Kyle Masson. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Performance Tech home for Kyle Masson to flourish, star early in 2017

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Cadillac and Wayne Taylor Racing will get a lot of the accolades for completing the “36 Hours of Florida” sweep to kick off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

But another team did so as well, with a less likely cast of characters and after two flawless runs of their own: Brent O’Neill’s Performance Tech Motorsports.

O’Neill took a stab at young talent, all of whom have full pro level potential but not full pro level experience yet at the top flight of endurance sports car racing. In James French (24 years old), Pato O’Ward (17), Kyle Masson (19) and Nick Boulle (27), O’Neill had a quartet of young drivers with a combined three Rolex 24 at Daytona starts. What followed was a flawless drive under the miserable conditions en route to deserved win in the Prototype Challenge class.

What better way to follow it up, then, with a second straight star turn at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring? French, O’Ward and Masson pulled off the back-to-back effort themselves after a second successive brilliant run, this time finishing fifth overall.

French, O’Ward, Masson and O’Neill. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Of the trio, Masson was the busiest at Sebring, and for good reason. The 19-year-old out of Windermere, Fla. was also starting his season in IMSA’s Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda series competition this weekend, also with Performance Tech, in the formerly L1 but now MPC class with the venerable, Elan DP02 open-top prototype (we’re trying to make this as least confusing as possible).

This meant he had three races to run at Sebring in one weekend, in two entirely different open-top cars, in two different multi-class series.

And all Masson did was go three-for-three in winning them all, sweeping the pair of MPC races before joining his teammates in the PC class in the big show to complete the Daytona to Sebring double.

As the younger Masson explained, keeping both cars straight was a challenge he had to master.

“Because everything was under the same tent, the time management wasn’t that difficult,” Masson told NBC Sports. “We entered with the focus of me winning the (MPC) races. The PC car, I could figure out in the race. The Lites was more on edge, and I had to push and figure it out.

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The biggest difficulty I had was going back and forth from the Lites (MPC) to the PC car, totally different styles. They don’t drive similarly at all. The (Lites) car is so planted, it’s so physical, you have the muscle it. The PC car is delicate, twitchy, with power steering. When you’re going back and forth, it becomes tainted with elements of the other! I was learning how to re-drive the car in middle of the (Lites) races.”

There was another element that made the MPC races difficult to master. IMSA has adjusted the former Prototype Lites series to now add LMP3 chassis, which is a separate class from the MPC class, the former top class of the prototype development series when it was called L1. Because the cars have speed in different areas, Masson had to figure out how to race the new cars without them compromising his own race.

“The P3 cars had more speed on the straights and that made it more difficult to pass,” he explained. “A P3 car had held me off for a couple laps, would block in the corners and pull away on the straight. That pushed me into the JDC entry in MPC and kept us together to battle and fight. The two classes combined are a bit hectic, but we’ll learn how it goes.”

Masson had to learn Daytona from the Roar Before the Rolex 24 while at Sebring, he estimated he had more than 1,000 laps at the track a couple hours south of Orlando. For a driver who’s only been competing for two and a half years since graduating from Skip Barber, it’s already become a track he’s learned to master. That track experience made it easier, if not outright easy, to switch between the two cars.

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The weather differences between Daytona and Sebring’s races could not have been wider apart, either. Daytona was rain-drenched with ambient temperatures barely above 40 degrees; Sebring, sunny in the 70s on race day, actually made it a bonus to be in the venerable open-top cars rather than a hindrance as it was in Daytona.

“Daytona was absolutely miserable. I was freezing… I think I got out with hypothermia!” Masson laughed. “But Sebring, with the cooler air, the open-top and dry weather, allowed us to stay cool in the car.”

Masson and O’Ward were the two young proteges under French, the 24-year-old out of Sheboygan, Wis. who has evolved into Performance Tech’s undisputed team leader and lead driver the last couple seasons.

Masson and O’Ward gelled from the off having been teammates with Performance Tech in the Elan MPC cars last year at Sebring, and reconnected at the all-Mazda combined Mazda Road to Indy and Mazda Road to 24 weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last September. It became natural to be paired up with French, who Masson said has been an invaluable coach and resource.

“It was a daunting task stepping up. I was extremely nervous,” Masson admitted. “I know how to drive a car and use the clutch, but hopping into the PC car felt foreign. I knew almost nothing at the Roar. It was such a big jump that it felt like something I hadn’t done before.

“But James was a mentor. I always looked up to him. He was like an idol to me! He’s helping coach me along. He helps stay calm, cool and collected. He has the experience but we’re really close friends.”

Kyle and Robert Masson. Photos courtesy of IMSA

Family is a big word around both the Masson name and the Performance Tech team. Masson’s dad, Robert, is a neurosurgeon… who is also Kyle’s teammate with Performance Tech in the MPC class this season.

Meanwhile O’Neill’s team is a true privateer effort; the Deerfield Beach, Fla.-squad has a family atmosphere that drivers who’ve been there have hailed before going onto other programs. Prior to his graduation to Mazda’s factory prototype team, Tristan Nunez raced here.

“They are an amazing group of guys,” Masson said. “I only got into racing 2.5 years ago, fresh out of Skip Barber, and there’s so many paths and roads to go down. I could have gone down the Road to Indy or the Road to 24, because there’s so many teams and options. I was so lucky to meet up with Brent and Performance Tech.

“They will always be family to me now. They will be always my first family. They’re always there for me. They care so much. They want to win races so badly. The performance matters.. it’s so serious and you know they won’t sacrifice an ounce. It’s a great environment.”

At 19, there’s no knowing how high Masson’s career might rise. He’s already got a Rolex watch and a Sebring trophy under his belt… and this is in the off time when he’s not studying for a double major in business and finance at the University of Central Florida.

But there’s already a confidence there that this is just the start of great things to come for the rest of his burgeoning career.

“I had a feeling signing up for this that if everything went well, we could dominate,” he said. “We’re so consistent. Realistically, we are a team without any ‘am’ drivers, lap-time wise. We’re all running ‘pro’ times. We’re all up there on the sheet. Having that as a cushion, we don’t need to push to our limit, which keeps the car to its limit. Having that as a team in endurance racing is a big advantage.

“Since it’s my second year in these cars, my confidence has skyrocketed. Now I know how to push myself to my limit and get the most out of the car. Last year, for the JDC guys (Austin Versteeg, Clark Toppe) it was their second year and my first year in any real car on slicks.

“Now it’s a completely different story. I picked up a lot of new skills. I’m able to translate that and put it all together as best I can, thanks to the people around me.”

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.

Andretti, Rahal at loss for words after tough Barber qualifying (VIDEO)

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Marco Andretti’s weekend speed went missing when it counted. Graham Rahal, meanwhile, has been unable to find it all weekend.

So are the woes of the two famous sons-of-legends after qualifying 13th and 21st for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN), as they look to bank a result in the third round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

Starting with Andretti first, the driver of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda had what on paper seemed to be his best chance to advance to his first Firestone Fast Six appearance since St. Petersburg 2014 after pacing Friday’s second practice and keeping up his recent trend of being fast on Friday.

“We just need to do it when it counts tomorrow. You know, it’s very important to qualify well here, so I’m pleased that we have the pace to hopefully be able to do that. But yeah, I mean, so far, so good. We just need to replicate it tomorrow,” Andretti said after Friday’s practice.

But by less than one hundredth of a second, Andretti missed out. With a best time of 1:07.5405 just adrift of Max Chilton in sixth in Group 1, Q1 at 1:07.5374, he was stuck in an unlucky 13th.

“It takes putting it together. A little too loose there but I should have got it in. With the margin this morning I should be in. This one hurts,” Andretti told NBCSN.

‪Went wicked loose on reds and missed it by 4 thousandths today. That's @IndyCar . Looking forward to tomorrow. ‬

A post shared by Marco Andretti (@marcoandretti) on

Rahal, meanwhile, has felt the pain of only being a single-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team this year up against the mights of all the other multi-car teams in the field. Whereas in the past two years, Rahal and RLL have overachieved, this year he’s said they just haven’t been able to replicate that success with the No. 15 Honda.

He’ll start 21st in a race where he was looking to go one spot better after a pair of runner-up finishes the last two years here. Of course Sebastien Bourdais won from 21st at St. Petersburg, but that marked the first time a race winner started last since Scott Dixon won from 22nd at Mid-Ohio in 2014. Rahal had three starts of 20th or worse last season (20th at Watkins Glen, 24th at IndyCar Grand Prix after a penalty and 26th at Indianapolis 500) but hasn’t started last in a race since 2014 at Long Beach, when he rolled off 23rd.

“We’ve got everything (wrong) this weekend. I had nothing else. There was no more speed in my car,” Rahal lamented to NBCSN. “I put in one miracle lap this morning and couldn’t get within half a second again. We just haven’t been very good this year and haven’t performed at a very high level. We can’t seem to get the tire to bite the road at all.

“For us as a single-car team it’s impossible. We don’t have anyone else to try anything different. St. Pete we struggled. Long Beach we struggled. Here it’s been a struggle all weekend. Something fundamentally might have changed. Starting last on merit, I don’t think I’ve ever done in my career.”

Power, Penske, Chevrolet dominate IndyCar Barber qualifying (VIDEO)

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Will Power scored the pole position for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as part of a Team Penske and Chevrolet dominated qualifying session for the third round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season at Barber Motorsports Park (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

But with polesitters having finished only 19th and ninth to start 2017 – Power at St. Petersburg and teammate Helio Castroneves at Long Beach – it remains to be seen whether this will translate on Sunday after a weekend where Penske and Chevrolet have struck back after Honda’s fast start. Meanwhile Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe have won from 21st and fourth, respectively.

Power’s pole Saturday in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, at a lap of 1:06.9614 around the 2.3-mile road course is the 46th of his career and fourth at Barber (2010, 2011 and 2014) and he’s won twice here before, in 2011 from pole and in 2012 from ninth on the grid.

“We weren’t good on the used reds, but we worked at it and the car was really good. We did feel a bit heavy in that session but the car was really good. All the credit to the Verizon Team Penske guys. Starting on pole here is important. The weather looks a little bit iffy but it is what it is. That’s all you can do. We’ll try to go out and have fun,” Power told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee.

Penske teammates Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud completed the top three, as Penske and Chevrolet score their third pole in as many races to start the year.

“Man it was just one little blink and you miss it. Long Beach was precision… here was out of control!” Castroneves laughed after coming up just short in second, speaking to NBCSN’s Marty Snider.

Pagenaud told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt, “We had a great car. The Menards car was fast but we went a little too aggressive for qualifying. We tried, and it was a good battle with Will and Helio.”

Scott Dixon will start fourth, top Honda on the grid, as he goes for his first Barber win and first win of 2017. He’s started between third and fifth in all eight Barber races in his career and has six podiums, all either second or third place.

Long Beach sparring partners Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe round out the Firestone Fast Six, as Hinchcliffe looks for his second straight win after winning last time out while Hunter-Reay seeks to end a year-and-a-half winless drought and secure his third win at Barber (2013, 2014).

The big surprise from the preliminary rounds of qualifying was second free practice pacesetter Marco Andretti getting bounced out in Q1, as part of an overall struggle for the Andretti Autosport team where he, Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi all failed to advance. Hunter-Reay was the only driver of that team’s quartet who did.

Hinchcliffe led the opening round of qualifying in his Group 1, ahead of Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden, Mikhail Aleshin, Ed Jones and Max Chilton. Newgarden had an off-and-on moment at Turns 2 and 3 but glided out of the grass without damage to his No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet.

The big surprise from Q1, Group 1 was the failure of Andretti to advance in the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda, after another weekend of good practice pace. Andretti missed advancing by just 0.031 of a second (1:07.5405 versus Chilton’s 1:07.5374) and will start 13th on Sunday.

“It takes putting it together. A little too loose there but I should have got it in. With the margin this morning I should be in. This one hurts,” Andretti told NBCSN.

Charlie Kimball and the Ed Carpenter Racing teammates, Spencer Pigot and Zach Veach, also failed to advance from that group.

In Group 2, Q1, a stacked session saw the usual suspects advance – Power, Dixon, Castroneves, Pagenaud, Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais made it through. Power clocked the only 1:06 lap of Q1 at 1:06.9311.

Left on the outside were Takuma Sato, Carlos Munoz, Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Graham Rahal. Rahal will now start 21st and last, and likely will need a strategy gamble to leapfrog his way up the order in his pursuit of a third straight runner-up finish at Barber, or to try to go one spot better and duplicate Bourdais’ last-to-first victory at St. Petersburg.

“We’ve got everything (wrong) this weekend. I had nothing else. There was no more speed in my car,” Rahal lamented to NBCSN. “I put in one miracle lap this morning and couldn’t get within half a second again. We just haven’t been very good this year and haven’t performed at a very high level. We can’t seem to get the tire to bite the road at all.

“For us as a single-car team it’s impossible. We don’t have anyone else to try anything different. St. Pete we struggled. Long Beach we struggled. Here it’s been a struggle all weekend. Something fundamentally might have changed. Starting last on merit, I don’t think I’ve ever done in my career.”

Q2 saw all four past Barber pole winners, Power, Castroneves, Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud advance through along with Dixon and Hinchcliffe, the latter two continuing their streaks as the only two drivers to make it to every Firestone Fast Six session this season.

Left on the outside looking in were Newgarden, Aleshin, Chilton, Kanaan, Jones and Bourdais. Newgarden missed out by less than a tenth of a second.

Newgarden told NBCSN after his near miss, “We tried to go on the used reds from the first round of qualifying. It was a great call. But today all the Penske cars had great pace and we just missed out. I just couldn’t get quite the speed that I had before.”

Meanwhile points leader Bourdais told NBCSN, “I still don’t know how we even made the Fast 12. We’ve been struggling fighting the understeer and we haven’t made big gains all weekend. We took a big swing at it in qualifying. We tried something different – it didn’t work. But sometimes it’s good to find out when nothing works. It’s been a tough weekend. We have a really good, small group of guys. We just haven’t had it this weekend though.”

Power got back into the 1:06 bracket on his final lap in the Fast Six, with a time of 1:06.9614 around the 2.3-mile circuit. That supplanted Castroneves’ best time of 1:07.1429, with Pagenaud third in his quest to defend this race win of a year ago at 1:07.3817.

The unofficial grid is below:

Montoya relishing part-time role; looks forward to Alonso reunion

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Juan Montoya was at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend to announce a new Team Penske partner in Fitzgerald Glider Kits, which will also serve as his sponsor during the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil next month.

Montoya was relegated to a part-time driver in 2017, with the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the Indy 500 currently his only scheduled races. Yet, while some drivers may become impatient and frustrated with the circumstances, Montoya is relishing the chance.

“The opportunity with Penske came to do this and I thought it would be… for long-term, would be the best thing for me and it’s good. I’m really happy,” he said in a press conference at Bristol. “If you are going to go race you might as well come do it with best people you can, and to be able to get a relationship with the guys at Fitzgerald: it’s amazing.”

The 41-year-old referenced that he and Penske had been working on an effort for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway events over the last year, but the hunt for sponsorship was something Montoya was not involved in.

“They just tell me ‘Come, we are announcing your sponsor,'” he joked. “Penske is very quiet. I have been here three and a half years and you learn not to ask too many questions.”

Juan Montoya’s No. 22 entry for the Indy 500. Photo: Team Penske

Of course, Montoya is not exactly sitting idle. He admitted to keeping busy with karting efforts, and is constantly in contact with engineer Raul Prados, who will lead the engineering effort on Montoya’s No. 22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet.

“This morning: his morning text to me is ’21 days.’  Yesterday it was ’22 days to go.’  Every day, he is more intense,” he said of his new engineer.

“He sees this as such a huge opportunity to win Indy. For me, it’s exciting. I’m not thinking about points. I’m not thinking about anything. I know I have a good shot of winning. I feel really good. It should be fun.”

Consequently, Montoya does not feel like he is behind as the month of May looms. This was evidenced at a test at Barber Motorsports Park in March. “I went to Barber to test and actually most of the morning I was quicker than all my teammates,” he quipped. “I was like ‘I don’t know.’ It was good. Honestly, (during) that Barber test is the best I’ve run ever at Barber.”

There is also the added storyline of a reunion with the incoming Fernando Alonso, against whom Montoya raced in Formula 1 from 2001 to 2006 (except 2002, when Alonso was a test driver for Renault’s Formula 1 effort and did not race).

Juan Montoya announces his Indy 500 sponsor. Photo: Team Penske

Like everyone else, Montoya was caught off guard by the announcement.

“If you would have told me I was going to run a race ever against Alonso, (I thought it) would be an endurance race or something not in Indy to be honest,” he said of Alonso’s entry. “I think it’s great. I think having Fernando is going to be a really good day for motorsports, not only for IndyCar, but I think the attention overall for seeing Fernando and myself and everybody running Indy is going to be really big.”

When asked about the biggest challenge Alonso may face, Montoya zeroed in on two things. The first: the crowd.

“It is so many people around you. I think that’s a little bit hard for him from what he is used to,” he said of the atmosphere.

“In Formula One, and he has been doing that for a lot of years, we started the same year together when I was there in F1, so he’s been doing it for a long time: It’s just you have your own space and people really respect your space and here, no. The fans, the sponsors, everybody are there and everybody wants a picture and you’ve got to please them.”

The other challenging aspect he mentioned was the characteristics of the car and the track. But, he detailed that the May 3 test should help Alonso get up to speed.

“I think the good thing with a full day of testing: he will get a bit of an idea of what he needs,” Montoya added. “Just good to have a day with no pressure where you can build up and you understand what it takes. I think it will be fine. He is with a good team and they always run well there as well. It will be interesting.”

In terms of his own effort, Montoya is hoping his status as a part-time driver means Penske will experiment a little, especially when it comes to engine tuning. “I’m hoping they do. I don’t know how it works, but I know they have the knock levels and things they have to look after (in) the engine. But, if you are honestly in my position, the engine isn’t going anywhere afterwards, so might as well go for broke. I’m in. That’s what you are there for.”

As noted above, Montoya makes his return to the Verizon IndyCar Series at next month’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.