Kligerman: Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 bow defines the word ‘racer’

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Editor’s note: NASCAR on NBC analyst, reporter and occasional columnist Parker Kligerman’s offered some thoughts on Fernando Alonso’s upcoming Indianapolis 500 appearance. This is also linked on NASCAR Talk, here, and is posted below.

In a sudden flurry of tweets and Instagram stories Wednesday, we were flooded with massive news.

Internet meme sensation and two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso would be attempting the Indianapolis 500. Foregoing the champagne popping, mirrored sunglasses and bikini-filled yachts of Monte Carlo, Monaco, for a 2.5-mile rectangular-shaped stretch of asphalt in the flat plains of the Midwestern United States.

Describe it like that, and you might think this is some sort of old European film about an affluent young man heading west to discover America.

But I left out the most important part: Alonso is a racer (aside from being a professional race car driver).

How do I know this?

In his own tweet, accompanied by a painting of the start of an Indy 500, Alonso wrote “I love RACING. I’m just a RACER. Indy 500 here we come!!!” Followed by a series of muscle emojis and hashtags.

Than directly above this tweet he retweeted an Indy 500 champion and one of his new teammates; Ryan Hunter-Reay, who wrote “Welcome to the team @alo_oficial!! The epitome of a true racer. Huge undertaking, big crossover taking it head on. Look fwd to working w/you” (No emojis or hashtags followed.)

At first glance, this seems the beginning of great camaraderie between two top-notch race car drivers, both of whom are under the impression that Alonso is a racer.

It’s a cliche term that I admit to having used a time or two but constantly has left me asking, “What does it mean to be a racer?”

A look at Fernando Alonso’s Twitter avatar provides a good example. Instead of the typical race car driver — firesuit, cool sunglasses and some flashy, edited photo – Alonso is in a go-kart (admittedly it’s a Fernando Alonso Kart).

No super car, no top of the podium from one of his favorite wins at the pinnacle of the sport, not even a workout photo.

Just him in a kart and on a track.

And what is Karting? Karting is where we all start. If you polled all the professional race car drivers in the world, most likely 99 percent would say they started in a kart.

It’s the first point in a race car driver’s life where the gifted start to outshine the pedestrian. It’s racing’s equivalent of the third-grade Saturday morning soccer field. It’s probably the only place and time an eventual professional race car driver competes for one reason: The fun and thrill of driving.

As a driver climbs the ladder, it all becomes muddled with terms such as funding, sponsorship, lack of funding, marketability, perception and (my personal favorite)  talent.

Every move is scrutinized. The more success you have, the more people will surround you to adjust these things. You put up with it because you want to be a pro driver, and this is what it takes.

But pull any pro driver away from the money, fame, parties, yachts and helicopters. Many will confide they enjoyed it most in a kart, racing with their family and friends for the thrill of driving. For the fun.

Why?

Because back then, it was about being only a racer. Which brings us back to Alonso’s avatar.

The significance of being in a kart is this F1 champion’s way of saying “We all put our pants on, one leg at a time.” Admittedly he’s adorned in multimillion-dollar sponsors from his F1 team. It’s this juxtaposition that shows his nostalgia for the days of old.

He is proclaiming in visual form that he is not in Formula One for the “stuff.” He is there because he loves to drive, and he loves to race and the top of that just happens to be in Formula One.

But is that a true racer? Many will say it is. We will see that from the bajillion times Alonso will be called racer over the coming weeks.

I’m not convinced.

Many proclaim the true racers never get to decide to be nostalgic about the days of their accession – because there was no accession. These racers still are racing at the karting track, bombing around dirt tracks and scrounging for the funds to continue. They are working 9-to-5 jobs so they simply can get to the racetrack.

They don’t get the chance to be envious of a less complicated form of racing because they never left it. This is where my questioning of the term develops.

Earlier this year, I tweeted that I had become a massive fan of Fernando Alonso in the last few years. My central reasoning was because of his absolute non-politically correct “I don’t give a @%!#” attitude, none more evident than this year’s preseason testing.

When asked about when the much faster F1 cars in 2017 meant he was flat-out through turn 3 at the Barcelona test, Alonso joked: “Yes, but I think we are full throttle in many corners!” His woefully underpowered McLaren-Honda struggled to reach a speed that necessitated lifting off the throttle.

Combine his current predicament with his comical accuracy in choosing to go to the wrong team at the wrong time, joining McLaren, Renault (again), Ferrari and McLaren (again) just as they were entering slumps.

You are looking at a guy who is arguably the best driver in Formula One — quite possibly in the world. Who should probably have at least double, if not a record-setting number of F1 championships.

Now he has chosen to try something entirely foreign and unique. Those qualities make me believe he is a rarity in modern-day racing — and I am not alone. In a recent Formula One survey by Motorsport.com, Alonso was vying for most popular driver against worldwide media sensation Lewis Hamilton.

So does racing the Indy 500 make Alonso a racer? No. To me, he already was one.

And does it answer the question of what it means to be a racer? No. I think that is in the eye of the beholder.

What I do know, as a race fan and a fellow professional race car driver, is this.

Whatever Fernando Alonso is, the sport only will benefit by having more like him.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.