All photos courtesy Charlie Kimball

Inside the rink: Charlie Kimball, Honda take on NHL All-Star Game

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Editor’s note: Charlie Kimball, driver of the No. 83 Tresiba Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, took over the Verizon IndyCar Series Instagram and Snapchat social media accounts during the NHL All-Star Game at STAPLES Center this weekend in Los Angeles. Honda is the official vehicle of the NHL. While there, Kimball was also keeping apprised of his Ganassi and Honda teammates racing at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Kimball recounts his reflections of the weekend on ice and watching the cars metaphorically on ice, when speaking to MotorSportsTalk editor Tony DiZinno.

One of my many interests outside the cockpit is watching hockey, and so to have the opportunity to take in the NHL All-Star Game presented by Honda not far from my hometown in Los Angeles was something I really appreciated having the chance to do.

The @charliekimball Instagram takeover starts right now! #hockeygoeshollywood #indycargoeshollywood #nhlallstar #nhl100

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As drivers, we’re always working to engage with our fans via social media. But to be honest, I’d never done anything as in-depth as a full account takeover, which I did this weekend for IndyCar. So this was a deeper dive into taking over a full social media presence, compared to just my own, for an in-depth weekend. For me, it was a neat way to express something I’ve been super interested in, and has ties to racing on NBCSN and with Honda. This was a chance for me to be able to share a little bit of what I like other than racing, with non-traditional hockey fans.

The celebrity game and skills competition was fun to watch, and very impressive. Saturday night after the skills competition, there was a blink-182 concert, and you almost felt transplanted back in time because for only an hour show, they played all their big hits. And that was just the warm-up act!

The All-Star Game itself was a blast. When you get 3-on-3 hockey, there’s not a lot of defense played. The goalies get hung out to dry. So there’s lot happening in 10-minute periods each time they go out.

One of the things I really appreciate about hockey is how much those involved appreciate the sport. There’s a saying I’ve heard, where cricket is a game for gentlemen played by gentlemen, soccer is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans, rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen, and Aussie Rules Football is a game for hooligans played by hooligans. When you look at hockey, you think it could be a hard-hitting, vicious game. But the respect these guys have for each other, for the game, and the history of the game is unbelievable to witness.

Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball
Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball

The NHL 100 celebration Friday night reminded me a lot of the Indianapolis 500 banquet. One of the first things they did was reveal the list of 100 greatest players, which included a number of players from the first 50 years of the game until 1960s… and right then, four living players walked out. Not even 10 seconds into it and the current players in the audience just applauded straightaway. That respect and the understanding for the game of hockey is really an indication of how remarkable the game and appreciation is.

You can draw so many parallels to IndyCar. The driver back then were right on the limit of everything their cars could do. It’s the same in the ice rink.

Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball
Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball

While there’s appreciation for the legends, there’s also good times and laughter we got to have with the mascots this trip. I believe 27 of the NHL mascots were in town. I got to know Bailey – the Kings mascot – when we were out in November. We’d shared some Twitter love. So I took a pic of the mascot showdown, and a number of bad puns were made. But all of them were in STAPLES Center, interacting with kids during TV timeouts. They were messing around with people and each other, which produced some classics! Nash – the Nashville Predator – came by. He came and took a photo with all the kids. They’d known each other and seen them at Predators games. It’s pretty cool the relationships that the mascots build with the fans.

The skills competition was the showcase event prior to the game on Saturday. It ended up a five-stage competition to pit the four divisions against each other. First off it was a relay, so there were thre wrist shots into an empty net, from the mid-line, the blue line, and close in. Then it moved into a passing competition, where one of the players had to pass a puck into a 4-inch by 2-inch goal! That was pretty serious. Then there was the puck handling… the skating competition. There’s six Gatorade bottles set out. They had to set this up and around. It went then to a tight-in, puck handling course, where you’d slide the puck through obstacles. There was a goalie shooting from his own goal over a barrier into the other goal at the end of ice. The winning time was crazy – a minute and 21 seconds. So all that happens in the time it takes me to do a lap of Watkins Glen!

Skills competition. Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball
Skills competition. Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball

There were also the target shooters. A guy stands on blue line… and they’ll feed them the puck and show how quickly they knock out the targets. Sidney Crosby’s targeting is spectacular. His ability to place the puck is super impressive. There was the fastest skating competition. I joked in one of my Instagram or Snapchat stories that it’s self explanatory. They can skate so fast with the stick in hands, and in full pads. Then it was the fastest shot. So it’s a slapshot from halfway between blue line and goal, as long as it went in. It tripped the radar gun at like 104 mph. Then they did a shootout between Pacific and Atlantic. Atlantic won and got to play the metro division … this was like knockout qualifying. And then the knockout round went up until the final round of All-Star Game.

At this point, I was merely catching my breath from how exhilarating this competition was. But me being a racer and having done the Rolex 24 at Daytona before, I had to check in on my teammates down in Daytona. Scott, Tony and Sebastien were racing in the Ganassi Ford GTs and Graham and Ryan were in the new Acuras. The challenge now was finding a way to be able to watch.

I’d mentioned earlier on Saturday how we’re at the concert and party. So I pulled out my phone to check in, and I pulled up the IMSA app and I saw how cold and wet everyone is. They’re cold and wet, and I was warm and dry!

I’ve driven at the Rolex 24 twice and done the “graveyard shift.” These stints are overnight; they can feel lonely and take forever, and it’s hard to stay focused at that point. Throw the challenge of rain in there and I was very impressed with the limited accidents in the rain.

Anyway, Saturday night, the only place that has FS2 TV coverage was the bar. So we sat at the bar from midnight to 12:30, so 3:30 a.m. ET, and it looked absolutely miserable. We ended up sitting next to a bunch of race fans. They were tangentially aware, and were seeing what our interest was in the race. We got up the next morning, and we had a decision to make: we could go to the NHL All-Star Brunch, or watch the last hour from the hotel and order room service.

Kimball able to watch at the bar... but not the final hour. Photos courtesy Charlie Kimball
Kimball able to watch the Rolex 24 at the bar… but not the final hour. Photos courtesy Charlie Kimball

In the last hour.. I couldn’t watch. I could not watch that GTLM battle. It was just craziness! But it was unbelievable, as the Ganassi Fords won in class. And it was nice to see the NSX run as well as it did in its debut. It wasn’t just the Ganassi boys, but it was the Honda brethren. Graham and Ryan ran up front. There’s some bugs to work out, but it’s their first year in an endurance car. It ran really well and they did a really nice job.

We made it back to STAPLES for the game. The final act was incredible; being at STAPLES – it’s all (Los Angeles) Kings and Pacific fans. So that last sequence when the puck nearly went in… we were all asking how it did not go in? That was a $90,000 miss right there. The prize money is $1 million awarded to the winning team, and split up among the 11 players. It was a thoroughly fun event and tense right down to the end.

I’ve had people ask whether some kind of all-star event might work for INDYCAR as well. It would be a great way to highlight the participants, especially those who have a great first half of the season. But the series is so good right now you’d need to have all the cars involved. Maybe you have different physical competitions, or highlight things we do week-in, week-out that you don’t see on the race broadcast. Say you look at Firestone guys breaking down or mounting tires. The question would be who would sponsor it and where would it be. But it could provide some cool highlights.

Event logo, Honda logo, Charlie and wife Kathleen. Photos courtesy Charlie Kimball
Event logo, Honda logo, Charlie and wife Kathleen. Photos courtesy Charlie Kimball

This was a super fun weekend, all around. It’s great to have the Honda family support because there’s so many things they are involved with beyond INDYCAR. There’s the NHL, redesigned Ridgeline, 2017 CRV and more. And you’ve seen what Bridgestone/Firestone have done with the Winter Classic.

It’s been nice for me to be back with Honda and it’ll be cool to do more fun things as the year goes on. As of next week though it’s back to the day job with our open test at Phoenix!

Thanks for reading.

-CK


Hulkenberg: Singapore DNF ‘tough to take’ after strong start

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Nico Hulkenberg has admitted his retirement from last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix was “tough to take” after being in contention to end his long-running Formula 1 podium drought.

Hulkenberg entered the Singapore weekend ready to break the record for making the most F1 starts without recording a top-three finish, having tied Adrian Sutil’s tally of 128 races at Monza.

Hulkenberg qualified an excellent fifth for Renault and dodged the start-line chaos to rise to third, and even ran second for one lap before switching tires.

Hulkenberg settled into fourth place when the switch to dry tires was complete, only for an oil leak on his car to force him to make an unscheduled pit stop and ultimately retire from the race.

“Sunday was tough to take and left me feeling disappointed. We lost a good result, and it was a case of not having a good enough reliability; that’s the way this sport goes sometimes,” Hulkenberg said.

“We lost our fourth position which is a pity especially after all the hard work from the whole team. It would have been a nice bunch of points but that’s racing and it happens!

“The car is looking fast and we have to build on the positives and take it forward now to Malaysia.”

IndyCar points by circuit type: 2017

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After separate reviews of the street and oval portions of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – led by Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, respectively – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale was of course, the final road course race of the year as well.

And a third different driver topped the charts in those six permanent road course races this year, in the form of Scott Dixon.

Dixon had one win (Road America) and three runners-up finishes in the six races, with other finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and ninth (Mid-Ohio) which brought him 261 points in these races. That was two points clear of Newgarden, who won at Barber and Mid-Ohio and finished second at both Road America and Sonoma, while losing points at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen.

The top six drivers in permanent road course points – Dixon, Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Castroneves and Graham Rahal – were also the top six drivers in the overall points, albeit not in that order.

For the year, it was interesting to note how being consistent across all three phases of circuit netted the best results.

The two biggest outliers were Power – who was only 14th in street course points but second in oval and fourth in road course points – who ended fifth in points overall and Kanaan, who overcame 16th (street course) and 18th (road course) points positions with third place in oval points, trailing only Castroneves and Power.

That oval haul brought Kanaan up to 10th in points in a year where several others – notably James Hinchcliffe, Max Chilton and Ed Jones – all occasionally staked their claim to the final spot in the top-10.

Otherwise, consistency across all circuits was key to securing your overall points position for the year.

The breakdown of points per driver by circuit type is below.

P # Driver Street Road Oval Total
1 2 Josef Newgarden 185 259 198 642
2 1 Simon Pagenaud 147 256 226 629
3 9 Scott Dixon 159 261 201 621
4 3 Helio Castroneves 126 220 252 598
5 12 Will Power 86 244 232 562
6 15 Graham Rahal 162 191 169 522
7 98 Alexander Rossi 126 171 197 494
8 26 Takuma Sato 115 112 214 441
9 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 105 178 138 421
10 10 Tony Kanaan 79 97 227 403
11 8 Max Chilton 91 141 164 396
12 27 Marco Andretti 103 119 166 388
13 5 James Hinchcliffe 155 99 122 376
14 19 Ed Jones 88 99 167 354
15 21 JR Hildebrand 78 90 179 347
16 14 Carlos Munoz 85 109 134 328
17 83 Charlie Kimball 72 135 120 327
18 4 Conor Daly 68 120 117 305
19 7 Mikhail Aleshin 77 68 92 237
20 20 Spencer Pigot 75 114 29 218
21 18 Sebastien Bourdais 93 89 32 214
22 20 Ed Carpenter 169 169
23 88 Gabby Chaves 98 98
24 22 Juan Pablo Montoya 20 73 93
25 18 Esteban Gutierrez 43 23 25 91
26 7 Sebastian Saavedra 19 61 80
27 16 Oriol Servia 21 40 61
28 7 Jack Harvey 40 17 57
29 29 Fernando Alonso 47 47
30 63 Pippa Mann 32 32
31 13 Zachary Claman DeMelo 26 26
32 77 Jay Howard 24 24
33 24 Sage Karam 23 23
34 40 Zach Veach 11 12 23
35 18 James Davison 21 21
36 18 Tristan Vautier 15 15
37 44 Buddy Lazier 14 14
38 7 Robert Wickens 0 0

Ed Jones adds name to IndyCar’s elite as top rookie in 2017

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Sure, you can say Ed Jones didn’t have a full-season counterpart for IndyCar’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2017 and so he was always going to win the award.

But in a year when you don’t have competition and the other first-year drivers did only selected races, you have to compare yourself to the rest of the field at large and make an impression – and Jones clearly did so for Dale Coyne Racing.

Per Trackside Online, Jones joins this list of drivers in the series’ full-time lineup who won top rookie honors in their year of eligibility: Alexander Rossi, Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Heading into last year’s offseason, Jones was not the favorite to take over the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda; fellow Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran RC Enerson was on the heels of three impressive debut races at the tail end of 2016.

However Jones was always going to need a place to land with the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for at least three races. Between that and with additional budget gathered, Jones found his way into Dale Coyne’s second seat alongside Sebastien Bourdais and together the pairing clicked.

Coyne had his eye on him throughout 2016, and watched him win the Indy Lights title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances when Carlin teammate Felix Serralles pulled aside to allow Jones through.

“It was Indy Lights. We went to his last race at Laguna Seca when he won the championship,” Coyne said. “We kept an eye on him. We keep an eye on all Indy Lights guys as well. It’s close, we can see them, watch them race, see how aggressive they are.

“He was always smooth in the car. I didn’t know how good he was going to be, because he was smooth. He doesn’t look like Paul Tracy in a car, but he drives better than Paul Tracy, at least in the beginning, at least Paul’s first year. He was a pleasant — it was the biggest surprise we’ve ever had.”

Jones, the 22-year-old Dubai-based Brit who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, was an instant hit on results if not on outright pace. But with finishes of sixth, 10th and 11th among his first five starts and other results lost due to circumstances outside his control, he immediately made a positive impact in the paddock.

Where Jones grew up fastest in a year where he matured so much from a more quiet and reserved driver in Indy Lights – much of that thanks to the family atmosphere at Coyne and its ace PR rep, Karina Redmond – was in May. Bourdais went from points leader and potential Indianapolis 500 contender to hospital-bound after his devastating accident in qualifying.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Max Chilton of England, driver of the #8 Gallagher Honda, Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, and Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, lead a pack of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones, meanwhile, was suddenly thrust into the unexpected role of team leader, not knowing week-to-week who his teammate might be depending on the issue. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Jones carried a quiet swagger during the month of May in Indianapolis, and was aggrieved for getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout.

What he did on race day was equally as impressive as Rossi’s 2016 win in the ‘500 if not more so, considering the disparity in equipment and the fact Jones’ car was damaged in the nose from debris contacting it earlier in the race.

That third place finish (and the double points that went with it) was enough to earn many votes for this year’s Indianapolis 500 top rookie honors (including from this writer) although it wasn’t enough to supplant Fernando Alonso for the award, somewhat controversially. Coyne couldn’t resist trolling during Jones’ season-long top rookie acceptance press conference at Sonoma.

“Obviously Indy, third place there. Did you get Rookie of the Year at Indy or no? Didn’t get that, okay,” Coyne deadpanned.

Alas, Jones pressed on anyway with a consistent appetite for learning, thanks to Coyne’s tutelage, Michael Cannon’s sharp mind on the engineering stand and a crew that embraced him.

“It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of advice that Dale’s given me,” Jones said. “But, you know, he’s always been very supportive of learning everything step by step, learning from Seb. Every time I get to every weekend, even every session, I remember early on it was try to learn as much as you can, take it step by step, there’s no need to overdo it early on.

“I seen myself as well as one of the guys, rookies, younger guys that would come in and they try to be right at the front the beginning. In a series that’s so competitive like this, it doesn’t really happen that often. It’s extreme difficult to do it. Sometimes doing that, you can actually take steps backwards because you kind of lose where you’re at. It’s always better to sort of take it step by step, yeah, get there that way.”

After a ninth place at Detroit race one, Jones’ results suffered the rest of the way through a myriad of mishaps – be it tough setups, bad caution timing, an occasional spin or pit stop issues. A seventh at Road America was the lone bright spot, and a potential top-10 championship finish went begging. Losing Bourdais hurt primarily from a setup standpoint.

“I wasn’t always sure if it was just me or if it was a lot with the car. Yeah, that was the main thing. Seb is really good with setting up the car. Having his feedback to work off from was really helpful,” he said.

“If I ever wasn’t sure about something, I could use him to back something up. Not having him there, yeah, made it harder. Sometimes I was guessing a bit more. So, yeah, that was the toughest part.”

Jones said his driving and development got better as the year went on as, paradoxically, the results got worse.

“It’s always difficult not having another full-time rookie to compare to. Then again, I’ve looked at the rookies over the last few years. I’ve seen it’s extremely tough. I feel pretty happy with how it’s gone in comparison to other guys recently,” he said.

“I wanted to finish top-10 in the points. Halfway through the season, we were on track to doing that. We had a good opportunity to do it. The last few races, things have maybe not gone to plan.

“But I feel like as a driver, I got stronger. Early on in the season, I had some really great results. I was driving well, but also a lot of things fell my way. I was pretty lucky in that sense. Now I think we’ve gone better, me as a driver, also binding with the team. We got stronger, but things just haven’t gone our way. It’s been frustrating.”

None of the issues were egregious and as Coyne related later, Jones was one of the cleanest drivers he’d ever had in a year where the crash damage bills added up fast.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, and Tristan Vautier, driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, practice 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)

With a rotating driver in the second car, be it James Davison, Esteban Gutierrez or Tristan Vautier before Bourdais’ welcome and surprise return at Gateway, Jones was the unexpected but needed rock in the driver lineup.

“I think it’s been a whole progression the whole year. We’ve run a lot of rookies over the years. We run rookies in tests that have never made it to a race, we ran rookies that made it to races,” Coyne said.

“He’s just a puppy. But he’s done a good job, very, very good. I don’t think he scratched the car. He actually did hit the wall at Pocono. The smallest amount of damage I’ve ever seen anybody do hitting a wall at Pocono. Done a very good job all year long, every track.”

Jones isn’t back yet for 2018, but Coyne said “We’re very, very close. I would love to have Ed back next year,” and wants to have a deal struck in the next few weeks.

Looking at what he did as a rookie was quite impressive. The five top-10s matched Conor Daly’s number last year as the lone full-season driver and while Daly was 18th in points in his first full season, Jones ended 14th.

That 14th place in the standings is a Coyne driver’s best finish in the standings since the late Justin Wilson’s incredible run to sixth in 2013, and actually a spot ahead of where Wilson was the following year in 2014, in 15th.

Jones’ qualifying average of 14.3 was 3.5 spots higher than Daly’s last year and Jones out-qualified his teammates nine times this year in 17 races, including Bourdais on three of eight attempts.

What he did for the team this year overall in a tough season will be remembered more than the results itself which again, were impressive given thee circumstances.

“It’s been very tough. But the whole team together, everyone within the team works very well together from the beginning of the year. A big shame to lose Seb after quite a few races. Everyone got on well with it. I remember after the accident, actually Dale got everyone together. We pushed forward,” he said.

“I think there’s been a lot of times that on Dale’s team, there’s things that have happened, gone up and down. As we’ve seen, they’ve always come back stronger.”

Photo: IndyCar

McLaren ‘very close’ to agreeing new F1 deal with Alonso

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McLaren is “very close” to agreeing a new Formula 1 contract with Fernando Alonso beyond the end of the 2017 season, according to team racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last week in Singapore it would be splitting with struggling engine supplier Honda at the end of the season, linking up with Renault from 2018.

The decision was made in a bid to lift the team to the front of the field, having struggled for much of the past three years while working with Honda.

Alonso has made no secret of his frustration throughout the three-year stint, prompting the Spaniard to consider his future with McLaren upon the expiration of his contract at the end of the year.

With the driver market closing up, Alonso looks poised to remain with McLaren for 2018, but said in Singapore he is considering options in many series.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Boullier expressed his confidence in Alonso staying for 2018, saying a deal was “very close”.

“Fernando wants to stay. You can see it in his body language and the way he speaks,” Boullier added.

“There are marketing details that have to be sorted out, and that Zak [Brown, McLaren executive director] is working on.”

Despite suggestions of an ultimatum regarding its Honda partnership being issued to McLaren by Alonso, Boullier stressed that the team made the decision to switch to Renault by its own accord, with the drivers then fitting in afterwards for its 2018 plans.

“McLaren’s DNA is to be competitive. The team has always been in the top three and we belong there again,” Boullier said.

“Today we know that we have a decent chassis, which would allow us to be in the top three again with an equal level engine.

“So for us as a business it is important to be competitive, no matter what role Fernando plays. We had to make a decision for us.

“But if you want to be competitive you not only need an engine, you also need a driver. That is when Fernando comes into the picture.

“We did what we did for McLaren first, but the package includes also the driver.”