Hinchcliffe and Rzadzinski. Photos: Nissan

Stefan Rzadzinski dazzles as ROC Factor winner at Race of Champions

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Vettel. Kristensen. Solberg. Coulthard. Massa. Busch, twice. Speed. Rossi. Hunter-Reay. Montoya. Kanaan. Castroneves. Hinchcliffe. Rzadzinski.

Rzadzinski? Yes, Rzadzinski.

Last month’s Race of Champions, held in Miami for the first time, brought together an all-star list of drivers and champions from around the world, through various disciplines of motorsport. But the event also held the ROC Factor North America fan vote, allowing talented but under-the-radar drivers through to the race if they won the vote and gathered enough support with which to do so.

rzad1Stefan Rzadzinski was a name known to only the most diehard of Mazda Road to Indy observers prior to winning this competition, beating Conor Daly among others en route to capturing the opportunity to be James Hinchcliffe’s teammate at the race. The 24-year-old Edmontonian’s open-wheel career began in reverse – he’s the only driver in MRTI history to have done all three series “backwards,” starting in Indy Lights before moving to Pro Mazda, then to USF2000, owing to what was the right opportunity he could pursue with the necessary budget.

Last year, he took on the Nissan Micra Cup competition in his home country. He won several races and contended for the championship, and pioneered “reverse donuts.”

All the while, Rzadzinski never lost faith he’d have his shot on another worldwide stage, even as his day job comes with working at a software company called Frontech Solutions, Inc. in Edmonton, in their marketing and sales division.

“I always wanted to get to IndyCar but after Edmonton lost the Indy (after 2012), that made it tougher. But I’ve never given up faith that I could do it in motorsports,” Rzadzinski told NBC Sports.

“I’ve just not been satisfied leaving it. I want to open doors, make things happen still. I’m really happy life has taken me along the way it has… I got my university degree, I work another job as well, and that adds to my story. You think you may not make it, and I still don’t have a ton of money. But this experience was about trying to show that I really still care about this. I think people have been excited by the story – I want to take people for the ride!”

Indeed what followed from the time Rzadzinski was revealed as one of 10 finalists to win ROC Factor North America was a promotional blitz where he’d let everyone he knew, or close to it, of how close he was to winning the competition. Several Canadian media outlets picked up on it and once Rzadzinski got past the usual Canadian dose of humility, not wanting to feel guilty about promoting himself, it became easier.

“Part of what got me there was being uncomfortable, but I got more comfortable as time went on,” Rzadzinski said. “It resonated with people… even though I felt a bit bad about spamming feeds! I could write a book about those three-four days.

“But the big key for me in winning was to show I wasn’t just the Facebook winner. Once I got to Saturday night, the game face went on because you have to refocus and deliver.”

Rzadzinski wasn’t in the individual Race of Champions competition on Saturday, but took part in the Nations’ Cup on Sunday as Hinchcliffe’s teammate.

And that’s when the fun started.

Despite a loss to Kyle Busch first, Rzadzinski rebounded from there. Rzadzinski drew Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi with the two racing in NASCARs, and Rzadzinski won that heat. A last-minute shift to one of the RoC Buggies for his third race – this wasn’t the car he’d planned to race – saw Rzadzinski jump into that and beat Red Bull Global Rallycross champion Scott Speed, so he’d gone 2-3.

“The RoC Buggy was my favorite, by far, and I raced it against Scott Speed!” Rzadzinski said. “I’d only driven it once before. With each car, you only have two to three minutes in it once before. I drove the buggy once, and this thing is awesome… but I didn’t drive it until the race against Speed, because I’d been told I’d be racing the Ariel Atom.”

It speaks volumes of the competitor Rzadzinski is he was disappointed with only going 2-3 in his runs, with a gear level issues sidelining Hinchcliffe in his run to knock ROC Factor Canada out of the event. Rzadzinski reflected on the experience in the moment.

The thing that stood out though about Rzadzinski as much as his on-track performance, which was impressive beyond belief, was his pure, unfiltered joy at being part of the event.

It’s easy to get cynical, sidetracked or frustrated in racing and for Rzadzinski, losing sight of how cool this moment was was not an option.

“I want to be an ambassador. I’m proud of this sport, and I grew up in love with it,” he said. “I want to represent it well and this sport is awesome… with all the personalities. It’s a special world. It’s just not normal. The excitement is still there, whether it’s F1, IndyCar, NASCAR, WEC, or Le Mans.

“It’s really cool stuff and I don’t think we tell the story well enough. This is really cool with what we’re doing. I won the vote because people saw it mattered to me. You can’t be nonchalant about it, it’s important to have passion and emotions about what we do. Meeting those guys at the weekend, they’re the best at what they do, but they are regular guys.”

Rzadzinski admitted to having one “fanboy” moment when he and a couple friends were delayed getting to the track on Saturday and needed a lift, and got one in the form of four-time Formula 1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel.

“It was one of many surreal moments – but the inner fanboy in me was like, it’s Sebastian Vettel!” Rzadzinski exclaimed. “We missed our shuttle from the hotel to the track, and one of the RoC organizers says he could take us. So he comes by, no problem, and we jumped in the car with him and (Pascal) Wehrlein. My friend Dennis and I rode to the track with Sebastian. We’re back there and that was the one guy where it’s like, just play cool, be normal!

“But they all are normal. He was fantastic. There’s a whole new level of respect for a guy like him. He took this event seriously… he wanted to win. Seeing how he operated, but also chatting about non-racing stuff. You can’t take it away.”

Rzadzinski was quick to praise not just Vettel but all his peers at the event, including his teammate Hinchcliffe who’d been there for him in 2011 as an 18-year-old Indy Lights debutante in Edmonton.

“It started at the Edmonton Lights race… I said, ‘Hey I’m doing this race, and I know you won here the year before, if you’re around the track lemme know.’ We connected, did the track walk, and went for dinner. He’s a really genuine dude. Even on Dancing With The Stars, everyone sent him a note… I’m sure you get swamped. But I was super pumped for him. He took the time to respond. I can’t say enough good things about him. Behind the scenes, there’s much more to him.

“(Tom) Kristensen said ‘I think, you were quiet, respectful, asking questions… but deep down you knew you could do it and deliver.’ Getting that little bit of respect from guys like TK that I’ve looked up to, that’s a cool moment.

“I just want to hang out with them and learn… there’s so much more to learn! But so much more to the craft than just this. Pick their brains and be around them. Take a piece of that, and have a successful career in this sport.”

Rzadzinski, who is set for another season in Nissan Micra Cup this year with Groupe Touchette support but who arrived on the world stage via this event, said this whole experience wouldn’t have been possible without the people around him. More of his story is chronicled via his social channels (@RzadRacing on Twitter and Instagram).

“When you have time to give back, people appreciate it – they appreciate it coming from you. That’s how they get invested. We want more fans in the sport. For me, I don’t see it as a distraction at all. They’re the people who got me there.”

Castroneves is second in Indy 500, but jumps to No. 1 in IndyCar standings

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Second-place may be the first loser, but for Helio Castroneves, finishing second in Sunday’s 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 left him with a very nice consolation prize:

He’s now No. 1 in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Castroneves took over the top spot in the IndyCar rankings from Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, who dropped to a three-way tie for second place with Sunday’s 500 race winner Takuma Sato and 500 pole-sitter Scott Dixon, who was involved in a terrible crash about one-fourth of the way through the race.

Castroneves has 249 points, while Pagenaud, Sato and Dixon are all 15 points back with 234 points each.

Last year’s Indy 500 winner, Alexander Rossi, is fifth in the standings with 190 points.

Tony Kanaan, who finished fifth in Sunday’s race, is sixth in the IndyCar standings with 188 points. Rounding out the top-10 are teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden, who are both tied with 186 points.

IndyCar rookie Ed Jones, who finished a very strong third in the 500, is ninth in the rankings with 185 points, and James Hinchcliffe is 10th with 170 points.

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With third-place showing, Ed Jones is highest-finishing Indy 500 rookie

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Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Ed Jones had been overshadowed much of the Month of May by Fernando Alonso, a fellow rookie at the 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. With Alonso garnering much of the media attention, Jones was somewhat of a forgotten man.

However, he had been impressive in the opening rounds of the 2017 season, scoring consecutive top tens to begin the year, and he was quick during practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before eventually qualifying 11th.

He was then vaulted into the role of team leader on the driving front after Sebastien Bourdais’ accident and subsequent injury, but Jones remained overshadowed in the rookie battle by the aforementioned Alonso.

And, while Alonso led laps and ran amongst the leaders for most of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, it was Jones who emerged as the best-finishing rookie at race’s end, with strategy and timely cautions putting him in position to do so even before Alonso fell out with an engine failure.

However, the race took a turn for the chaotic for the Dale Coyne Racing driver on lap 52 following Scott Dixon’s horrifying crash, one which saw Jones hit debris and suffer damage. “It damaged the floor and also the rear wing. We had to change the rear wing. That sent me to the back of the field. We had to claw our way back up again,” he said of the incident.

He also revealed that the car had wing damage in the final stint, which created several issues for the 22-year-old driver. “I actually damaged my front wing, had a big hole in it. My legs got pretty cold, to be honest. I had wind blowing into them like crazy. (It) also created a lot of drag,” he explained.

Dating back to his days in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Jones now has five podium finishes on ovals. But, victory continues to allude him, a fact that disappointed him in spite of an otherwise strong performance. “I’ve had five podiums or five top 3’s on ovals now and I haven’t won one. It’s really frustrating not to get one. I’m working my hardest to get it the next time,” he asserted.

However, Jones earned the praise of his peers, most notably from Helio Castroneves, who was sure to compliment him during the post-race press conference. “I have to say he did a very good job. When we ran side-by-side, he was very smart,” Castroneves said of Jones’ performance.

Jones’ third place is his best career IndyCar finish to date and his first career podium in the series. His prior best was a sixth-place finish in April’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

 

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Team Penske has bittersweet overall finish in Indianapolis 500

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Even though it had five drivers – just under one-seventh of the 33 cars in the field – Team Penske had a bittersweet overall showing in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

Celebrating its 51st season in motorsports, Team Penske was searching to extend its record 16 wins in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, but came up real short — as well as not so short.

The good aspect was Helio Castroneves finishing a close second to race winner Takuma Sato. Castroneves came so close to winning a fourth time at Indianapolis, which would have tied one of the most elite records in motorsports history shared by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Instead, Castroneves finished second for the third time in his career at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s tough to accept,” Castroneves said. “I did my best. I really pushed it. The guys did a phenomenal job. We drove our heart, no question.

“The good news, sounds like we’re leading the points (he leads teammate Simon Pagenaud — who is also tied with 500 winner Takuma Sato and 500 polesitter Scott Dixon — by a 245 to 234 point margin. Hey, there is always a positive note. I think that it is very positive.

“Yes, finishing second again sucks. So close to get the fourth. I really am trying. I will not give up this dream. I know it’s going to happen.”

Castroneves almost ran head-on into disaster on Lap 53, when Jay Howard and Scott Dixon crashed. Somehow, Castroneves was able to sail under Dixon, whose car went airborne after contact with Howard’s car, and continued on.

“What can I say? My race was pretty adventurous,” Castroneves said with a smile. “We have a lot of things. We started from the back. I knew I had a good balance. Then we went to the front about lap 50, then were in the top 10.

“Unfortunately with the accident with Dixon and (Howard), we broke a winglet and broke the front wing because it went off the track. I don’t know how to be honest. It was a good save, I have to say that. This place brings the best out of me. It was pretty good.”

Sato passed Castroneves for the lead heading into Lap 196. Castroneves rallied to pull even with Sato with three laps to go, but couldn’t complete the pass.

“I tried everything I could with three laps to go, two laps to go,” Castroneves said. “I went outside. Unfortunately my tires were overshot a little bit. I would have ended up in the wall. I thought it was good timing because I would try to make a move again. Man, he just took off and that’s it. That was my last chance.

“Really disappointed for the fans, for obviously my team. They gave me a great car. I did everything I could, trust me, everything I could. Unfortunately, second place is the best for us today.”

Castroneves said he’ll once again go for No. 4 in 2018: “Sorry, next year, then.”

Also having a good day was former 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished sixth in a one-off Verizon IndyCar Series start.

“Our Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevy was good,” Montoya said. “We had a problem there in the beginning when we ran out of gas in Turn 3. We should have had another half-gallon in the car. It put is in a tough position because we lost a lot of positions there. From there to come back to where we finished was great. We ran 12th or 13th most of the day and then the car was really good at the end of the race. The balance just wasn’t there. Then I told the guys on the last stop, let’s take swing and we did and the car came to life. I would have liked to have had some more laps at the end.”

Defending IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud finished 14th.

“It wasn’t the finish we wanted today for the Menards Chevrolet team,” Pageaud said. “But for the big picture it was a decent day. We’re still in that top group in points as we head to Detroit. That’s a place that suits us pretty well. The (Indianapolis) 500 remains a goal and we’ll take another shot at it next year.”

Then came the bittersweet aspect. Two drivers that many felt would win Sunday – Will Power and the latest addition to Team Penske, Josef Newgarden – were involved in the same wreck late in the race that ended their days.

Newgarden finished 20th, while Power finished 23rd, both collected in a late race wreck.

“It was an OK day,” Newgarden said. “We just got caught up in that wreck there at the end. That hurt us. When we were up front we were good. We seemed to keep racing ourselves toward the front of the field. Then we would just get dropped back by a couple of issues. If we would have been up front the whole time, I think we could have finished in the top five. We performed really well today, things just didn’t go out way.”

Added Power, “I’m not sure what happened out there. All I know that I was sliding backward. It was an up and down day for the Verizon Chevy. We were able to stick our nose in there a few times and we were stuck back in the back other times. Then, we got caught up in that deal at the end that ended our day. We’ll move on to Detroit. The thing about this race is that we get to turn the page pretty quickly.”

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Takuma Sato captures 101st Indianapolis 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Similar to last year, an Andretti Autosport driver that wasn’t the most discussed or fastest has won the Indianapolis 500.

But like Alexander Rossi last year, Takuma Sato flew under-the-radar all month, then delivered the goods when it mattered most.

After his best month yet at Indianapolis, bravery and tenacity has won Sato the 2017 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, driving the No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda for Andretti Autosport.

And for Helio Castroneves, finishing second leaves him again, one spot short of his elusive fourth victory with Team Penske in the No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Chevrolet

Rookie Ed Jones was third ahead of Max Chilton, the former Carlin teammates in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires showing impressively well in their first and second ‘500s with Dale Coyne Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing, respectively. Tony Kanaan completed the top five for Ganassi.

Meanwhile Fernando Alonso had an engine issue that took him out from a star drive, and Scott Dixon survived a crazy accident early on despite going airborne.

This was a crazy race because it had 11 yellow flag periods and 15 different leaders, a record.

Sato started fourth and was one of four Andretti Autosport cars that seemed poised to contend for the race win, as he, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Fernando Alonso all led – with Hunter-Reay 28 laps, Alonso 27, Rossi 23 and Sato 17 – for a total of 95 laps.

One of the race’s primary contenders was out early, when on Lap 53, polesitter Dixon was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time at Turn 1. After fighting an ill-handling race car in his first stint, Dixon came upon Jay Howard’s slowing and crashing car in Turn 1. Dixon dove low, but unfortunately went right into Howard’s path. That launched the New Zealander airborne in a terrifying accident. While he was seen limping later in the day, Dixon had been checked, cleared and released after the biggest crash of his career.

A red flag followed for repairs to the catch-fencing, which had a hole torn in it as a result of the impact. Alonso was leading at the time of the red flag, which lasted 19 minutes.

The crash set in motion a crazy chain of events that seemed to follow the rest of the day, and saw the phrase “yellows breed yellows” influence the race.

Alonso was clearly proving his race craft in his first oval race, racing against Rossi, Sato, Hunter-Reay and others – initially Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand for Ed Carpenter Racing – and later the Team Penske contingent, which was trying to move forward from poor qualifying positions.

A crash that took out both Conor Daly and Jack Harvey in separate incidents also brought out the third yellow, second actual yellow following a yellow continuation after the restart. A separate debris yellow from Laps 81 to 83 meant there were four within a 30-lap window on Laps 53 to 83 after going the first 53 laps at caution-free pace of more than 219 mph.

Within this segment, Castroneves had been issued a drive-through penalty on Lap 75 for jumping a restart, which knocked him back outside the top 20. It would also set the stage for his comeback.

Indeed by the halfway mark, Castroneves had the overall lead from Hunter-Reay, Rossi, Alonso, Kanaan and Graham Rahal, withle two different strategy plays emerging – Chilton in seventh and Will Power in ninth were not running the same strategy as the leaders.

There seemed a chance at the halfway mark that these two could run the final 100 laps on just two stops and not the three expected by others. But a rash of yellows from Lap 122 onwards changed that play.

After the stops near the halfway point of the race, on Lap 115, Hunter-Reay led Rossi, Alonso, Castroneves, Power, Josef Newgarden, Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan, Chilton and Sato.

However for the second straight year it was Buddy Lazier who caused a yellow – this time a crash on Lap 128 – that would change the complexion of the race. Lazier was the only driver transported to a hospital on the day, complaining of chest pains.

Chilton went for another off-strategy play here along with Hildebrand, Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti, Charlie Kimball, Jones, James Davison (started last as Sebastien Bourdais’ replacement) and Pippa Mann. It took the one fewer stop strategy out of play.

One thing that hadn’t yet entered the equation was reliability, the pre-race storyline, as Honda’s engines were under the microscope.

And suddenly on Lap 137, the first blew. Hunter-Reay was the first one to go, after running second having just lost the lead to Alonso, and that took him out of the race.

On Lap 167, a second pivotal engine issue occurred – this time Kimball’s had some smoke, and it brought out the ninth caution of the race. Crucially, it put everyone on the same strategy to the end after a period when he, Chilton, Davison and Hildebrand all took turns leading, Davison having completed a 33rd-to-first run at that stage.

Chilton had pitted just before the yellow but didn’t lose a lap. As he had enough fuel to finish, he then leap-frogged back to the lead when others pitted under the caution, and he held off several advances from his competitors when racing resumed.

Alonso’s star debut came to an end on Lap 180, almost poetically, as a Honda-powered McLaren entry, with the traditionally star-crossed Andretti name at Indianapolis, slowed to a halt with smoke out of the back on the front straight. Gone too were his win chances, leaving him an unrepresentative 24th.

After this restart came another crash. This time, it saw Davison’s star run come to an end after contact with Servia, doing his typically under-the-radar drive through the field for Rahal – and second on the same strategy to Castroneves – while Power and Hinchcliffe were also caught up. Newgarden hit the wall but continued.

Sato, who’d been good but not quite delivered his standard “no attack, no chance” style, would restart second on Lap 189 before unleashing “vintage Takuma” from there.

A ballsy pass around the outside of Castroneves and Jones had moved Sato up to second and in position to attack Chilton on the final restart.

With a power advantage still to play in the Honda vs. Chevrolet battle, Castroneves’ car was no match for Sato’s, and the Japanese driver moved past Castroneves on the outside into Turn 1 on Lap 195.

The drama from there was whether Castroneves could counter. Castroneves had a run with two laps to go, but Sato defended against him on the inside.

From there his last best chance was gone, and Sato had his second career IndyCar win – albeit a slightly bigger one than his first and thus far only prior victory at Long Beach in 2013, then driving for A.J. Foyt Racing. He also started fourth in that race, as he did today.

Castroneves’ runner-up here after starting in 19th adds to past missed opportunities in 2014, losing to Hunter-Reay (who started 19th) and in 2003, losing to then-teammate Gil de Ferran. One wonders how many more opportunities he’ll have to get number four.

In finishing third, Jones actually didn’t lead a lap – he ran as high as second – and came up two spots short of emulating Rossi as a rookie winner from 11th on the grid in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda. The Indy Lights champion capped off a roller coaster month for Dale Coyne Racing with the team’s best ever Indy 500 finish, which beat Alex Lloyd’s fourth place in 2010. Jones is the first driver from the United Arab Emirates to race at Indy, although he’s a Dubai-based Brit who now lives in Miami.

Chilton led the most laps – 50 – which were the first he led all year and his first since leading just two at Iowa Speedway last year, his only prior laps led in IndyCar. The driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Honda has now delivered back-to-back career best results after also coming seventh at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, although one must think this will sting after a career drive.

Kanaan was a somewhat under-the-radar fifth, leading 22 laps early but never making it back to the point in the No. 10 NTT Data Honda after Lap 27.

In sixth and never really a factor was Juan Pablo Montoya, in the fifth Penske entry, ahead of Rossi, who fell back with a similar fuel hose issue that affected him last year too. Marco Andretti was an anonymous eighth, Gabby Chaves an excellent and career-best equaling ninth in his first start of 2017 and Harding Racing’s debut, after starting 25th, while Carlos Munoz avoided the trouble for Foyt and brought that car home in 10th after starting 24th.

A heavy day of attrition meant that only 18 of the 33 starters finished. The finishers through from 11 to 17 were Carpenter, Rahal, Mikhail Aleshin, Simon Pagenaud, Sebastian Saavedra, Hildebrand, Pippa Mann and Spencer Pigot. Carpenter lost a front wing late in the day. Hildebrand fell back late after a drive-through penalty for jumping the second-to-last restart. Both Juncos Racing entries finished their debuts (Saavedra in 15th and Pigot in 18th), and Mann finished her seventh straight 500-mile race start in IndyCar, dating to 2011 (she skipped the 2012 race, bu has raced in every Indy 500 since 2013).

Unofficial results are below.