Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI Barber Notebook: Friday

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The Mazda Road to Indy is only slightly less busy at Barber Motorsports Park than it was at St. Petersburg back in March. With the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires not competing this weekend, that leaves two of the three rungs on the ladder in competition this weekend.

Of course, this is in no way an indication of a lack of action. Friday featured practice for the Indy Lights presented by Cooper tires, while the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda featured qualifying and race action. And the young guns of open wheel racing continued to shine.

Askew Makes it Two-in-a-Row

Oliver Askew made it back-to-back wins in the early portion of the 2017 season (he won Race 2 at St. Petersburg) with a commanding drive on Friday at Barber Motorsports Park. The 20-year-old native of Florida started from pole, bolted away at the start, and led all 19 laps on his way to victory. On the surface, it was a dominant performance, at least until one looks at the margin of victory. Askew beat second-place Kaylen Frederick by a scant .227 seconds, with the 14-year-old keeping Askew honest while on his way to his first career podium.

Oliver Askew leads the field to start Race 1 Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Still, Askew kept the youngster at bay to secure a well-earned victory. “I trick myself into thinking it’s just a practice session, because if you think too much, that’s when mistakes happen – and I couldn’t have that with Kaylen right behind me,” Askew said of his battle with Frederick.

The victory extends Askew’s points lead (he leads Rinus Veekay by 31 points after three rounds), but he was quick to deflect credit to his Cape Motorsports team for the early success. “The Cape Motorsports guys are doing a great job and I’m learning every time I’m at the track,” he detailed. “I really appreciate the opportunity from Mazda. This is everything I’ve ever hoped for. I’ve waited for this opportunity for several years so to be where I am right now is really special – hopefully we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”

USF2000 podium, Race 1 Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

For their part, Frederick and Veekay are enjoying strong starts to their own campaigns. Frederick has finishes of fourth, fifth, and second in the opening three races, while Veekay has not been off the podium, with finishes of third, second, and third.

As a result, both Frederick and Veekay are positioned nicely to challenge for the championship. “It’s a cliché but I hope this is the first of many more to come!” Frederick said of his first podium. “Hopefully we can get the pole tomorrow so I don’t have to work so hard to get around Oliver. I struggled at St. Pete since it was (my) first street course. I had to learn a lot and improve a lot but the team definitely gave me a good car there and here as well.”

Veekay was slightly frustrated, noting that a poor start left him playing catchup, but he expressed optimism going forward. “It’s good as a rookie to be in the top three in the championship after three races, so I’m happy with that,” he said of the result. “I didn’t have a great start but I think it was the best I could get out of my position. It is hard to pass here but I was one of the quickest cars so that bodes well for tomorrow.”

The USF2000 Championship continues tomorrow with qualifying for Race 2 at 10:25 a.m. ET (9:25 local time) while the race rolls off at 5:45 ET (4:45 local time).

Blackstock tops practice for Indy Lights

Belardi Auto Racing’s Shelby Blackstock led the opening Indy Lights practice, bettering Carlin’s Garth Rickards by five hundredths of a second to do so. Zachary Claman De Melo, Kyle Kaiser, and Colton Herta rounded out the top five. Aaron Telitz, who won Race 1 at St. Petersburg, was mired down in 11th, just behind Santi Urrutia. The entire Indy Lights field was covered by 1.1 seconds, and the close grid will put a premium on qualifying well for both races.

Indy Lights leads things off on Saturday with Race 1 qualifying at 9:40 a.m. ET (8:40 local time), with the race seeing the green flag at 3:00 p.m. ET (2:00 local time).

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‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’


NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”