The big names just keep on growing for the McLaren Honda Andretti entry that will field Fernando Alonso in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford, better known as “Lone Star JR” in his driving days, has joined as the team’s official ambassador, which he’s free to do now as he’s not engaged in official INDYCAR duties as the pace car driver. Rutherford was succeeded by Sarah Fisher in that role starting last year.
Rutherford will then don a McLaren team shirt and kit in his role and will be the team’s “guest of honor.” He was part of the joint IMS/NBCSN live stream last week for Alonso’s first test on the 2.5-mile oval, sharing stories and insight with Mario Andretti, Robin Miller and Kevin Lee.
Rutherford’s three wins at Indianapolis came in 1974, 1976 and 1980 – the first two with McLaren driving a Papaya Orange-liveried McLaren M16D, a feat he repeated in ’76, driving a similarly liveried M16E. In 1980 he was in the famous Chaparral 2K ground-effect car, which was designed by the British engineer John Barnard, who later became McLaren’s pioneering technical director in the early 1980s.
“The McLaren name still means a lot to me – it has a very special place in my heart, in fact, for obvious reasons,” Rutherford said in a release. “So when I heard that not only was McLaren heading back to Indianapolis – after a near 40-year absence, and with Fernando Alonso behind the wheel, and that they would also be reviving the same, famous orange livery that was made famous by Bruce McLaren himself in the 1960s and ’70s – well, I was blown away. That’s just neat, real neat…
“I’m thrilled and excited about ‘coming home’ to McLaren for the famous month of May, and I want to do everything I can to help make the team’s return to Indy as enjoyable and successful as possible. Make no mistake, this is a fantastic story for IndyCar, for Formula 1 and for motor racing in general, so to be able to help play a small part in it is just fantastic.
“And the fact that McLaren is doing it in partnership with Andretti Autosport is the icing on the cake: the name ‘Andretti’ means a lot to all racing people, and certainly to me. Not only has the team boss, Michael, achieved so much over his long career, but of course I raced his father, the great Mario, wheel to wheel for many years. I have great respect for both of them. I think everyone does.”
McLaren Technology Group Executive Director Zak Brown added, “You can count the number of people who’ve won more Indy 500s than Johnny Rutherford on the fingers of one hand – and that tells you everything about the scale of Lone Star JR’s achievements in this legendary motor race.
“I’ve spoken before about the special family atmosphere that exists at McLaren, and it’s incredible that we’ll be joined at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway throughout the month of May by one of the forefathers of McLaren’s original Indy adventure.
“Furthermore, Johnny is a real Southern gent, and somebody who knows the nature of this particular race and the Speedway like few others in the sport. To have him onboard and alongside us as we take on this ambitious project makes me feel both humbled and excited – he’ll be a fantastic asset to us all as we return the McLaren name to Indy.”
Michael Andretti added a more humorous anecdote to the story.
“I had the honor of racing with Johnny early in my career and always regarded him as one of the legends of our sport,” Andretti said. “We share similarities having both driven with McLaren – I even got the opportunity to witness his acting abilities when we appeared together on an episode of Home Improvement, and can say he’s a better racer than actor!
“I am looking forward to working alongside Johnny as he joins us as ambassador to the McLaren-Honda-Andretti effort.”
INDIANAPOLIS – Here’s a rundown of times and notes from Saturday at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test, as all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder had their first day of testing on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. A link to Friday’s notebook is here.
Drivers and teams alike have raved about the pace, and the rather loud sound, of the new Tatuus PM-18 Mazda. Reports from private testing had the new car rather close to Indy Lights pace at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and rather quicker than the old car at Road America. The first tangible evidence of that occurred today as all 10 of the Pro Mazda drivers who got representative laps (second BN Racing car of Leonard Hoogenboom ran only a few laps in session four after engine issues all day) supplanted the Pro Mazda lap record at IMS – 1:22.8800 by Pato O’Ward in 2016 – easily. Oliver Askew’s best time of 1:19.8920 in the second session was nearly a full three seconds quicker on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course.
Of the 11 Pro Mazda drivers that ran today, only Carlos Cunha, Robert Megennis, Nikita Lastochkin, Kris Wright and Sting Ray Robb ran in the 2017 season. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any or all five of them running full-time in 2018 for what would be each of their second seasons in the championship, as returning sophomores along with what should be a glut of strong rookies. Wright, who also races sports cars, looks poised to add a second program of some other series to a planned Pro Mazda full season.
Megennis is planning to test with other teams in the weeks to come, as he tests for Juncos this week after racing in USF2000 with Pelfrey the last two years. Both he and Robb missed portions of sessions today with new car issues.
Several Indy Lights spins and off-course excursions occurred but none produced any serious issues. Rinus Veekay and Anthony Martin were among those to test the course limits but kept on going unharmed. Veekay had a spin in session three on new tires, then promptly laid down the fastest lap of the session for Belardi later on.
His teammate this weekend, Nico Jamin, wound up with the fastest lap of the day in Indy Lights – although he wasn’t quickest in the cool evening session, the fourth of the day, when most of the field ran some sticker tire runs on their Cooper tires.
Pro Mazda title combatants Victor Franzoni (Juncos) and Anthony Martin (Andretti) made their Indy Lights test debuts. The perpetually happy Franzoni wrote on Instagram, “Awesome day!! We finished the day in P3!! The most import we learned a lot!! Tomorrow will be even better!!” Martin, meanwhile, said this: “It’s obviously a new car – bigger, faster and a lot more downforce, so I’m adapting to it and growing up to it nice and slowly. You don’t want to push yourself too early, so we’re working up to a few things. You have to do things a lot quicker and you have to use a lot more brake pressure.”
In USF2000, it was an excellent day at the office for Pabst Racing with Andres Gutierrez – who impressed in a pair of weekends with DE Force Racing this year – leading three of four sessions, while teammates Hunter McElrea and Lucas Kohl were also in the top-five. Pabst has been busy running cars in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda this weekend.
Beyond Pabst, Newman Wachs Racing also had an excellent day, mainly with sophomore Darren Keane and Californian rookie Jake Craig. Keane, who’s coached by Ozz Negri, led the fourth and final session of the day, and stands as a driver who could make a big leap forward in performance if he secures a full season in 2018.
Another team of note today was BN Racing, with Callan O’Keefe – Keane’s teammate when both drove for Team BENIK at this race weekend last May – second best on the day. The South African is poised to be that team’s lead driver next season. Teammates Elliott Finlayson and Zoey Edenholm are working towards seasons of their own; Finlayson having coming off a recent Super Sweep in SCCA Runoffs competition at IMS last month and Edenholm having only just graduated from karts into cars just this month.
While the USF2000 field was primarily rookie-dominated, two-year series veteran Aaron Telitz made a cameo return today with RJB Motorsports, and brought the ex-ArmsUp chassis its best pace yet in RJB’s hands as the Wisconsinite ran with Mirl Swan and Alex Barron’s crew support. Past RJB driver and two-time Team USA Scholarship, Michai Stephens, was also on site today.
Speaking of ArmsUp, its top rookie from 2017, Devin Wojcik was on hand today making the rounds as well, although wasn’t in a car. He looks to return to USF2000 for a second season in 2018.
USF2000 boasted some good diversity with Pabst, BN, Newman Wachs, Exclusive, Pelfrey, BENIK and RJB teams in the top 10 today, but there’s one notable omission: Cape Motorsports. The seven-time defending champions in the series are not testing in USF2000 this weekend, and has just a single Pro Mazda car on site for Oliver Askew. Granted, the team is also at Circuit of The Americas this weekend for F4 U.S. Championship action, where Kyle Kirkwood has taken that series’ championship. DE Force, which also ran in USF2000 this year, is also not here this weekend as it’s at COTA. ArmsUp isn’t here this weekend either.