Mazda has a new, big team running them next year. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Winning pursuit fuels Mazda Motorsports’ move to Joest in 2018

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Mazda Motorsports’ prototype program since it came back to being in 2014 has been defined by several staples: a Soul Red livery, an evolution of chassis platform and gut-wrenching heartbreak.

It has not, to this stage, been defined by winning – which goes against Mazda’s otherwise sterling record in North American sports car racing of winning regularly, with 155 major sports car wins in North America (third among all manufacturers) and 11 major sports car championships.

But with podiums the best result since Mazda evolved from its SKYACTIV-D diesel prototype effort, abandoned after 2015, to the gasoline-powered MZ-2.0T in the back of its Lola Multimatic based chassis in 2016 and then to the new Riley Multimatic chassis and KODO design inspired Mazda RT24-P that’s debuted this year, something had to change.

It’s a harsh reality of the motorsports world that sometimes loyalty loses out to performance gains and Mazda, which has maintained an incredible relationship with SpeedSource, can’t be accused of lacking loyalty to the Florida-based outfit run by Sylvain Tremblay. But when a team of Joest Racing’s caliber becomes available, it proves incredibly hard to overlook.

“I answer to the executive team at Mazda, and that executive team answers to a brand… and it’s our process to put the brand in the highest position as possible,” John Doonan, director of motorsports for Mazda North American Operations, told NBC Sports.

“For a while we’ve continued to look at ways to do that. There’s no question, that Sylvain and his organization gave every ounce of effort in their personal tanks to this program.

“At the same time, we also looked at every aspect of the chassis, with Larry Holt and Multimatic, the powerplant from AER, to the drivers, and we had to look at every element of the program to put our best foot forward.

“Working with one of the greatest teams of all-time doesn’t happen very often, if ever. And I’m not sure this will ever happen again.”

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Winners of the 2014 Le Mans 24 Hour, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer celebrate on the podium with Wolfgang Ullrich of Austria, Head of Audi Motorsport on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

The process to bring Joest Racing, a 16-time Le Mans winner and prior factory team for Audi, Porsche and Opel, began almost from the off at the Rolex 24 at Daytona when Joest officials – including managing director Ralf Juttner – were on site at the season-opening round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Joest needed a manufacturer and Mazda needed results to prove to the brass the competitiveness and winning potential of the program. From that standpoint it was a match made in heaven and things moved quickly in relative terms, through the various processes, to make it happen.

“We had a list of teams… and initially, they weren’t on it or available!” Doonan said. “When they did become available, when it even became possible to sit down with them, we thought, ‘Well that’ll never work. We won’t be good enough for them.’

“But quite the contrary! The chemistry was there from the first minute. It set in, and holy cow, this could be possible… you compare notes, objectives, the business means to you, and someone who has represented premium manufacturer brands in the past. It became reality.”

That this was kept a secret though was almost the bigger shocker. Certainly Joest made DPi rumblings, but a VAG brand – perhaps Audi again, Bentley or Volkswagen itself – made more theoretical sense than Joest and Mazda coming together.

With SpeedSource personnel informed earlier this week of the change, Doonan admitted the challenges that come with the nature of a buildup to this announcement, and how fast this all went down.

“It was difficult to know what was going on the background, but out of sheer respect for processes and agreements, who were signing up with next, we had to do it right,” Doonan said. “I am shocked we kept it quiet! That’s exciting; we did it not to be sneaky in the industry, but to respect our partners and the right people all the time.

“It was a relatively short time frame. We’ve worked for six to seven months, but in our business, that’s all happened relatively quickly. You bring up peoples lives and that’s a consideration for the process, for the existing partner, and for the future partner. That’s the internal processes with Japan, America, finance, legal departments and all the steps it takes.”

Both Mazdas racing a Nissan Onroak DPi at COTA. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Now that the announcement of the program is out the natural questions are about where the program goes from here.

Per Juttner, the testing will begin in the next month, with the existing Mazda RT24-Ps sent to Europe. The quartet of full-season drivers (Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez, Tom Long, Joel Miller) will undertake the testing duties but as a result this means the Mazdas won’t be on the WeatherTech Championship Prototype class grid for the final three races of the year.

“We expect to be starting with the testing as soon as August, without going into detail on the test program. But in the next month we expect to have the car rolling,” he said.

Given the limits on what can be changed to the car per IMSA’s homologation process, the car will not need a full rehomologation under the Joest team banner, but the two outfits will be working in tandem to improve what they can.

“There is, for sure, some discussions with IMSA about the homologation. It’s not a complete re-homologation, for sure. Homologation processes is anyway not completely closed,” Juttner said.

“The testing will be done with a car that does already have some modifications in it. We expect more to come throughout the remainder of this year until then we have a version that we think is the right one to start the season in 2018.”

Doonan reiterated there was “never really a doubt” in continuing with Multimatic and AER.

“Larry and his people are so committed to making this one work,” Doonan explained. “We invested heavily. We’re counting on Larry and his people to see this car succeed.

“We’re really excited for to continue work to together with AER; we’ve been with them 11 years and they’ve ramped up their game on reliability in eight to 10 months. Let’s put all the pieces together and have people standing on the top step.”

Nunez, Bomarito and Miller are three of the four who’ll test this fall, along with Long. Photo courtesy of IMSA

A decision on the 2018 driver lineup is expected by the end of the IMSA regular season, and it’s hard to foresee the Mazda and Joest partnership keeping all four existing drivers on the books next year. Long, whose Long Road Racing family operation builds the Global MX-5 Cup cars and Miller, who also works within the Mazda Road to Indy as a driver coach and steward, are active within other areas of the company.

For the quartet of drivers who have been so integral to Mazda’s development over the last six or seven years, if not longer, they’re now in the position of helping to develop this car over the next couple months while not entirely knowing their status driving-wise, without having the chance to race. Doonan said championship position made no bearing on the status to withdraw, although neither pairing is higher than sixth in the points.

“After looking at all the options and understanding the timeline to get ready for Daytona, we made this decision,” Doonan said. “The vision was to try to finish the season, but we had to make a tough decision to stop. I wanted to finish it. But there’s a laser focus on testing. That’s what we’ll go do.”

The exciting and perhaps surprising part – just like Penske and Acura’s official union announced last week – is that two more sparring partners from the ALMS prototype heyday of 2006 through 2008 have again come together.

Whereas in 2008 there was Joest with two LMP1 Audis, Mazda with a privateer LMP2 Lola Mazda, and then Penske’s two Porsche RS Spyders and Acura’s handful of ARX-01s making up the field, now all four are back in the game to create a fascinating potential rivalry, while also battling the Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis and trio of Cadillac DPi-V.Rs, thus far the dominant force in 2017.

Winning now will mean more because of the competition level, and that’s the only goal here for this new partnership.

“We all know that with announcements like today and announcements like a few days ago, the competition level and the quality and the racing will get even better. So we are really looking forward to the task that’s ahead. We know it’s a difficult one, but we are ready for it,” Juttner said.

MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 17: Raphael Matos drives the #8 LMP2 BK Motorsports Lola B08 during practice for the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championship on October 17, 2008 at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Doonan added, “It’s interesting because we talk about the our Le Mans victory in 1991 as a key notch on our brand timeline. I love that, and Mazda in GTO and GTU, but that is the past. It’s a foundation of our company.

“But we’re in the process of selling great road cars. And we’re in the business of writing the next chapter of motorsports history. With things like the rotary RX-8 that won Daytona, the MAZDASPEED6 with SKYACTIV-D and others, we tried to write the new chapter.

“We’ve been like a caged animal waiting to announce this. I’ll be on a plane to Germany soon for our next technical group meeting.

“We’re doing all this to create success. I am thrilled. We did participate in the Joest, Acura, Porsche, Mazda era in ALMS – and whether you call it version ‘2.0 or 3.0,’ now we’re in it again thanks to the France family.”

MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 18: David Brabham driving the #9 LMP2 Patron Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-01B leads Gil de Ferran in the #66 de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-01B into turn 1 at the start of the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championship on October 18, 2008 at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Hunter-Reay released from hospital; not yet cleared to drive at Pocono

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has been released from a nearby hospital at Pocono Raceway after his accident in qualifying for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) but has not yet been cleared to drive. He’ll be re-evaluated by INDYCAR Sunday morning.

The full release from INDYCAR and Andretti Autosport is below:

Verizon IndyCar Series driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was evaluated at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday for injuries to his left hip and knee sustained in a crash in qualifying for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Hunter-Reay was treated and released but has not been cleared to drive, pending a re-evaluation Sunday morning.

“During qualifying today, out of nowhere, the car stepped out on me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was a bit of a wiggle, which I caught. The second time it happened, it came with no warning – which is a bit confusing. I hit my hip pretty bad as well as my knee, so the doctors thought it would be best to go in for further evaluation. After a CT scan and MRI, I am able to go and get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll wake up sore, but will hopefully be able to get back in the DHL machine tomorrow.

“I know the entire Andretti Autosport team worked hard to get the car put back together and with 500 miles, there is still a chance to win from the back of the field. I can’t thank the Holmatro Safety Team enough for their quick response along with the medical staff at INDYCAR, Pocono and Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest. Also, thank you to the fans for reaching out with their support.”

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Pocono (VIDEO)

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NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series trip to the “Tricky Triangle” for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode from the three-turn oval, Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa.

NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter and Indy Lights analyst Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see above.

On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power, and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay led first practice; however was involved in a heavy accident in qualifying later Saturday afternoon and transported to a nearby hospital.

His status is unclear for Sunday.

Newgarden leads the championship but had a tough qualifying run – he was only 14th Saturday afternoon – while Power was second among Chevrolets and starts fifth. He is the defending Pocono race winner.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:

Chaves, Harding continue to shine at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – In two previous starts in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been shining stars, finishing ninth at the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding several crashes and incidents in both races to do so, and advancing from 25th and 20th on the grid, respectively.

Returning to the series for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (Sunday 2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the combination continues its remarkably strong form, qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race, third fastest of the Chevrolet runners.

And with the goal of turning the team into a full-time effort next year, Chaves and the team appear to be picking up right where they left off.

“We’re just here to improve our team, get it ready for next year,” Chaves told NBC Sports. “We’d like to go home with a great result of course, that’s always the aim. But I think the work we did throughout the practice improved the car enough to wear I was pretty comfortable at the end.”

Of course, even though the team is still very new to the world of racing (their first race was this year’s Indianapolis 500), it doesn’t stop Chaves from having lofty expectations.

“You always want to shoot for the win,” he asserted when asked about expectations for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500. “Obviously it’s never easy – with the limited time we have on track, it just makes it even harder on top of it. We’re always trying to keep our expectations high and do the best job we can to accomplish them.”

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been very impressive out of the box. Photo: IndyCar

And perhaps Chaves is right to have big expectations given the team’s first two races. Ninth at Indianapolis and fifth at Texas are genuinely impressive results for the brand new team. And on the surface, they are a surprise, given the organization itself hadn’t run any races at any level prior to this year. But, Chaves explained that the people involved in the team are more than familiar with the sport and know how to build a successful operation.

“It’s just a matter of having the right people involved,” Chaves said of their early success. “Our team owner, Mike Harding, is very dedicated to making sure that we have the means to go out and hire the best people we can. It’s hard to do when the full-time teams have already got most of those guys, but there’s a few guys left out there who are very quality guys. Then that comes down to our team manager, Larry Curry, who has been able to track down these guys and give them a good offer to come on board with us. We’re just going to get better from here.”

Specifically, team manager Curry has been instrumental in recruiting talent and helping the team get ahead of the game, as Chaves explained.

“When it came down to our Indy deal, we started getting our car ready, and a little bit through his connections, we were able to get our mockup engine a little sooner, our body fit sooner – enough that we had the time to go out and test and do a shakedown run at Texas before Indy. It’s that type of experience and knowledge that Larry brings to the team that helps us out.”

NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported earlier this weekend in a piece for that the team is ready for a full season in 2018, with Harding also telling the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query that “100 percent number” Miller cited is closer to 95 percent.

Chaves stopped short of going that far, but feels confident that a full-season effort will come together.

“Obviously, our plans are still to go out and run the full season. I’d say every day we get closer and closer to that. I’d say it’s looking really good. I know (Robin Miller’s report) mentions 100% – I think we’re close to that. But, it’s not done until it’s done. So I’ll just keep focused on my job here this weekend.”

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Power tops final practice at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – Team Penske’s Will Power topped final practice for tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway. Power’s best lap of 216.294 mph was turned late in the session and pipped teammate Simon Pagenaud for the top spot, making it a Team Penske 1-2 in final practice. Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan were third and fourth, the best of the Honda teams, while Helio Castroneves rebounded from his earlier qualifying crash to end the session in fifth, putting three Penske cars in the top five.

Of note: pole sitter Takuma Sato was 11th quickest and Ed Carpenter was 16th, Carpenter having missed qualifying as Ed Carpenter Racing made repairs to his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet and missed the lineup time for pre-qualifying inspection by only a few minutes.

Also: Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, usually piloted by Ryan Hunter-Reay, did not venture onto the track for final practice, with Hunter-Reay currently being evaluated at a local hospital following a qualifying crash.

Times are below. Tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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