DiZinno: Alonso’s arrival is 101st Indy 500’s magic bullet

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Much the same as in December when I got the Facebook message from my colleague Luke Smith that said simply “Rosberg’s retired!” I had to a double take this morning when I saw the “Mate, you’re not going to believe what happened!!” message.

Fernando Alonso. Running the Indianapolis 500. This year.

Really? Seriously? Yes.

Details of how the out-of-left-field deal came to be reality emerged a bit during conference calls with Alonso, Michael Andretti and Zak Brown today. Taking a long story and condensing it, Honda had an 18th engine lease available for this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil that wasn’t filled, it was later determined Andretti Autosport would be the best fit, and Stefan Wilson had the inside line on the seat.

But just in the first two Formula 1 race weekends, Alonso and Brown had some meals, the two-time World Champion decided he wanted to run Indy and mountains moved between various parties to make it happen. Wilson, ironically, gets better PR value out of being the sidelined driver this race than he probably would have had he got the seat. Alonso was always going to be a bigger story and Wilson, much like his late brother Justin, is the bigger man for stepping aside as part of the process. It’s a hope he will be rewarded properly in the long run.

It matters not who was first in reporting the news when the news is this big, except for those who need the glory of saying so.

What matters instead is that the story is in fact real, not a belated April Fool’s prank, and that suddenly a race that didn’t have a magic story line has one.

Frankly the big question for the 101st Indianapolis 500 was going to be what was the big thing the race needed. Last year’s 100th running was always going to have the extra hoopla and drama associated with it. That the race was sold out and had a dramatic finish featuring a rookie’s unheralded shot at glory didn’t hurt, either, and Alexander Rossi has more than proven a worthy champion.

Without a new car though (that comes in 2018), or a big-name star driver though, the race fails to extrapolate much beyond its standard sphere of influence – this is to say in Indianapolis and Indiana locally, to the core fan base of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and the one-off extra fans that come to watch this race either on television or on site.

Alonso at Indy though? That’s as Earth-shattering as it gets in the motorsports world. It’s on par with Nigel Mansell’s arrival in 1993 and the first occasion for a younger generation of a driver from Formula 1 actively leaving their day job for a shot at the single biggest race in terms of a one-day spectator total.

If Indy didn’t matter in the world sphere, Alonso wouldn’t have come. Period, point blank. And how he does will dominate the headlines beyond us usual web minions who cover the series full-time.

“I think the interest is very clear. It’s one of the best races in the world,” Alonso said during a teleconference today. “It’s very prestigious. If you want to be considered the best, you have to drive all type of cars. So after successfully winning F1 championships, I think the opportunity to race in Indy 500, then one day in the future in Le Mans, that dream of the Triple Crown is very attractive, together with McLaren and Zak.”

Zak Brown knows a thing or two about marketing; JMI was his baby and he needs a way to turn opinions back the way of positive press given the current struggles his new baby, McLaren, is having in Formula 1. And what better way to do so than with a stunner like this, which was remarkably kept quiet?

“I had a desire for McLaren to come back to Indianapolis,” said the American, who understands the magnitude of his brand. “It is a great part of our history. But we didn’t think the timing would be right to try to put together the effort.

“We started flirting with Fernando on the topic and he started flirting back. In Australia, we had breakfast with Honda, and he stated his desire to race triple crown of Monaco, Indy and Le Mans. He said I’d love to race with Honda at Indianapolis 500. We didn’t know the timeline. He had a real desire to race there.

“But we spoke the Monday after Australia. Hey you mentioned you wanted to do Indy… he said very. Let’s talk at China dinner. You thinking this year? Was it doable? He was very serious.

“We had dinner Friday in China and I laid it out in the table, he wants to do it, we think we could make it happen. He told me Saturday morning after sleeping on it ‘I want to do it.’

“We signed it last night from the airport, and here we are announcing it. We could not be more excited to run the McLaren Honda Andretti entry with Fernando Alonso. It’s an incredible day of motorsports.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Alexander Rossi driver of the Andretti Herta Autosport Dallara Honda leads a pack of cars on his way to winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Andretti Autosport has six entries on its own, all of whom already had incredible stories anyway before today’s news.

To wit:

  • Rossi, surprisingly, goes for a repeat of last year.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay seeks his second ‘500, after losing last year thanks to contact with his teammate in the pits.
  • Takuma Sato has been stealthily good at the Speedway, despite a lack of results. Few forget his daring, if failed, attempt trying to pass Dario Franchitti.
  • Marco Andretti, going to break that eternal Andretti curse, nearly 50 years on from Mario’s famous 1969 win.
  • Jack Harvey, a talented rookie making his debut with Mike Shank, a popular team owner, making his Indy debut.

And now they add Alonso to this? If the old axiom of “a rising tide lifts all boats” is true, then all five of those other entries will be buoyed by the prospects of having one of the greatest drivers of his generation now needing to draw on them to help his debut, while all getting the extra PR value out of it.

Alonso racing Scott Dixon, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya? That means he’s going up against seven IndyCar series champions.

And he’ll be competing against at least six other Indianapolis 500 winners in Dixon, Kanaan, Montoya, Rossi, Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves (seven if Buddy Lazier makes the race).

Plus, from a rookie-of-the-year standpoint, suddenly the trio of previously confirmed rookies in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires graduates Harvey, Ed Jones and Zach Veach can say if they win rookie-of-the-year honors, they beat Fernando Alonso to do so.

It’s hard to see this as anything other than a massive positive for a race where one extra driver can make a big difference.

And for Alonso, it’s a masterstroke in terms of writing a chapter of his career where he knows he’s going into a big challenge, is taking it with open arms, and has the support of his team, his engine manufacturer, and one of the most famous last names in motorsport all at his side.

We don’t know where he’ll finish in May, but in terms of an announcement, Alonso, McLaren, Honda, Andretti and Indianapolis have already won.

NHRA at Norwalk: Torrence wins 4th race of 2017; Beckman, Butner, Tonglet also win

Photo/videos courtesy NHRA
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Steve Torrence earned a career-best fourth Top Fuel win in a season Sunday, capturing the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.

Meanwhile, Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and L.E. Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) captured their third wins in 2017, while Jack Beckman (Funny Car) earned his second win of the season as the NHRA wrapped up the first half of its 24-race season.

TOP FUEL: Torrence (3.743 seconds at 331.45 mph) defeated Doug Kalitta (3.736 at 331.36) in the final round. Torrence has now reached six final rounds this season over the last eight events, with a 4-2 record.

“I knew I left good on the tree but I could tell it would just be a coin toss who got it and fortunately I was able to come out ahead,” Torrence said in an NHRA media release. “It’s been a great season so far and we are hoping to keep this momentum going.”

The win also keeps Torrence No. 1 in the Top Fuel point standings.

FUNNY CAR: “Fast Jack” Beckman (4.073 seconds at 311.85 mph) earned his 26th career win over Robert Hight (6.673 seconds at 98.53 mph). Beckman has now won two of the last three races.

“We were consistently a bit off this weekend, but we are definitely happy to earn the victory this weekend,” Beckman said. “Now that we are getting down the track consistently, it keeps our opponents honest and that is definitely a formula we will continue to use for the rest of the season.”

PRO STOCK: It was a great jump at the starting line that led Butner (6.601 seconds at 210.50 mph) to defeat Greg Anderson (6.581 seconds at 210.87 mph).

“Today was a great day, we made four pretty consistent runs and my car was good when it needed to be,” said Butner, who added to his lead in the Pro Stock standings. “It’s one thing to have a good car, but we also had a lot of things go our way to get those win lights today.”

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Tonglet (6.824 seconds at 195.76 mph) earned his 13th career PSM win, defeating Matt Smith (6.882 seconds at 195.31 mph).

“I didn’t see any win lights throughout qualifying, but seeing them on Sunday is what matters and we are happy with the results,” Tonglet said. “This is huge for us and our position in the points standings, so getting as many wins as possible is definitely our goal.”

Tonglet, who took over the points lead with the win, leads all PSM riders, having reached the final round in three of the first five races this season, and won all three of those.

The NHRA has an off-weekend coming up before returning to action July 6-9 at the Fallen Patriots NHRA Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, Illinois.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Steve Torrence; 2.  Doug Kalitta; 3.  Leah Pritchett; 4.  Brittany Force; 5.  Terry McMillen; 6.  Clay Millican; 7.  Tony Schumacher; 8.  Antron Brown; 9.  Shawn Langdon; 10.  Dom Lagana; 11.  Pat Dakin; 12.  Mike Salinas; 13.  Ike Maier; 14.  Troy Buff; 15.  Troy Coughlin Jr.; 16.  Scott Palmer.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Jack Beckman; 2.  Robert Hight; 3.  Bob Tasca III; 4.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 5.  Ron Capps; 6.  John Force; 7.  Matt Hagan; 8.  Alexis DeJoria; 9.  J.R. Todd; 10.  Jim Campbell; 11.  Cruz Pedregon; 12.  Del Worsham; 13.  Jonnie Lindberg; 14.  Jeff Diehl; 15.  Dale Creasy Jr.; 16.  Tim Wilkerson.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Bo Butner; 2.  Greg Anderson; 3.  Jason Line; 4.  John Gaydosh Jr; 5.  Tanner Gray; 6.  Vincent Nobile; 7.  Jeg Coughlin; 8.  Allen Johnson; 9.  Erica Enders; 10.  Chris McGaha; 11.  Alex Laughlin; 12.  Val Smeland; 13.  Mark Hogan; 14.  Drew Skillman; 15.  Kenny Delco; 16.  Alan Prusiensky.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  LE Tonglet; 2.  Matt Smith; 3.  Hector Arana Jr; 4.  Scotty Pollacheck; 5.  Joey Gladstone; 6.  Mike Berry; 7.  Andrew Hines; 8.  Steve Johnson; 9.  Chip Ellis; 10.  Eddie Krawiec; 11.  Karen Stoffer; 12.  Cory Reed; 13.  Joe DeSantis; 14.  Angelle Sampey; 15.  Melissa Surber; 16.  Angie Smith.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, 3.743 seconds, 331.45 mph  def. Doug Kalitta, 3.736 seconds, 331.36 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.073, 311.85  def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 6.673, 98.53.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.601, 210.50  def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.581, 210.87.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.824, 195.76  def. Matt Smith, Victory, 6.882, 195.31.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS: 

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Clay Millican, 3.775, 311.63 def. Scott Palmer, Broke; Leah Pritchett, 3.760, 324.12 def. Ike Maier, 8.295, 105.60; Steve Torrence, 3.786, 326.32 def. Troy Coughlin Jr., 8.501, 87.48; Brittany Force, 3.772, 324.98 def. Pat Dakin, 3.832, 293.60; Doug Kalitta, 3.749, 329.99 def. Troy Buff, 8.421, 82.77; Antron Brown, 3.768, 323.35 def. Dom Lagana, 3.828, 322.34; Terry McMillen, 3.806, 323.04 def. Shawn Langdon, 3.787, 324.90; Tony Schumacher, 3.789, 326.56 def. Mike Salinas, 7.129, 96.03;

QUARTERFINALS — Torrence, 3.792, 326.79 def. Millican, 3.872, 312.86; Force, 3.808, 325.53 def. McMillen, 3.859, 291.32; Pritchett, 3.848, 322.04 def. Brown, 5.187, 142.16; Kalitta, 3.782, 325.85 def. Schumacher, 4.099, 232.03;

SEMIFINALS — Torrence, 3.751, 326.08 def. Force, 8.630, 75.66; Kalitta, 3.768, 328.62 def. Pritchett, 3.800, 314.46;

FINAL — Torrence, 3.743, 331.45 def. Kalitta, 3.736, 331.36.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.993, 310.27 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Toyota Camry, 8.596, 84.51; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.913, 329.75 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.101, 307.65; Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.349, 216.62 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 14.165, 61.22; John Force, Camaro, 3.930, 326.32 def. Dale Creasy Jr., Charger, Broke; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.942, 322.34 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.032, 318.69; Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.944, 326.56 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, Foul – Centerline; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.972, 324.75 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 7.528, 98.54; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.060, 319.82 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.180, 266.11;

QUARTERFINALS — Johnson Jr., 3.960, 324.44 def. Capps, 3.965, 324.83; Hight, 3.978, 321.73 def. DeJoria, 4.741, 180.16; Tasca III, 4.006, 323.58 def. J. Force, 4.047, 301.00; Beckman, 4.078, 310.84 def. Hagan, 4.152, 275.06;

SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 4.074, 319.45 def. Johnson Jr., 6.049, 118.22; Hight, 3.925, 328.62 def. Tasca III, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Beckman, 4.073, 311.85 def. Hight, 6.673, 98.53.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Allen Johnson, Dodge Dart, 6.627, 209.43 def. Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.595, 210.37 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.567, 210.64 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.676, 209.26; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.562, 210.50 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 14.694, 58.11; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.558, 210.64 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 7.790, 130.97; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.579, 210.70 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.759, 198.76; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.570, 211.16 def. Mark Hogan, Pontiac GXP, 6.814, 203.52; John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.663, 208.01 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 7.212, 149.95;

QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.615, 210.73 def. Nobile, 6.687, 209.95; Anderson, 6.597, 210.90 def. Johnson, Foul – Red Light; Gaydosh Jr, 6.695, 207.18 def. Coughlin, 12.760, 68.65; Line, 6.585, 211.33 def. Gray, 6.599, 210.77;

SEMIFINALS — Butner, 6.606, 210.34 def. Gaydosh Jr, 6.701, 207.50; Anderson, 6.599, 210.80 def. Line, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Butner, 6.601, 210.50 def. Anderson, 6.581, 210.87.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Mike Berry, Buell, 6.950, 192.22 def. Cory Reed, 6.991, 189.31; Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.43 def. Angelle Sampey, Foul – Red Light; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.853, 195.25 def. Melissa Surber, Buell, 22.220, 24.02; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.907, 193.74 def. Chip Ellis, Buell, 6.890, 193.93; Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.880, 194.80 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.915, 195.96; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.910, 196.13 def. Angie Smith, Buell, Broke; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.867, 194.69 def. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.16; Matt Smith, 6.849, 196.27 def. Joe DeSantis, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light;

QUARTERFINALS — Pollacheck, 6.905, 194.46 def. Gladstone, 6.904, 193.49; Arana Jr, 6.846, 197.36 def. Hines, 6.925, 193.02; Tonglet, 6.823, 196.22 def. Johnson, 6.962, 182.72; M. Smith, 6.876, 196.50 def. Berry, 6.916, 192.77;

SEMIFINALS — M. Smith, 6.872, 195.48 def. Pollacheck, 6.969, 186.30; Tonglet, 6.831, 195.08 def. Arana Jr, 6.863, 195.22;

FINAL — Tonglet, 6.824, 195.76 def. M. Smith, 6.882, 195.31.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

POINT STANDINGS AFTER NORWALK:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Steve Torrence, 1,071; 2.  Leah Pritchett, 1,021; 3.  Antron Brown, 990; 4.  Tony Schumacher, 856; 5.  Doug Kalitta, 781; 6.  Brittany Force, 734; 7.  Clay Millican, 695; 8.  Terry McMillen, 477; 9.  (tie) Troy Coughlin Jr., 464; Scott Palmer, 464.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 1,095; 2.  Matt Hagan, 946; 3.  Jack Beckman, 855; 4.  Robert Hight, 809; 5.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 739; 6.  Courtney Force, 714; 7.  John Force, 683; 8.  Tim Wilkerson, 525; 9.  J.R. Todd, 508; 10.  Cruz Pedregon, 431.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Bo Butner, 1,067; 2.  Greg Anderson, 941; 3.  Tanner Gray, 887; 4.  Jeg Coughlin, 820; 5.  Jason Line, 781; 6.  Erica Enders, 690; 7.  Vincent Nobile, 670; 8.  Drew Skillman, 575; 9.  Chris McGaha, 454; 10.  Allen Johnson, 448.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  LE Tonglet, 480; 2.  Eddie Krawiec, 389; 3.  Scotty Pollacheck, 325; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 322; 5.  Andrew Hines, 317; 6.  Hector Arana Jr, 314; 7.  Joey Gladstone, 278; 8.  Matt Smith, 256; 9.  Steve Johnson, 219; 10.  Karen Stoffer, 217.

 

Penske drivers lament missed victory at Road America (VIDEO)

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Team Penske dominated the entire Kohler Grand Prix weekend at Road America, twice going 1-2-3-4 over the three practice sessions on Friday and Saturday and then doing the same in qualifying, with Helio Castroneves taking pole from Will Power, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud.

However, race day represented a missed opportunity. Though Castroneves led early, it was Newgarden who emerged as their best hope for victory following a spectacular outside pass on Castroneves entering turn 1 on lap 19. That put Newgarden in the lead, and he seemed to be in full control.

Still, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon had been stalking the Penske foursome all race long, and sat behind Newgarden in second for a lap 30 restart. With Newgarden on primary blacks and Dixon on alternate reds, Newgarden was somewhat of a sitting duck, and Dixon muscled his way into the lead with an equally spectacular outside pass in turn 1, with Newgarden briefly falling to third behind teammate Castroneves.

Josef Newgarden led several laps, but could not find his way around Dixon for the win. Photo: IndyCar

Although Newgarden regrouped, overtook Castroneves during the final pit stop sequence, and closed to within a second following a restart with seven laps remaining, he was never close enough to make a move for the win.

Even though the Team Penske drivers all finished in the top five, going 2-3-4-5 with Newgarden leading Castroneves, Pagenaud, and Power, missing out on victory was a bitter pill to swallow.

“It stings a little bit coming home second when you feel like you have a winning car,” Newgarden revealed in the post-race press conference.

He added that an ill-timed lap 28 caution for a spinning Takuma Sato ultimately put paid his chances of victory. “The caution didn’t fall our way. You can’t predict that stuff. It hurts when it comes at the wrong time. That’s pretty much what happened today. With (Tim Cindric calling the strategy), I feel confident with all our decisions, everything those guys do on the pit box. Things just didn’t fall our way today.”

For Castroneves, a slight error before his final pit stop saw him pit earlier than the team wanted, due to an alarm that went off in the cockpit. However, as he explained to NBCSN’s Marty Snider, it was of little consequence to the outcome of the race.

“We mentioned in the debrief that if in turn 14, the blue lights come on, you are to come right away. So I came in. I am sure they had a little buffer, and they knew what exactly was going on. (Race engineer Jonathan Diuguid) said keep going but I couldn’t quite understand him. But at the end of the day it didn’t cost us anything in terms of a win or second place.”

Still, the strong results see Pagenaud and Castroneves sit second and third in the championship, while Newgarden and Power sit fifth and sixth, respectively.

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F1 Paddock Pass: Azerbaijan Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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One of the crazier, most eventful Formula 1 races in recent memory took place at the Baku City Circuit today in Azerbajian.

That makes it a challenge to recap but it’s something NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, along with producer Jason Swales, attempt to do in the latest post-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass.

You can see it below. Thursday’s pre-race edition is linked here. A full roundup of Sunday videos from Baku is linked here.

 

Bottas gives everything in Baku fightback from a lap down to P2

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Valtteri Bottas says he “gave it absolutely everything” after falling a lap down and running last early on in Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Baku before fighting back to finish second for Mercedes.

Bottas qualified second for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix behind teammate Lewis Hamilton, but dropped back after contact with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2 on the opening lap, sustaining a puncture.

Bottas fell a lap down on the field immediately, but was waved past and able to get back onto the lead lap during the first safety car period.

From there, Bottas produced a stunning fightback, dodging the minefield of incidents through the race to eventually cross the line second after a drag race to the checkered flag with Williams’ Lance Stroll.

“Today was a crazy race, especially for me. I had a puncture on the first lap after the contact with Kimi on Lap 1,” Bottas said.

“I was a lap down, then had to overtake the field under the Safety Car. The second Safety Car after that really helped me out and, step by step, I moved forward from there.

“My main goal today was to fight for the win but that went out of the window after the first lap. I was actually last at one point, but I got my head down, gave it absolutely everything and tried to get the absolute maximum out of every single corner.

“We didn’t quite manage to win but P2 from where we were is a great feeling. Importantly for the team, we scored more points in the fight with Ferrari and I got some good points for myself as well.”

Bottas ultimately finished as Mercedes’ lead driver following Lewis Hamilton’s second pit stop when his headrest came loose, resigning the Briton to fifth place at the checkered flag.