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New chapter for Mazda’s Global MX-5 Cup begins at Barber

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Combination IndyCar and sports car weekends provide a great amount of variety and diversity for fans on road and street course weekends.

This weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, the Verizon IndyCar Series has a few new sports car series joining in for the weekend festivities. With the Pirelli World Challenge leaving Barber after several years and instead focusing on a headliner event at Virginia International Raceway next week, IMSA has brought its Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda and Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama to Birmingham.

And then, of course, there’s one of North America’s most exciting forms of racing in the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires, where the next generation Mazda MX-5 Cup car series (the new car was developed by Long Road Racing and more than 120 have been sold) is now under the INDYCAR sanctioning body banner and Andersen Promotions-promoted umbrella. It brings together elements of both the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and the Mazda Road to 24, Mazda’s dual development programs that help bring drivers forward in both the open-wheel and sports car arenas.

The MX-5 Cup will have a different season than normal. It will run alongside IndyCar at Barber this weekend, Road America in June, Toronto in July and Watkins Glen in September, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in June (on SVRA Brickyard Invitational vintage weekend) and then twice at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September (with IMSA) and October (with PWC and a worldwide SRO GT event).

In late October last year, the series changed hands from SCCA sanctioning to INDYCAR’s. Mazda’s commitment to scholarships continues here: this year’s MX-5 champion will earn a $200,000 scholarship while the MX-5 Cup rookie-of-the-year earns a $50,000 scholarship.

This also gives INDYCAR a sports car series under its sanctioning body umbrella. Vince Kremer, an INDYCAR veteran, will serve as Race Director.

“When Mazda approached us regarding MX5 Cup, we felt it would be a great opportunity for INDYCAR to expand upon what we’re already doing with our involvement in the Mazda Road to Indy,” Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations, said at the time of the announcement. “This agreement also allows us to enhance our overall platform with Mazda Motorsports and Andersen Promotions, who have been great partners of INDYCAR.”

John Doonan, director of motorsports at Mazda North American Operations added, “This sanctioning agreement with INDYCAR for the Battery Tender Global Mazda MX5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires is based upon our long and productive relationship with Dan Andersen, Andersen Promotions and INDYCAR. By teaming with INDYCAR, we believe the series will thrive. Mazda strives to provide value to our customers, and to present our race teams with this race schedule today is a big step forward. They will have the opportunity to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, plus other iconic circuits in the U.S. and Canada.”

There’s a fun atmosphere in the paddock among the drivers and teams. With the point of entry a bit lower for MX-5 Cup compared to most other single-make championships, it provides plenty of family-type atmospheres all competing for glory but not afraid to enjoy life and conversations off the track.

There are, of course, a handful of star teams within the championship. Sick Sideways Racing out of Florida fields defending series champion Nathanial Sparks, who took years of preparation and development into converting last year’s title. “Sparky” is but one of five drivers from John Dean II’s team, although Dean isn’t listed to drive at the moment. Past Team USA Scholarship recipient Joey Bickers and sports car veteran Keith Jensen are also among the Sick Sideways quintet.

Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer continue running their team, which also is a five-car effort under the McCumbee McAleer Racing banner. Patrick Gallagher, a past Mazda MX-5 shootout winner, headlines that lineup with Robert Stout and Nick Igdalsky, a senior VP at Pocono Raceway, among the others.

Series veteran Dean Copeland and his team have four cars, Copeland joined by Nikko Reger, Bryan Ortiz and Dillon Dexter. Todd Lamb (Atlanta Speedwerks) and Ara Malkhassian (ALARA Racing) are other notables in the field.

Here’s the full entry list.

Spring Training, held at Barber last month, showcased a great amount of variety. Reger posted the fastest time of Spring Training with a lap of 1:40.0932, while Sparks, Justin Piscitell, Tim Barber, Patrick Wilmot and Mark Drennan each closed out a session on top. Piscitell isn’t scheduled to compete this weekend.

Here’s the seven rookies competing for the $50,000 for top rookie:

The 2017 class of Global MX-5 Cup rookies:

  • 07    Joe DaSilva, Acushnet, MA. — Ives Motorsports, Ives Motorsports
  • 31    Luis Gavignano, Fairfax Station, VA. — Atlanta Speedwerks, McDonalds
  • 47    Chris Kopitski, Sioux Falls, SD. — Copeland Motorsports, Kopitski Racing
  • 51    Matt Cresci, San Jose, CA. — Slipstream Performance, Mazda Motorsports
  • 77    Luke Oxner, Greely, CO. — White Racing, Wine Country Motorsports
  • 90    Dillon Dexter, Central City, NE. — Copeland Motorsports, Dexter Racing
  • 97    Frank Garcia, Frostproof, FL. — Universal Motorsports, Universal Shooting Academy/Ron Automotive

And here’s the rest of the notes heading into the weekend, courtesy of PR aces Sunday Group:

Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires News and Notes:

— Going Global: the Global MX-5 Cup is the North American edition of the all MX-5 championship, with Mazda’s vision being to create multiple championships around the globe all utilizing the same MX-5 Global Cup car. While 2017 marks just the second season with the new Global MX-5 Cup platform, there is already inertia with new international championships. Official tests for the GLOBAL MX-5 Cup Japan were carried out in March at Sportsland SUGO, Miyagi Prefecture where 10 MX-5 Cup cars took part as a first official step forward to building a championship in Japan.

—Big Oak Ranch visit reflects Mazda’s big hearts: With the support of Mazda and Andersen Promotions, defending MX-5 Cup Champion Nathanial Sparks will host guests this weekend from the Big Oak Ranch (http://www.bigoak.org), a home for children needing a chance. The young visitors will get a behind the scenes look at a race weekend as well as some special opportunities to meet the drivers in the series and see the Global MX-5 Cup machine in person.

—The Barber Motorsports Park entry list includes drivers from 17 states as well as Canada.

—Both races will be streamed LIVE on www.MazdaLive.com on Saturday, April 22.  Race 1 starts at 10:00 am (CT) with Race 2 at 5:40 pm (CT).

IMSA: Porsche doubles up at Lime Rock Park

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Porsche has enjoyed a perfect day in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s first GT class-only race of the year, with a GT Le Mans and GT Daytona sweep between its two 911 variants at the Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park.

The new mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR has claimed its first global victory since its debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona this year, following through on a run of poles in both IMSA and the FIA World Endurance Championship over the last month.

Dirk Werner, who claimed the new Porsche’s first pole at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park last time out, now has the car’s first win and shared it with 2015 GTLM class champion Patrick Pilet. The pair shared the No. 911 car.

That led a 1-2 in class, with the polesitting Gianmaria Bruni falling to second behind the sister car in the No. 912 car he shared with Laurens Vanthoor.

Porsche’s last GTLM win was also a 1-2, set last September at Circuit of The Americas and with the No. 912 car ahead of the No. 911 car that race.

The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT pitted from third place for a splash of fuel with just over five minutes remaining in the race, costing Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe a podium finish. That dropped it behind an intense battle between the No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM and No. 3 Corvette C7.R, which had been for fourth but got promoted to third as a result of the Ford’s pit stop. The No. 67 Ford fell to fifth.

Martin Tomczyk in the BMW he shared with John Edwards held off Antonio Garcia in the Corvette, who shared that car with Jan Magnussen.

Meanwhile to complete the banner day for Porsche, the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R took its first win with the 991-spec GT3 variant of Porsche’s models. It’s the team’s first win since the 2015 Petit Le Mans season finale, when Spencer Pumpelly, Patrick Lindsey and Madison Snow shared the car.

Lindsey and Joerg Bergmeister took the victory in GT Daytona, Bergmeister adding to his impeccable run of form at Lime Rock Park with his seventh win at the track. Bergmeister and Thomas Blam achieved a wealth of success with Flying Lizard Motorsports at Lime Rock and Blam, Park Place’s race strategist, now has helped deliver another win for the pair. It also comes following an earlier incident in practice this weekend, and a rebuild of the car by the Park Place crew.

Incidentally, Snow was the one who posed the biggest threat to the No. 73 car this race on this occasion. The veteran youngster – if a 21-year-old can be called a veteran – took the pole in the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and led early and handed off to Bryan Sellers. Continuing the sort-of-Flying Lizard theme, Sellers drives for K-PAX Racing in Pirelli World Challenge and that team features a technical partnership with the Lizards.

Bergmeister’s longtime co-driver Patrick Long, another past Flying Lizard driver, then finished third in class in a one-off drive with Canadian Daniel Morad. The pair brought the No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, the Rolex 24 at Daytona class winner, home in third for the car’s first podium finish since the Rolex 24 win.

The No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS, which won at CTMP, was fourth while the No. 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3’s podium run ended in fifth, but in a strong fight back drive from Andy Lally after Katherine Legge was involved in a couple of incidents in her stint – contact with both the No. 16 Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3.

Lally held off points leader Alessandro Balzan in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3, the car he shared with Christina Nielsen, while these two’s podium streak also came to an end after six consecutive races.

Busch’s historic Indy chase includes hope for 500-600 double

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Indianapolis is quickly becoming Kyle Busch’s favorite racing venue.

Ten years ago, he met his future wife, Samantha, at the 2.5-mile oval.

Last year, he pulled off a rare sweep by winning both poles and both races on Brickyard 400 weekend. It’s the last time Busch celebrated a Cup win and now that he’s back at the historic 2.5-mile oval, he doesn’t want to wait until next September to make a return trip. He’d like to add a May stop to his already full 2018 schedule ad attempt the fabled double bill of the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600.

“I had it (a deal) done last year, sold it and everything,” Busch said when asked about competing in the Indy 500. “I had a boss that said no.”

Busch, the 2015 Cup champion and two-time defending Brickyard champ, hasn’t given up on his dream; he’s just putting it on hold temporarily this weekend as he chases history and tries to end a 12-month victory drought.

He couldn’t have picked a better place to come. Over the past two years, Busch has been the most dominant stock-car driver at Indy.

The two-time defending Brickyard champion has led 168 of the last 189 laps here, including a record 149 out of 170 last year when he won from the pole. He also won the 2015 and 2016 Xfinity Series races from the pole, giving him four consecutive wins at Indianapolis.

When the track opened for Xfinity practice Friday, Busch’s car was near the top again – even with restrictor-plate motors.

Busch still had the third-fastest car in the first two practice sessions, turning a fast lap of 166.162 mph as overcast skies cooled the track. The Xfinity qualifications and race will be held Saturday, the same day Busch and the other Cup drivers also will take their first laps.

Even as Busch talks about winning an unprecedented third straight Brickyard, the thrill of taking a shot in IndyCar’s marquee race – and trying the 1,100-mile Memorial Day weekend double – remains a major attraction for the 32-year-old driver.

“I thought I had a great opportunity to do it (in May), but I’m kind of glad it didn’t come together because (Fernando) Alonso kind of stole the headlines the last time it was done,” Busch said. “It would be fun. It would be a unique opportunity. The thing that scares my boss is that I’ve never driven those cars.”

If he goes for it, Busch would start the day in Indianapolis for the 500 then fly to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the 600-mile Cup race. His brother, Kurt Busch, tried that in 2014 and finished sixth at the Indy 500 before a blown engine knocked him out of the NASCAR nightcap.

It would be the first time brothers have attempted the marathon.

Alonso had never driven an IndyCar or even on an oval before May. Yet the two-time Formula One champ spent most of May’s race in contention before a blown engine knocked him out with 20 laps to go.

Busch thinks his experience – and success – at the Brickyard would make him just as competitive.

In 12 Indy starts, Busch has 10 top-10 finishes. He is one of four Cup drivers with at least two Brickyard titles and last year joined seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson as the only back-to-back race winners. Johnson won in 2008 and 2009.

Somehow Busch has fought through the sweltering mid-summer temperatures and found the secret to winning on this narrow, low-banked oval where passing is tough.

Busch’s success puts him in rare company.

The only driver in track history to win four straight races at Indy is Michael Schumacher, the former Formula One superstar who won each U.S. Grand Prix from 2003-06 on the speedway’s road course. Nobody else has captured three consecutive major race titles at Indy, and if Busch extends his winning streak to five on Saturday, it would break Schumacher’s record.

A win Sunday would also give Toyota its 100th Cup victory, assure Busch of a spot in NASCAR’s playoff and give Joe Gibbs Racing its second win in two weeks after starting the season 0 for 17.

“It’s pretty cool to come in here and have a chance to go for three in a row,” Busch said. “But it’s frustrating that it’s been 365 days since we’ve won one of these things.”

And he would rather not have to wait even longer to give Indy a shot next season.

“I’m good,” he said when asked if he’d trade his Brickyard wins for an Indy 500 crown. “I’d just like to have a shot to go and earn it myself.”

Stroll: Baku F1 podium ‘proves I can be here’

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Lance Stroll is pleased to have answered his critics with his recent Formula 1 displays, believing his podium finish in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix proves he deserves his place on the grid.

Stroll, 18, stepped up to F1 from Formula 3 with Williams for 2017, aided by financial support from his billionaire father, Lawrence.

Stroll had a rough start to life in F1, failing to finish any of his first three races or score points until the seventh race of the year in Canada.

This kick-started a three-race run in the points for Stroll, the highlight being a charge to third place in Baku after rising through the order in a frenetic race.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Stroll said the timing of his points finish in Canada was of little consideration to him, having always had confidence in his own ability.

“If it comes earlier or later, you almost cannot influence it. But I knew that I was capable of doing results so I wasn’t panicking,” Stroll said.

“I knew that it was all a matter of time. But to really do it in Canada, that was great. A great day, the home race.

“It is much more about other things [than confidence]: me improving the way I drive or me working with the team. We have changed a lot on the car since Baku and that helped me a lot in my performance.”

The result saw Stroll become the second-youngest podium finisher in F1 history, only trailing Max Verstappen and sitting ahead of the likes of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.

“It proves that I can be here!” Stroll said. “I did it with a Williams, not a Mercedes!”

Wehrlein not concerned that Sauber performances are overlooked

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Sauber Formula 1 driver Pascal Wehrlein has no concerns that his performances for the backmarker team are being overlooked as he bids to secure a seat further up the grid in the near future.

Wehrlein is part of Mercedes’ junior program, and was an option for the championship-winning marque for 2017 following Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement.

Mercedes eventually signed Valtteri Bottas from Williams, placing Wehrlein at Sauber after his 2016 team, Manor, folded during the off-season.

Wehrlein has led Sauber’s charge through 2017, taking eighth place at the Spanish Grand Prix despite racing in a car lacking upgrades and with a year-old engine.

While a career haul of just six points may seem paltry, Wehrlein is comforted by the fact he has lacked the car with which to fare much better.

“My target is to one day be in a team where I can win races, get on the podium regularly and fight for championships,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“Right now I don’t have these tools to make it happen. The weekends where we score points are very, very special for us because we don’t have the car to finish in the top ten often, only if the stars are in the right place!

“And then we have to take the opportunity and bag the points. I am very happy that when the chance was there I was able to grab it. I want to be there when it counts.

“I think it gets noticed that I have scored points in cars that under normal circumstances don’t score points. I don’t worry about that.”

Bottas has flourished since joining Mercedes, taking two race wins and becoming an unexpected contender in the title race alongside teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

When asked if he was worried about Bottas’ success, Wehrlein said: “No, because I cannot influence such a decision.

“Worrying about things that you cannot influence is wasting your time and wasting your strength and efforts.

“Yes, Valtteri is doing a good job and he deserves it.”