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Past USAC champ, Indy 500 pole winner Joe Leonard dies at 84

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Star USAC, Indianapolis and motorcycle racer Joe Leonard has passed away at 84 years old. A release with a tribute and more information from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is below:

Auto Racing Hall of Fame member Joe Leonard, the 1968 Indianapolis 500 pole sitter, a two-time USAC National Champion and one of the great motorcycle racers of all time, passed away Thursday, April 27. He was 84.

The longtime San Jose, California, resident, who had been in ill health for some time, had nine consecutive starts in the Indianapolis 500 between 1965 and 1973, leading the field for 52 laps and finishing third in both 1967 and 1972.

Leonard won six USAC National Championship races during his career, including three at Milwaukee and one at Michigan International Speedway, plus the second running of the Ontario (California) 500 in 1971 and the second running of the Pocono (Pennsylvania) 500 in 1972.

After suffering crippling leg and ankle injuries at Ontario in the spring of 1974 and being unable to pass the physical for a planned comeback the following year, he hung up his helmet for good.

Before ever turning to four wheels, Leonard was one of the most successful riders ever in AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) competition, winning 27 “national” events, including the Daytona 200 on two occasions when it was still conducted over the old “beach” course.

For the first several decades of its existence, AMA would declare a variety of different champions each year, typically based on the outcome of certain one-day events in a variety of different classifications. The coveted “Number One” plate was assigned for the following season to whomever won the prestigious classic over the 1-mile dirt track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.

For the first time in 1954, a series of widely diversified events awarded points toward a seasonal Grand National Championship and not only was Leonard the inaugural titlist under those circumstances, but he won it again in 1956 and 1957, in addition to placing second in three other years up through 1961.

Runner-up in points to Leonard that first year was none other than his Harley-Davidson “factory” teammate, Paul Goldsmith, a mentor of sorts who helped Leonard numerous times throughout his career and who remained a very close friend until the very end, talking with him by phone just days before Leonard’s passing. Goldsmith lobbied for Leonard to drive a Nichels Engineering Dodge on the USAC Stock Car circuit in 1964, with Leonard ending up fifth in points and winning the 100-miler on the dirt track at Du Quoin, Illinois.

Leonard once revealed that driving in the Indianapolis 500 had been an ambition of his since boyhood, as many of his heroes were “500” drivers who took part in the West Coast midget car races he watched from the grandstands in San Diego as a teenager. “I never started out to race bikes,” he once said, “but I couldn’t seem to get into midgets and since I didn’t have much money, it ended up that bikes were how I got started and how I got to Indianapolis.”

Despite finishing third in the “500” on two occasions, the overall results fail to illustrate just how much of a contender Leonard was for victory year after year. In 1968, for instance, the year after his third-place finish as a teammate to race winner A.J. Foyt, Leonard was recruited to assist the Granatelli STP team, which had just suffered through a devastating series of major driver injuries and other setbacks. Assigned to a rear-engined Pratt & Whitney gas turbine-powered four-wheel-drive Lotus “wedge,” Leonard, and one of his teammates, British Formula One World Champion Graham Hill, quickly stabilized the still-reeling team by qualifying one-two.

Although he led only 31 laps of the 1968 race, Leonard appeared headed for victory and was in front when a late-race caution was about to end on Lap 192. Out came the green and Leonard promptly slowed, heading for the Turn 1 infield grass, a failed fuel pump shaft forcing him out within sight of victory.

In 1969, Leonard ran second for many laps with a Smokey Yunick-entered turbocharged Ford-powered Eagle until turbocharger problems resulted in a couple of lengthy pit stops. He managed to salvage sixth at the finish but was still several laps behind when he could well have been strongly challenging his good friend Mario Andretti for the win.

In 1970, Leonard ran second again for several laps, this time behind teammate Al Unser in one of the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Johnny Lightning Specials. A faulty ignition eliminated Leonard after 73 laps, but just days later, he trounced the entire field at Milwaukee.

In 1971, still Unser’s teammate, but now sporting yellow Samsonite livery instead of Johnny Lightning blue, Leonard waged a great back-and-forth battle over several laps with Unser, including as late as Lap 117, shortly before turbocharger problems sent him to the sidelines.

There was certainly consolation from a third-place Indianapolis 500 finish the following year behind Mark Donohue and Unser. But very likely because Leonard always led a less flamboyant existence than some of his colleagues, his name tends to be overlooked when fans and historians discuss the most deserving “500” drivers who never won.

Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean to launch cookbook

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Haas Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean may be one of the sport’s most promising talents on-track, but he also has a burning passion off it: cooking.

Grosjean may have been spent a good part of this year cooking his brakes, but you’ll now be able to cook bakes instead…

F1’s resident foodie is set to release a cookbook alongside wife Marion Jolles in the coming weeks, as announced on his Facebook page.

Grosjean currently sits 13th in the F1 drivers’ championship with 18 points to his name, helping Haas to match the points total from its debut season after just 10 races in 2017.

Mercedes F1 engine chief warns against underestimating Honda

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Mercedes Formula 1 engine chief Andy Cowell has warned against underestimating the threat of Honda despite its ongoing power unit struggles, tipping the Japanese manufacturer to bounce back in the near future.

Honda returned to F1 as a manufacturer in 2015, supplying V6 turbo power units to the McLaren team, but has struggled for either performance or reliability through that period.

The struggles have led McLaren – currently sat bottom of the constructors’ championship – to consider cutting ties for 2018 given how far adrift compared to the other three engine suppliers Honda has been.

Mercedes has been the benchmark for engine performance since the change in regulation for 2014, but Cowell feels that Honda could make up ground quickly, with the removal of the token system for 2017 helping performance to converge through the field.

“I think collectively we’ve helped with convergence in Formula 1 in the opening season, performance development through the year,” Cowell said.

“But then the opportunity to do a big change with Honda coming in, we all agreed that Honda could have that same opportunity to change everything in the first year and then the request came from manufacturers in addition to Honda saying ‘please can we take this crazy token table away because it’s bad for the sport?’

“It’s bad if somebody can’t train to get better and so we agreed, yeah, take the table away because it’s better for the sport because it means that you can innovate, you can introduce whatever you like.

“I think none of us should underestimate the technical prowess of Honda and of McLaren and I think my money is on that combination coming good and coming good pretty quickly. No pressure…”

Williams happy to ‘hold off’ on 2018 F1 driver decision

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Williams is happy to “hold off” on making a decision on its Formula 1 driver line-up for 2018 as it focuses on improving its on-track displays after a tough start to the season.

Williams currently fields Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll, a mix of experience and youth, but has failed to keep up with midfield front-runner Force India through the first half of the year.

Force India sits fourth in the constructors’ championship with more than double the points of Williams, who leads a tight-knit group down to Renault in eighth place, 15 points adrift.

While Stroll looks set to continue with Williams and Massa has hinted he may look to continue through to 2018 despite initially planning to retire at the end of last season, deputy team boss Claire Williams has confirmed that no decision about next year’s line-up will come any time soon.

“There’s a lot of talk already isn’t there, about drivers across the paddock. For us, we’ve decided we’re going to hold off a bit on our driver decision,” Williams said.

“We’ve got a fight on our hands on the race track at the moment and to be distracted by those kinds of conversations isn’t something that we want to be happening at the moment.

“[Force India’s] got a nice points haul on us at the moment we need to focus on, rather than anything else.”

Nico Rosberg visits Stanford University, considering study options

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2016 Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg is considering study options at Stanford University after visiting the college earlier this week as part of his tour around California.

Rosberg sensationally announced his retirement from F1 just five days after winning his maiden world title last November, wanting to spend more time with his young family.

The German has been enjoying his retirement, recently embarking on a tour of Silicon Valley and California that saw him hold meetings with electric car giant Tesla, among other companies.

In a video posted to his Twitter account on Sunday, Rosberg spoke warmly about a visit to Stanford, revealing that he is considering some study options in the near future at the historic institution.

Rosberg was previously offered a scholarship to study engineering at Imperial College London when he was younger, only to turn it down in order to embark on a racing career. He also reportedly holds the highest ever score on Williams’ engineering aptitude test.

Should Nico sign up to a course at Stanford, we imagine he’d take things one class at a time…