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PWC: 2017 Midseason Update with Gill, Haselgrove

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The Pirelli World Challenge resumed its 2017 season with the kickoff to its second half of competition this past weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, traditionally an important weekend for the series’ current season title battles and next year’s planning.

World Challenge has run an interesting 2017 season to date. The competition hasn’t been lacking in the headlining GT class; thus far there have been five different driver combinations from five different manufacturers (Ferrari, Mercedes-AMG, Cadillac, Porsche, Audi) that have won the five SprintX races, and a further two drivers and manufacturers (McLaren, Bentley) who’ve won in Sprint as well. GTS also saw six manufacturers win in as many weekends to open its season (Ford, KTM, SIN, Porsche, Panoz, Chevrolet).

Behind the scenes, as World Challenge has sought to establish itself as its own championship trying to emerge from a strong support series platform, there have been inevitable growing pains. The issue of track time – where PWC falls on race weekends it shares with other series – and explaining how good the competition has been has been difficult in some respects because of how complex the series format is in 2017 with three different GT championships: Sprint, SprintX and overall.

We caught up with Greg Gill, president/CEO of WC Vision (PWC’s series producers) and Marcus Haselgrove, WC Vision vice president, Competition, for a check-in on where things sit through the first half of the year as the series begins its stretch run to the end of 2017.

The competition aspect is certainly there within most if not all the series’ classes. As noted, both GT and GTS have seen a variety of winners at the start of the year, and the increased number of new cars in the Touring Car ranks has bolstered those classes’ presentation this year.

“BoP will always be a lighting rod and question mark. But it comes down to having world class teams, manufacturers and preparation, and sometimes the luck you get,” Gill told NBC Sports. “I like what was said by a returning GT team, who was here in the late 2000s. They’d run another series, then came back and said, ‘Man when we were here before, it was 3-5 fast guys. Now, everyone is.”

Haselgrove hailed the work of the people investment in TC to help bring those classes forward to pushing high-40s if not low-50s in terms of car counts in TC, TCA and TCB this year, most of them in the TC and TCA classes with TCB dwindling down in popularity. He also made a key point about where the TC classes fit into the overall PWC platform.

TC battle at Lime Rock between Dane Cameron’s BMW 235i and Paul Holton’s Audi RS3. Photo: PWC

“The growth spurt comes there from the manufacturers,” Haselgrove told NBC Sports. “They’re already talking to Greg and I about next year because they’re here now. To me, TC will always be sustainable as it’s at the dealership level for many teams.”

With car count growth though has come the format adjustment for PWC weekends, and how they fit into the overall landscape, and that’s one of the challenges facing PWC moving forward in 2018 and beyond.

It’s worth noting in the past that GT and GTS were combined in on-track sessions before being separated out prior to 2015. That had the knock-on effect of kicking the TC classes out of IndyCar weekends, save for one or two, that year.

What’s happened this year is that the GT and GTS class sessions on IndyCar weekends have been hamstrung both for track time, and for good times, as there’s been a subtle change in the pecking order.

Panoz, Porsche, Chevrolet at Road America in GTS. Photo: PWC

The joint IndyCar and PWC weekends are a hit for fans and for manufacturers; however, more often than not this year PWC sessions are primarily on a Thursday promoter test day, with only one or two sessions to follow each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That means earlier load-in days and travel time for PWC teams, which adds up quickly, and leaves them sitting around for long periods while IndyCar, the Mazda Road to Indy and occasionally the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup are on-track. PWC races have run after IndyCar sessions several times this year.

“Most definitely,” Gill responded when asked if PWC needing to improve the in-weekend schedule for its competitors was something that needs to be explored.

“That has to happen. We’ve come up with some tentative ideas between meetings with INDYCAR and track promoters. For our paddock, it definitely needs to be shortened to make it effective for people.

“We have a great partnership with INDYCAR in this modern era of World Challenge, but we also have to be mindful of the 125-plus drivers we have ourselves; and we can’t get that all done on an IndyCar weekend.”

Gill, who along with PWC plans to release the 2018 schedule at Circuit of The Americas in September, expects a similar number of events but not necessarily at the same dates they are this year.

“It should be 11 or 10 plus one like this year at similar venues; we’re leaning towards that,” Gill said. “The biggest issue we’re facing right now is how do we get this many people in and give them a good weekend race experience.

“I think you’ll see maybe a one or two event growth towards headliner events for us. We surveyed our GT owner group at Road America. They want to continue large scale events, be it with IndyCar, or other series, to continue that level of exposure for the manufacturer partners.”

With Mid-Ohio complete, PWC now heads to two more SprintX weekends with the ever-evolving management structure at the Utah Motorsports Campus and COTA, switched from March to September this year, before its Sprint finale in Sonoma with IndyCar.

Photo: PWC

Gill’s been happy with SprintX but admits some tweaks are needed for the emerging series, which has seen higher car counts than Sprint (mid-30s versus mid-20s) but also a bit of confusion over rules and regulations.

“So SprintX was something we’re very pleased with the success of, but we’ve already met with our teams to work to how we can make things better in the future,” Gill said. “We’d already made a change from their input on the tire changes for this year, deciding not to do it.

“The biggest thing we need to work on with it is how do we make it more clean and easier to follow? We have three different classes of drivers, three different classes of cars, split within a 60-minute race, and that creates its own set of headaches.

“What was reported last year this time was this is a more economical way of going racing if they only want to race Sprint or SprintX, or share a ride. In that regard, that was a success. We’ve seen a growth in the paddock.”

SprintX was born out of the partnership with the SRO, where its Balance of Performance classifications have come into the paddock. A key point to note is PWC’s GT is running on last year’s specification of Pirelli tires, which as Haselgrove explained has helped simplify the BoP process.

“One of the other things I’m a big purveyor of this for a customer class – is that we’re on the same tire,” he said. “All of them last year got a good setup. This year, the cars aren’t moving much; they’re all improving a small amount.

“If you stay running the same tire multiple years it’s different versus every time you have a big change in tires or rule package, then you have to get everybody back as close to zero delta as possible. So they’re very happy with that, especially the teams selling to customers; they already know where they are with the car this year.”

Gill said the SRO has been less visible on-site for PWC races this year because 2016 was Stephane Ratel’s group’s primarily fact-finding mission year.

“It’s been two years now that we’ve been involved with them. We started referencing the SRO BoP three years ago,” Gill said. “Between the two organizations, I think it’s been increased communication, more predictability… and the other area is that there’s been less engagement this year because they’ve been over before, they know what’s going on, and Marcus already works well with Claude (Surmont, SRO Technical Director).

“The big thing we need to work on in that regard is making sure to maintain the close relationship with our manufacturers here, and that we continue to build on the confidence and connection we have them with.

“We could lose that if we try to do too much internationally too far. As an example, just because of time zone differences alone, we know say 17 hours ahead in Asia, they can’t immediately respond to an email. Marcus and his team are intimately involved with them and we’ll keep that connection going.”

Some of the bigger success points for the series thus far in 2017 have been the behind-the-scenes changes.

In moving from SCCA to USAC as a sanctioning body, improving visual optics where cleaner World Challenge apparel has premiered, adding three class managers in Rob Morgan (GT), Jack Baldwin (GTS) and Jim Jordan (TC), and changing timing & scoring partners to TSL, there have been improvements we’re not necessarily writing or talking about because it’s done internally.

In layman’s terms, you never want to know how the sausage is being made, but the ingredients have changed in the sausage-making process this year for PWC to improve where it sits as it grows.

“There are things we’ve done this year that are big but not particularly newsworthy because they don’t show up that way, but are critical for the continued growth of the series,” he said.

“We’d received the largest customer complaint about our previous sanctioning partner that said we were ‘clubby’ – which they didn’t mean as an indictment against the SCCA, but did refer to it as a mentality of casualness or not taking things as seriously. It was the wrong impression to give off and it certainly wasn’t our intention to do so.

“Our USAC transition has gone way ahead of expectation in helping things go smoother. USAC is a very transparent partner. I’m also happy to say we’ve continued a good relationship with the SCCA, and will continue to work with them on Track Night in America and some of their other initiatives.”

Other question marks remain for 2018 and beyond, notably its race broadcast format with the CBS Sports Network package now in its third year in 2017 and with a handful of meant-to-be-live TV shows actually having aired on a couple-hour delay, with no live stream. That will be a topic that arises later this year as the series progresses.

But all told, the plan remains full speed ahead for PWC as it works towards crowning its champions for 2017 and as the series that was the first to bring several popular sports car platforms to the United States looks to showcase that to a bigger audience, while also working to maintain its successful business, manufacturer and commercial relationships.

“We’re ahead of where we were a year ago. We’re pleased with that,” Gill said. “The increased grids are good to see, but they’re an indication of all the effort of all who’ve worked behind the scenes.”

Photo: PWC

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 RACER.com 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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