Photo: Blackdog Speed Shop

New Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R turning heads in both PWC, IMSA

Leave a comment

The second race debut of one of sports car racing’s newest – and perhaps coolest – models comes to life this weekend at Circuit of The Americas.

The Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R of course has already been seen in action at the first two Pirelli World Challenge weekends with longtime GM competitor Blackdog Speed Shop, at entirely separate circuits from the streets of St. Petersburg to the fast, flowing VIRginia International Raceway.

The car’s full technical specs from its reveal are linked here, but of note, it is rear-wheel drive, unitized body with 2-way adjustable struts & dampers and front & rear anti-roll bars, featuring a 6.2L V8 naturally aspirated direct injection engine and a six-speed sequential transmission with paddle shifters.

Now, the car swaps its boots – Continentals replace the Pirellis – as a third different Camaro GT4.R chassis makes its race debut in IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge competition with Stevenson Motorsports.

The difference in series and tires also comes with a change in the driver lineup. Lawson Aschenbach is committed to Tony Gaples’ Blackdog’s Camaro program in PWC’s GTS class, but although he competes with Stevenson in IMSA, it’s actually in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GT Daytona class sharing an Audi R8 LMS with Andrew Davis.

That leaves Davis’ longtime co-driver and past Continental Tire Challenge co-champion, Robin Liddell, to share the No. 57 Camaro GT4.R with Aschenbach’s past co-driver, one of the series’ most successful qualifiers in Matt Bell. As you can see below, Bell and Liddell are already up to antics…

ASCHENBACH, GAPLES, BLACKDOG LAY THE GROUNDWORK

Photo: Blackdog Speed Shop

It’s a switched-up lineup but with Aschenbach as the guide to the car’s performance from his first two PWC weekends, hopes are high for the latest first race for the new car this weekend.

He’s driven the new GT4.R in addition to the previous generation Z/28.R, which he raced the last time Stevenson ran a Camaro in Continental Tire Challenge competition in 2015 and also with Blackdog in PWC last year, and the previous generation Camaro SS in PWC in 2013 and 2014, both years where he won class championships.

“The GT4.R is a step forward compared to the previous generation race car,” Aschenbach told NBC Sports. “We were able to compile all of the information, and knowledge learned over the past few years with the Z/28, and carefully put that into the development of the new car.

“The handling characteristics aren’t extremely different, but they are much more refined. We were able to keep the braking performance and stability, along with the high speed corner grip. However, we now have better aero balance, and a lighter, more nimble car.

“I feel the GT4.R will be competitive on any track, and on any tire, which is important when it comes to a customer based program.”

CUSTOMER-BASED FOCUS

The key phrasing outlined there is customer-based. GM’s road racing portfolio in recent years has centered on its factory or factory-supported efforts but in 2017, times may be changing on that front.

The flagship Corvette Racing team in WeatherTech has only run with one longtime Corvette chassis customer in Larbre Competition, Jack Leconte’s French team. Cadillac’s PWC GT effort has never seen customers for its CTS-V.R and now ATS-V.R models.

However Cadillac supports multiple teams in WeatherTech now, with the Konica Minolta (Wayne Taylor Racing) and Mustang Sampling and Whelen Engineering teams (Action Express Racing) the first two teams to acquire the new Cadillac DPi-V.R models; the potential is well there for that car to be available to others down the road.

Blackdog Racing; Pirelli World Challenge; St. Petersburg, Florida; March 9-12, 2017; #10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R driven by Lawson Aschenbach and #11 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R driven by Tony Gaples (Richard Prince Photo)

And beyond Blackdog and Stevenson, the goal for the Camaro GT4.R long-term is for it to be sold to customers. The previous generation Z/28.R had only one additional customer in Mantella Autosport, with the Canadian team running those for only one season in Continental Tire Challenge before going to PWC and running KTM X-BOW GT4s from 2016.

“We anticipate this being a customer car program,” Mark Kent, Director, Motorsports Competition – Chevrolet, told reporters at the car’s St. Petersburg debut. “We’re still working out the process and pricing, but that is our long-term intention. This year we’re focusing with Blackdog here, and a team (Stevenson) in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge series. After that would be when we turn it into a customer program.

“It’s based off the Camaro ZL1, but you’ll also see a lot of resemblance to one we introduced at Daytona. It was developed with Pratt & Miller. The engine is built and supplied by our own manufacturers.”

Shawn Meagher is a name you may well get to know more as the year progresses, as the program advances. He is the Camaro GT4.R Program Manager – Chevrolet, and praised the development the teams have done to get the car to this point this early in its development life cycle.

“We have such a high performance car. It makes a lot easier when you work very closely with the production team,” Meagher told reporters at St. Petersburg. “In turn we have a lot of data or background with the production colleagues. We move very quickly and aggressively with such a good background.

“There’s some similarities to the Camaro. This new car is an evolution. That’s one of the reasons why Blackdog Speed Shop which ran the old cars in the past, can execute very well.”

QUICK START

Blackdog Racing; Pirelli World Challenge; St. Petersburg, Florida; March 9-12, 2017; #10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R driven by Lawson Aschenbach and #11 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R driven by Tony Gaples (Richard Prince Photo)

Aschenbach proved the new car’s potential right out of the box – literally – as he took a debut pole at St. Petersburg in the same week the team took delivery of one of its chassis. Aschenbach, who is teammates to Blackdog team principal Tony Gaples, finished second in both races.

“To be able to roll out of the trailer, and qualify on the pole was a massive feat for the new GT4.R. Not to mention two podiums!” Aschenbach said. “I was impressed by how well the car handled the tight, twisty parts of the circuit, something we struggled with in the past. It seems that we have a more complete car this year.”

As in St. Petersburg, Aschenbach completed a double podium at VIR, coming third in both races. The second third proved the car’s durability under duress as Aschenbach fought hard with Ian James’ Panoz Esperante Avezzano, the likable James later issued a post-race penalty for driving conduct and docked one position from third to fourth.

So that’s four podiums and a class points lead for Aschenbach in the one series where the car will complete a full season this year. Aschenbach also thanked Gaples for a selfless act done in the betterment of the team after a parts issue arose.

“I believe we achieved the maximum result possible. The balance was spot on all weekend, and we worked hard to make sure the car wasn’t going to abuse the tires too quickly,” Aschenbach explained.

“We had a differential issue in qualifying, but Tony was very kind to allow us to swap parts so I could compete in race one. It was hard for all of us to see him sit it out, but fortunately we were able to fly some parts in so he could partake in race two.

“All-in-all it’s been an incredible start to the season with the new Camaro GT4.R. I feel we have the car, team, and pace to battle for a championship. Although we are pushing hard to win races, execution has become the name of the game early in the season.”

STEVENSON’S LATEST CAMARO EVOLUTION

And so that leaves the focus on Stevenson – which won the Continental Tire Challenge GS championship the last time it competed in the series with Davis and Liddell – to look to secure the car’s first win at Circuit of The Americas this weekend, a track where the old Z/28.R scored its fourth and final win of that 2015 title season.

This also continues the tradition of Stevenson premiering new Camaro race cars. The team has debuted the GT.R (2009) and the Z/28.R (2014) racing in both the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge. The GT4.R will mark the third consecutive Camaro generation that the team will debut.

It’s up to Liddell and Bell to tell the tail of how the new car gets on this weekend, while leaving Aschenbach in the unusual position of rooting for a car he drives in another series, watching from the pit box!

Stevenson’s last COTA race with a Camaro saw Liddell and Davis win CTSC GS in 2015. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“I’m certainly going to miss the H-pattern shifters and more production-based cars, but the GT4 class is where the motorsport world is heading, and I’m happy to see IMSA has followed suit. At its roots, the CTSC GS class still seems to be the same rough and tumble brawl of a race series that I’ve enjoyed so much in the first seven years of my career, and I’m extremely happy to be contending in it once again,” Bell said.

“The new Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R is a serious race car. It is lighter, more nimble, and even more engineered for the race track than the Z/28.R that Stevenson Motorsport won the GS Championship with in 2015. We know the team is up to the task, we know the new car is as solid as any we’ve raced, and I’m quite certain Robin (Liddell) and I will pair well together. While we have been teammates for seven years, we’ve never been season-long co-drivers. He and I both seem to like the car the same way and have similar feedback, so that will certainly streamline the tuning process.”

The Stevenson crew’s efforts are aided in large part by team manager Mike Johnson, who will pull his own unique double duty at COTA as he’ll call race strategies for both Liddell and Davis’ No. 57 Camaro GT4.R in the two-hour Continental Tire Challenge race, and the Aschenbach/Davis No. 57 Audi R8 LMS in the two-hour, 40-minute WeatherTech Championship race, which run Friday and Saturday, respectively. A further story on him is linked here via IMSA.com.

But there’s something right about Stevenson being back in a Camaro, as they look to add to an already solid start established by Blackdog for the new Camaro GT4.R.

IndyCar Roundtable: Indy 500

Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – Ahead of Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, our MotorSportsTalk writers look back at the Verizon IndyCar Series season thus far and look ahead to race morning and the biggest race day of the season.

My colleagues Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1), Kyle Lavigne (@KyleMLavigne) and Jerry Bonkowski (@JerryBonkowski) will all be assisting on Indy 500 race coverage on NBCSports.com.

What have you made of the season so far? 

Tony

It’s been strange to be honest because there hasn’t been a real rhythm that’s emerged. With five winners from five different races and Simon Pagenaud somehow flying under the radar as the defending champion and points leader going into Indianapolis 500 qualifying – before being usurped by Scott Dixon – it’s not felt as though a firm form book has been established. Add in the qualifying crash at Indianapolis that’s taken this year’s best dark horse, Sebastien Bourdais, out of action for the foreseeable future and an air of unpredictability about the Indianapolis 500 beyond the Fernando Alonso talking point, and I’m as perplexed as I ever have been in 20-plus years of fandom and 10-plus years of covering.

Luke

It’s been a very mixed-up season so far. Team Penske seems to be the outright team to beat on pace alone, as evidenced by its run of victories in the past three races, yet Honda has been resurgent. Sebastien Bourdais’ victory in St. Petersburg really set the tone for the year to come. It’s a real shame he’s now out injured as he could have been a surprise contender in the title race.

I think the real stand-out theme for me has been the close-knit nature of the front-running teams. Penske’s out front, sure, but Chip Ganassi Racing, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Andretti Autosport, Ed Carpenter Racing – heck, even Dale Coyne Racing – all look like operations capable of winning races right now. It’s a fascinating prospect as we head into the thick of the season.

Kyle

The unpredictability of the Verizon IndyCar Series has not changed in the 2017 season. Through five races, the series has five different winners from three different teams. While Team Penske has won three races in a row, the season opened with wins from the smaller operations of Dale Coyne Racing (with Sebastien Bourdais) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (James Hinchcliffe). The powerhouses of Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing are currently winless, and that’s unlikely to continue. So, the number of different winners could easily hit double digits.

What’s more: Honda has clearly closed the performance to Chevrolet and road and street courses, and appears to have retained its speed advantaged on the big ovals. And then, of course, we have Fernando Alonso deciding to run the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IndyCar has long been recognized as one of the most unpredictable motorsports series on the planet, and that trend has gone even further in that direction in 2017.

Jerry

It’s been an interesting season thus far. One of the biggest surprises has been the performance of Josef Newgarden. Any time a new, young driver joins a major team, there’s typically a time of transition and learning. But Newgarden has fit into Team Penske in outstanding fashion. That’s why he’s third in the standings. On a more overall perspective, Team Penske has been so dominant, with all four of its drivers in the top-5, and three of them already capturing wins, including Newgarden. If Team Penske wins the Indy 500, they threaten to start making this a runaway season overall for its four drivers. On the flip side, knowing the driver potential at play, it’s disappointing the slow start that Carlos Munoz (16th) and Conor Daly (19th) have struggled in their first season with A.J. Foyt’s team – but they are learning a new package with Chevrolet. Munoz typically does well in the Indy 500, so with a strong finish Sunday, it would boost his season overall.

What is your favorite part of the Indy 500?

Indy race morning starts like this…. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Tony

Without question, race morning. After the incessant amount of buildup and long hours in the two weeks that precede the race, you’re so ready for race day. And the buildup from the moment you get to the track at o’dark thirty, through all the pomp and circumstance that is quintessentially Indiana, to the drop of the green flag provides a rush of exhilaration you can’t get at any other race event in North America. Having covered the 24 Hours of Le Mans, that’s the only thing comparable. The race itself feels a three-hour breeze… and then you’re back to the hours of post-race work to comprehend what you’ve just digested.

Luke

I adore the show that surrounds the Indianapolis 500. F1 types may not like the idea of the ‘500 being called “the greatest spectacle in racing”, but it totally is. The spectacle is stunning. From the hype surrounding the drivers in the lead up to green to the traditional ceremonies after the race, it all makes the ‘500 what it is.

If Liberty Media wants to make F1 more entertaining, it should really look to the excitement that the ‘500 creates. F1 has said it wants 21 Super Bowls per year – why not have 21 Indy 500s a year? Why not create that same hubbub that the ‘500 does on a regular basis, all over the world?

And then it gets like this. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Kyle

Most recently, it has been the race itself. Since 2012 and the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis, each Indy 500 has been a slip streaming war that has featured well over 30 lead changes in each race (the all-time record was set at 68 in 2013, and the 2016 race featured 54 itself).

And it’s featured some of the most epic battles in the history of the race. Takuma Sato crashed while trying to take the lead from Dario Franchitti on the final lap in 2012. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves swapped the lead no fewer than four times in the final laps in 2014, with Hunter-Reay coming out on top. And in 2015, Juan Pablo Montoya outdueled Will Power, Scott Dixon, and Charlie Kimball in the final 15 laps.

Quite simply, the race has been a thrill ride, and this year should be more of the same.

Jerry

Obviously, the last lap. But there are so many other elements I enjoy. There’s the people watching, especially pre-race on the grid when you see so many luminaries of the sports and entertainment worlds. There’s “Back Home Again In Indiana,” which always gives me goose bumps (and I so much miss Jim Nabors’ rendition). There’s also the start of the race, the first roll into Turn 1, and just an overall day that thoroughly envelopes your senses, from sights to sounds, smells to feels, etc. Oh yes, and then there’s arguably the greatest victory lane celebration in any form of motorsports. Love the milk, love the horseshoe of flowers and then the kissing of the bricks, which is a perfect way to end the day.

Who is your pick to win the Indy 500?

Tony

From the “full-time IndyCar beat reporter” standpoint, I’ll get this out of the way first: I’m firmly in the “I want Fernando Alonso to do well, but not win,” camp. An ideal scenario for me would be where he comes close enough to win – say fourth to eighth – and gets the competitive juices flowing that he’ll want to come back.

As for the win, there’s any of about 10 or 12 drivers I could pick. But the man who’s under-appreciated as the driver that is among the greatest of his generation is Scott Dixon, who starts from the pole. Dixon’s due a ‘500 win and if his Honda engine holds together, he could run into the wind.

Tony Kanaan was my preseason pick so I feel bad reneging on that but he’s not looked as strong thus far. If it’s not a member of the Ganassi team, and it’s worth noting both Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton are top dark horses, a win from either Ed Carpenter Racing driver (Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand) would be cool to witness.

Luke

Yes, I’m being that guy. Fernando Alonso. Because the narrative surrounding the ‘Alonso 500’ means it would be rather fitting.

Alonso may lack the experience of racing on ovals, and the opening stages are going to be a bit of a shock to him. But if he can keep things clean and make sure he’s there at the end, then I’d want him in my corner.

And if like 2016 this race comes down to a fuel save for victory, Alonso might just be thankful for all of the struggles his Honda F1 power unit has put him through this year…

I’ll say we get an Alonso-Dixon-RHR podium on Sunday.

Kyle

Picking winner is a toss-up. There are about 12-15 drivers for whom a victory would be no surprise, and that list includes multiple one-off entries. Complicating matters even more: the Hondas have been faster, but with multiple engine failures so far, appear more fragile.

My pick will come out of the Chevrolet camp, and it will involve a story of redemption. JR Hildebrand avenges his 2011 disappointment by drinking the milk in Victory Lane this year.

Jerry

I admit it, I’ve caught Alonsomania. But then, is it really that much of a surprise to want to pick him when we’re talking about a former two-time Formula 1 World Champion? The biggest question is how will Alonso operate in traffic, particularly in the closing laps, when normally sane drivers oftentimes do some insane-like moves in a last desperate bid to win the biggest race in the world.

If Alonso does not win, my second pick to win is James Hinchcliffe for sentimental reasons. He came back a long way from his near-tragic crash in 2015 by winning the pole for last year’s race, but he left some unfinished business. I want to see him win the 500 not only for him but also for team owner Sam Schmidt and the entire organization. But if it comes down to a drag race to the checkered flag between Alonso and Hinchcliffe, I want the mayor of Hinchtown to rule supreme.

Formula 1 Roundtable: Monaco

Getty Images
Leave a comment

As part of the motorsport trifecta that makes this weekend arguably the biggest of the racing year, things will kick off on Sunday morning with Formula 1’s annual glamor event: the Monaco Grand Prix.

On the streets where high society meets high velocity, there is no better place to be seen than Monaco this weekend – even if Fernand Alonso may disagree following his decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500 – both on- and off-track.

Following our first roundtable pieces at the start of the year, MST writers Luke Smith, Tony DiZinno and Kyle Lavinge are back to share their thoughts after the opening five rounds of the 2017 season and preview this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning at 7am ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

What have you made of the season so far?

Luke Smith: F1 2017 has lived up to all of the pre-season hype and then some. The new cars have been brilliant, delighting fans and spectators as well as posing a significant challenge to the drivers behind the wheel. Sure, overtaking hasn’t been coming as thick and fast, but as I wrote post-China, that’s no bad thing.

The rivalry hotting up between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton has the makings of a classic. Ferrari and Mercedes are so evenly matched this year that I expect this title to be decided by fine margins – every race and point counts.

In short: F1 is awesome right now. Let’s relish the season that is unfolding.

Tony DiZinno: It’s been a needed start to the year in 2017. Even if the racing itself hasn’t been scintillating, the drama has – for the first time in five years there seems a proper question over who’s going to win at a given weekend. It’s not a slam dunk, and that’s brilliant.

We’re getting treated to the Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton bout the sport has so richly deserved, and the new cars are back to looking like badass F1 cars again. Add in the packed battle in the midfield and there’s been more variety than normal this year, which is a good thing.

Kyle Lavigne: The 2017 season has actually been better than I expected. Amongst all the talk about new cars and aerodynamic regulations, concern was high that the racing would suffer.

While overtaking is down a little, the races have all been very compelling and featured a fantastic balance of driver skill and strategy. And, overtaking hasn’t suffered as much as maybe we thought (e.g.: Lewis Hamilton’s outside pass of Sebastian Vettel during the Spanish Grand Prix).

And for Ferrari to be so even matched with Mercedes makes this season a proper fight amongst two giants of Formula 1. Quite simply: this is the best Formula 1 season we’ve had in years.

What is your favorite part of the Monaco Grand Prix?

LS: The pizzazz and show surrounding Monaco speaks for itself, but my favorite part of the weekend is the on-track challenge that is posed to drivers.

The close confines of the street course with the armco barrier waiting to punish any mistakes make this one of the biggest challenges in all of motorsport, just as rookie Lance Stroll found out on Thursday. And believe it or not, what you see on your TV screen makes the the track seem much wider than it actually is!

So that’s why I love Monaco. No, we’re not going to get hundreds (or maybe even tens) of overtakes. But you do get to see drivers pushing to the absolute limit on a track that has no right to host a grand prix. It’s magic.

TDZ: The contrast. The atmosphere between the streets, glitz and glamour of the backdrop of the race versus the intensity of the drivers wheeling between those armco barriers is great.

I’ve also been a big fan of this race’s unpredictability. Sometimes you get a genuine shocker of a result and the race sticks out in your memory afterwards.

KL: Formula 1 cars are pure thoroughbreds…fighter jets on wheels, if you will. Watching cars of that caliber speed through streets as narrow as the ones in Monaco is hair-raising, and those walls are always so close to grabbing you (as Luke mentioned: Lance Stroll learned that the hard way earlier in the weekend).

Overtaking is always a challenge, but that also means the ones we get will be breathtaking. I expect yet another intriguing race of driver skill and strategy.

Who is your pick to win the Monaco Grand Prix?

LS: I’ll go with Sebastian Vettel. Ferrari and Mercedes have been so evenly matched this year that picking between Vettel and Lewis Hamilton is tough. But with hot conditions expected all weekend and Mercedes having struggled to get to grips with the softer tire compounds, I think it will play into Ferrari’s hands.

It would be a key victory for Ferrari as it looks to break a long-running hoodoo in Monaco. The Scuderia has not won in the principality since 2001 when Michael Schumacher stood on the top step of the podium.

As Vettel continues to trace his hero’s footsteps, victory in Monaco would be poignant.

TDZ: If not this year, then when for Sebastian Vettel for Ferrari at Monaco? In the fightback battle where no one has yet won two races in a row in the opening five races – it’s alternated between Vettel (Australia), Hamilton (China), Vettel (Bahrain), Valtteri Bottas (Russia) and Hamilton (Spain) – I’ve got my money on Vettel to bring it home.

KL: Sebastian Vettel was nearly half-a-second quicker than anyone else in FP2. He and Lewis Hamilton seem to be alternating wins this year. Hamilton won the last race, so Vettel is my pick to win this race.

However, this might also best chance for Red Bull Racing to make some noise. Max Verstappen was third in FP1, while Daniel Ricciardo was second in FP2. If not for a strategy blunder, Ricciardo was looking good to win this race last year. It’s difficult to imagine anyone beating Ferrari or Mercedes straight up right now, but this may represent Red Bull’s best shot.

Monaco offers incredible lifestyle, sporting experiences (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

Both on and off the track, there are very few places like Monaco.

A hub for the rich and famous, through the Formula 1 race weekend, the city becomes the most exclusive place in the world. If you want to be seen, you need to be in Monaco.

Away from the glitz and the glamor, it is an F1 weekend with an added twist: the challenge is unlike any other on the planet as drivers have to retain their focus to take one of motorsport’s toughest circuits.

In this video, we hear from Mika Hakkinen (two-time F1 world champion, 1998 Monaco GP winner), Jenson Button (2009 F1 champion and Monaco GP winner), Sergio Perez (2016 Monaco GP podium finisher) and Stoffel Vandoorne (Monaco GP2 winner) about what makes the race so special.

Karam: ‘I know I’ll be charging if things fall into place’

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

Editor’s note: Sage Karam, 3GT Racing Lexus driver in IMSA, a past Indy Lights and USF2000 champion and Verizon IndyCar Series podium finisher, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month for a second straight year (2016 archive here).

Here’s his third entry, as he recaps qualifying and final practice, and is prepared for Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil where he will start 21st.

You can read his firstsecond and third blogs of 2017 here. He’ll run the No. 24 Mecum Auctions Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in partnership with Kingdom Racing. 

Hey there, Sage Karam back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We’re almost to race day, finally.

It’s been a hectic week since my last blog with you. We qualified two days last Saturday and Sunday. We trimmed out the downforce on the No. 24 Mecum Auctions DRR Chevrolet for Saturday and ran almost a 228-mile per hour average.

It wasn’t great but it wasn’t awful either. We worked in the garage on Saturday night and Sunday morning to improve the car for Sunday’s final day of qualifications. And, despite not running any laps in the practice, we came out strong.

I ran my first 230 mph lap on the first circuit of the four-lap average and I was super pumped up. The car felt good and I was thrilled with the 230. Now, I have to admit I was so excited with that lap that I messed up a bit on the next lap. I didn’t shift down to fifth gear for a few more RPMs on lap two. And I had to lift off the throttle just a bit in fighting some wind off of turn two.

After the four laps, we had a 229.380 mph average and I was excited. However, the other guys ran well too, and we’ll start 21st this Sunday. Last year, I started 23rd and moved up to fourth by lap 94. That’s before I got a little too aggressive and got caught outside with another car in turn one and hit the wall pretty hard.

I think I have learned a lot since that incident last year at Indy. This will be my fourth Indy 500 and I am still the youngest driver in the field at age 22. But I feel I have matured since last year. Heck, when I was 19 and in my first Indy 500, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just driving hard and trying to get to the finish. We came from 31st to finish ninth and I received the “Hard Charger Award” in 2014 as a rookie.

My Mecum DRR crew worked on getting back the race setup with my car for Monday’s final practice session and the car was good. Just like the final practice last year. I feel confident we can pass other cars. We did that in Monday’s runs.

Race week is always busy because you don’t spend much time on track. You do a lot of media and promotion for the race.

After Monday, it was off to Philadelphia with my neighbor, Marco Andretti. I grew up across the street from the Andrettis in Nazareth, Pa. So, we have been friends a long time. In Philly, we did the annual Indy 500 media day with a variety of interviews and appearances at Independence Hall, the Art Museum with the famous “Rocky Balboa” steps and posed with the “Rocky” statue.

Then we headed to Citizens Bank Field for the Phillies and Rockies game. Marco and I threw out the first pitches at the game. We saw the Phillies’ manager, Pete Mackanin, and former player Mickey Morandini, who knew a lot about the Indy 500 since he played at Indiana University. We also talked with Bud Black, the Rockies manager, who is a racing fan. His team has a driver pool in the clubhouse the morning of the race. Black has never seen the 500, but it is on his bucket list.

On Wednesday, we went to a local Indianapolis school with Scott Dixon and Ed Jones to have activities and some competition with the kids. It was fun. I was doing a little jump rope with them (below) as well as building an IndyCar out of Legos with a group of children. Dixon’s group beat us in that one. RATS!

It’s funny how all of the drivers can be so competitive off the track too.

Thursday was a little more relaxing for the drivers with media interviews and some sponsor appearances.

Friday was a busy Carb Day for us. The rain during the week made the IMS track surface a little different from Monday’s last practice session.

For some reason, the track had less grip than usual. I’m not sure if it’s because of the rain or the tire wear from the Indy Lights cars. A lot of people seemed to struggle with that today. But, I think we have a good race car like we did last year.

It was a good practice week and a good month overall. I’m feeling good about the car. It feels the same as it did when we unloaded, so that’s excellent.

We were in the Pit Stop Challenge, we placed second in that one in 2014. I thought we had a good chance again. However, Helio’s crew beat us in the first round. It was a disappointment but I am still excited about Sunday’s race.

We’ll see how the weather holds up for Sunday. We might have a few showers in the morning, but I’m hoping the race can get started at 12:15 p.m.

We are looking for a good showing and race to the checkered flag. I believe if we can get to the last 25 laps in a solid position that we can pass cars. I know I’ll be charging if things fall into place.

So, watch for the No. 24 Mecum Auctions DRR Chevy on Sunday. I’ll be fighting to drive to the front.

Photo: IndyCar