MADISON, Ill. (AP) The return of IndyCar after a long layoff to the St. Louis region is welcome news for area racing fans.
St. Louis is still dealing with the election last month, where a bond issue failed that would have provided money for a stadium for a Major League Soccer team.
And also of course the NFL’s Rams, who moved to Los Angeles after the 2015 season.
But the return of the IndyCar racing open-wheel series to Gateway Motorsports Park, the 1.25-mile oval in this small city five minutes from downtown St. Louis has brought high hopes to a track that six years ago was 24 hours away from the grandstands being sold for scrap.
That’s when St. Louis real estate developer and former open-wheel racer Curtis Francois came up with money to help revitalize the once-failing 340-acre facility.
“We’ve been working really hard over the last five years to re-energize the fan base and motorsports in general,” said Francois, whose track will host its first IndyCar series race since 2003 on Aug. 26.
“I think they understand that we’re sincere and that we’re going to keep at this until we get this figured out in a way that they understand that motorsports is here to stay.
“And motorsports is a great opportunity to take your family out for a great afternoon. It’s important to engage them and make them understand that we are trying to give them what they’re after.”
That showed on Tuesday when several hundred fans showed up for two IndyCar test sessions, which surprised the drivers, IndyCar officials and Gateway management.
So much so, that the drivers held an impromptu autograph session during a break.
“This is not very common when we’re going to a place like this and having practice and people are coming over,” said three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves and the last winner of the IndyCar race at Gateway.
“It’s like a qualifying day. That is great. It shows that we do have a market here. I’m happy. This is the way it started when you’re going to new places. You start to practice and people start coming to watch. I feel this is going to be the same.”
On Saturday night, the series raced at Phoenix International Raceway in front of only about 10,000 fans. It was the second time returning to Phoenix after a 10-year layoff.
While the low attendance figure bothered drivers and officials, they also know it’s hard to win back fans after a long layoff.
“It’s only the second year (in Phoenix),” said 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, who was second at Gateway in 2003.
“To me it seemed like it was as good, or as bad, whatever you want to call it. Honestly, I think everybody tried there are just some places that has better attendance than others. But I don’t have an answer.”
As for coming to Gateway, Kanaan said “these are the types of places we need to come back to. I’m excited to come back and come back here. We just need to keep pounding on social media that we’re coming back. That’s the best thing to do.
“Then when we come back here and put on a good show for them and the people that didn’t come, they regret it.”
IndyCar president of competition and operations Jay Frye said the series will have to reintroduce itself to St. Louis-area race fans after a 13-year layoff.
“The Midwest is great. There’s a lot of race fans,” Frye said during a break during two test sessions.
“We’re excited to be coming back. Curtis Francois and (general manager) Chris (Blair) have a vision. We understand it’s going to take a couple of years to build it back up. That’s OK.
“As long as we’re lined up together and they have a vision and a plan with where they’re going, we’re partners. We’re excited to be back.”
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Lewis Hamilton is planning to see out his Mercedes Formula 1 contract until at least the end of the 2018 season despite reports suggesting that he may consider quitting the sport at the end of the year.
Hamilton clinched his fifth British Grand Prix victory at Silverstone last weekend, drawing to within one point of F1 drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel in the process.
Hamilton said in a press conference after the race that he “can’t really say what’s going to happen six months from now”, as per Reuters, but he was quick to clarify that he expected to see out his contract with Mercedes.
“I just think in life you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hamilton said.
“Right now I love driving and then in six months I might… it’s very unlikely because I think I’m always going to like driving, I’m always going to like doing crazy stuff.
“I’m still enjoying it and I still have a contract with the team for at least a year so I plan to see that out at the moment.
“Even in getting another championship, it will never be: ‘OK, now it’s time to hang up the gloves’. I’ll always want to win more.
“Even when I do stop, something inside me will say I still want to get more.”
As the international sports car season rolls on, occasionally we’ll check in with drivers who have raced largely in North America but have since set up shop with European programs (Sean Rayhall and Will Owen, who race with United Autosports, are two good examples).
Today we’ll check in with Andy Meyrick, who was with the DeltaWing outfit from 2013 through 2016.
The Englishman is balancing a dual role this year with a McLaren 570S GT4 with the new Bullitt Racing team, established in Spain, run by veteran team manager David Price and co-driving with Stephen Pattrick in the GT4 Series Northern Cup, and also with a Ligier JS P3 in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with Motorsport 98 and co-driver Eric De Doncker, a Belgian sports car veteran who is that team’s owner.
Thus far there’s been four races in the McLaren with five to go – three more in the Northern Cup and two in the south – and more races to come in the Ligier after late start for races in Monza and Le Mans, the latter as part of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race week. Meyrick heads to the Red Bull Ring this weekend for the next round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup season.
For a driver who hasn’t too regularly been in pro-am lineups, Meyrick is now balancing two pro-am roles simultaneously and loving going back and forth between prototypes and GT cars in two of the emerging categories on a worldwide stage.
MST: It’s certainly been a change for you this year with a hectic schedule and two programs. How has it all come together?
Andy Meyrick: “To be honest, it’s been fantastic. There’s no restriction on testing in either series, so with multiple programs, we’re out all the time, especially in the McLaren.
“For me, it’s a completely new arena really. I’ve very done little pro-am racing to be honest. I’d been with Aston, Bentley and DeltaWing with pro-pro lineups. It was a new experience to do the pro-am stuff. I was a bit unsure of how to approach it in the first place. I’d done a bit with Gulf in a McLaren.
“But I love it as both programs are growing. When I sat down with the team that I’d do the GT4 program with them, they hinted GT4 is gonna explode, it’ll be the next GT3… and I wasn’t too sure it’d be the case. But I’m gobsmacked at the level GT4 is at, with how often you can go racing, how good the championship is and how well it’s run. It’s good to be in this market.”
MST: With a guy like Stephen in the McLaren, how have you helped and aided his development?
AM: “It’s been pretty amazing. Stephen, before the season, I’d known him since he was a guest in 2011 when I was with Aston Martin. He’d done track days but hadn’t really never done anything else. At the Red Bull Ring, he led outright and a double podium for us, so he’s shown flashes of really fantastic speed, not just for gentlemen but for anybody!
“Sometimes you have to stop and tell yourself, look this is only your third or fourth race weekend! We can go racing, but we also have to accept he has a lack of experience, the speed he’s shown so far, the ability to absorb the information! He’s been thrown deep into the program but he’s shown he’s enjoying and learning it all.”
MST: You and ‘Pricey’ have a great relationship. Has it been a natural with him running the McLaren program?
AM: “This one here we entered with a turnkey car, but the team was brand new at the end of 2016. ‘Pricey’ was a huge motivation to want to be there, because I’ve been a big fan of him and with the two of us, it just clicks. He doesn’t need to say what he’s thinking – I just know what he wants. We have such a good relationship. He was a big thing for me to want to be involved with it. But it’s great to build something from scratch.
“The team are based near Ascari in south of Spain, so at least once or twice a month we’re there testing. It’s an easy flight from Manchester. It’s easy to forget we’re only a handful of weekends into the team between Misano, Brands Hatch, Red Bull Ring and Slovakiaring. There’s a fair way to go but we’re accomplishing our goals for the team and the races thus far have been phenomenal.”
MST: Of course you also have the LMP3 program as well, also a new outfit…
AM: “Yeah and this one was a bit of a surprise to be honest! I’d known Eric from his driving a Group C car I’d driven a few years back. We talked about LMP3 and I said yeah let’s do something for 2018 after testing this year… and Eric wanted to do it now! We tested April 18-19, he bought the car April 21 and our first race was 12-13 of May! So it put us at Monza and we rolled it straight out of the truck from Ligier and finished fifth! Save for a drive through we would have been on the podium the first race. Eric’s very experienced and it’s been a pleasure.
“We went to Le Mans and we’d started the second race from the back owing to a probelm, but went from 49th to 9th in the second race at Le Mans. We’ve shown tremendous pace given how little we’ve done with the car. We have the Red Bull Ring this weekend, and it’s coming back to where I got two podiums in the GT4 a few weeks ago.
“The DeltaWing’s a prototype but not in the traditional sense, so before that the last prototype I’d been in was the old Lola Aston and the AMR-ONE, both in 2011. I’ll admit a few years ago when I read about LMP3, you’re sort of rolling your eyes at another class, series, that can cloud the market. But to be honest it’s brilliant and fantastic. It’s cost-effective for what it is but cheap for prototype and endurance racing. You get such good service out of it.”
MST: When you do have such disparate cars as an LMP3 Ligier and a GT4 McLaren, how do you jostle between the two of them?
AM: “I think that’s one of my biggest strengths, jumping from car to car, as you don’t see too many doing it anymore. I think it’s a big skill. The GT3 Bentley and DeltaWing couldn’t get any further apart! You’re going from a GT3 with ABS, TC and some weight compared to a very light prototype. But you make the adaptations quite quick, otherwise you spend the first laps of every weekend trying to get up to speed with the groove of each car.
“If you’re a driver, part of marketing yourself is being in as many cars as possible to get the most track time. I’ve always looked up at a guy like Stephane Sarrazin for example, who goes from rally to LMP1 car, and you’re constantly learning. If you’re in different environments and packages, you’re open to different engineers and approaches.”
MST: How close were you to any U.S. programs this year and should we hope to see you back Stateside racing soon?
AM: “I was very close to two programs in the U.S., one in IMSA and one in PWC, but unfortunately neither came together. That said, I enjoy racing in the States so much more than Europe.
“I pinch myself every time I go to a race in America when you think, ‘Mate, I get paid to do this, fly across the Atlantic and driver a race car.’ I love the environment of the States, the circuits, as it’s not just a circuit, but the variety. You go from the streets of Long Beach to the flowing Road America which is just stunning.
“I want to be back over there and perhaps attend one race tail end of this year. Those two championships are both looking amazing as usual.
“Otherwise it was cool to see my mate Jack Harvey racing in the Indy 500 this year. As he was teammates with Fernando Alonso that was so cool! It was ace to see, as he’s had a rough couple years and he’s a huge talent, and one of the nicest guys around the paddock. He’s done a fantastic job and committed to his craft.
“Ideally we’re both back racing in the U.S. sooner rather than later.”
“For Budapest we are set for a big upgrade. Almost all the car, or all the aero side, will be new, so that should give us a good performance boost,” Wehrlein said.
“If what the data shows really can materialize we could be on a good go.”
Wehrlein has endured a rocky season so far, missing the opening two races through injury before leading Sauber to eighth place in Spain, as well as taking another point in Baku.
“It is no secret that my start to the season was very difficult. The injury matter was pretty tough,” Wehrein said.
“Going to Australia and not driving was hard and having to skip China was another notch on the ‘horror scale’.
“The start to 2017 in Bahrain was not bad. It felt like I had never been away, never been injured. The first qualifying took me to Q2 and I nearly finished in the points with P11, with the Sauber car!
“Since then it is going smoothly and pretty much in the right direction. Twice I scored points, with the clear highlight of Barcelona, which was exceptional for us finishing in P7, even if with the penalty it was finally P8.
“But imagine: P7 with the Sauber! Yes there have been difficult races since then, but we knew that this would happen.”