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The Busiest Man In Motorsports: Can Zak Brown turn McLaren’s fortunes around?

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BIRMINGHAM, UK – Given that he has recently taken over the day-to-day running of one of Formula 1’s most historic and established teams, Zak Brown cuts an unassuming figure as he graces the stage of one of the stands at Autosport International.

The native of Los Angeles, California and executive director of the McLaren team speaks warmly of his new drivers, having announced them just minutes before.

Do not fear. There hasn’t been another last-minute change in the F1 driver market.

Instead, Brown is presenting two new drivers for United Autosports, a sports car team he co-owns which will make its debut in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

Brown’s list of interests doesn’t stop there. He’s also the chairman of Motorsport Network, one of the largest media companies in racing that is involved with the very show he is attending and which has recently taken a stake in Formula E.

He has also played a crucial role in striking sponsorship deals for the majority of the F1 grid, his commercial nous so sharp that he was previously tipped as a possible successor to Bernie Ecclestone at the helm of the sport.

It’s safe to say that Zak Brown has a lot on his plate. But turning McLaren’s fortunes around is set to be his biggest challenge to date.

Success in F1 with names such as James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen and, most recently, Lewis Hamilton has made McLaren one of racing’s most respected and established brands. Outstanding performance on-track is matched by a spotless off-track image, with both echoed by the supercars meticulously produced by the marque in Woking, England.

Yet in recent years, success has been hard to come by for McLaren. The team has not won a grand prix since 2012 and is without a podium since the beginning of 2014, with long-term engine partner Mercedes’ decision to focus on its own works team from 2010 prompting McLaren to rekindle its famed partnership with Honda two years ago.

It was a decision made based on the long-term, with the trade-off being short-term pain. And lots of it. With the Honda power unit a year behind the others introduced in 2014, world champion drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button have struggled to generate outstanding results and instead been left to occasionally produce outstanding memes.

The dispute over the future direction of the team recently led to the departure of Ron Dennis, the man who made McLaren the team it is today. After 35 years at the helm of the company, Dennis announced last fall that he would be leaving, citing “entirely spurious grounds” for his exit.

The winds of change are blowing at McLaren, with Brown’s arrival – officially on December 11 – being a key part of the revolution taking place at Woking.

“It feels like longer,” Brown admits, reflecing on his first month in the job. “It’s cool showing up to McLaren every day and seeing the history and the people and the drivers and the cars. It’s very hard work but it’s a lot of fun work.

“I know what I want to do over the course of the year. I’m trying to get it done tomorrow. That’s the hard part: just managing how much can be done in a day.”

Zak Brown in the garage.
Zak Brown in the garage – © McLaren

Even in just a month, Brown has already started to make his mark at McLaren. He gave a rousing speech to the workforce not long after his arrival that sparked long, fierce applause, and is enacting change where possible.

“I’ve done some structural stuff on the commercial side and a bit on the technical side,” he explains. “Just making sure everyone has the tools they need and communication is clear and concise.”

McLaren-Honda has a real first chance to make a big breakthrough in 2017. The first year of the partnership was, in Brown’s own words, “painful”, with the team ailing to a lowly ninth place in the Constructors’ Championship. But rapid progress lifted it to P6 in 2016. A shift in the technical regulations for the coming season is expected to shake the field up, creating an opportunity for McLaren to make up ground.

“Early reports on the car are good; I saw some of the aero stats yesterday,” Brown says with an air of optimism carrying in his voice. “We’re close to where we want to be, and Honda’s coming along with the engine. We’re cautiously optimistic.”

McLaren’s trials and tribulations have arguably placed the greatest burden upon the shoulders of star driver Alonso. The Spaniard is widely regarded as being one of the finest racers in the sport’s history, with his haul of two world titles not doing him justice. His move to McLaren for 2015 after an ill-fated stint at Ferrari came eight years after an explosive season at Woking that saw him fall out in public with the team, largely sparked by the emergence of then-rookie Lewis Hamilton.

Naturally, when Alonso rejoined McLaren on a three-year contract, few expected him to see it out. But 2017 will be year three. However, the success he still craves with every fiber of his being remains elusive, inevitably leading to speculation that he could go elsewhere or – should the 2017 cars not be to his liking – retire from F1.

“He’s definitely committed to the project, but his contract is up and he’s in high demand as you can imagine,” Brown freely admits. “Vettel’s out of contract next year, that’s my understanding. So as you can imagine, next year’s going to be an exciting driver market movement.

“Obviously we’d love to keep [Alonso], he’s one of the greatest drivers on the track, if not the best. But we’re just going to see how things go and kick off those conversations a few races into the year. If I was him, I’d want to see how we perform before I started making decisions. You can’t blame him for that. But I think we’re all waiting to see and that goes both ways.”

Alonso will be joined at McLaren in 2017 by rookie driver Stoffel Vandoorne. The Belgian has been successful in everything he has raced in through his junior career, culminating in the GP2 title in 2015. “Stoffel will give Fernando a run for his money,” Brown says, smirking. “I would not underestimate Stoffel.”

Brown may be staring down the barrel of a challenge most would shy away from, but this is not his first rodeo. Granted, United Autosports may not be a team operating on the same scale as McLaren, yet he feels there are lessons to be learned from his involvement in sports car racing.

“With United Autosports we’re building history, obviously McLaren’s got a tremendous amount of history,” Brown says. “In both takes a racing culture, mentality, get the right equipment, get the right people, empower the people.

“So you kind of go racing in the same way. It’s just one’s with 50 people and one’s with 750 people. It’s great, there’s a lot that I see here that I can learn over at McLaren and vice-versa. I think racing’s racing.”

Zak Brown and Tom Stallard in the garage.
Zak Brown and Tom Stallard in the garage – © McLaren

Brown’s push for change does not stop at McLaren, though. The 44-year-old has ideas for how F1 can grow and increase its global reach, with a firm desire to put fans first.

“You’ve got to get the fans closer to the sport, whether it’s physically or through digital devices, whether that’s live or other media channels or both,” Brown says. “I think we need to let the towns know that we’re coming to the race earlier. I’ve landed at some grands prix on a Thursday, land at the airport and you wouldn’t know that the race is happening.

“You land in town for the Super Bowl, by the time the gate has pulled up to the gate, you know the Super Bowl is in town. I think the marketing needs to start a city level, maybe get the drivers there a little bit earlier, get the media turned on earlier. And then have some events.

“I think fan engagement doesn’t just have to be at the race track. It can be during the week in the town centers, etc. So I think we need to do a better job of event marketing.”

Change for change’s sake is not Brown’s style though. Much has been made in recent times about changing the format of an F1  weekend, with the sport’s ringmaster, Ecclestone, suggesting that two shorter races may work better than one longer event. Brown is open to ideas, but is wary of failing to fix something that isn’t broken.

“It depends on how good the racing is whether an hour and a half is too long or too short,” he says. “If it’s a great race, an hour and a half is nothing. If it’s a boring race, 30 minutes is boring.

“I’m OK with the format. I’m certainly open to suggestions. I think if you look at other sports, they have made modifications in other sports to be more appealing to the way people view sport now. I think it does need to be reviewed but I’m not convinced there is much wrong with the format of the weekend.”

Brown’s involvement in motorsport has not been limited to the boardroom or pit wall. The American has loved getting on-track throughout his adult life, starting out in single-seaters as a youngster before becoming more involved in sports cars.

Following a sabbatical from racing to focus on his business interests, Brown has raced on-and-off since 2006, making appearances at the 24-hour races at Daytona and Spa, as well as contesting the majority of the 2013 British GT season with United Autosports. He has an array of classic cars in his garage, too, including one of the McLaren F1 cars raced by Mika Hakkinen that he has personally driven on a number of occasions.

This affinity with McLaren is clear when you speak to Brown. He professes to be a “fan”, and that much is clear when he speaks of his new role, but his judgment is not clouded as a result.

“I’ve been around long enough that when you get into business mode, you’ve got to turn the fan off,” he says. “It’s a job. I’ve been fortunate working with all the teams in the series. I can turn that off. I’m a fan on Sunday when the race starts.”

Brown may have a lot of work to do, but to him, it doesn’t feel like work. “McLaren is my priority, and then motorsport.com and Network and obviously the show… none of that feels like a job, so it’s easy to kind of work 24 hours a day,” he says with a smile on his face.

“It’s not stressful, it’s quite enjoyable. I’d like to do more of what I’m doing now, but I’m quite happy with the portfolio of commitments. I just want to make sure they’re at the world championship level for all of them. So far so good.”

So is Zak Brown the busiest man in motorsport?

“I don’t know!” Brown chuckles. “I know how busy I am. I certainly feel very busy. But there’s a lot of people out there working real hard. But yeah, I’m flat out.” He claims that he usually gets about five hours of sleep each night; a pretty good figure given the scale of his work.

“I love motorsport,” Brown adds. “It’s fun. The minute it’s not fun, you stop doing it.”

This passion and love for racing does more than drive Brown: it becomes him. There is a fervor in his voice when he talks of his ‘work’ – he may disagree with that term’s primary definition being used here – and a love for what he does. Not one iota of cynicism or skepticism seeps through in his answers; everything is exciting.

Brown may be facing an unenviable challenge, such is the enormity of trying to revive the fortunes of a team of McLaren’s magnitude, but it is one that he is relishing.

And if Brown’s enthusiasm is anything to go by, McLaren is in very safe hands indeed.

Sato sixth different winner to start 2017, a first in 17 years

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INDIANAPOLIS – Takuma Sato’s win in Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil was a surprise but popular victory. It was also a statistically significant one.

With the win, Sato is the sixth different winner in as many races to kick off the Verizon IndyCar Series season, which is something that hasn’t happened in North American top-level open-wheel racing since the year 2000.

He joins Sebastien Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power as the first six race winners of the year.

In 2000, both the CART FedEx Championship Series and Indy Racing League went the first seven races into that season with as many winners, before a repeat winner happened.

And in both cases, the driver who won their second race of the year went onto win the championship.

Here’s the recaps:

  • 2000, CART: Max Papis (Miami), Paul Tracy (Long Beach), Adrian Fernandez (Rio, Brazil), Michael Andretti (Motegi, Japan), Gil de Ferran (Nazareth), Juan Pablo Montoya (Milwaukee), Helio Castroneves (Detroit) made it seven-for-seven, with Papis and Castroneves winning their first career races (Castroneves’ win happened June 18, 2000). De Ferran won Round 8 at Portland on June 25 to become the first repeat winner. Roberto Moreno, Cristiano da Matta, Jimmy Vasser and Christian Fittipaldi also won that year to make 11 race winners. Nearly 10 drivers were in title contention down to the final two races of the year, before de Ferran edged Fernandez, Moreno and Brack for his first title.
  • 2000, IRL: Robbie Buhl (Walt Disney World), Buddy Lazier (Phoenix), Al Unser Jr. (Las Vegas), Montoya (Indianapolis 500), Scott Sharp (Texas), Eddie Cheever Jr. (Pikes Peak), Greg Ray (Atlanta) made that seven-for-seven (Ray’s Atlanta win occurred July 15, 2000). Lazier won Round 8 at Kentucky on August 27 to become the first repeat winner. As Scott Goodyear won the season finale, it made it eight winners in nine races for the year.

In the 16 intervening years since, at least one driver has won two races within the first five or six races.

In recent years, only three times have there been five winners in five races, with the streak of first-race winners coming to an end in Round 6.

Had Dixon not beat Montoya on a tiebreak to the 2015 title, that streak of the driver being the first to win his second race also winning the title would have held true here.

  • 2015: 5 (Montoya, James Hinchcliffe, Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power), with Montoya the first repeat winner at Round 6, the Indy 500.
  • 2008: 5 (Dixon, Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick, Power, Dan Wheldon), with Dixon the first repeat winner at Round 6, the Indy 500.
  • 2003: 5 (Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Scott Sharp, de Ferran, Unser Jr.), with Dixon the first repeat winner at Round 6, Pikes Peak.

With 11 races to go, and with only five more winners needed to match, IndyCar can start to think about tying or eclipsing its all-time mark of 11 different winners in a season (which happened back-to-back in those 2000 and 2001 CART seasons).

Rounds 7 and 8 occur at Detroit this weekend for the 2017 IndyCar season. If one of the five drivers who will be entered (assuming Dixon will be good to go; Bourdais is out) can win his second race this season, look for that to make a big impact on the championship as the year goes on.

DiZinno: Sato wins an Indy 500 for Japan, tenacity, and the ‘nice guy’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Between winning with a team that’s quickly becoming one of the all-time greats at Indianapolis, fulfilling the hopes and dreams of a nation and writing his own personal redemption story, Takuma Sato entered into history on Sunday as one of the Indianapolis 500’s nicest, most tenacious and popular victors.

Sato tactfully, carefully flew under-the-radar all month as the perceived “fourth” of four Andretti Autosport full-season entries in the No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda, even lower once you added in the star power of the McLaren, Honda and Andretti entry for two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in the same team.

And he flew under-the-radar within Honda’s 18-car entry into the race, yet as a driver who’s been supported by them his entire career in both Formula 1 and IndyCar since 2002.

ON-TRACK SUCCESS THIS MONTH

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28:  Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, waves during driver introductions alongside Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, ahead of the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Moto Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images).

After a month where Sato was a top-five or top-10 regular, the 40-year-old raised some eyebrows and some volume in the media center when he almost crashed twice on his Sunday qualifying run with a short track, dirt track-esque “slide job” off Turn 2. It was a sign of greater things to come.

Then in the race, the patient, calmer Sato that’s been present more often in 2017 through the first five races bided his time until it was “go time” in the final stint of the race, and the “no attack, no chance” style that has defined Sato’s career on the whole came back in the best way possible, as he beat Helio Castroneves in a straight fight for the victory.

“The entire month with my teammates saw us working extremely seamlessly well through the practice day, fantastic qualifying, and to a very strong start,” Sato said Sunday, praising his teammates. “At one stage I lost momentum, and it goes down to like P10. But I just get down in my job, believe in the car, and push in the pit stops.

“When the opportunity comes, I have to give 100 percent commitment. I knew I could do it. But just, you know, waiting for that moment. The last few laps, they were the moment.”

In tandem with engineer Garrett Mothershead, who he’d worked with previously at KV, Sato was determined to start higher so he wouldn’t need to fight through the field too much on race day. Sato has traditionally started 10th or worse at Indianapolis and until Sunday, hadn’t finished higher than 13th, which he did on two occasions.

Mothershead’s voice was struggling to be much above a whisper on Monday and for good reason – he’d almost lost it Sunday screaming after finally securing his own first ‘500 win after coming up short with Carlos Munoz last year.

“My voice is shot, which is the result of an urge to uncontrollably go, ‘woo!’ he laughed on Monday morning.

“Takuma knows so much more now. Back then (at KV) he was a rookie and he didn’t know the tracks or the style of racing.

“For us, winning three of four as a team is incredible and a testament to our organization and preparation. But breaking through here as a winner is special!”

From fourth on the grid, Sato delivered what was frequently a calmer drive, until he needed to unleash his inner beast.

Sato dropped to seventh from fourth on Lap 1 but stayed in the top 10 from there, entering the lead for the first time on Lap 65 passing Rossi before a caution flew for Conor Daly’s accident in Turn 3.

It took until Lap 84, a restart after the third caution of the race, for Sato to drop from the top-10 for the first time. Sato fell as low as 17th in this stint but was back to 10th by Lap 105.

On the pivotal caution that occurred when Charlie Kimball’s engine failed, Sato joined most of the field in making their final stops. He came out in fifth place overall, third among those that pitted, which set the stage for his amazing final 30 laps.

A two-in-one outside pass of Castroneves and Ed Jones into Turn 1 on Lap 179, a lap before Alonso’s engine blew, was the typical “DID YOU SEE THAT?!?” moment of brilliance we’ve come to expect from Sato over the years. The caution that followed almost meant Sato was in the catbird’s seat, sitting ahead of Castroneves and only with Max Chilton – untested in that situation – to get around.

“When he went into Turn 1, I just sort of close my eyes half the time,” his strategist, Paul “Ziggy” Harcus, joked. “I’m afraid. I keep thinking, ‘Are we going to make it?’ But it’s great driving. I think he did a great job today of keeping his head about him and racing up the front.”

Sato’s new team boss, Michael Andretti, also was left in awe as Sato completed the pass.

“There was one move where he passed two cars on the outside in one, which was a very important move, because that gave him the track position of the top two guys in front of him,” Andretti said. “That was one of the moves of the race, in my opinion. When I saw that, I’m like, ‘Whoa, I think we’re going to win this thing.’ He didn’t let us down. He drove very, very well.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, races ahead of Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, on his way toward winning the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Sato was briefly eclipsed by Castroneves for position, but wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away. He got back by on the outside of Turn 1 on Lap 195 in the ultimate winning move of the race. And with enough of a power advantage from there, Castroneves wasn’t able to come back to him.

“I know Helio is always come on charge. But he’s just such a gentleman with such a fair player. I believe him. We go side-by-side turn one… It was job done,” Sato said.

A POPULAR WIN FOR THE PADDOCK

The win stirred the soul for many in the IndyCar paddock, happy for one of the series’ most genuine and nicest guys, if one whose undoubted speed and promise in eight years and more than 100 starts has been consistently blighted by inconsistency. His only other win came with A.J. Foyt Racing at Long Beach in 2013, that in itself snapping an 11-year drought for Foyt since its last win in 2002.

Members from Sato’s old team visited him in victory lane – Foyt included – to wish him congratulations on the win.

His teammates were happy that he brought Michael Andretti his fifth win in the race, which now moves him ahead of Chip Ganassi (four) for second among active owners, trailing only Roger Penske’s seemingly unassailable 16. It didn’t fully alleviate the pain of Alonso and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s engine failures, nor Alexander Rossi’s fueling issue, but it helped.

“That’s why we had six bullets in the gun, right? Luckily one came through,” Andretti said.

Honda was particularly pleased. A driver that has been in their camp nearly two decades delivered the win for both cultures, the Honda of Japan and Honda of America (via Honda Performance Development), and atoned for a day when reliability woes were set to define its story.

“The one thing is one goal for the winning. It’s the Honda DNA, and that comes from, of course, Mr. Soichiro Honda, and that’s the way Honda Japan, American Honda, it really doesn’t matter,” Sato explained.

“Honda wanted to push absolute on the limit. I can see both ways very, very similar, not only for the Honda globally, but very specifically like HPD here, it is the same philosophy. As Honda, it is just one aim: it is winning, so I can see both ways.”

In talking to senior HPD officials Monday morning, it was strongly hinted that Honda determined to run its engines at max capacity, reducing rumors they’d plan to “turn the engines down” in order to save the reliability.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: Dario Franchitti (L) of Scotland, driver of the #50 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, races against Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, races during the IZOD IndyCar Series 96th running of the Indianpolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The win, of course, provided the redemption tale for Sato’s famous – or infamous – 2012 near-miss. That final lap lunge attempting to pass Dario Franchitti – Franchitti having delivered a bit of gamesmanship to leave just enough of a lane to coax Sato into going for it and making a mistake – stood in mind heading into this year’s race, as this year was always going to mark Sato’s best chance to win since. He reflected on that in a piece for Motorsport.com earlier this month, and then said it’s ancient history on Sunday afternoon.

“I do feel after 2012 I really needed to correct something I left over. Today I was so happy that I made it and won in a good move. I have to thank to Michael for that,” he said.

WHAT THIS MEANT FOR JAPAN

What was the happiest of takeaways for this happy driver – who didn’t look tired despite less than three hours of sleep and more than 30 interviews in the wake of winning Sunday afternoon through to his Monday morning media availability after two hours of photo taking – was what this win meant to his country, and his countrymen.

There’s a small but dedicated contingent of Japanese reporters and photographers who cover the full IndyCar series and make frequent commutes back and forth to Japan along the way. They’re the voices and people that tell Sato’s story to that nation, one which was rocked by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake and one where Sato, via the “With You Japan” campaign, has been an active philanthropist.

Seeing their excitement as well as listening to the excitement of the Japanese TV feed was a sign of pure joy, and one Sato expanded upon in both his Sunday and Monday press conferences.

“There was a Japan program really started in 2011, immediately after the earthquake happened, and all the intention was helping the children from the devastated area,” Sato explained. “It’s a difficult life for them, lost friends and family, and lost home. As I repeat, 250,000 people still living in temporary houses today, so it’s suffering a lot. It is on the recovery, but it’s a long way.

“So I couldn’t put a big donation, but I can bring some energy through the motor racing, so always I invite 100, 150 kids from the devastated area, and we do a go-karting event in the last few years, and that’s spreading all over Japan now, and there is a few places to help, and we did some tournament system, and then end of the year last year in Suzuka, we had a great race, so it’s combined all Japan as well as devastated areas.

“It’s been — it’s great. I think it’s great support, everyone, and as long as I could do, I wanted to keep supporting the children until they become adults, and hopefully one of them becomes a professional race driver.”

Sato might be 40 years old now, but he doesn’t look the part, and now revitalized, the next step from here is taking the success he’s achieved at Indianapolis and translating in for the rest of the season. He now sits tied for second in points with the last two series champions, Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon, 11 back of Castroneves (245-234).

“Age is something for the athlete. Age 40 is something you have to consider how you going to perform well. I think we proved Helio still up there, me up there, T.K. (Tony Kanaan) up there. We train really hard to maintain it,” Sato said.

“There’s always just heart and the mental, the mental strength. You can keep on going. Someday I will have to retire, but now, I have a more competitive race I want to do.

“Yeah, it’s such a privilege to win here. So whether it was the first attempt or eighth attempt or you had a drama in the past, it doesn’t really matter. You winning today. It’s just superb. Just coming onto the top, nothing else.

“I’m so looking forward, particularly now, in championship standings, my standing is very high now, and certainly it is the real challenge for the championship. That’s the most exciting thing for my life right now. Let’s try and give it everything.”

And he’ll do so while smiling.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, celebrates after winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Harding Racing shines among new teams at Indy 500

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A trio of new teams (Harding Racing, Juncos Racing, and Michael Shank Racing, in a joint effort with Andretti Autosport) debuted at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Expectations for such outfits are usually humble and rarely do outsiders, or even insiders, predict such efforts to run up front.

And yet, at the checkered flag, one of those teams emerged in ninth place, a top-10 finish in its IndyCar debut.

Harding Racing’s No. 88 Chevrolet, in the hands of Gabby Chaves, had never run a race before, let alone an IndyCar race, and let alone an Indianapolis 500. However, they survived the carnage and chaos that defined the day to finish in the top-10, dramatically exceeding expectations.

Chaves was competing in his third “500,” two years after winning rookie-of-the-year honors with a 16th place for Bryan Herta Autosport. He labeled this race as mission: accomplished.

“I think we did our job. We took the race one lap at a time. We let the track and the conditions come to us and we dialed in the No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet car every stop,” Chaves said. “We had a heck of a stint there. I think we were one of the only cars being able to make moves out there and got into a solid top ten for our first go as a team.”

Fellow debutante Juncos Racing, too, excelled in their own right. While their runs to 15th (Sebastian Saavedra) and 18th (Spencer Pigot) were unspectacular, the reality is that both cars made it to the finish, with Saavedra finishing on the lead lap, a noteworthy performance for a team making its first IndyCar start.

Sebastian Saavedra brought home a lead lap finish for Indy 500 debutantes Juncos Racing. Photo: IndyCar

Saavedra, like Chaves, said the team accomplished everything it wanted to. “We accomplished the mission we started less than two months ago,” he asserted. “To finish this first Indy 500 with both cars intact is a victory of its own. I’m very proud of the whole organization for putting in such a professional effort. It was rough out there. We were not as competitive as we wanted, but hey, that’s something that is expected your first time out.”

Teammate Spencer Pigot endured a more difficult race in his No. 11 Chevrolet, which the team scrambled to repair ahead of qualifying after a practice crash. As Pigot described, something was still off with the car (he was nearly lapped at the end of the opening stint) and he and the team were fighting it the entire day.

“I think there’s still something I’m missing or something’s gone away with the car since the (practice) crash. It never really felt right and it was just very difficult to drive, but we fought through a tough day. We didn’t give up. The guys kept working hard and I can’t thank them enough for the recovery and for putting this all together,” Pigot detailed.

Michael Shank Racing, the third team making its Verizon IndyCar Series debut, endured the most challenging race of the three new teams. For them, it was a race that concluded a difficult month riddled with problems, which began with a foreboding and bizarre steering failure that resulted in wall contact during opening day practice for driver Jack Harvey.

Harvey and Michael Shank’s No. 50 Honda team were enjoying a solid race until Conor Daly’s lap 65 crash in Turn 3. Harvey hit debris from the accident and spun into the inside wall between Turns 3 and 4. It ended a difficult month for a driver and team who truly made a herculean effort to field an entry.

Jack Harvey and Michael Shank Racing endured a month filled with challenges. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s a super disappointing day because we worked so hard to get here so to have the day end like this is heartbreaking,” Harvey lamented afterward. “Everyone is trying to slow down so quickly and trying to then dodge the debris. I was slowing down and trying to avoid everything so I don’t know what else I could have done at that point.”

Still, Harvey was enthusiastic to simply have a chance to compete. “This was still the best experience I’ve ever had,” he asserted. “The Indianapolis 500 represents so much in the state of Indiana and to the racing world, but it just didn’t go the right way for us today.”

Of those three, Harding Racing is the only one scheduled to run more IndyCar races this year. They will return for the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10 and the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway on August 20.

Juncos Racing will continue with its efforts in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, where it has drivers currently atop the championships in both Indy Lights (Kyle Kaiser) and Pro Mazda (Victor Franzoni).

Michael Shank Racing will continue its Acura NSX GT3 program in the GTD class of WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, resuming next weekend at Detroit.

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Karam: ‘Tough luck stops a great month for DRR, Mecum Chevy’

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Editor’s note: Sage Karam, 3GT Racing Lexus driver in IMSA, a past Indy Lights and USF2000 champion and Verizon IndyCar Series podium finisher, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month for a second straight year (2016 archive here).

Here’s his fifth and final entry, as he recaps Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, where an alternator problem forced him into an early retirement.

You can read his firstsecondthird and fourth blogs of 2017 here. He’ll run the No. 24 Mecum Auctions Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in partnership with Kingdom Racing. 

Hi again, it’s Sage Karam after the running of the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Well, the race didn’t go as we wanted Sunday at the greatest race track in the world.

I was hoping to get to the finish but our No. 24 Mecum Auctions DRR Chevy had an alternator let go and the engine just stopped on lap 125. Not much I or the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team can do much about that. Just some tough luck.

This was my fourth Indy 500 and I was still the youngest driver in the field at age 22. But I felt so much calmer and not as anxious as in previous years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the biggest race in the world and every driver is anxious for the start.

Karam with Jake Gyllenhaal (to his right). Photo: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing

But I felt we would be more calculated with our strategy and my decision-making early in the race. And that is what happened for me. I wasn’t going to put myself in a bad spot in the early portions of the race. I was more conservative than I had ever been in the 500.

Unfortunately, things started off a little rough for us when we had a radio problem. I could hear the pit box and the spotters in the corners but they couldn’t hear me. So, we had to work on a code to communicate with each other on the fly. Just keying up the radio for yes or no and turning fuel mixture switch for more wing, less wing, rear wing and front wing. It was kind of sketchy out there but we were doing okay. We were running inside the top 15 and the top 10 shortly but something was killing the battery in the car and killed the radio.

So, an electrical gremlin put us out of this one. The car was really good all month. It’s a shame – the DRR boys, Mecum Auto Auctions put together a great car this month. It’s tough to see it go down like that. But that’s racing. The beauty of this place is it makes you want to come back more and more because you go through all these hard times. You just want to win. So, after I get back to the DRR garage, I was cheering on Fernando Alonso because I’m a big fan of his. But he had trouble too.

With the alternator letting go, there is nothing we can do. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what happens here. These times are tough, but it’ll make the triumph much better in the future. I thought we ran a smart race.

A lot of people were doing risky things out there. I backed out of about four or five situations that could have caused a big crash. My plan was to get into the top-10 by lap 150 or so. We were moving up the field and the race car was good.

To be honest, we didn’t have the straightaway speed. I used hand signals during the yellow flag period to try to explain to the crew what I needed. I pointed to the back of the car to adjust the rear wing for my straight-line speed. I thought the race car was pretty good overall though. I could pass in several areas. But some of the guys were doing some wild moves.

I played it conservative around many of them. I’m not going to point out some of the them by name, but it was downright scary in certain places. I thought there were going to a bunch of big wrecks if that stuff continued.

Speaking of wrecks, I was so thrilled to see my friend Scott Dixon jump out his race car after that wild crash. Scott is one of the best drivers in IndyCar history and truly one of the nicest guys too. That was a scary wild for Dixey. I will be so glad to talk with him at the Indy 500 Awards banquet. And was so happy that Sebastian Bourdais was back at the track for the race too. His crash was so nasty and it could have been a lot worse.

As a racing driver, you know you have risks. And then you see those crashes and how the safety equipment on the cars and at the tracks save people. I’m proud of the safety developments which have been made in our sport. And you see crashes like Scott and Seb’s and know those safety developments have made a big difference.

Well, I enjoyed this year’s Indy 500 experience and just wish it could have finished up better. But that’s racing. I’ll plan to be back again in 2018. Now, it’s off to the streets of Belle Isle for the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship race, I’ll be racing in the Lexus sports car for 3GT Racing.

Thanks for reading my thoughts this month and we’ll plan to do it again next May.