DiZinno: The ‘Great Corn Helio’: Iowa win proves Castroneves still has it

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It was always a question of when the rumor would enter print, and it happened this weekend in the corn fields of Iowa.

For a couple months, it’s percolated under the surface and then has come to a more substantial boil: Team Penske is working towards bringing back a sports car program, but neither the team nor the associated manufacturers will say officially that it’s happening, yet.

And the rumor was that along with Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves might also be in the frame for one of those full-time sports car seats if (when) the team debuts for a full season in 2018.

The shift from open-wheel racing to sports cars is as common a ritual in racing as the hopeless but naive young driver posting a hopeful mid-December tweet they are actually close to making a deal happen, and a manufacturer complaining just before a major endurance race they don’t have the right Balance of Performance.

But the aforementioned shift doesn’t – or wouldn’t – usually happen when a guy is still at the top of his field in open-wheel racing, contending for a championship on an annual basis, and winning races.

This is the dilemma and potential crossroads Helio Castroneves may be finding himself at in mid-year 2017, after Juan Pablo Montoya was in a near identical position last year.

Both RACER and Autoweek reported over the weekend that the potential – or greater likelihood – exists that this will be Castroneves’ final full-time campaign in IndyCar. And certainly, if he wasn’t performing at the level he is now, and has been for the better part of his career, that rumor of a shift would be fully justified.

However here’s the thing: Nothing is done in racing until the press release hits your inbox, the i’s are dotted, t’s crossed, and shirts starched.

And a driver of Castroneves’ caliber, legacy, and character within IndyCar racing has, after 20 years, fully earned the right to call time on his IndyCar career on his terms, and his terms only.

Roger Penske has, after everything, shown nothing but unwavering support to the Florida-based Brazilian, who’s repaid him over the entirety of his career.

Save for his incident-laden 2011 season and his much-publicized tax issues end of 2008, Castroneves has never looked anything other than a potential champion-in-waiting – the age old story, of course, being that the full-season championship is the one thing missing from his otherwise sterling career resume.

In his 17 seasons with Team Penske prior to 2017, Castroneves has 13 top-five points finishes, and is well on his way to his 14th in 18 this year. The only four seasons he didn’t, he was sixth twice (2005, 2007), seventh in his first season (2000) in a year when he won three races, the most in the CART season, and then 11th in that winless, 2011 outlier.

His win today in Iowa ended Castroneves’ three-plus year winless drought, but it wasn’t as if this was a fluke. This was just the day when everything finally came together for him after three-plus years of races where wins often went away from him through no fault of his own.

Since that Detroit race two win in 2014, Castroneves banked eight runner-up finishes and five third places. He’s won 12 poles since that point too.

He had that runner-up finish at the Indianapolis 500 this year following a drive where he was running essentially a car in qualifying trim, with reduced downforce on his right rear wheel guard, and in a car down on power compared to Takuma Sato’s winning Honda… and still almost pulled it off.

So, this one was coming. Today in Iowa was just a day where it all went perfectly, finally.

“Finally everything came together,” Castroneves reflected in the post-race press conference. “Yeah, I appreciate more, but when I say like for the first time, it’s just like I remember this feeling before, and I didn’t think that climbing the fence would get a little bit harder this time.

“But it still had the same feeling looking at everybody’s face through the fence and everybody is excited for me. That’s a feeling that nobody can take away from you, and that’s what motivates me more to come back now and do what I just did.”

Castroneves led 217 laps and then used veteran racecraft to get past the talented but unlucky JR Hildebrand, who was in search of his first win, but got balked by traffic.

“Everything was always well-calculated. Today experience really paid off,” he explained. “I’m aggressive when I have to be, and I take it easy when I need to. I don’t know, but probably that’s one of the reasons we led today.”

While Team Penske has had a number of champions – Will Power and Simon Pagenaud exist within his current quartet, Gil de Ferran and Sam Hornish Jr. won more in the 2000s and Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi carried the team in the 1990s – Castroneves has reached icon status within the Penske mold in the vain of a Rick Mears. Castroneves and Mears have delivered Penske nearly half his 16 Indianapolis 500 victories, with seven combined between the two of them.

Very few drivers last 20 years in IndyCar and that’s even harder to achieve within the Penske mold; but this is Castroneves’ 18th season with “The Captain.” Mears retired in 1992 as a driver but has been Penske’s veteran driver sage/coach in the 25 years since, having long been Castroneves’ spotter.

Today, Castroneves scored his 30th career win, which put him one ahead of Mears.

“And 30 wins, we just passed Rick Mears, which is my hero, and getting close to win most of the team, which is great,” he said.

What Castroneves means to Penske is what Castroneves means to IndyCar: It’s hard to think of either entity without them.

It was a weird Sunday in St. Petersburg, 2009, when a then-lesser heralded Power made his Team Penske debut as a temporary fill-in driver for Castroneves in his usual No. 3 car. A race later at Long Beach, Castroneves had been cleared of tax evasion charges, was back in the No. 3 car, and Power shifted to a third car, the then-part-time No. 12 Verizon entry.

There’s been a lot of celebrating Castroneves and his longtime friend Tony Kanaan’s equal 20th seasons in IndyCar this year, but at no point has either campaign been hailed as a retirement tour or final act.

Ask Kanaan, who remains one of the fittest drivers in the series, about his future and he’ll say he wants – and plans – to keep driving in IndyCar for as long as he can, and as long as Chip Ganassi will let him.

And Castroneves? As recently as last year he’s told some in the media he wants to keep at this for several more seasons.

If his performance continues to match that desire, and so far, it has, then there’s no reason he should be making that transition that so many drivers do. Save for Pagenaud, now one of Castroneves’ teammates, you almost never come back to IndyCar once you’ve entered the sports car world on a full-time basis.

IndyCar hasn’t had a full-time season without either of them since 1997; for reference, that’s a year when the first Austin Powers movie premiered and Beavis and Butt-head concluded its seventh season before a 13-year hiatus and 2011 reboot.

Today was a reminder in winning form of just how good, today, the “Great Corn Helio” still is.

“I have to say I’m honored to be part of this organization, and I can only thank Roger, Cindric and the entire team to be supporting me,” he said.

“It’s easy to be behind you in good times, but they’ve always been there no matter the time, so for me that’s priceless. I’m going to continue focusing in this season, and there’s more to come.”

Mid-Ohio returns to IMSA schedule in May 2018

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course will make its return to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship calendar in 2018, marking the first time Mid-Ohio has been part of an IMSA calendar since the 2014 merger that brought together the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and American Le Mans Series.

Mid-Ohio’s return to the calendar will occur in May 4-6, 2018, and will serve as the venerable Lexington, Ohio permanent road course’s kickoff to its new season.

It’s been since 2013 when GRAND-AM last competed there and 2012 when ALMS did, and from 2007 through 2012 ALMS was always on the same weekend as the Verizon IndyCar Series raced at the track.

More to follow…

Acura moving ahead to solidify NSX GT3 customers in 2018

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Acura Motorsports is moving ahead with plans to get its first NSX GT3 customers to race in North America, as well as worldwide, following Thursday’s formal confirmation of the manufacturer announcing it will sell the NSX GT3.

The two teams who have developed and run the car this year, Michael Shank Racing (IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class) and RealTime Racing (Pirelli World Challenge GT class) had team principals Shank and Peter Cunningham on hand today at Mid-Ohio to describe the work they’ve done in the process of getting the car ready for customers in 2018.

Shank highlighted the customer service performed by Honda Performance Development when he ran a Honda-powered Ligier JS P2 prototype in IMSA in 2015 and 2016.

The media availability this morning at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course stopped short of confirming both teams will continue their own programs with the NSX GT3 next year, which would be customer-based and not factory as they are this year. That being said, both teams are working with Acura and HPD as they develop their 2018 programs.

Steve Eriksen, vice president and COO, Honda Performance Development, updated the production process in terms of getting NSX GT3s delivered to prospective customers.

“The production timeline and development was moved forward well ahead of Thursday’s announcement,” Eriksen told NBC Sports.

“That was done on purpose; the production was done well in advance to respond quickly when we get inquiries. The goal now is to move from interested parties to serious parties.”

Eriksen confirmed all four existing chassis, plus spares, run by Shank and RealTime this year are owned by HPD. It will be up to HPD to determine the path forward for those chassis after the respective seasons conclude.

For IMSA, the season finale is at Petit Le Mans on October 7 at Road Atlanta, and PWC’s last event of the year is a week later with the eight-hour SRO Intercontinental Challenge on October 15 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey.

Today’s media availability came a day after Acura confirmed the car will be available for sale worldwide at a price of €465,000 ($545,000).

This occurs after a year where there’s been more than 50,000-miles of on-track development between the two teams.

Shank has already delivered the car its first two wins in its inaugural season of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition. The Pataskala, Ohio-based team is working to figure out its 2018 plans, with Shank preferring to focus on his sports car component first before adding any potential IndyCar program.

Here’s slightly more info about that from the release:

The NSX GT3 is eligible to race in more than two dozen FIA-sanctioned racing series around the world, including:

  • The Pirelli World Challenge and WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series in North America
  • The Blancpain GT Series and 24 Hours Nurburgring in Europe
  • The Blancpain GT Series Asia and GT Asia Series
  • The Super GT GT300 class in Japan
  • The Australian GT Championship
  • The Intercontinental GT Challenge

Additional options and complete customer support, including parts and service, training and engineering services are available.  Orders for the NSX GT3 are being taken now by HPD, responsible for sales in North America, at AcuraClientRacing.com.  JAS Motorsport is responsible for NSX GT3 sales in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, excluding Japan.  MUGEN is responsible for sales in Japan.

Pagenaud paces Mid-Ohio opening practice

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Defending Verizon IndyCar Series and Honda Indy 200 champion Simon Pagenaud paced opening practice for this year’s occasion, posting a quick time of 1:04.9079 at the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Pagenaud, in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, sits third in this year’s championship with 404 points. Interestingly his only win this year has come on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway back in April.

Graham Rahal, the 2015 Mid-Ohio winner, was second in the session in the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at 1:04.922. Marco Andretti made it into third in his No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda at 1:04.9814.

The top nine drivers down to Scott Dixon in ninth were separated by only 0.3241 of a second and all 21 drivers bar JR Hildebrand were within one second.

Other than a near miss when Helio Castroneves almost hit Esteban Gutierrez exiting the Keyhole, there were no issues in the session and no red flags.

Second practice runs from 2:15 to 3 p.m. ET and local time.

Times are below.

Toyota ‘sad and disappointed’ by Porsche’s LMP1 exit

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Toyota president Akio Toyoda says he is “sad and disappointed” that Porsche will be ending its LMP1 program at the end of the year, leaving the Japanese marque as the sole manufacturer in the FIA World Endurance Championship’s premier class.

Porsche announced early on Friday that it would be pulling the plug on its LMP1 operation following this year’s season finale in Bahrain, switching focus to Formula E, where it will race from 2019.

Toyota and Porsche have battled for top honors in the WEC since 2014, leaving Toyoda with a heavy heart after hearing the news.

“I felt that it was very unfortunate when I heard that Porsche decided to withdraw from the LMP1 category of the WEC racing series,” Toyoda said in a statement.

“At last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race, we were honored that Porsche considered Toyota as a rival. It was a great battle as we fought against each other for victory.

“Looking towards this year’s series, we aimed to rise to and even surpass Porsche’s challenge. Those thoughts drove us to work harder and put forth our best efforts in realizing new technologies and skills.

“At this year’s Le Mans, I again had the opportunity to meet and talk with Dr. Porsche. He told me that, much like us, his company participates in motorsport to enhance its production cars. As a carmaker that has been doing such for a very long time, Porsche deserves a great deal of respect.

“I feel very sad and disappointed that we will no longer be able to pit our technologies against such a company on the same battleground next year.

“However, the fight is not yet over. We will continue to battle with all our strength in the remaining five races of this year.

“Let’s make it an amazing competition that will remain in the hearts of the teams as well as of the fans.

“I am full of gratitude to Porsche, but I will save my thanks for when the season is over. At that time, I wonder which of us will be congratulating the other.

“Let’s look forward to that moment as we continue to fight. To everyone at Porsche, we’ll see you on the track!”