Gordon congratulates Ricky Taylor. Photo courtesy of IMSA

DiZinno: Ricky Taylor’s golden breakthrough at the Rolex 24

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jordan Taylor has many personalities. He’s been the guy born in the ’90s, ironically rocking an early ’90s mullet. He’s introduced us to his many unsuspecting passengers on flights via his usually hilarious “JT Facials.” He has a dog named Fonzie, and an alter-ego named Rodney Sandstorm.

But Jordan Taylor has one slightly more important thing in his life than all these elements you see on social media.

He has his older brother, Ricky.

And in a year when Wayne Taylor had a four-time NASCAR champion making a comeback after 10 years, his long-time co-driver announcing his retirement, and his youngest son playing out the “I’m a sports car star, but I can’t even get the sports car media to interview me” running joke as the NASCAR star saddled back up in his lineup, Wayne’s rock that held it all together this year at Daytona was Ricky.

The 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona will, for me, be remembered as “Ricky’s Rolex.”

Because at long last, and deservedly so, the older brother has emerged from his younger brother’s lofty social media and sports car star shadow.

Ricky, 27, and Jordan, 25, have had slightly divergent paths on their way up the sports car world. While Ricky was always overflowing with potential, it seemed there were moments when wins went begging and it cost both Ricky, and his dad Wayne, race wins in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series.

A one-year shift for Ricky Taylor from his dad’s team in 2013 opened the door for Jordan, who’d been plying his trade in the GT categories and winning races in a Camaro for Autohaus Motorsports, a chance at the spotlight.

Jordan promptly won that year’s GRAND-AM championship with a series of barnstorming drives co-driving alongside Angelelli, his dad’s longtime co-driver, for his dad’s team. Ricky had one podium finish all season.

The metaphor of the gap between the two – both personality and performance-wise – was outlined within a hilarious and off-the-wall Continental Tire-supported music video called “Jordan Loves Stickers.” It showed Jordan, with the mullet only beginning its growth into legendary status, as a hotshoe driver in love with a Continental Tire. Ricky, meanwhile, had a moment in the video where his head was sticking out of a can.

The funny part is, if you don’t know the Taylors, you’d think Jordan is always gregarious and up for joking around, and Ricky is quieter and under-the-radar … or under the can.

In actuality, Jordan is a seriously focused driver whose determination and dedication outweighs his social media presence. Ricky, meanwhile, is unfailingly nice and polite – perhaps the nicest driver I’ve ever met in racing – and rarely without a beaming smile on his face, absolutely high on life.

Angelelli stopped full-time driving at the end of 2013, which opened the door for a refreshed and slightly older Ricky Taylor to rejoin his dad’s team, now with Jordan as his teammate.

Some success came the first year. In 2014, Ricky Taylor emerged at the head of a titanic scrap with Action Express Racing’s Joao Barbosa to win at Detroit. The Taylor brothers and Angelelli then won as a unit at the 2014 Petit Le Mans, but watched as Action Express took the title. Ricky also had a dynamite pass at the start of last year’s Long Beach race that wound up the eventual decider there.

Ultimate success at Daytona, however, eluded the Taylors. Jordan, Angelelli and Ryan Hunter-Reay were second in 2013. All three Taylors and Angelelli were second in 2014, denying Wayne a chance to win with his sons. A drive-time miscalculation in 2015 relegated the team from second to the back of the field. In 2016, the Taylors, Angelelli and Rubens Barrichello were, you guessed it, second.

Essentially, Wayne Taylor Racing had done the sports car racing equivalent of the 1990s Buffalo Bills – make it to four straight Super Bowls, but come second in all of them.

It seemed the bad luck was set to continue when Jordan posted a video Friday night alleging Ricky had inadvertently left the water in their RV running. But come morning, the social media posts were about temporary tattoos of Rolex watches, with the hopes their wrists would be heavier 24-plus hours later.

Second was not going to happen again in 2017. And it was Ricky who emerged as the brightest star this week.

The Rolex 24 offers drivers who otherwise star during the bulk of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season a chance to do so in front of the biggest media audience of the year, at Daytona’s World Center of Racing. It’s the place where unheralded international drivers like Pipo Derani and Max Papis showed up 20 years apart and suddenly kickstarted their careers.

Sometimes, the Rolex 24 also gives drivers a shot in the arm to perform even better than they’re capable of. I had a chat with Ricky during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test and while his usual nice presence continued, there was an inner burning in his eyes I hadn’t really seen before.

“If it was easy, it wouldn’t mean so much,” he told me, noting the number of second-place finishes both he and his dad have had in recent years at this race.

But Ricky was also bullish on the development work done by Dallara and Cadillac of the new Cadillac DPi-V.R.

“Even compared to the P2 car I drove in Le Mans (a Morgan Judd) in 2014, this is a totally different planet. It’s such a huge evolution from P2 cars in the past,” he said.

The Konica Minolta team saw something too, opting to use Ricky for all the key moments this weekend.

Qualifying doesn’t mean much for a 24-hour race but with Ricky resigned to fourth on the grid and both Action Express Racing Cadillacs on the front row, you could tell that was only going to be fuel for the race itself.

The Taylor car had the measure of the Action Express cars in race pace, seemingly throughout the race. Colder temperatures may have played to the team’s strength.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

In the final hours, Angelelli took his last laps ever behind the wheel, and enjoyed one final bout with his GRAND-AM sparring partner, Barbosa. Angelelli came out ahead.

But it was the decision that came next from the pit wall to run Jordan next, and close with Ricky, that would determine whether this run of runner-up finishes would finally meet its end.

Ricky Taylor’s move on Filipe Albuquerque into the Bus Stop with an hour and 26 minutes remaining would have stood out as the decisive move under normal circumstances had cautions not intervened. But they did, and when Taylor got backlogged behind traffic and perhaps fell victim to cagey tactics from Albuquerque’s race teammate Mike Conway, it could have been easy to get defeated.

“Ricky’s move at the Bus Stop early on, I thought, okay, we’re going to be okay,” Wayne Taylor said. “And then somehow every time we come to this event and we’ve finished second so many times, it’s been because of something else that’s happened that we weren’t in control of, and what happened today was somebody crashed and the 5 got into the pit before us, and I thought, okay, here we go again.

“It’s funny, I was telling somebody outside that the weirdest thing is as a father, people always ask me what’s it like to have your kids racing because most mothers worry about the fear factor, which I never do, and the great part I am proud of is that when they’re in the car, I’m actually very relaxed because I do believe they know what they’re doing, and I had no question in my mind that Ricky was not going to come home second today.  There was no way he was going to do it.”

Then, the move of his life came inside the final 10 minutes. Ricky made the attempt that had to work for not just himself, but his team, his family and his co-drivers. Albuquerque turned in, shutting the door, but still having left enough of a gap where Ricky had at least a chance to make it work.

As Ricky related after the race, it was a move he had to make.

“There’s a lot of emotions going on. I wanted to win terribly,” he said. “We were either going to make a move and do something and win or sit there in second and wait until next year, basically. I didn’t want to do that.”

IMSA Race Control reviewed the contact between the two cars, but took no further action.

The move was made. The win was secured.

This was Ricky’s day.

Wayne and Ricky Taylor. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Wayne and Ricky Taylor. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The joy in this Rolex 24 win for the Taylor team comes with the convergence of all these story lines. Jordan and Ricky have their first Rolex 24 win, now matching their dad Wayne, while doing it for their dad’s team. They brought the win for their longtime friend and teacher Angelelli. They brought the win home for Gordon, who was effusive in his praise of the Taylor brothers afterwards. The win comes after Wayne Taylor and Angelelli were part of Cadillac’s last top-flight prototype program in the early 2000s.

“These two over here, you know, this experience to me was about building this bond and this friendship that I didn’t expect to happen because of the way they welcomed me in, and we had a lot of fun along the way,” Gordon said of the Taylor brothers.

“And then I was able to learn just how talented they are. I mean, I was so impressed over watching all night.  I was glued to the TV every second, every lap. I couldn’t sleep because I wanted to watch these guys do what they did in the rain, in the cold, in the most treacherous conditions, and they did it at a level, that I’ll be honest, I’m not capable of doing, and I was so impressed.

“Then you go to the last stint in this final race of a 24‑hour race and you see it come down to that, and it was a thrill of a lifetime, and I’m just so honored to be sitting here and be a part of this experience.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

This was a race of finishing that “unfinished business,” for both the team, and for Ricky.

“I’m still shaking,” Ricky said. “You’ve got Cadillac’s unfinished business from the LMP program which Max and my dad were both a part of the first go around, and then wrapping that up with ‑‑ starting off with a win here in Daytona, and then you’ve got Max’s last race, and we’ve been family for 20 years now, and he’s taught us everything we know.

“We used to have classes with Max.  He used to be the Professor X, and he’d come over to our house, and we’d have a pen and paper, and he’d teach us about downforce and he’d teach us about overtaking.  Today was a good example of one of those lessons, I think.  That was an Ax move.”

Ricky was overcome with emotion but still took a bit of time to reflect on the journey to the biggest and most important win of his career.

“I mean, for me and Jordan, for Rahal and Andretti, I feel like we’re all kind of in the same boat,” he said. “We just want to prove ourselves that we can do the job, and although I believe we are in the best equipment, I think we have to take advantage of it, and we’ve been so strong here for so many years, and to get the opportunity to finish was very scary.

“This is the top one for sure.  There is nothing close.”

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.