Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull Content Pool

Red Bull GRC: Lites champ Cabot Bigham steps up with Herta

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Californian driver Cabot Bigham’s social media channels branded him a year ago with the moniker of “Follow the Ham,” which is both clever and accurate at the same time.

For one, it makes a fun play on words of his surname – Bigham immediately makes one break the word down into “Big Ham,” which then leads to thinking about bacon, which then leads to the logo that has developed for his driver identity.

And second, perhaps more importantly, it’s a perfect double meaning for what “Following” the Ham actually means. From a social media context, it means following him via his various posts. But on the race track, it means others were following him on track.

Bigham scored a surprise but well-judged GRC Lites championship in his debut season, defeating 2015 champion Oliver Eriksson, talented veterans Alex Keyes and Alejo Fernandez, and a host of notable rookies including Miki Weckstrom in the process.

Bigham, 20, will now step up into Supercars for 2017 with Bryan Herta Rallysport, as the replacement for Patrik Sandell in the team’s No. 2 MSport Ford Fiesta. Nick Franzosi is the team manager. Bigham carries support from Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Oral IV and Fuel Clothing, with team partners to be announced later.

With the Swede moving to Subaru’s program, the door opened for Bigham to graduate as the first Lites champion to do so since 2014 champ Mitchell DeJong, who only made his Supercars debut at last year’s season finale in Los Angeles in a wild card third entry for Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE.

The Mill Valley, Calif. resident who drove the Paratek Pharmaceuticals entry for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing last year won twice, scored five podiums and eight top-five finishes in 11 starts. But down to both Eriksson and Weckstrom going into the final race of the season in L.A., Bigham needed a minor miracle to pull off a championship victory.

He got it when after starting 10th and last in the final, an accordion effect accident that happened in front of him was akin to his personal “parting of the red sea” as he made into second behind DRR teammate Keyes merely several turns into the 10-lap race.

“It’s exactly that – everything fell into place!” Bigham told NBC Sports. “We couldn’t have predicted a more ideal scenario for where we were starting. I got inside of Alejo into Turn 2. That gave me the proper positioning to get inside the wreck, avoid it all, and slot in behind Alex.

“But at the checkered, I couldn’t really comprehend the emotions! So much is going through your head. Prior to the race start, I said, ‘There’s a pretty slim chance I could battle for second.’ It didn’t occur to me I could win it, but I never said I couldn’t win it. That was a huge learning experience to tech me to never give up, no matter the situation.”

Bigham then had the option of returning for a GRC Lites title defense or instead moving up to Supercars.

Once Sandell announced his departure after two solid seasons with Herta’s rally team, suddenly the two-time Indianapolis 500-winning car owner had a void to fill in the team that still has his name.

“We looked at all our options. I talked to a great number of drivers – GRC veterans and other racing championships – and also rookies to rallycross,” Herta told NBC Sports. “There wasn’t a particular mould but someone we could fit.

Photo: Tony DiZinno
Photo: Tony DiZinno

“But with Cabot, I saw he won the championship. I was able to watch. I tend to watch the Lites stuff when I can. But I hadn’t met him much in person. He’s young and doesn’t have a lot of racing experience yet. Traditionally it’s a two-to-three year process for most people. But he sort of mastered it in his first year.”

Bigham had become aware of Herta via a Skip Barber shootout and also through Herta’s own son, Colton’s, burgeoning racing career. Bigham called the meeting and now subsequent opportunity with Herta a “full circle” moment.

Putting together the deal took a couple months before today’s confirmation.

“Moving up as a rookie, you need to secure the time with team owners to talk, and secondly to find the finding,” Bigham explained. “Everything slots into place usually from December to February. That’s when the driver releases and contracts get signed. We try to get signed as quickly as possible, but without rushing.”

The single-car Ford team is the second confirmed Ford entry for the season, along with the two-car Loenbro Motorsports effort. For Bigham, he’ll have the team’s singular focus while for Herta, the opportunity to expand to a two-car team in Red Bull GRC would only come with the right manufacturer opportunity.

“This should ensure we have everything at our disposal for great results,” Bigham said. “It’ll be the same car as they’ve had the last two years (Ford), which is an appealing aspect. There’s always a couple years of R&D. I’m glad there’s a consistency there.”

Herta added, “Red Bull Global Rallycross gets a lot of looks from new manufacturers and it’s been a goal/business plan to position ourselves as a one-car team. Expanding to multiple cars is something we’d only do with a manufacturer partner involved with us.”

Bigham said the series’ trip to Canada in June for a doubleheader is the race weekend he’s looking forward to most, as it will mark the first time he’s raced outside the United States.

Matched up against some of the more experienced names in Red Bull GRC, this is quite an opportunity for Bigham and a shot to impress in the championship.

bigham2

Fernando Alonso ready to tackle ‘the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure’

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With smiles, humor, wit and determination, two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived in the Barber Motorsports Park press conference room and promptly delivered his second win of the season – the first coming when he, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown, Honda and Andretti Autosport combined to stun the racing world in announcing earlier this month that Alonso would be racing in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Alonso’s odyssey to come over the next month or so since that announcement has a game plan, a travel schedule and plenty of words to describe the experience. He and Brown arrived in Alabama late Saturday, and the two met the rest of the Andretti Autosport team.

On Sunday, Alonso made his maiden appearance on pit road during the warmup session for today’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s pit for his No. 28 DHL Honda.

The press conference this morning then brought the same spirit of determination Alonso has outlined as his quest for even wanting to run the Indianapolis 500 in the first place, as well as a few jokes along the way.

“It’s true! It’s my first time here, and hopefully not the last. I want to come to see more of Alabama and this circuit,” Alonso led off during the press conference.

“This has been an amazing week to 10 days from the announcement. For any racing driver in the world to compete in this race is the main goal, against the best drivers, in some of the fastest, best cars in the world.

“This is the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure. I need to go through different steps in this learning, I need to do it in a short amount of time. But it’s so exciting. I need to thank McLaren, Honda for this opportunity and all the Andretti Autosport team.”

Alonso promptly outlined the schedule he’s going to be undertaking from here. After watching today’s IndyCar race, he’ll go to Andretti Autosport’s Indianapolis shop for a seat fit in preparation for his maiden test on May 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From the shop, he’ll be off to Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix (TV times on NBCSN here), and then back to the U.S. after that.

“From now on, it’ll be an interesting next couple weeks. There’s a couple of trips to Europe and U.S.A. back and forth. Next weekend, we will race in Russia for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, then the test, then the Spanish Grand Prix, then come back for the Indianapolis 500. I will try to learn as quick as I can.”

Alonso said he’s been thinking about this opportunity for several years in advance.

“Let’s say four to five years ago, I started thinking about how to grow up as a driver and become more complete,” he said.

“I didn’t think it was possible. But it makes me very happy to have this first attempt.

“Winning is something really big. I take it more like an experience. I’m very open. If the race was tomorrow, I’m not ready to do it because I know nothing about it. But I will go step-by-step to do some simulator laps. I have to be as good as I can on simulator, qualifying and running alone, then traffic when it comes time.”

Brown confirmed the support team around Alonso is as solid as ever. Michael Andretti will call Alonso’s race as strategist with Andretti technical director Eric Bretzman serving as engineer. Today he added that Alonso will have Honda consultant, 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion, two-time CART champion and closed course world speed record holder Gil de Ferran there as a driver coach to aid Alonso’s development.

Alonso brought some jokes when asked about Formula 1 drivers’ respective takes on his running Indianapolis and skipping the Monaco Grand Prix, where Jenson Button will make a one-race cameo to come out of retirement to deputize.

“We don’t talk much. It’s a different world!” Alonso laughed. “The only thing I know is probably what you guys have read, which is what I’ve read too.

“Some of them are happy and curious to see how competitive we can be. Others aren’t happy with anything in life … except their own performance. It’s a different world.”

About his former sparring partner in F1, Juan Pablo Montoya: “I don’t know if he’ll be at the front!” Alonso said to more laughter.

Alonso said he’ll look forward to the simulator time ahead, and told NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy that the simulator he is used to in Formula 1 is incredible.

In terms of the best advice he’s received?

“Enjoy,” Alonso reflected.

“It’s something that this race is so unique, so I’m ready to experience these emotions. That race, that day, everything happens so quickly. You tend to forget what you are doing. I’m ready to enjoy everything I’m doing that day.”

Brown, Andretti and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, also joined Alonso on the dais. Stefan Wilson’s contribution to the effort was once again praised.

The most noteworthy piece of news to come out of this trio was that Miles confirmed he’d be going on a European promotional tour after the Phoenix race (April 29) to spread the word about IndyCar, the Indianapolis 500 and Alonso’s attempt.

“The attention we have seen already is incredible,” Miles said. “I will be In London, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, and we’re going be there while he’s in Indy to tell the IndyCar story.

“I’ve read clippings back from the first race in Indianapolis, and Fernando’s presence will make it even bigger this year.”

Perhaps Brown summed up the announcement best: “This is an outstanding opportunity for the world of motorsports to be able to come to Indianapolis. And I’ve never seen a driver so excited, dedicated and motivated to run in a race.”

More to follow…

Marco Andretti leads a wet Barber warmup

Photo: IndyCar
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Mother Nature rolled in overnight and through the early morning at Barber Motorsports Park, dropping a lot of rain on the 2.38-mile road course. Conditions stayed wet during the Verizon IndyCar Series morning warmup, although the rain clouds had moved away by then and the track began drying out.

Marco Andretti led the way after changing to slick tires on his final run, which indicates how quickly the track dried out during the 30-minute session. Marco was the only driver to run slick tires and his quick lap of 1:14.37 was nearly 3.5 seconds quicker than second-place runner Scott Dixon. Alexander Rossi, Spencer Pigot, and Ryan Hunter-Reay completed the top five, while James Hinchcliffe, Mikhail Aleshin, and Zach Veach did not turn laps during the warmup.

Despite the tricky conditions, the session ran relatively cleanly. Helio Castroneves brought out a brief red flag when he went into the gravel trap in turn five, but he suffered no damage and continued on after getting a tow. Ed Jones also had a quick off-course excursion of his own between turns 12, 13, and 14, but he rejoined the track and continued.

Times are below. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama rolls off at 3:00 p.m. ET (2:00 local time).

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Barber (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass is back for NBCSN’s second Verizon IndyCar Series race of the season, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) from Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

NBCSN Indy Lights reporter and Paddock Pass host Anders Krohn checks in with a few interesting folks in this weekend’s episode:

  • With James Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda who won at Long Beach.
  • With Ed Jones, driver of the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, who’s finished in the top-10 in both his first two starts in the series after winning last year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title.
  • And with Michael Andretti, whose team has made a massive splash with the announcement Fernando Alonso would run a McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport car in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

A quick visit to Barber’s iconic motorcycle museum is also on the docket.

You can see the episode above. A link to Long Beach’s episode is here.


MRTI Barber Notebook: Saturday

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Jamin Rolls to Indy Lights Win as Chaos Reigns on the Start

Nico Jamin added his name to the list of drivers who have won in all three of the Mazda Road to Indy championships by securing his first career Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires victory. The Frenchman dove inside polesitter Kyle Kaiser for the lead entering turn five on lap 4 and went unchallenged from there. Kaiser held on for second while Neil Alberico completed the podium. His Carlin teammates Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five.

“It was just incredible – when I got to Victory Lane and everyone wanted to talk to me, I didn’t know what to say! I was so emotional,” said an elated Jamin, who joins Sage Karam, Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, and Aaron Telitz as drivers who have won in all three of the MRTI series.

Jamin added that he needed to be on the attack immediately, since it can be difficult to pass at Barber Motorsports Park. “Here, you can start on pole and get away or you have to get it done early, so I was in attack mode right away. I went on push-to-pass, broke late and made the pass stick,” he said of his move on Kaiser.

The race was not without controversy. Kaiser jumped slightly early on the initial start, forcing officials to wave it off. When Kaiser subsequently slowed, outside pole sitter Colton Herta tried to dive inside of Kaiser to avoid him, but clipped the left-rear of Kaiser’s car. “I saw the start was waved off so I slowed up and I felt a little nudge from behind. I feel bad for Colton but these things happen,” Kaiser said of the incident.

Start of Indy Lights Race 1 at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The contact damaged Herta’s front wing and forced him to pit for repairs. He also received a penalty for not adhering to pace car speed and had to restart at the back of the pack. He eventually rebounded to finish tenth.

Further, the incident saw Pato O’Ward get hung up on the back of Santi Urrutia’s car while Aaron Telitz clipped the back of teammate Shelby Blackstock. O’Ward and Telitz suffered a damaged front wings, while Urrutia had a broken rear wing and damaged suspension. O’Ward and Telitz resumed after repairs, finishing eighth and 13th respectively, while Urrutia lost several laps in the pits before rejoining the fight. He eventually pulled off with more suspension problems.

Herta retains the points lead, but now leads Kaiser by 10 points and Aaron Telitz by 13. Race 2 rolls off at 12:45 p.m. ET (11:45 a.m. local time) on Sunday.

Results from Race 1 are below.

Askew Dominates USF2000 Race 2

While chaos hit Indy Lights, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda saw continued domination from Oliver Askew, who again led every lap on his way to victory in Race 2 to record a weekend sweep of poles and victories in USF2000.

Oliver Askew had the broom out this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

He led second-place Kaylen Frederick, who also finished second to Askew on Friday, by nearly three seconds, while Parker Thompson was able to beat Rinus Van Kalmthout for the final spot on the podium.

“It’s a dream come true. We had a fantastic car so we had the chance to do well this weekend and I just took it,” Askew said of the weekend.

He also added that his winning streak (he has won three races in a row dating back to St. Petersburg) does not undermine the rest of the USF2000 field, and he pretends he is always qualifying in order to force himself to drive at his maximum. “The main goal is the championship but a win pays the most so this is fantastic. I’m probably the most anxious for qualifying because, as close as the field is, that can be the race right there. Again today, I pretended it was a qualifying session and just put in the laps,” he detailed.

Askew’s win puts him 36 points clear of Frederick and Van Kalmthout, who are currently tied for second in the championship standings. Results from Race 2 can be found below.