Photo courtesy of IMSA

TRG, Porsche reunite, Buckler looking to recapture glory once more at Rolex 24

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The question often asked of Kevin Buckler and TRG in the early-to-mid-2000s as the team built up its brand, arsenal and fleet of Porsche 911 GT3s for the Rolex 24 at Daytona was rather simple.

How many Porsches are you racing this year?

For a team that once ran as many as six Porsches in 2005, with two Riley-Pontiac Daytona Prototypes added for good measure to make a race record total of eight entries from one team, TRG enters this year’s Rolex 24 in a different position: as a team with just one car only, and one of the five Porsche 911 GT3 Rs on the grid.

Photo courtesy TRG
Photo courtesy TRG

It’s fair to say even though the 2017 model of TRG is an underdog compared to the usually stacked two or three all-pro TRG cars of yesteryear, and overall within the 27-car GTD field, the TRG Porsche now represents the manufacturer’s most prepared bet in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class this go-around.

Here’s the reasoning. Few doubt CORE autosport’s endurance expertise – they’ve won at Daytona and Sebring before – but to expect everything to go swimmingly for the team’s first race with its new 911 is unrealistic. Park Place Motorsports has been frequently unlucky at the Rolex 24, having not even cracked the top-10 the last few years. Alegra Motorsports’ lineup has a wealth of youngsters high on upside, while the Manthey Racing customer entry is primarily stacked with gentlemen drivers.

In TRG’s five-driver lineup, there’s Porsche factory veteran Wolf Henzler, sports car veteran Jan Heylen, and past Nissan driver Pablo Sanchez set to lead and two capable Bronze-rated drivers in Mike Hedlund and Santiago Creel.

Despite a lineup that includes proper pro-am drivers (some teams have stacked the deck), Buckler and TRG have enough experience from 20-plus years, four past Rolex wins (all with Porsche, including its famous overall win in 2003) and strategy to contend and surprise if the car makes it through the night unscathed. The team is back with Porsche after several years with the Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3, with the team fully branded under the TRG-AMR moniker.

Buckler. Photo courtesy TRG
Buckler. Photo courtesy TRG

“It just feels right,” Buckler told NBC Sports. “We were talking about this a month and a half ago, whenever it started, having a good conversation with my friends at Porsche and having been with them so long, we felt not only is it a feel-good story, but with all the factory efforts you have over here in GT.

“Even though we’re probably the most successful in the engines (with Porsche), we’re a total underdog and I love that. We’re going to have to fight against these big factories, and who better to do that with than the team, the car and company I know best.

“Not only that, it was really fortunate that there were a couple of great Porsche guys that were available, so we’ve taken our best of the best and combined it with some of the best guys out there and hopefully we have a shot at being competitive. That’s the whole idea.

“But getting the band back together was exactly it. Like I’ve said many times, don’t bet against a Porsche in a 24-hour endurance race.”

The new 911 GT3 R impressed in its debut last year and came up just short of a class win in the hands of Black Swan Racing.

Porsche’s GTD effort is entirely customer-driven, unlike some of the other manufacturers in class, notably newcomers Acura and Lexus. Factory drivers are peppered in throughout all of the nine manufacturers entered in GTD.

The evolution of the race has also changed to where GT is now firmly featured given that level of investment. The new Prototype cars (DPi and 2017 LMP2 chassis) will be focused but with half the field, GTD is going to be where a lot of action – not just among itself, but potentially the leading classes – will take place.

“If the game was juggling more plates, we’d win every year. We’ve been really good at that,” Buckler explained.

TRG's last Rolex 24 win came in 2011. Photo courtesy TRG
TRG’s last Rolex 24 win came in 2011. Photo courtesy TRG

“But I’ve been beating the GT drum for 25-plus years, and for many years, GT was supporting the race, but they always promoted the prototypes.

“Now we see all this factory involvement, it’s professional sports car racing, it’s GT racing, you recognize the brands, you recognize the cars. I love it, I love being part of it and having helped shape it to an extent, even in a small way.

“It’s real awesome because I’m involved in a lot of partnership and sponsorship deals with companies that would be looking at golf or tennis or stick and ball sports, and now they’re hear with us, participating. That’s very refreshing.”

RingCentral, Crowdstrike, LaSalle Solutions, Cavall 7 and Buckler’s Adobe Road Winery are among the partners on the newly renumbered No. 991 Porsche 911 GT3 R. The usual No. 66 or 67, TRG hallmarks of its Porsche past, are unavailable with the two Ford GTs having those numbers. Buckler’s Le Mans-winning No. 81 was also unavailable with DragonSpeed running it.

“We went with the 991. It’s a brand new car for that chassis number. That was no real significance for that number, but it was the best number we had. The full completion of the band would have been the 66 number,” he said.

Buckler hopes to have his full-season Silver-rated driver alongside Henzler sorted by February, with a couple options percolating. Craig Lyons and Kris Wilson will share an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge GS ranks and Buckler expects to have multiple entries in Pirelli World Challenge SprintX.

Trying to star as a one-car, fully privateer entry in IMSA’s changing GTD arena is a challenge Buckler and TRG are relishing.

“If there’s a good end game, then we will participate. If there’s not, then I don’t see why we would waste our money,” Buckler said.

“I’m really looking forward to this year with the competition, although I think some of the (factory) guys got confused which class they’re in.

“At the same token, I hope we can also come up with a strong lineup and have a rockin’ year because it’s just really satisfying to see the class so vibrant with so many manufacturers pushing so hard.

“To me, it’s like the sport has arrived mainstream.”

IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

Photo: IndyCar
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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

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