Photo courtesy of IMSA

2017 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Rolling Updates

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SEBRING, Fla. – We’ll have updates as they come from the 65th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, below.

8:20 p.m. ET (9:40 into race): The race had a caution for the No. 27 Dream Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 stopping on course, and it presented an opportunity to watch a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral. No, seriously, it did.

Now that an actual rocket has been launched, it’s time to watch the theoretical rocketships on track compete in the last two hours and change of this race.

6:40 p.m. ET (Hour 8): Two-thirds of the race complete, and the next round Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup points for the race get awarded. The race is now under its fourth full-course caution for the No. 14 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 stopped on course at Turn 14, ending a stretch of more than two hours since the last caution.

Here’s the top three in each class at the two-thirds distance mark:

  • P: 1-No. 10 Cadillac, 2-No. 5 Cadillac, 3-No. 85 Oreca
  • PC: 1-No. 38 Performance Tech, 2-No. 8 Starworks, 3-No. 26 BAR1
  • GTLM: 1-No. 68 Ford, 2-No. 911 Porsche, 3-No. 67 Ford
  • GTD: 1-No. 33 Mercedes-AMG, 2-No. 63 Ferrari, 3-No. 11 Lamborghini

Potentially interesting times lie ahead as the track will start to cool once the sun starts to set. The next two hours are about getting into position for the finish and then the next two hours might be mental.

First and second place are on the lead laps in P and PC. There may be a battle for third between the No. 85 JDC-Miller Oreca and No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac once the two cars are on the same lap.

The overall lead battle nearly ended once Alex Lynn, in his first U.S. race, had quite a moment at seven hours, 42 minutes into the race trying to lap through GT class traffic going into Turn 7, the hairpin. Lynn got on the grass but corralled the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac in a straight line, and didn’t lose control.

Meanwhile the top six are on the lead lap in GTLM and the top five are on the lead lap in GTD.

With further yellows come the opportunity for further wave-bys and a chance to get back a lap.

4:40 p.m. ET (Hour 6): We are halfway home. And the race definitively settled into a rhythm before Nick Catsburg appeared to have a failure on his No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM that sent him into the Turn 1 wall with six hours and 23 minutes remaining, to end a near three-hour run (two hours, 57 minutes) of green-flag running before the third caution of the race.

At Hour 6, halfway, here’s the top-three in each class:

  • P: 1-No. 5 Cadillac, 2-No. 10 Cadillac, 3-No. 85 Oreca
  • PC: 1-No. 38 Performance Tech, 2-No. 8 Starworks, 3-No. 26 BAR1
  • GTLM: 1-No. 67 Ford, 2-No. 68 Ford, 3-No. 62 Ferrari
  • GTD: 1-No. 11 Lamborghini, 2-No. 33 Mercedes-AMG, 3-No. 29 Audi

Some notes thus far on a race that hasn’t been a classic, but has still seen some interesting moments:

  • The race is again Cadillac’s to lose and is shaping up as another fight between the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing and No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.Rs. The rest of the Prototype field doesn’t have the outright pace or driver lineups to match at this stage and with attrition having taken a heavy toll (see the below notes), the pair of Cadillacs appear well-poised for a neck-and-neck fight.
  • Tough day for the Patron ESM team, which just had the No. 22 Nissan Onroak DPi retire with a mechanical after the No. 2 car had been delayed earlier in the race and is just out circulating. The team’s primary sponsor is an appropriate drink of choice to soothe what has ailed them on-track.
  • Additionally, with both Mazdas (water coolant and accident) and the Rebellion (starter cable) and Visit Florida (starter motor and throttle) cars having issues, Sebring has proven way more of a brutal test for the new DPis and LMP2s than did Daytona. The temperatures are higher here than they were at Daytona all race, although the change will come this evening when the cooler temperatures return when the sun sets.
  • A shout has to go to the No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson, which in the first six hours posed a good threat to the Cadillacs at the front of the field. Chris Miller, the less experienced third driver for the team, did an outstanding job to stay as close to Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac as he did. Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg have done well too.
  • So far, PC hasn’t PC’d – which is to say cause a bunch of incidents. I may regret writing that sentence later on if they do. Performance Tech and Starworks are still on the same lap, Starworks doing particularly well with a lineup that wasn’t even confirmed until Thursday and two drivers making their Sebring race debuts (Garett Grist, Max Hanratty).
  • GT Le Mans has been a Ford show thus far, the GTs well clear of the Porsches, Corvettes and Ferraris, while BMW’s rough start to 2017 rolls on.
  • GT Daytona? As always, if you stay close, you’ve got a chance. After a forgettable Daytona, the Lamborghini Huracán GT3s from Change Racing and GRT have put up a good fight while Audi (Land Motorsport), Mercedes-AMG (Riley Motorsports), Ferrari (Scuderia Corsa) and Lexus (3GT Racing) also seem in it. Don’t count out the Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 either if that car stays on the lead lap. Acura is fighting with a car that isn’t quite there on pace this week. Stevenson’s charge may have just been halted by a stop-and-hold plus four minutes, six second penalty for an improper wave by.

And some quotes thus far:

“I never expected Johannes van Overbeek in the Patron car to go to pit lane when I was on the inside,” said Eric Curran, driver of the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac, who had contact with the aforementioned JVO at Turn 17. “He got caught up in some GT traffic and I was on the inside, usually when you are going to pit lane you give some notice as opposed to just coming across, I was already on the inside when he turned into Pit Lane. I was already there and we hit. Then the car wouldn’t fire up. We got it behind the wall and the guys push started it and we are back in the race. Our team works so hard, I can’t believe my luck lately. Long way to go. We will see where we end up.”

“Obviously not the day we hoped for with the No. 2 car,” Patron ESM’s Scott Sharp said earlier in the race. “We started to have multiple issues, some of which were the same from qualifying. Ultimately, it was a mechanical failure that put us out.”

3:00 p.m. ET (4:20 into race): At the four-hour mark, the first round of Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup points for the race get awarded (Hour 4 Results).

Here’s the top three in each class at the one-third distance mark:

  • P: 1-No. 5 Cadillac, 2-No. 10 Cadillac, 3-No. 85 Oreca
  • PC: 1-No. 38 Performance Tech, 2-No. 8 Starworks, 3-No. 26 BAR1
  • GTLM: 1-No. 67 Ford, 2-No. 66 Ford, 3-No. 3 Corvette
  • GTD: 1-No. 33 Mercedes-AMG, 2-No. 63 Ferrari, 3-No. 50 Mercedes-AMG

Not a ton more to report at the moment as the race has sort of settled into a rhythm? It’s always nervous typing that because then things start to happen.

Case in point: the No. 50 Riley Motorsports-WeatherTech Racing Mercedes AMG-GT3, which was running third at the four-hour mark, had a left-front suspension break and is in the process of limping back to the pit lane. The No. 86 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 also had a spin at Turn 17. And the No. 20 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca FLM09 has right rear quarter panel damage.

Of note, temperatures are a bit warmer than they were at the start, per Michelin. At race start, temperatures were 59 degrees Fahrenheit ambient and 65 on track, while now they’re 77 and 115, respectively.

1:40 p.m. ET (Hour 3): We have completed three hours. Here’s your leaders:

  • P: No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R
  • PC: No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09
  • GTLM: No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT
  • GTD: No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3

Some quick notes:

Contact between Eric Curran in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac and Johannes van Overbeek in the No. 22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi resulted in a synchronized spin in Turn 17, Curran having then lost two laps upon restarting and bringing the car back to the pits. It brought out the second full-course caution of the race.

Two issues for two of the LMP2-spec cars. Rebellion had a power issue with its Oreca 07 chassis and the No. 90 VISIT FLORIDA Racing Riley Mk. 30 Gibson also went behind the wall after getting up to third.

Good news, bad news for Mazda Motorsports. The No. 70 car has returned to the track following repairs after Joel Miller’s accident… but the No. 55 car has gone behind the wall with coolant issues.

And we have another class where we won’t have a repeat winner, in GT Le Mans. The No. 4 Corvette C7.R was the race’s first official retirement with a water temperature issue, which takes Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Marcel Fassler out of the race. After winning both Daytona and Sebring last year in a dream start to 2016, 2017 has thus far offered up a nightmare.

1 p.m. ET (2:20 into race): We have completed two hours in the race. Leaders by class at the two-hour mark are as follows:

  • P: No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R
  • PC: No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09
  • GTLM: No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT
  • GTD: No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3

Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup points are awarded at Hours 4 and 8 in the 12-hour race.

Rebellion Racing has been delayed with the engine cover off on its most recent stop, after its Oreca 07 battled with the Cadillacs for the lead of the race. This has brought the No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson up to fourth as best of the rest behind the Cadillacs.

Joel Miller is OK as his Mazda Motorsports team makes repairs to his No. 70 Mazda RT24-P after its accident at Turn 17.

The No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi will not repeat its win of a year ago, when it had an Ligier JS P2 Honda, as it has now gone behind the wall once again.

11:40 a.m. ET (Hour 1): The first hour of the race is complete, with the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R of Dane Cameron out front at Lap 31 by 10.533 seconds over the sister No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac driven by Christian Fittipaldi. The polesitting No. 13 Rebellion Racing Oreca 07 Gibson fell back to fourth after the first round of pit stops.

Gustavo Yacaman (No. 26 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca FLM09) leads from James French in PC, French looking to deliver Performance Tech Motorsports a “36 Hours of Florida” sweep with co-drivers Pato O’Ward and Kyle Masson.

Dirk Mueller has led from the off in GTLM in the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT over the No. 3 Corvette C7.R and No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR. Despite missing the grid at the start, the No. 67 Ford has risen up to fourth.

American standout Connor De Phillippi leads in GTD in the No. 29 Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi R8 LMS from fellow ex-Pro Mazda driver Corey Lewis in the No. 16 Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3.

Two cars with issues – apparent power loss for the No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi with that car having gone behind the wall, and the No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM with a driveline issue. The BMW is back out but the Nissan is not.

Just after the first hour of the race the first full course caution flew, with a brake issue pitching Joel Miller straight into the tire barriers at Turn 17 in the No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Miller got out of the car under his own power but it was a heavy impact.

11 a.m. ET (20 minutes after green flag at 10:40 a.m. ET): The green flag is out for today’s race. Live TV coverage kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on FS1, with FOX Sports Go doing the whole thing from the start and IMSA Radio carrying radio coverage flag-to-flag.

Here’s the start:

A couple quick notes from the start:

The No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi and No. 4 Corvette C7.R were both moved to the back at the start of the race owing to Sporting Regulation violations, while the No. 54 CORE autosport Porsche 911 GT3 R changed tires and also moved to the back.

Two of the class polesitters, the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT (GT Le Mans) could not fire to get going and had to go into the pits on the first lap, but resumes with starting driver Ryan Briscoe at the back of the field. Teammate and co-driver Scott Dixon tweeted the update below:

The GT Daytona polesitter, the No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3, also missed the pre-grid owing to a fuel leak sustained in the morning warmup. That left Tristan Vautier to take the start at the back of the field.

Both those two cars plus the No. 27 Dream Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 went into the pits on the first lap.

Jonathan Bomarito had to pit the No. 55 Mazda RT24-P with a flat left rear tire on Lap 2, but resumed shortly thereafter at the back of the field.

Alberico living up to ‘Rising Star’ name in solid start to second year

Alberico and Hale. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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INDIANAPOLIS – There’s something about Neil Alberico in his second year in a Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires series that brings out the best for the 24-year-old out of Los Gatos, Calif. who now lives in San Clemente.

Alberico, the Rising Star Racing-supported driver, always seems to improve in year two and has done so throughout his now six years in the MRTI.

In the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, Alberico switched from JDC Motorsports as a rookie to Cape Motorsports as a sophomore from 2012 to 2013. He improved from seventh in points to second, and won six races that second year.

The same story applied on the next rung in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, although he stayed with Cape for both seasons. Third without a win in 2014 ceded to four wins and second place in 2015.

Arguably the best driver who has not yet won a championship in those series, Alberico has positioned himself nicely for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title this year as Carlin’s emerging lead driver following a solid first few weekends of the year, as he now seeks his first win in Indy Lights to keep the career trend going.

Entering Friday’s Freedom 100, the marquee race of the Indy Lights season (live, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Alberico has opened his 2017 account in the No. 22 Dallara IL-15 Mazda with two thirds, two fourths and a sixth place thus far in six races. He sits fourth in points with 103, 36 back of points leader and fellow Californian Kyle Kaiser. For reference, persistent and continual mechanical issues and engine changes stunted a miserable debut season in 2016, and Alberico only had two top-six finishes all season, and left him 11th in points.

Now though Alberico has ascended to the team leader role at the Trevor Carlin-owned, Colin Hale-managed squad. He drives alongside Zachary Claman De Melo, who switched from Juncos Racing, and rookies Matheus Leist and Garth Rickards. All but Rickards have at least one podium this season as the new-look lineup finds its footing.

“Playing the leadership role in a team, I’m used to it,” Alberico told NBC Sports. “I’m comfortable doing what I can do. And that’s your job as a teammate. You have to be fast yourself, but there’s driver and team championships that exist – and we want to win them both.”

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Alberico credits a healthy offseason program where he undertook a lot of private testing and a year’s worth experience both in these cars and with a team that has led to his growth. He also feels more comfortable with the Indy Lights-specification of Cooper Tires, as he struggled to maximize their pace on an optimal lap in qualifying last year.

“Every year you adapt to new challenges as a driver. Last year as a rookie the tire was a big part of that challenge that I needed to learn,” he said. “But it’s now gone more to my favor – or more what I’m used to.

“Going into the offseason, it’s been nice to have a lot of private test time. When you have a private test, there’s driving stuff you can work on, being good on cold tires, or having new tires to work on. It’s the small little details. When you have private time to work on yourself, that’s the most productive.”

While Alberico is serious about the task at hand, he’s not afraid to have fun and laugh it off at the track. That humor involves his engineer, Geoff Fickling, team manager, Hale, and his supporters in Rising Star Racing.

Alberico and Fickling, a renowned and championship-winning engineer in multiple rungs of the MRTI (Ed Jones with Carlin last year and Gabby Chaves with Belardi in 2014 in Indy Lights, plus Jack Hawksworth with Pelfrey in 2012 in Pro Mazda), live not far apart in San Clemente, and at times, almost spend too much time together.

Alberico and Fickling. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“Geoff and I get along great on a personal level. But sometimes he hates when I’m at his house looking for data – he’s gotta be liked, ‘I want to get away, and I can’t get away from my driver!’” Alberico laughed. “But he’s very thorough. He’ll go the extra mile to teach me more what I need to learn.”

Alberico has also started making his Instagram videos must-see-content for the rather hilarious interaction between the laid-back Californian and the focused, often intently serious Hale, who has made Carlin a championship-winner in Indy Lights in just its second season. There’s a confidence Alberico has in providing humor here that may not have existed last year given the struggles that were out of his, or the team’s control.

And then there’s the fact Alberico was the one responsible for bringing in the most out-of-left-field IndyCar sponsor this year, which was awesome, in Loki the Wolfdog. We’ll let Neil take it from here…

“Rising Star Racing is, for those that don’t know, such an awesome initiative through MRTI into IndyCar,” Alberico said. “Spencer Pigot and I have been part of that program, which does a lot for young drivers.

“The Loki deal is just basically a friend of mine with a really famous Instagram dog. Social media has become a huge part of the sport the last several years, and I think sponsor and teams need to adapt at those times.”

Loki was on site at Long Beach and met Pigot there for the first time, thanks to the connection between the Rising Star Racing teammates. It’s not been the only partner Alberico has brought in; Laguna Beach-based modern drug addiction and alcoholism treatment center Oceanfront Recovery is on both Alberico’s Indy Lights car and Pigot’s No. 11 Juncos Racing Chevrolet in the Indianapolis 500.

Pigot and Alberico have been Art Wilmes’ two “primary” drivers for RSR over the years, but not the only ones RSR has supported.

Pigot, Loki the Wolfdog, and “Squad” over their shoulder. Go figure. Photo: IndyCar

There’s others such as last year’s Pro Mazda champion, Indy Lights rookie Aaron Telitz (who actually won on his debut at St. Petersburg and has been overlooked from a media perspective) and another MRTI veteran Jake Eidson in the RSR roster. RSR is set to formally add Oliver Askew, who’s off to a stellar start in USF2000, rather soon.

Telitz (center), Herta (left) and Alberico (right) made it an all-American podium at St. Pete. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

As Alberico heads to the Freedom 100 this weekend, he’s got the continuity from a team and engineering standpoint, and determined to secure his breakthrough win in a year when Telitz, Colton Herta and Nico Jamin have all become Indy Lights race winners.

“I like staying with the same team. When you gel with team mechanics, engineers, you don’t want to go through the new process again,” Alberico said. “That’s why you do better in your second year, and in the third year even more so.

“At the IndyCar level it’s about those 10-plus year relationships – and that’s hard to create as a rookie! So you have to learn and adapt with those with 10-year relationships.

“Here, the wind is a bigger factor. But we have the race lap record! We’re not slow. We like this place. Let’s put ourselves in position to win the race.”

Alberico, who mentioned the wind there, also had the chance to play weatherman for the local CBS affiliate (WTTV-4) here in Indianapolis last week. And that provided him and Telitz a chance to provide some competitive banter beyond what they’ve done on track.

Trio of new entrants add intrigue to INDYCAR’s ownership pool

Juncos (17, leading) and Harding (88) are mixing it up among IndyCar's regulars, like Penske (22). Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – One came to America with almost nothing from Argentina. One has operated a local construction firm and taken his passion from fandom to his own team. And one has been a staple of the sports car scene for more than a dozen years, yet now finally gets to live out his original passion back in the open-wheel world.

Add in an iconic name in McLaren coming back to the Brickyard after a several-decade hiatus and you’ve got three new team owners and one returning major manufacturer name as the team newcomers in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Combined, they field five cars. Ricardo Juncos making his INDYCAR debut with a full two-car effort for Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra. Mike Harding has assembled a new one-car entry on his own for Gabby Chaves. Mike Shank has partnered with Andretti Autosport to run a car for rookie Jack Harvey, while McLaren, Honda and Andretti have combined as branding partners for the Fernando Alonso entry that folks hope will eventually preview a fuller McLaren entry down the road.

The McLaren name is back at Indy, via Andretti Autosport and Honda. Photo: IndyCar

As for the three that are here from a team standpoint, Juncos has the most successful open-wheel pedigree among the three entrants. Any keen-eyed observer of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires will have seen Juncos’ team’s success and preparation showcased in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, championships which they won by the end of their second full season in each. Spencer Pigot won him championships in both back-to-back in the two in 2014 and 2015 and Conor Daly won the Pro Mazda title in 2010; both are Juncos alumni now in IndyCar.

Pigot and Juncos back again. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

But stepping up into IndyCar was always going to be a question of timing, opportunity and financial resources with which to do so. Luckily as KV Racing Technology’s era of operation drew down, so its equipment became available, and Juncos was able to acquire what was needed to step up.

All this was occurring while Juncos was prepping a two-car Indy Lights team as scheduled for 2017, and then completed an eleventh hour deal to keep its Pro Mazda team going after selling off that equipment. But this also comes after Juncos moved into his new 44,000-square foot shop in downtown Speedway, Ind. in December.

“A lot’s been going on – like a storm!” Juncos told NBC Sports. “But we put a full IndyCar team together in two months, from zero, in terms of everything. We assembled and put the cars together, and all these people together, without missing anything on the Pro Mazda or Indy Lights teams.

“Last weekend, when we won both races in Pro Mazda, and were able to win the one in Indy Lights, it’s all about the team effort – we are doing IndyCar without making any issues on these teams. That’s the goal. It was a lot of work, but everything is very good. I’m still learning everyday. I’m excited for what the future can give us, for this race.”

Pigot lights it up after a pit stop. Photo: IndyCar

The crew features a number of KVRT alumni, including Greg Senerius (team manager). The engineering staff includes technical director Tom Brown, an open-wheel and sports car veteran, along with past Indy 500-winning entrant Steve Newey and fellow IndyCar veteran David Cripps, who came up frustratingly short of winning when he was with Panther Racing.

Shank, who brings the majority (but not all) of his Acura NSX GT3 sports car crew to the Andretti team, which keeps the band of lifers together from his shop based outside Columbus in Patalaska, Ohio. They got the chance to go with him to Le Mans last year and now get to add Indy, with Shank, to their resumes. Noting how much people love Shank, his longtime friend and Rolex 24 driver AJ Allmendinger and Allmendinger’s friend and current Shank Acura driver Katherine Legge have been here for support this week.

“It’s not about me. It’s always been about my guys,” Shank told NBC Sports. “My guys have been with me from 10 to 23 years, always standing behind me. A lot of guys have been with other teams, but if we want to do Indy, we want to do it as a present group. Whatever happens, we deal with. We fix it. We do it together.

“I try not to micromanage. For me, it’s step back and let (Tim) Keene (team manager) run the show. With the technical background Andretti has, the whole thing is so very good. Let’s see where we land. This could be interesting.”

Harvey and Shank are rolling through the ups and downs of Indy. Photo: IndyCar

Interesting it was – albeit for the wrong reasons on the opening day of practice for Harvey. With the car encountering a steering issue, Harvey was shot into the Turn 2 wall exiting the warmup lane and suffered right front damage. That required a rebuild of the car after it was stripped down and then put back together, but the English driver has made methodical progress forward since that point, culminating with 124 laps run on Monday.

Bad as that day was, it’s still a damn sight better than the potential debut Shank could have had in IndyCar in 2012. Shank’s engine plight was made public as Honda and Chevrolet added extra teams saddled with Lotus engines that wanted to switch prior to Indy, which wasn’t in either manufacturer’s game plan. Yet it also left a bitter taste for Shank, who had gone out, purchased a Dallara DW12 chassis, but couldn’t get an engine to run it outside of the Lotus. Had he debuted with that engine, it’s quite possible Shank in IndyCar could have been one-and-done.

In the five years since, INDYCAR’s leadership structure has evolved and it’s likely that without Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, among others than neither Juncos nor Shank would be racing next weekend in the ‘500. Both owners took the time to thank Frye and INDYCAR as a result.

“To be honest one of the things that surprised me the most is how professional they are,” Juncos said. “Mark Miles, Jay Frye, everyone in INDYCAR, marketing, to the PR guys. Bill van de Sandt invited us to T&S and Race Control so I could have an idea! They pushed me to do this.

“I knew it was probably the right opportunity at the right time. But it was still a big, big task. Jay Frye gave me a bit of confidence and support that this is the right thing to do. I’m so pleased to have those guys. The support is massive, and for drivers to believe in our program.”

“It’s a deep exhale! What we went through, no one should have to go,” Shank explained. “There’s two people I have to thank: Jay Frye and Mark Sibla have championed us. They came and saw me after the 2017 Rolex and said, ‘If you want to come here, let’s work it out with a team since I don’t have a car.’ But they were very instrumental. They always answer their phones.”

Chaves has a chance with Harding. Photo: IndyCar

If Juncos and Shank have been known from their pedigree in other series, Harding’s arrival is more of a surprise because it comes largely out of left field. But that’s not a bad thing.

With a construction background by trade with the Harding Group, Harding had always been a fan of the Indianapolis 500. Yet after last year’s 100th running, he took a big leap of faith in tandem with team manager Larry Curry to turn that fandom into an actual program, and purchase two new Dallaras as a result, complete with Harding’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. fandom producing a stylized No. 88 Chevrolet. And for good measure, Al Unser Jr. is working with the team as a driver coach.

“I had gone away from racing, other than Indy-only things,” Curry told NBC Sports. “I worked for Mike. Mike asked me if I was gonna do last year’s 500. I told him, ‘But I work for you!’ ‘You need to go do it,’ he said. ‘You’ve been there so many years. You have to do it. I’ll give you off whatever time you need.’

“So I did, and the race is over, we’re up in the suite talking. He said, ‘What do you think about doing this? What do you think about us doing our own deal?’ I just said right away, ‘Mike, it’s very extensive.’ He replied, ‘I never asked that. I asked, would you do it for me.’ But you know how it is, there’s a lot of excitement in May… this’ll go away. Guess what, it didn’t!”

Harding backed that up nicely. “Larry worked for me for the last couple years, and he mentored Tony Stewart,” he said. “So I told him, ‘What do you think about starting a team this year?’ And he was all gung ho for it. We didn’t know if it’d really happen for it, but it came through.”

One of the things that’s additionally nice about all three of these entrants is their push to provide opportunities for recent Mazda Road to Indy graduates. Pigot, 23, completes a 15-year journey with Juncos that began in karting together. Saavedra, a seemingly eternal 26, has been in-and-out of IndyCar for parts of seven seasons; this is his seventh team he’s attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 with.

Harding runs Chaves, who edged Harvey, Shank’s driver, for the 2014 Indy Lights title on a tiebreaker.

All of the team owners are so thrilled with the upside and potential of their young stars.

Pigot and Juncos are reunited for Juncos’ Indy debut. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s crazy obviously!” Juncos laughed. “These things have only happened a few times in history. For me, 15 years ago, coming from Argentina, in karts and he’s 9 years old. Now we’re living this. Sometimes things happen in humanity, which luckily happened for us. Without losing the focus, enjoy this, because it’s a great story of the team, of Spencer, of both of us together. For whatever reason, it’s happening.”

Harvey and Shank are rolling through the ups and downs of Indy. Photo: IndyCar

“Having Jack, it’s part of the package. We’re all one kit together,” Shank said. “Jack, you’re on my side now. My guys are the same way. They’ll support him good and bad.”

“Mike Hull from Ganassi recommended Gabby Chaves to us, he’s the best one out there,” Harding said. “I set up an interview with Gabby and couldn’t believe how mature this 23-year-old man was. I think we made the right decision.”

Al Unser Jr. and Gabby Chaves. Photo: IndyCar

Naturally, debuting is one thing but future development and staying power is the ultimate goal here.

Juncos has long harbored ambitions of a full-time IndyCar program, Shank has now opened the doors to one in addition to his continued, dedicated sports car presence, and Harding already seems set to race at least twice more this year.

For this race, Chaves has qualified the best in 25th for Harding, with Harvey in 27th for Shank and Andretti, then the Juncos pair of Pigot (29th) and Saavedra (31st) a little further behind. Both of the Juncos cars had slow fourth laps in qualifying; Juncos has pushed through with a rebuild of Pigot’s primary car from Friday to Saturday, working through the night to get the car ready to go for Pigot to qualify.

With only eight full-time owners now, and with three of them in Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti fielding 12 full-time cars of 21 and 15 of 33 at Indy, spreading the car count among other teams is one of INDYCAR’s key goals for 2018 and beyond.

“I think it’s really key,” said Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company Hulman & Co. “I don’t think that’s an economic driver for us, but it’s very healthy to have more diversity in our owner group.

“We love Roger, we love Michael, we love Chip … and we love all the rest of our current paddock. But more owners being invested in the series is a healthier thing. It’s very good.

“Besides these three when you have Zak Brown talking about a couple cars, not just at the Indy 500 but INDYCAR, it’s a very exciting thing.”

Bourdais checks in from hospital as Coyne crew visits (PHOTOS)

Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais posted for the first couple times on Twitter on Tuesday since his accident on Saturday that left him with multiple pelvic fractures and a fracture in his right hip.

Bourdais, driver of the No. 18 GEICO Honda for Dale Coyne Racing, was injured during a qualifying run that was on pace to be the fastest of the day and secure his place in the Fast Nine shootout to win pole for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

From IU Methodist hospital, Bourdais already joked he “wouldn’t be going for a run” since he’s on crutches, and then had a visit from the rest of the Coyne crew. He’s thanked everyone for their support.

Team owner Coyne spoke to Motorsport.com’s David Malsher after the accident, noting Bourdais’ determination to want to get back in a car as soon as possible and return to action.

“First day after the crash he was saying he wanted to be back for Sonoma [the season finale]. I said, ‘No, skip Sonoma, then you’ve got an extra four months to heal, and come back in January and we’ll do it right,’” Coyne told Malsher.

James Davison fills in for Bourdais at the Indianapolis 500, as the Australian begins his third tour of duty with the team this week under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Talented young guns Matthew Brabham and RC Enerson were also mentioned within Malsher’s report as possibilities to take over the No. 18 Honda the rest of the way, having both impressed in limited 2016 race starts. Enerson also has the familiarity of working with Coyne in his three races last season.

Neither has a full-time ride this year in open-wheel but have driven elsewhere, Brabham in Robby Gordon’s SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks and Enerson with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports in IMSA.

Indy Lights tops 200 mph, produces lots of action at Indy test

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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INDIANAPOLIS – The Freedom 100 will run for the 15th time as part of NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage, which begins Friday at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN with the marquee race of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Known for its scintillating action and incredible finishes, Indy Lights seems set to deliver more of the same of that this go-around, after a pair of 90-minute test sessions held today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

With a tow-assisted lap of 200.070 mph in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda, Colton Herta topped the combined speed charts. This will be the 17-year-old’s first big oval race, after only testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway over the winter.

“The draft was the same in the straight-line everywhere,” Herta said. “Obviously, it was a bit more here [rather than Homestead] since we’re going quicker at Indianapolis.

“The main thing is slipstreaming in the corners. It’s really different from anything I’ve experienced, especially when you’re right behind someone and you put half of a wing out or a quarter of the wing out.

“The balance shift is massive. That’s obviously going to be something all the rookies will have to get used to. I would say down the straights, it’s nothing too different.

“It’s really crazy when you pull out of the slipstream, how far your head will move down in the car. You get pushed down so much with the wind, and that’s probably the biggest difference I’ve felt. You feel like you’re going that fast the first few laps, but once you kind of get into it, the other cars around you move at a similar pace, so I don’t really think about it. But, it feels good to break the 200 mark.”

Herta’s speed was on display while the race craft of the other 13 drivers competing was also featured prominently on Monday.

Herta is one of seven rookies set to compete in his first Freedom 100, the others being Belardi Auto Racing’s Aaron Telitz (the Mazda Scholarship recipient), Ryan Norman and Nico Jamin also of Andretti Autosport, Matheus Leist and Garth Rickards of Carlin and Nicolas Dapero of Juncos Racing.

Dapero had a spin towards the end of the second test session as when trying to pass Andretti’s Dalton Kellett, he lost control of his No. 31 Juncos Racing entry and did a 360-degree pirouette and spin. The young Argentine contacted the inside wall but sustained only front wing damage.

The veterans will look to succeed on Friday. Juan Piedrahita looked racey today in his No. 2 Team Pelfrey machine; the Colombian, who made his 100th career start on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires last time out at the IMS road course, nearly won this race last year.

The other veterans include Kyle Kaiser, the points leader for Juncos, along with Santiago Urrutia (Belardi with SPM), Shelby Blackstock (Belardi), Neil Alberico and Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin).

Jamin, Kellett, Kaiser and Alberico (pictured below from left to right) were all on hand at a premiere of “Indy Light” beer at Metazoa Brewing Company in downtown Indianapolis last week.

Indy Lights has two practice sessions from 9 to 9:30 and 11 to 11:30 a.m. ET on Thursday before qualifying from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. ET. The race is 12:30 p.m. ET on Friday on NBCSN, as noted.

Speeds from today are below.