only be the start of the journey in terms of pace and reliability. The LMP2-spec cars are built to the 2017 regulations from the existing constructors, and how well the five LMP2 cars (3 Oreca 07s, 1 Riley Mk. 30 and 1 Ligier JS P217) get on with the same engine yet different bodywork and aero, while also in the hands of newer teams, will be fascinating to watch.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING WHEN IT COMES TO RIDES… 

The most unfortunate news of the week thus far involves Spencer Pumpelly, last year’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge ST class champion, multiple-time GT class winner at the Rolex 24 and inarguably regarded as one of the top GT drivers in North America.

Through no fault of his own, Pumpelly is now left sidelined at the worst possible time for this year’s Rolex 24, as Change Racing announced late Wednesday his spot would be taken in the full-time lineup by Jeroen Mul, a Lamborghini-supported driver, as lead driver in the No. 16 Lamborghini Huracán GT3 alongside Corey Lewis, Brett Sandberg and Kaz Grala.

At the last minute with the likelihood that financial help came to Change with this change, Mul now has a seat that was earmarked for Pumpelly. It’s not Mul’s fault, nor is it the team’s for making the call it needed to do what it needed to do.

However, the timing is abysmal because it leaves Pumpelly almost no time left in order to find a spot for the Rolex 24. Most GTD seats are filled and while there are a handful of others available, Pumpelly’s problem now is the next dilemma – he’s a Gold-rated driver, and that would mean he could only go to a team where a Gold-rated vacancy exists. That means he’d have to be the second Platinum or Gold-rated driver in either a four or five-driver lineup; a car cannot carry more than two Platinum or Gold-rated drivers within the class.

This is eerily similar to last November, when Pumpelly was told by Park Place Motorsports he wouldn’t be retained for 2016, this despite being a major cog in Park Place winning that year’s season-ending Petit Le Mans. Park Place acquired a new Porsche 911 GT3 R for 2016, and with it came Porsche veteran Joerg Bergmeister in his place. Again, no one begrudges the likable and talented Bergmeister, and fortunately for Pumpelly, he found an opportunity with Change a month later.

Pumpelly is not alone when it comes to those pounding the pavement this weekend, but his lack of a seat considering his resume, ability, feedback and attitude can help any program he would join speaks volumes about the state of the class at the moment. His class, however, shone through in two tweets, thanking Change for the opportunity regardless:

Pumpelly’s unfortunate new position leads nicely to the next point:

ONSLAUGHT OF THE FACTORY DRIVERS IN GTD

The eight manufacturers in GTD (Audi, Acura, Lexus, Porsche, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Mercedes-AMG, BMW, Aston Martin) have a bevy of factory drivers. Of those eight, only three (Porsche, Ferrari, BMW) also have a corresponding GT Le Mans program, and thus a place for more of their factory drivers.

That means the rest are placed into GTD, which has a two-pronged effect. The first is that it raises the caliber of the class because it provides a factory presence among most cars on the grid, while the second is that it then reduces the number of opportunities for North American sports car veteran “hired guns,” who make a living at least partially – if not almost entirely – from driving race cars.

It’s easier to count the cars on the grid where there is not a factory driver placed somewhere, as either the lead pro driver or as the Platinum/Gold-rated fourth driver. Consider the likes of Mul, Paolo Ruberti, Andrea Caldarelli, Mirko Bortolotti (Lamborghini), Sam Bird (Ferrari), Adam Christodoulou and Thomas Jaeger (Mercedes-AMG), Pierre Kaffer (Audi), Patrick Long (Porsche), so on and so forth, and you’re seeing that spots reserved for would be “hired guns” are now going to those drivers employed by the factory first.

Long and Kaffer excepted, none have much in the way of full-season North American experience, and the same two plus Bird are not well known in America, except to the hardest of hardcore fans. Again, it’s no knock on them personally, but it’s painfully obvious to witness how many factory supported or extra star drivers are there for one-offs in place of those who’d ordinarily be in contention for seats, and who’ve spent years in North American sports car paddocks.

That then has an additional knock-on effect where the remaining vacancy is one for a Silver-rated driver, which creates more competition among the Silver or Bronze-rated drivers for the remaining handful of seats. Inevitably there are more of these drivers – because strangely, getting downgraded makes you more valuable to potential teams – than there are seats available.

THE WATCH FOR NEW LIVERIES

The Roar provides a great opportunity to study and memorize the new-for-2017 liveries, or in some cases, same liveries just updated to 2017 cars and models. Not all teams are in their finalized liveries yet this test – Tequila Patron ESM for instance will reveal its livery after the Roar – but most will be.

OTHER PRE-ROAR THURSDAY NOTES

  • Speaking of factory drivers, although not formally confirmed, Michael Christensen’s name was listed on the No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R alongside the quartet of Daniel Morad, Jesse Lazare, Michael and Carlos de Quesada. Christensen would be the second Porsche factory driver placed into GTD (Long with CORE autosport).
  • Other names that appeared today on cars that weren’t on the entry list: Giancarlo Fisichella and James Calado (No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE), Marco Sorensen (No. 98 Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3), Roberto Pampanini, Christoph Lenz, Milos Pavlovic (No. 61 GRT Grasser Race Team Lamborghini Huracán GT3). Turner Motorsport (No. 97 BMW M6 GT3) and DAC Motorsports (No. 18 Lamborghini Huracán GT3) were the only two cars present in the paddock with no drivers listed whatsoever. Expect one other change to show up soon for another GTD car.
  • Of the two U.S.-based Ford Chip Ganassi Ford GTs, the No. 66 car can be distinguished with a white windshield banner with black font and red ends, while the No. 67 car is the opposite – black windshield banner and white font. The U.K.-based Nos. 68 and 69 cars should appear with their windshield colors on Friday.

WeatherTech Championship practice runs from 10:20 a.m. to 12:05 p.m., and 3 to 5:30 p.m. ET on Friday. The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge also has two sessions, with the first starting at 9 a.m.

Even as NASCAR hits Brickyard, Indy 500 chatter still buzzes

Getty Images
Leave a comment

A marathon Brickyard 400 is finally in the books on Sunday, but the allure of the Indianapolis 500 was a talking point among several drivers throughout the weekend within the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage.

As evidenced by two recent guest stars who’ve made their maiden Indianapolis 500 bows – Kurt Busch in 2014 and Fernando Alonso in 2017, both with Andretti Autosport (Alonso in a McLaren Honda Andretti) – when a star from another discipline of motorsport shows up for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, people take notice, and a heck of a lot of words get typed.

So who could be next from the NASCAR world making a crack at Indy, or simply paying a visit on race day? It’s always fun to prognosticate and look ahead, even if the chances seem remote and all the stars – and contracts – have to align to make it happen.

KYLE BUSCH

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 22: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Skittles Toyota, poses with the Coors Light Pole Award decal after qualifying for pole position for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 22, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

No one doubts the younger Busch brother’s ability, and the 2015 NASCAR Cup champion knows a thing or two about winning at Indianapolis. He won back-to-back Brickyards in 2015 and 2016 and was well on his way to a three-peat in 2017 before he and Martin Truex Jr. collided, continuing his unlucky, unhappy and thus far winless season.

On Friday Busch revealed he had a ride in place for this year’s Indianapolis 500, but said it fell through because his boss wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t specify whether said “boss” was wife Samantha Busch or his Cup series team boss, Joe Gibbs.

“It would be a unique opportunity,” Busch said of the prospects, and such a chance to race it would open up a double possibility with the ‘500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day – same as Kurt did in 2014.

Gibbs seemed to pour water on that idea to ESPN.com reporter Bob Pockrass, saying Busch has “got a full plate” at the moment.

The issue with Busch running Indianapolis seems more a manufacturer-related one. Workarounds are possible but as Busch drives a Toyota in Cup, the likelihood of them being happy seeing him in a Honda – a fellow Japanese manufacturer – or a Chevrolet – a fellow NASCAR competitor – isn’t the best-case scenario. That’s not to say it can’t be done as Kurt Busch raced a Honda in 2014 while competing in a Chevrolet in NASCAR, but all parties would need to clear the way for this to happen.

This actually transitions nicely into a Kyle who could have an easier workaround from a manufacturer standpoint…

KYLE LARSON

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 22: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #17 SunnyD Ford, and Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, talk during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 22, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

It’s the question of when, it seems, not if Larson races the Indianapolis 500. He’s said multiple times he wants to do and his team boss, Chip Ganassi has said he’s open to the idea himself. But it has to make sense from a timing standpoint. Yes, I’ll admit I wrote an admittedly last-ditch-for-2017 column about the idea earlier this year once Larson won at Auto Club Speedway, thus securing his playoff spot. But Ganassi doused water on the idea for this year in a gathering of reporters at St. Petersburg – noting how everyone blows up his social media in March and April for May of the current year, and it goes quiet in June, when the next year planning actually needs to take place.

Larson said this year’s two heavy accidents featuring his Ganassi teammates – IndyCar’s Scott Dixon and IMSA’s Sebastien Bourdais – have temporarily halted his desire.

“I do, but when I see Scott Dixon’s and (Sebastien) Bourdais crash, it makes me think twice about it a little bit. I’ll get the courage up to do it someday,” Larson said this weekend, via NASCAR Talk.

Put aside the accidents for a minute and let’s get back to looking at Larson’s realistic prospects depending on how the manufacturer and car count scenario could shake out. There’s a good possibility Ganassi’s IndyCar program will downsize for the full season next year if one or more of its three non-Dixon drivers doesn’t return. But what that could do would be open the opportunities for a Honda engine lease and an extra chassis to run. Larson, a Ganassi driver, has driven other manufacturers for the team before; he’s won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in a Ford-powered prototype and he races a Chevrolet in NASCAR, so a Honda in IndyCar could work out for him.

KASEY KAHNE

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 23: Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, kisses the yard of bricks with his crew after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 23, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Who says you can’t go home again? It’s easy to forget Kahne was a star on short tracks growing up, and had a handful of Formula Atlantic starts in 2001 before his NASCAR career began, and his Cup career started in 2004.

Kahne’s NASCAR Cup future seems uncertain at the moment but Sunday’s win at the Brickyard 400 was a massive boost for him. It ensures his playoff eligibility this year and helps further his case to see out the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports contract in 2018.

J. Douglas Boles, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track president, is renowned as a marketer and works incredibly hard from a promotional standpoint across the board. And the opportunity to have the active Brickyard 400 champion racing in the Indianapolis 500 the next year would be something to marvel at.

The reality of a situation would hinge on Kahne’s own desire to get back into open-wheel – he hasn’t been in an open-wheel car in more than a decade and he’s also a father now. But if he’s available, you wonder if it’s worth planting the seed.

DANICA PATRICK

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 23: Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 Aspen Dental Ford, is introduced prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 23, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Yes, I can’t believe I just typed that… and yet I also wonder if it’s possible once again. Like the others mentioned here she has been out of open-wheel for several years. She was IndyCar’s biggest star for a good six or seven years even if her results didn’t back it up.

This much we knew though. She was always good at Indianapolis, a regular top-five finisher and occasional win contender who generally took care of her equipment. She also hasn’t had the spotlight on her ability in the NASCAR side of affairs much, if at all, in recent years. Her results have been floundering at best; the occasional top-10 or top-15 finish is a surprise sprinkled in amidst a flurry of top-20s.

Like Kahne, her NASCAR future will be dictated by sponsorship and with the Nature’s Bakery lawsuit that occurred earlier this year leaving her Stewart-Haas Racing team looking to fill the gaps, you wonder how much more she’s willing to take beyond the rest of this year and into 2018.

Again, if she’s available, and more importantly if she’s interested, a comeback – especially in a year with a new universal aero kit that everyone would be learning – would undoubtedly dominate headlines.

While in this subhead, I’d also note Patrick’s boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (pictured above with Larson) would be a popular Indy 500 first-timer – particularly in a car with “BC Forever” logos and Jonathan Byrd’s support, the Byrd family having invested heavily and supported the late Bryan Clauson. It’s no secret Stenhouse and Clauson were close, and if there was a way for Stenhouse to clear the Ford manufacturer hurdle, he’d probably impress if he had the shot at the ‘500.

BRAD KESELOWSKI 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 22: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, stands in the garage during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 22, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“Kes” actually has an IndyCar test under his belt, his surprise one-off run for Team Penske at Road America in 2016. And after his runner-up finish at the Brickyard on Sunday, he got super close to putting the fabled “blue deuce” into first place and delivering Roger Penske his first ‘400 win.

Last year, Team Penske president Tim Cindric gave it a “20 percent chance” Keselowski could one day race in both the ‘500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Better than nothing, right? It’s hard to see it for next year with Team Penske figuring to have both Helio Castroneves and/or Juan Pablo Montoya in Indianapolis 500 entries, the question being if one or both would be extra cars beyond their full season.

DALE EARNHARDT JR. AND JEFF GORDON

We can pretty much say straight up neither of these two will be racing in the ‘500. But Junior riffed this weekend, “I’ve never been to the Indy 500 obviously, so that would be a great experience. It’s an impressive place.”

Gordon’s driven the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 before, so it’d make sense and would be a natural to bestow the same honor to Earnhardt Jr. given his relationship with Chevrolet. It’s also worth noting new IndyCar team owner Mike Harding ran his Chevrolet for Gabby Chaves with Junior’s stylized No. 88 at this year’s race – and Earnhardt gave it his approval on social media.

It would not be a stretch to see Earnhardt a guest of either his longtime manufacturer or this team at next year’s race.

Just don’t expect to see him in a race car, because that might break the Internet.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Gabby Chaves, driver of the #88 Harding Group Chevrolet, practices for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

F1’s 2017 can match 2013’s mark of no back-to-backs this week

Getty Images
Leave a comment

One of the interesting nuggets about this 2017 Formula 1 season, as the year has ebbed and flowed between Mercedes and Ferrari on top with the occasional Red Bull surprise, is that a single driver has not recorded back-to-back victories through the first 10 races.

Sebastian Vettel kicked proceedings off at Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix, with Lewis Hamilton then winning his first race of the year in Shanghai in the rain at the Chinese Grand Prix.

From there, it’s gone Vettel, Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton, Vettel, Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo, Bottas and Hamilton heading into this week’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

When looking back in the archives, you only need to look four years ago to 2013 to find the last time a season started with 10 races and no drivers having won back-to-backs Grands Prix – a streak which ran 11 races.

Kimi Raikkonen won at Melbourne to start the year, with Vettel then winning his first race of 2013 in controversial fashion in the infamous “Multi 21” Red Bull team orders fiasco with Mark Webber in Sepang at Melaysia.

Fernando Alonso then won for Ferrari, followed by Vettel, Alonso (that being his most recent Grand Prix win, Spain of 2013), Nico Rosberg, Vettel, Rosberg, Vettel, Hamilton and Vettel. Hamilton’s win at Hungary in 2013 was his first win for the Mercedes AMG Petronas team after switching from McLaren.

But from here, Vettel won the Belgian Grand Prix, Round 11 of that season, for what was his fifth victory of the season… and promptly ran the table from there. After there were no back-to-back winners in 10 races, Vettel won the last nine consecutively. His radio call after winning at Circuit of The Americas – “cherish these times” because you don’t know how long they’ll last – was particularly prescient as he never won again for Red Bull after 2013, then departed for Ferrari in 2015.

A year earlier, the 2012 season set an incredible mark with the first 14 races occurring before a driver recorded back-to-back victories, and again, it was Vettel who was first to win two in a row when he did at Singapore and Japan that season. Prior to that, the campaign opened with seven winners in as many races (Jenson Button, Alonso, Rosberg, Vettel, Pastor Maldonado, Webber, Hamilton) with a handful of those then winning further races from there.

As it sits now, Vettel hasn’t won since Monaco and the Hungaroring in Budapest – a similar low horsepower, high downforce type of track – represents his best chance to win his fourth Grand Prix of the season.

Hamilton, meanwhile, is already a four-time winner this year and a five-time winner in Hungary in his career.

A Vettel win would keep the streak of no back-to-back winners alive, with 11 races without a driver going back-to-back. A Hamilton win would end it at 10 and make him the first driver to put together a streak this year.

Either way, it’s been a refreshing change of pace because here have been the runs drivers have gone on since that 11-for-11 start without back-to-backs in the last five years (three race in a row or more win streaks; there have been several more two in a row streaks):

  • 2013: Vettel wins last nine races in a row (Rounds 11-19)
  • 2014: Hamilton wins four straight (Rounds 2-5), then wins five straight (Rounds 13-17)
  • 2015: Hamilton wins three straight (Rounds 14-16), Rosberg wins three straight (Rounds 17-19)
  • 2016: Rosberg wins four straight (Rounds 1-4), Hamilton wins four straight (Round 9-12), Rosberg wins three straight (Rounds 13-15), Hamilton wins four straight (Rounds 18-21)

Hungarian Grand Prix on NBCSN concludes busy July for F1

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The third Grand Prix for the month of July and fourth in the last six weeks for Formula 1 after races in Baku, Spielberg and Silverstone takes place this week with the Hungarian Grand Prix from Budapest.

After a couple races on CNBC, the channel is simple this weekend: it’s NBCSN for all sessions on TV with free practice two (Friday) and qualifying (Saturday) both live at 8 a.m. ET, with a full one-hour countdown for the race from 7 a.m. ET on Sunday before lights out at 8.

As per usual the NBC Sports App will live stream free practices one and three, with all sessions streamed during the weekend.

The British Grand Prix two weeks ago brings this year’s F1 season to an interesting point. With Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton’s win, it brings him to within just one point of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel for the championship lead. Vettel is at 177 with Hamilton now at 176.

And Hungary’s been a place where both drivers have succeeded. Hamilton won here last year while Vettel won in 2015. Overall Hamilton has a record five Hungarian Grand Prix victories (2007, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2016) and will look to match his Canada total with a sixth this weekend. Vettel’s 2015 win is his only triumph at the circuit.

Other Hungarian Grand Prix winners in the field are Daniel Ricciardo (2014), Kimi Raikkonen (2005) and Fernando Alonso (2003).

Beyond the top two, Valtteri Bottas will look to upend proceedings and continue his own title battle for Mercedes. He sits third in points with 154, in a spot of his own well clear of fourth on back and just under a full race distance behind the leaders.

Here’s the schedule, with stream links and TV network if applicable:

  • Practice 1: Friday, July 28, 4 a.m.-5:30 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Practice 2: Friday, July 28, 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 2 (Replay): Saturday, July 29, 6:30 a.m.-8 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 3: Saturday, July 29, 5 a.m.-6 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Qualifying: Saturday, July 29, 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Pre-Race: Sunday, July 30, 7 a.m.-8 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race: Sunday, July 30, 8 a.m.-10 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Post-Race: Sunday, July 30, 10 a.m.-10:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Sunday, July 30, 9:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Formula 2: Sunday, July 30, 6 a.m.-7 a.m. ET (NBCSN)

The next race is the Belgian Grand Prix, on August 27, after F1’s traditional summer break.

Robert Hight extends Funny Car victory streak to 13 seasons

Photo: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery
Leave a comment

MORRISON, Colo. (AP) Robert Hight beat Tommy Johnson Jr. on Sunday in the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway to extend his Funny Car victory streak to 13 seasons.

Hight topped Johnson with a 3.995-second pass at 317.57 mph in a Chevrolet Camaro SS for his 38th career victory.

“We definitely struggled through the first few rounds and we were lucky to get those round wins, but I have a great team who figured things out and helped get me to the winner’s circle,” Hight said. “It’s definitely a long-time coming and we hadn’t had much luck, but today we had some luck and we hope this continues throughout the Western Swing.”

Antron Brown won in Top Fuel, Drew Skillman in Pro Stock, and Eddie Krawiec in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Brown edged teammate and No. 1 qualifier Leah Pritchett with a 3.792 at 319.82. He has three victories this season to push his career total to 64.

Skillman raced to his second straight victory and the fifth of his career, beating points leader Bo Butner with a 6.916 run at 198.15 in a Camaro.

Krawiec topped Matt Smith with a 7.145 at 188.28. The Harley-Davidson rider has two victories this season and 38 overall.