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Mike Dunn working to take International Hot Rod Association to next level in drag racing

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He isn’t Dunn by any means. Rather, he’s just getting started.

On Wednesday, veteran drag racer and broadcaster Mike Dunn will celebrate his first anniversary as president of the International Hot Rod Association.

And while both he and the organization have undergone some growing pains over the last year, the future is looking bright.

The West Palm Beach, Florida-based IHRA is the second-largest sanctioning body in drag racing. While Dunn made his biggest impact in both racing and broadcasting with the larger National Hot Rod Association, the IHRA presents a unique challenge that he is enjoying.

ihra-president-mike-dunn“Good drag racing is good drag racing, it doesn’t matter (if it’s NHRA or IHRA),” Dunn said. “I came into this with an open mind.

“(IHRA) was a good show but trying to get people to come was a challenge. One of the reasons why is it has gone through so many different undulations over the years with different ownerships and stuff, I think the IHRA fan just didn’t know what they were getting anymore because the program had changed.

“We want to get fans to come back out and see what the IHRA is all about and look at the racing that exists and see that it’s good.”

Admittedly, the IHRA has taken somewhat of a step back in 2017. It has placed national event championship racing — including Top Fuel and Funny Car — on a one-season hiatus.

“We hit some bumps in the road the first year,” Dunn admits. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We didn’t get the TV package signed in time, so we decided to postpone the pro series until 2018.”

Rather, the IHRA will focus this season on its lifeblood, and from where the organization sprung from — the Sportsman ranks — with the Summit Sportsman National Championship series.

“A lot of our fans, especially our core fans, have some type of connection to Sportsman racing, local racing, bracket racing or them going out there racing or they know a family member that races, or a friend or a cousin,” Dunn said. “It seems like the fans I deal with all have that connection and it all goes back to Sportsman racing. It’s the foundation of the sport and what we all build on.

“We had to make a complete change to make it more viable, and we took the Sportsman Series, which was good, and I believe we made it better. We changed the format around and have gotten great response off of that.”

The 2017 SSNC schedule, which will run from February through September, will feature 30 races, two per weekend at 15 IHRA-sanctioned tracks in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Ohio.

The season opening race is this weekend at Immokalee (Fla.) Regional Raceway.

The IHRA announced Monday that 13 of those race weekends will be streamed live online on ESPN3 as part of a multi-year agreement that will expand to include the return of professional class national events in 2018.

But IHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car fans won’t be completely overlooked in 2017. Dunn noted that there will be special exhibition appearances by select Top Fuel dragsters and Funny cars at several of this season’s 15 SSNC events.

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During his own driving career, Dunn recorded 22 NHRA national event wins in Top Fuel and Funny Car, as well as one win in IHRA competition.

After retiring from driving, he spent 14 years broadcasting NHRA races on ESPN. Shortly after NHRA chose a different announcing team when it moved to Fox Sports in 2016, Dunn received a call from Chris Lencheski (CEO of IHRA parent company IRGS+E).

“Chris said he wanted me to be president of the IHRA,” Dunn said, adding with a laugh, “so I said to him, ‘Why would you want to do that?’”

But the more they spoke – a conversation that lasted more than 10 hours over several days – Dunn warmed to the idea.

“Chris told me his plans and what he wanted to do,” Dunn said. “I liked the plan and said I definitely could help a lot. We have some good people in the IHRA. I made a few suggestions and we just went from there.”

As Dunn begins the second year of his three-year contract with IHRA, changes and upgrades will continue. In addition to next season’s return of the pro series for Top Fuel and Funny Car, one of the biggest items on Dunn’s IHRA agenda is international expansion.

“The IHRA is the International Hot Rod Association and I’d like to see it more of an international series and international entity,” Dunn said. “We went into Australia last year, we sanctioned some tracks down there and the 400 Thunder Series and have gotten a nice jump in memberships off of that. That’s become very successful.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can incorporate that into a championship series and into other countries. The logistics to do that are challenging at best, but we have some ideas on how possibly to do that as we build.

“We’re not going to obviously jump right in and have a Formula One-style series for drag racing off the bat because we’d lose a lot more money then. But there are some ways I think we can get creative to establish our foothold, like we’ve done in Australia and we’re looking into other areas like New Zealand, Asia, Mexico and have some events in Canada. That’s what I envision.”

Dunn knows that taking on the NHRA – he calls it “the other organization” – is somewhat of a David vs. Goliath battle. But at the same time, he still sees room for growth for the IHRA even in the NHRA’s shadow.

“The NHRA has a good product and they pretty much have the domestic side locked up,” Dunn said. “We’d be nuts to try and go head-to-head with them because they have a good product and they have the resources.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t go into different markets, have a little bit of a different look and try to create new things. I’d also like to get new fans involved.

“I’d like to see drag racing just grow, period. I believe I can do this. I have the right people and the budget to do it … and let them go out and do their jobs.

“Even though we had some missteps and are restructuring this year, I still believe in that philosophy.”

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Ricciardo downbeat after disaster Australian GP ends in retirement

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Daniel Ricciardo was left downbeat after a disastrous end to a difficult Australian Grand Prix weekend that saw the home Formula 1 favorite almost miss the race entirely.

Ricciardo was due to start the race 10th after crashing out of qualifying on Saturday, and was then handed a five-place grid penalty following a gearbox change overnight.

Ricciardo then suffered another setback when an electrical issue emerged during his reconnaissance lap to the grid, causing his car to get stuck in sixth gear.

After coming back to the pit lane in a truck, the RB13 car was revived by the Red Bull crew to allow Ricciardo to enter the race, albeit two laps down, making the event a glorified test session.

Ricciardo showed good pace, but was eventually forced to retire when an engine issue emerged on his car just after half distance, marking a sour end to his home race weekend.

“I’m just over it at the moment. It’s one of those days, tomorrow I’ll be fine,” Ricciardo told NBCSN after the session.

“It snowballed from yesterday. The out lap had problems, then I thought the race was done. We got out a few laps down. Good to get out and learn more. Then I had another issue, fuel pressure or something. Let’s go to China and have a better one there.”

Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen ended up fifth, with Ricciardo taking some heart from the result despite his own setbacks.

“I learned quite a bit with the car,” Ricciardo said. “I was behind a few slower cars. There’s other strengths and weaknesses. Max’s pace looked good at the moment.

“I’ll be alright when I wake up tomorrow. It’s been a long week.

“I feel like crap, it’s not how we’d like the opener to go at home.”

Alonso: Poor Australia display ‘a problem for McLaren, not me’

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Fernando Alonso believes his performance in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia was one of the best of his career, despite only being in contention for 10th place when he was forced to retire.

Alonso and McLaren arrived in Melbourne off the back of a torrid pre-season that had seen the Honda power unit present a number of problems, limiting the team’s running.

McLaren’s expectations for the Australian Grand Prix were low, making Alonso’s charge to 13th in qualifying an impressive one.

The Spaniard made a good start to move into the top 10 early on, and was in the running for points until a suspension issued forced him to retire with six laps remaining.

“The race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN after the race.

“The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. Good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to stay in the points. Suspension stopped us from getting this point.”

Alonso then delivered another scathing comment to McLaren, saying that his uncompetitive display was not his problem as he was driving at the peak of his powers.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating,” Alonso said.

“But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team, not me.”

Ferrari outplays Mercedes as Vettel takes Australian GP victory

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Sebastian Vettel kick-started Ferrari’s 2017 Formula 1 season in style as a strategic stunner allowed him to jump Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and storm to victory in the Australian Grand Prix.

Vettel and Ferrari arrived in Melbourne as favorites for victory following a hugely impressive pre-season, only for Hamilton to dominate practice and take pole, suggesting Mercedes’ recent pace advantage still remained.

Hamilton led the early part of the race, but was unable to shake off Vettel, with the German staying close enough to give Ferrari the chance to get ahead through a brilliant strategy call.

The decision to chase the ‘overcut’, combined with Hamilton hitting traffic, saw Vettel snatch the lead through the tire changes and then dominate proceedings accordingly.

It was a display reminiscent of Vettel’s Red Bull heyday, and marked his first win in Australia since 2011. It was Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since Kimi Raikkonen’s success in 2007. In both instances, the winner in Australia went on to win the world championship.

Hamilton managed to make a clean getaway from pole and retain the lead at the first corner, with Vettel staying in close company through the early part of the race, immediately creating a strategy headache for the defending champion team. Hamilton managed to eke out a lead over Vettel, raising the gap to two seconds in the opening stint, but it was still nowhere near enough to give Mercedes any kind of comfort.

Vettel ramped up the pressure as the first round of pit stops neared, cutting the gap to Hamilton to less than one second. Hamilton reacted by diving into the pits, preventing Vettel from getting close, with his switch to the soft tire ensuring he didn’t need to make another stop. Ferrari didn’t bring Vettel in immediately, instead keeping the German out. With Valtteri Bottas 11 seconds behind in P2, Ferrari had the chance to roll the dice and keep Vettel out.

The race moved in the Scuderia’s favor when Hamilton came onto the back of Max Verstappen, who was running fourth, and found himself struggling to pass. Mercedes told Hamilton over the radio that it was “race critical” and he had to pass, yet with his tires already struggling, the three-time champion was haemorrhaging time to Vettel.

Ferrari brought Vettel in at the end of Lap 23, releasing him into clean air after coming across a number of backmarkers. A swift turnaround from the Italian marque’s pit crew allowed Vettel to emerge from the pits ahead of both Verstappen and Hamilton, handing him the net lead. Hamilton vented his frustration over the radio as he kept struggling behind Verstappen, with Vettel immediately breaking free. By the time Verstappen finally stopped at the end of Lap 25, Vettel was already six seconds clear of Hamilton.

Mercedes told Hamilton that it was considering a switch to ‘plan B’ on strategy, with the Briton still struggling to match Vettel’s pace at the front. To make matters worse, Bottas was beginning to close up behind, moving to within three seconds of his esteemed teammate in the race for second.

As Vettel extended his lead at the front, former teammate Daniel Ricciardo saw his weekend come to an unceremonious end as he retired a little over half distance. Having barely made the start following an electrical issue pre-race, the Australian’s home event became a glorified test session, but an engine problem meant it came to a premature end.

Hamilton looked to steady the ship in his No. 44 Mercedes, cutting the gap to Vettel to less than nine seconds, but it proved fruitless. Vettel was able to remain cool and keep up an impressive pace to the very end, crossing the line with an 9.9 second buffer to record victory in Australia for the second time.

Hamilton managed to keep ahead of Bottas in second, leaving the Finn to take a solid podium finish on his Mercedes debut. Kimi Raikkonen ended up fourth in the second Ferrari, finishing over 20 seconds adrift of his teammate, while Max Verstappen’s decision to change strategy mid-race failed to give him anything more than fifth.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ferrari’s pit wall perfected Vettel’s strategy, something it has failed to do in recent years. Bottas had a very strong Mercedes debut, finishing third. Felipe Massa came home sixth on his comeback race. Sergio Perez did well to take seventh for Force India, with teammate Esteban Ocon taking his first F1 point in P10. Toro Rosso pair Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat both ended in the points, P8 and P9 respectively. Antonio Giovinazzi impressed on debut to finish 12th for Sauber.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Mercedes looked unable to answer Ferrari’s pace, with Hamilton seeming uncomfortable in the Mercedes W08. Raikkonen and Verstappen both had quiet races, ending up P4 and P5. Renault missed out on points with Nico Hulkenberg finishing 11th, while Jolyon Palmer retired early after a miserable weekend. McLaren’s pre-season struggles continued as engine issues forced Fernando Alonso to retire and left Stoffel Vandoorne P13, two laps down. Romain Grosjean retired on Lap 15 with an engine issue, with smoke pouring out of the back of his car; the Frenchman had been running P7, marking a big opportunity missed for Haas. Ricciardo had a horrible home race with his engine failure.

NOTABLE: Vettel’s win over Hamilton could act as a nice foreshadowing for the title battle to come. We’re yet to see Vettel and Hamilton go head to head in a straight title battle, but this could be the year. Vettel now has four wins for Ferrari, but this could be the most significant: the last time both he (2011) and Ferrari (2007) won in Australia, they went on to win the title.

QUOTABLE: ” I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.” – Fernando Alonso to NBCSN after his retirement.

RESULTS

WATCH LIVE: Australian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 12am ET

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The new Formula 1 season kicks off this Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET) as a new era for the sport gets underway.

New rules, new drivers and even a new owner of the series all adds up to make 2017 a season of change, with the established status quo in recent years set to be challenged.

Mercedes faced a stringent test from Ferrari in qualifying on Saturday, but it was Lewis Hamilton who once again took pole position after fending off Sebastian Vettel in the final Q3 shootout.

It may have been a familiar result, being Mercedes’ 16th-straight pole, yet the stage is set for a closer fight on Sunday, with a number of storylines due to play out up and down the grid.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at Albert Park providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.