DiZinno: Dixon toppling Penske highlights nice Road America encore

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The sequel is often harder to duplicate than the original, so the second year of the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America was always going to be a test case to prove last year’s “oh my goodness, IndyCar at Road America is back!!” vibe wasn’t a one-off.

Similar to the Indianapolis 500, while 2016 was always going to be a special event, the 2017 event matched it in awesomeness, even with a slight reduction in crowd.

With that as a backdrop, here’s some takeaways from the weekend:

DIXON SLAYS PENSKE’S QUARTET

Photo: IndyCar

Because IndyCar often dwells so much on its history – which often serves as a crutch for IndyCar’s future – it is sometimes hard to appreciate the history being made as we speak.

In Scott Dixon’s latest historic act, winning his 41st career race to move within one of Michael Andretti for third on IndyCar’s all-time win list, he singlehandedly toppled the Team Penske quartet in the process.

A well-timed caution for him and being on the right tires – Dixon had Firestone red alternates on while combatant Josef Newgarden was on the black primaries – paid dividends. Dixon promptly delivered one of the overtakes of the season following the Lap 31 restart, basically taking Newgarden’s earlier around-the-outside pass for the lead at Turn 1 of Helio Castroneves and saying “hey, I can do this too.”

The combination of the strategy with Mike Hull, in his 25th anniversary weekend with Ganassi, and Dixon’s pace on track delivered an overdue first win of the year. It was such a big win, and extended his points lead to 34 in the process, he even did donuts after the race.

“He’s a calm person. I can get pretty worked up at some points throughout the races,” Dixon said. “It’s nice to have that sort of level-head person on the stand to extract the most out of everybody that’s on there.

“His knowledge and experience that he’s had, you know, in racing, I don’t know how long he’s been in racing, it’s got to be a long time if he’s been at one team for 25 years, we win and lose as a team. All but one race victory has been with this team. Mike’s a very large instrumental piece of, you know, Chip’s team and the success that they’ve had.

“It’s very gratifying. They looked pretty disappointed. It was nice to get a victory. As far as road courses go, this was going to be one of the more difficult ones for us because of the long straights and the drag that we have.”

The win also came after Dixon missed the morning warmup owing to a fuel pump issue, but the team got it resolved.

Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate good deadpan but Dixon nailed that after the race, too.

“I did not fix it, which is a good thing, because we probably wouldn’t have started the race!” he laughed.

PENSKE’S LOST CHANCE

Helio Castroneves led early at Road America. Photo: IndyCar

Between a disappointed Josef Newgarden, a dehydrated Helio Castroneves, a seemingly invisible Simon Pagenaud and an occasionally erratic Will Power, Team Penske’s dominant weekend ended without first place when it mattered most.

Newgarden looked the best of the bunch while Castroneves lost out on strategy – he pitted too early in the final sequence – while Pagenaud and Power faded from contention. Power got one penalty assessed and ordered to give up one position to Pagenaud for a move earlier in the race and ultimately finished behind him, on a day when “the incident involving Car 12 and Car XX” was said repeatedly. Pagenaud, as has been his strength this year, banked another solid top-five finish without generating major headlines to do so.

A TRIO OF UNDER-THE-RADAR GOOD DAYS

In sixth, seventh and ninth, Charlie Kimball, Ed Jones and Max Chilton got needed results. Kimball’s penchant for poor luck finally turned as he hoped it would going into the weekend. Jones, again, continued to overachieve for Dale Coyne Racing – this time wearing a Walter Payton Chicago Bears tribute helmet and having overcome a major piece of debris hitting his left front wing. Chilton fell to ninth from seventh but banked his fourth top-10 finish in the last six races. For a driver who only had two all of last year, that’s moving in the right direction.

GOOD CROWD ONCE AGAIN

Thanks to Chevrolet for a pre-race ride in one of its event cars, driven by USF2000 regular Ayla Agren – Road America is a big Chevrolet track – I had a good view of the crowd in the final moments before this year’s race kicked off. Between the grandstands and hillsides, there were plenty of fans and just as many campers.

It’d be hard to call this year’s race day crowd as big as last year’s but even if it was down slightly, it was still very good.

MAZDA MOTORSPORTS MANIA

Eight of the additional races this weekend were from the Andersen Promotions operated and INDYCAR sanctioned, Mazda-powered series. With all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires here for two races each, plus two Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires races on the docket, fans and paddock observers had a chance to witness a festival of “driving matters” on display at RA.

They were largely entertaining. Saturday’s second Pro Mazda race nearly witnessed Victor Franzoni complete a last-to-first comeback, and end disappointed after being beat by sparring partner Anthony Martin. Just like in USF2000 last year when Martin and Parker Thompson battled for the title, it will be hard to see one of them lost the title. Both Indy Lights races had huge margin of victories and surprising Carlin drivers winning (Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman De Melo) but great action throughout the field. Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser continues to drive like a champion-in-waiting; his race craft has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two years. And in USF2000, Rinus VeeKay delivered on his season-long potential with the only weekend sweep in a dream weekend for Augie Pabst’s Pabst Racing time. The likable young Dutchman, who is still only 16, was able to celebrate with both his own and with Pabst’s family this weekend. Teammates Calvin Ming and Lucas Kohl also scored podiums.

MX-5 Cup? Two photo finishes showcased that series’ racing at this track like few others on the calendar. Patrick Gallagher and Nathanial Sparks each used last lap, last turn moves to net their wins.

PWC’S POPULAR WINNERS… 

Elkhart Lake, WI – Jun 23, 2017: The Pirelli World Challenge racers take to the track on Pirelli tires during the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix at Road America presented by VP Racing Fuels at the Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI.

Panoz winning a sports car race is cool. As Ian James said on Saturday, few have given as much to sports car racing in North America, and for that matter the world, what Don Panoz has. So seeing Panoz’s latest wild GT creation tame Road America for a double win with James driving was not just a highlight for the driver, but also the Tom Milner-led team, who’ve been through a lot over the years with either uncompetitive or unreliable past cars.

A Panoz sports car was last a winner with the old Esperante GT2 in 2006, its Le Mans class win that year the car’s ultimate highlight. And with James’ weekend sweep, it continued PWC GTS’ crazy run of different drivers, teams and manufacturers sweeping the weekend – now five different drivers, teams and manufacturers in as many weekends, over 10 races. Yet it’s the one driver who hasn’t won, Lawson Aschenbach in the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R, who still leads the points.

GT saw the perfect balance of Fong and Long on top. Adderly Fong took his first PWC win in his No. 88 Bentley Team Absolute Bentley Continental GT3 on Saturday while Patrick Long rebounded in his No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R on Sunday. The two were second in the races they didn’t win, with Cadillac splitting its two drivers – Michael Cooper and Johnny O’Connell – in third.

… BALANCED BY WEEKEND SCHEDULE ANGST

The good news this weekend was that there was a lot of action on track. The bad news for competitors in certain paddocks was that that “lot of action” meant awkward or bad track times. Pirelli World Challenge, in particular, had a brutal weekend schedule that may threaten the combination of PWC and IndyCar on the same weekend going forward for 2018 and beyond, IndyCar having been confirmed for June 23-24 here next year.

PWC already lost its Touring Car classes from the weekend compared to 2016 going in, with MX-5 as the replacement. A handful of invitational TC cars were added to the GTS races. The majority of PWC sessions were held Thursday with the GT and GTS/TC classes only having one session each on Friday, a qualifying and a race apiece on Saturday, and a second race apiece on Sunday.

Several competitors voiced their displeasure over this this weekend, and it was the latest sign of PWC’s growing pains as it works to evolve into a marquee, standalone series beyond being an excellent supporting act on IndyCar weekends. The fact for the second time this year that Sunday’s second GT race was not shown on a live web stream despite being advertised as such did not help matters, either, as a same day delay TV broadcast did occur for a smaller audience.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

  • The first murmurs of IndyCar silly season started to emerge this weekend with an AutoWeek report that hinted Andretti Autosport could be on the move from Honda to Chevrolet next season. While it would not be a surprise to see team and manufacturer movement next year – and there are whispers of multiple teams doing just that – it would be a surprise to see that starting so soon. Several drivers could do with improved results too in the coming races as contracts start to get looked at for 2018.
  • Robert Wickens handled his abnormal situation as well as he could. The Canadian had to deal with wondering whether he’d get to keep racing into the weekend after substituting for Mikhail Aleshin on Friday at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. It’d be nice to see Wickens earn a proper opportunity for a full weekend later this year, and it’s worth noting the DTM calendar and IndyCar’s remaining road and street course races don’t have any clashes…
  • Birthday weekends at race tracks are amazing, but exhausting. The amount of kind words and gestures were overwhelming though this weekend, as was what I think was a joint operation between INDYCAR, Road America and several media colleagues to surprise me with a cake in the media center on Friday evening was very flattering. I’m not sure where the “LaVern” came from, but the #BlameTony hashtag – a running joke going six years on – was a fun touch. Thanks to all.
  • It was also fun to call Sunday’s second Indy Lights race from the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network booth. Seeing the behind-the-scenes operation of how radio works as the crew puts everything together is like an orchestra. Coincidentally, IndyCar Radio regular Jake Query led NBCSN’s Indy Lights coverage this weekend, as Kevin Lee gets to call additional Verizon IndyCar Series races as lead announcer and host.

The Verizon IndyCar Series is off until Iowa; Pirelli World Challenge races next at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course; the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires is split between its next races at Iowa (Indy Lights, USF2000) and Mid-Ohio (Pro Mazda) and MX-5 resumes next in Toronto.

Bruni, Snow win GT poles for IMSA at Lime Rock

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A pair of first-time polesitters have the top spot for this weekend’s GT-only IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Northeast Grand Prix from Lime Rock Park. Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole for Porsche while Madison Snow has his first pole of the season.

GT LE MANS

Just 0.535 of a second covered the four manufacturers and eight cars in GT Le Mans in qualifying, but up front, Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole as a Porsche factory driver.

The Italian, in only his third weekend as a factory GT driver and second ever at Lime Rock and sharing the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR with Laurens Vanthoor, posted the ultimate pole time of 50.404 seconds around the 1.53-mile circuit.

“I’m very happy to do my first pole with Porsche, first qualifying. This team has taught me good things and gets the most out of it,” Bruni told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam after the checkered flag. He’s the 23rd different GTLM polesitter in IMSA since the 2014 merger, this surprisingly his first pole in the series.

Richard Westbrook took the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT into second at 50.540 in the car he shares with Ryan Briscoe.

The No. 911 Porsche and No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM are third and fourth, with the pair of Corvettes next.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R is back in action this week following its accident at the end of the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Per Corvette Racing, repairs to the car included: the entire front-right corner (components, bodywork), steering rack, diffuser, wing and changed a chassis tube due to a crease. There were no other cracks or damage to the frame. That car qualified fifth in the hands of Tommy Milner, who shares the car with Oliver Gavin. The pair won Corvette Racing’s 100th race as a team this race last year.

GT DAYTONA

After a run of seven manufacturers scoring pole positions in the first seven races in GTD, the streak was broken Friday at Lime Rock Park.

Not too far from its New Jersey base, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 was the first car to score a second pole this year, this time in the hands of Madison Snow. Snow joins Bryan Sellers (Long Beach) as polesitters for this car this season, and this at least keeps the streak of different drivers alive.

The Nos. 54 CORE autosport and No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R in the hands of Colin Braun and Patrick Long were next. Snow’s 52.508 best lap edged Braun’s 52.699 and Long’s 52.836, with Jack Hawksworth best of the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 brigade in fourth and Jens Klingmann taking the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 into fifth.

The top 15 of the 17 cars in GTD were separated by only 0.992 of a second around the 1.53-mile bullring.

The two-hour, 40-minute race runs late Saturday afternoon, from 3:05 to 5:45 p.m. ET.

Mid-Ohio, Honda Racing go galactic for 2017 at-track camping theme

Photo: IndyCar
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Honda Racing will channel a galactic theme for this year’s camping festivities at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a popular camping venue on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.

This marks the third year of a contest for best campground site, with various Honda Indy 200 gifts on offer. The theme name this year is “May the G-Forces Be With You,” and the hashtag is #CampingWithHonda.  Last year’s was a “Christmas in July” theme, complete with Santa Claus. The full release from the track is linked here.

As this year’s event alludes to a very popular galactic film series in all but name, it will see a number of participants in the weekend festivities by to judge the campsites at the track – potentially in character!

Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, will visit the sites Saturday after qualifying to choose the winners. He did so last year as well.

Photo: PWC

Others, such as last year’s Mid-Ohio race winner Simon Pagenaud and RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 factory driver in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley (right), are expected to attend as well – though whether as themselves or potentially in a special character remains to be seen.

“It’s always a thrill and a special part of the Mid-Ohio weekend to take part in Honda Racing fun festivities like ‘May the G-Forces Be With You,'” Eversley told NBC Sports; the Atlanta native finished second in the second PWC GT race here last year in the previous generation TLX-GT, in one of his best drives of the season. “These guys always know how to cook up some fun activities and so if there’s an opportunity to dress up, have fun and play along with it, I’m down!”

Photo: IndyCar

Pagenaud, who was a longtime member of the Honda and Acura family before his move to Team Penske’s Chevrolet-powered, IndyCar program (right), added, “For me, as a fan, this film series is just the best. I love the battle between the light and dark side of the force, because I feel like we can all identify with that. I try to channel the force when I’m in my race car, so this will be a really fun weekend in Mid-Ohio.

“I plan to bring something to show my pride at the track, but I won’t ruin the surprise for you guys in advance!”

Expect similar characters to be present on site on Saturday evening. There’s also going to be a bonfire, live band (Columbus group MidLife Crisis) and s’mores, plus branded lighted batons which should display well at the bonfire on Saturday.

And for James Hinchcliffe, another Honda driver who is no stranger to having fun, he’s also part of the buildup to this event, as evidenced by the event teaser below.

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”