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Kanaan, Castroneves kick off 20-year mark in IndyCar, again in Florida

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There were a lot of new things about the 1998 season of the old CART FedEx Championship Series. FedEx was replacing PPG as the series’ title sponsor. Team Penske, off a lackluster second half of the 1997 season, debuted a radical PC-27 chassis that was unlike any car on the grid. The series visited two new venues: Twin Ring Motegi in Japan (an IndyCar mainstay until 2011), a street circuit in Houston, Texas (multiple configurations were used and it rotated in and out of the schedule until IndyCar’s last visit in 2014).

Brazil, at the Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway at the Autódromo Internacional Nelson Piquet, was still on the schedule for the vast number of Brazilians in the field. And, somewhat obscurely at the time, a pair of young Brazilians graduated from Indy Lights to make their IndyCar debuts at the revised Homestead-Miami Speedway. Their names were Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves.

Twenty seasons later, to kick off the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Castroneves went from 16th to sixth while Kanaan fell from sixth to 12th in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

In 1998, each driver began his IndyCar career with a literal bang as both drivers crashed out of their debuts. Kanaan rebounded to finish ninth in the championship that year, the best of the rookies, and claimed his first career win the following year at the Michigan 500.

Castroneves, meanwhile, struggled to find his footing, despite showing impressive speed on multiple occasions. He only scored two podiums and didn’t finish higher than 15th in the championship during his first two years of big-league open wheel racing.

18 Oct 1998: Helio Castroneves from Team Bettenhausen Motorsports driving the Reynard Mercedes 98I during the CART – Honda Indy Australia in Surfers Paradise, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge /Allsport

His career was so early in its infancy he still had a hyphen between Castro and Neves, which led to inadvertently being misidentified as “Helio Neves” during the early part of his ’98 season; that forced him to clarify his name.

However, both of their careers would take off after the new millennium began. Castroneves immediately became a front-runner after signing with Team Penske for the 2000 season. Kanaan experienced inconsistent success with the fledgling Mo Nunn Racing team between 2000 and 2002, but signing with Andretti Green Racing in 2003 gave him the chance to shine.

From 2003 onward, both drivers became two of the greatest and most popular IndyCar drivers in the sport’s modern history. To date, Castroneves has racked up 23 wins, 38 poles, including four for the Indianapolis 500, and three “500” race victories. Kanaan has amassed 17 wins, 15 poles, and an Indianapolis 500 triumph of his own. He has also claimed an overall victory at the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

Both are now in their 40s (Kanaan turned 42 in December, while Castroneves will turn 42 in May). But, neither is showing signs of slowing down. “In my mind, I’m still very young. I take care of myself a lot. I think I’m still in the game,” Kanaan asserted during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend.

Castroneves, similarly, maintains that he and Team Penske are still very much on the same page. “I felt at home,” he told NBC Sports regarding the relationship with the team. “It’s great we have the same ideas and goals of what to do. I still have the same goals to be honest.”

27 Sep 1997: Tony Kanaan of Brazil drives his car during the Marlboro 500 in Fontana, California. Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge /Allsport

The two have clashed on the race track on several occasions, their rivalry getting so intense that they didn’t speak to each other at various times. However, Kanaan detailed that their best battle came during the 1997 Indy Lights season.

“That was ‘make it or break it’ for us,” he said of their championship fight, which Kanaan won by a scant four points. “We actually got told that year that whoever won the championship was going to get a chance in IndyCar. At the time, in our heads, it was only going to be one of us. And we were going head-to-head.”

Each has also experienced their own evolutions in the sport. For Castroneves, his experience with Team Penske has seen him work with seven different full-time teammates (more if you include injury fill-ins such as Alex Barron and Max Papis). As he told NBC Sports, Castroneves enjoys working with different drivers and thrives on the data they gather together.

“Moving from Gil de Ferran’s style, Sam Hornish, Ryan (Briscoe) to Will (Power), Simon (Pagenaud)… imagine the amount of data and experience I have collected with all these guys! I’m able to adapt really well to these circumstances,” he said of his relationships with his variety of teammates.

For Kanaan, the biggest evolution he notices comes in the preparation young drivers get on their way up the open wheel ladder. “The young generation, with the evolution they’re getting, they’re wired a little bit different than the older guys. Now with the rookie tests, teams have a chance to test a driver if they want to, which didn’t happen even in my days. Back in the day, I never tested an IndyCar until after I won an Indy Lights championship!”

With Castroneves finishing third and Kanaan seventh in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, neither appears to be slowing down.

More races, more friction in the future for F1

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The new owners of Formula One are planning to have more races and a greater presence in North America, and wouldn’t mind revving up the ratings with some extra friction among drivers.

Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations for the Formula One Group – formerly Liberty Media – which took over the running of the sport in January, is already fielding offers from promotors wanting to buy in.

Lewis Hamilton has suggested Miami and Daniel Ricciardo picked Las Vegas as places they’d like to see new races, and Bratches told a news conference Friday that “there’s no dearth of interest in bringing Formula One to circuits, both track and street, around the world.”

Bratches said he’d had a “number of inquiries from cities, states, municipalities and countries around the world that are interested.”

There are 20 races on the 2017 calendar, starting with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, and concluding with Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. The debate over the number and location of races has been frequent over the last decade.

F1 racing returned in 2012 to the United States, where it is held at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in October. While the bulk of the races remain in Europe and Asia, there are also GPs in Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

“Our interest is in expanding the number of circuits in that marketplace, leveraging Austin – our incumbent and the benchmark in terms of what we’re doing in the States,” said Bratches, adding there was clear demand for it in North America. “We’re excited about all markets around the world, but the United States is going to be a focus.”

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and Ricciardo, an Australian who finished third on the season standings last year, are among the drivers who’d like to see more than 20 races in the F1 series. Veteran Fernando Alonso also doesn’t mind the idea of expansion, although maybe not for a few years.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who has won four world drivers’ titles, thinks 16 to 20 would be enough. All agreed that expansion was pointless unless it increases the level of competition. Hamilton and Mercedes dominated the last three seasons, and Red Bull was dominant for the four seasons before that.

There’s always been driver tension in F1, usually between teams but also involving teammates vying for championships. Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who edged Hamilton for the title last year and then retired, had an openly strained rivalry at Mercedes since 2013.

That’s something former ESPN executive Bratches doesn’t mind.

Responding to a question about the drivers being overly-managed by public relations people, Bratches said: “There’s a number of sports where there’s big personalities that allow sports to punch above their respective pay grades.”

He said the drivers were a big part of the fan engagement.

“Candidly, I would love it if more of the drivers had big personalities, there was more controversy among the drivers – and you kind of unleash them a little bit,” he said. “I think that’s good for all of us.”

Jolyon Palmer on the back foot in Australia after F1 practice crash

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Renault’s Jolyon Palmer has admitted that he is “on the back foot” heading into the remainder of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix after completing just 10 laps in Friday’s Formula 1 practice sessions.

F1 sophomore Palmer arrived in Australia looking to impress after enjoying a bold drive on debut at Albert Park 12 months ago, narrowly missing out on a points finish.

The Briton was the first driver to fall victim of F1’s more challenging cars in an official 2017 race weekend session, losing control through the final corner and slamming into the wall to bring his FP2 running to an early end.

This followed a problem earlier in the day that had limited his FP1 mileage, leaving Palmer with just 10 laps to his name from three hours of Friday running.

“Sadly it was a pretty short day for me in terms of time in the car. We had a minor technical issue in the first session then I had an off in FP2, which unlike FP1 required more than one part replacing,” Palmer explained.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened and we’ll be having a close look at the data. I feel for my crew as they have a decent amount of work to do.

“I’m hopeful of more track time tomorrow, but we’ll be on the back foot heading into qualifying after only 10 laps today.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Indy 500 champ Rossi takes his shot with the Blackhawks (PHOTOS)

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There are many cool things you get to do after winning the Indianapolis 500. Visiting the grounds of one of the NHL’s most successful, Stanley Cup-winning teams is one of them.

Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi visited Chicago this week to meet up with the Chicago Blackhawks, trading in his usual No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for a No. 98 jersey.

Usually it’s the ‘Hawks that are one of the top teams in the NHL and a usual Stanley Cup trophy winner – they’ve won in 2013 and 2015, recently – but it’s the Cubs that right now host a championship trophy having won the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

Anyway, here’s a few photos and videos from Rossi’s trip to Chitown, which also included his own chance to shoot a puck.

Rossi took a photo with iconic Blackhawks singer Jim Cornelison:

Here’s Rossi with Marian Hossa:

Here’s a quick photo before practicing, then video of Rossi practicing:

Rossi paid a visit to WGN Radio:

And all told, Rossi was a fan:

FIA WEC reveals restructured TV commentary team

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One of Audi’s flagship drivers, Allan McNish and veteran TV hosts Martin Haven and Toby Moody join Louise Beckett and Graham Goodwin as part of the restructured television commentary team for the FIA World Endurance Championship, ahead of its 2017 season.

McNish retired from active driving at the end of the 2013 season and the two-time Le Mans winner and 2013 WEC LMP1 champion with Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval has remained an ambassador for Audi in the years since. He’ll be at six of the eight WEC rounds this season (Le Mans considered separately, although under the WEC umbrella).

Moody has been a familiar voice for his bike coverage and in the U.S., for Red Bull Global Rallycross broadcasts on NBC Sports. He’ll be on for the 6 Hours of Silverstone, the 6 Hours of Nürburgring and the 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Haven is well known to sports car fans and will be on for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, 6 Hours of Mexico, 6 Hours of COTA, 6 Hours of Fuji and 6 Hours of Shanghai.

Beckett continues in the pits and paddock with DailySportscar editor Goodwin also back as part of the team; he’s been the lead analyst alongside John Hindhaugh the last couple years.

Hindhaugh won’t be on the TV side, instead having announced earlier this week on his own he’d be focusing on Radio Show Limited’s audio productions for WEC shows. Le Mans is treated as a separate entity from a broadcast and production side compared to the rest of the WEC season.

Renowned for his radio calls, Hindhaugh will be in his true area of passion throughout this season, as he also is Stateside for IMSA Radio’s coverage of IMSA championships. RSL has also recently announced it will broadcast VLN coverage this season (more here via DailySportscar).

“Thankfully the busy endurance racing schedule has only a couple of clashes so that means that for most of the WEC events I will be joining the established team providing live commentary for RSL radio,” Hindhaugh said in a release.

“For the WEC events I’m covering for the RSL radio service, we’ll be adding live audio coverage of qualifying to the regular full race broadcast.”

In the WEC release, series CEO Gerard Neveu thanked Hindhaugh for what he’s brought to the TV side the last couple years while also looking forward to the new arrivals to this year’s broadcast team.

“We believe that one of the reasons for the WEC’s current success in today’s motorsport world is that we try not to rest on our laurels; we are always looking to innovate and re-energize the championship in every area.

“John Hindhaugh, who has been our lead commentator until now, has decided to return to his first love of radio commentary, and we want to thank him for the great job he has done, and for his contribution to the championship. We are sure we will have an opportunity to work together again in the future but, for this year, we are very enthusiastic about our new broadcast team and the season ahead.”

The WEC season kicks off with the Prologue test next week in Monza before the season itself starts April 16 at Silverstone.