Photo: Gateway Motorsports Park

PREVIEW: Bommarito Automotive Group 500

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The Verizon IndyCar Series comes to its sixth and final oval race of the year at Gateway Motorsports Park this weekend with five drivers covered by 42 points for the championship, a number of silly season dominoes yet to fall and a number of questions about how the repaved 1.25-mile oval will race.

Add it all up and you have the ingredients for an interesting two-day affair as IndyCar comes back to the greater St. Louis area in Madison, Ill., for Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Here’s what to look for ahead of this weekend’s race:

2017 Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline – Talking Points

Penske’s fearsome foursome might dominate… again

It seems weird that Team Penske didn’t win either short oval race in 2016 at Phoenix or Iowa based on the amount of trepidation the remaining 17 drivers in the 21-car field have about Penske and its fearsome foursome heading into this weekend.

Going back to Phoenix in April, race winner Simon Pagenaud (116 laps), polesitter Helio Castroneves (73), Will Power (59) and Josef Newgarden (2) combined to lead all 250 laps between them, and finished first (Pagenaud), second (Power), fourth (Castroneves) and ninth (Newgarden). Only JR Hildebrand stuck his Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet into the proverbial knife fight to break up a perfect 1-2-3-4 sweep, banking his first podium in six years a week after sitting out due to a wrist injury.

“St. Louis is where we’ve been at our best from a competitiveness standpoint at short ovals,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports. “But again it’s a bit of an unknown, in terms of what to expect from the new surface. The track grip coming up and with us as good as we were at Phoenix, that should bode well.”

A Hildebrand maiden win would be a surprise, but welcome, interruption to a recent period of Penske dominance that has surged over recent races.

Through the first eight races, Team Penske had three wins (one apiece for Newgarden, Pagenaud and Power in succession), as the field had seven different winners from five different teams.

Since, Team Penske has won five of the last six races to boost their total to eight wins overall, including the last four in a row, the first time the team has done so in five years.

One quick oval points note: Power actually leads all competitors with 220 points in the five oval races thus far this year, with Castroneves second on 219, Pagenaud fifth with 190, and Newgarden lagging a bit in 14th with 145.

You’d be a brave individual to pick against a Penske driver winning on Gateway’s return, but, as we’ve seen occasionally in IndyCar in the past, strange things can happen.

About that repaved surface…

Rahal on revised surface. Photo: Gateway Motorsports Park

A test in May produced a number of warning signs for the series with a lot of cut tires and a lot of bumps. But since the Gateway Motorsports Park staff (led by Curtis Francois and Chris Blair) has shown nothing but willingness to promote the heck out of this race and do whatever it can to ensure the first IndyCar race here in nearly 15 years is a success, the decision was made to repave the track prior to August.

A second test occurred to rave reviews, as drivers hailed the billiard table smooth surface and sets the stage for a grippy, fast 248 laps under the lights on Saturday night. Graham Rahal, who drives a revised livery with Fifth Third Bank primary sponsorship this weekend, has said he expects this to be the best short oval IndyCar race of the year.

“We went and did the tire test; it’s huge credit to everyone there,” Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe told NBC Sports. “The repave was really nice. They did a great job. It’s nice and smooth, tons of grip. Longer straightaways give a greater opportunity to get a run. It’s a big improvement for the facility and everyone involved in the organization.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay added to NBC Sports, “I don’t think it’ll be more than one groove, but you’ll have enough grip to follow closely, and make it potentially very racy. No one really ran in traffic because it was cut short due to rain. It’s certainly very smooth. I thought about it when I left; is it gonna be one of those racy shows, or will be several car lengths apart? It depends on dirty air. I’m not really sure, but I believe it’ll be racier than the Phoenix show.”

Hunter-Reay, whose unlucky run of results for really two-plus years came to a head last week at Pocono when he crashed in qualifying and went to the hospital before rallying to race on Sunday, has along with Tony Kanaan been an incredible driver to watch on short ovals – particularly in the manufacturer aero kit period where the more draggy Honda kit has been at a disadvantage to the slipperier Chevrolet package. Few would begrudge him breaking his winless run this weekend, even if based on car performance, it’s a long shot.

The new track should be lightning fast. Conor Daly led on the old surface with a best time of 25.4371 seconds, 176.907 mph. But unofficial reports from the new surface earlier this month saw the times in the mid-24 second range.

The last pole speed and time, Castroneves’ 25.5732 seconds and 175.965 mph in 2003, will be shattered. The question is whether the outright one-lap record, Raul Boesel’s 24.324 seconds and 187.963 mph set in May 1997 for the inaugural race, will fall. That race was won by NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy.

Bourdais back in action

More on Sebastien Bourdais’ surprise but welcome return to action here, and while expectations might not be the highest for him or the Dale Coyne Racing team this weekend, don’t count them out. Bourdais has accumulated a number of oval wins throughout his career in Germany, Las Vegas and Milwaukee, and if his car’s dialed in, he could surprise on track beyond already making the big news that he’s racing at all.

Five for fighting in the title tilt

The top five drivers are separated by just 42 points in the championship battle. Newgarden leads Scott Dixon by 18 points, Castroneves by 22, Pagenaud by 26 and Power by 42.

Penske faces a weird scenario this weekend at Gateway depending on how the order falls for its quartet, as invariably, one or more of its four drivers will take points off the other depending on how high up he can finish.

Dixon, by contrast, will have the entire Chip Ganassi Racing team behind him supporting him – although at Pocono, Dixon may have lost two critical points by finishing sixth behind Kanaan in fifth. Expect this to be a weekend of damage limitation for Dixon, who doesn’t expect the Honda package will be able to match the Chevrolets. However, if he makes inroads on the Penske quartet this weekend, it will be a huge boost in the pursuit of his fifth title.

INDYCAR provided these couple points nuggets heading into the weekend:

  • The driver who has led the championship with three races to go has failed to win the championship in five of the last seven seasons. Will Power in 2014 and Simon Pagenaud in 2016 are the exceptions.
  • The 18 points which separate Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon is the third smallest margin with three races to go since 2010. Will Power led Helio Castroneves by four points in 2014 and Ryan Hunter-Reay by five points in 2012. The average deficit with three races to go since 2010 is 22.6 points.

Four possible spoilers

Daly on the old surface in May. Photo: IndyCar

In the other four Chevrolet drivers in the field – the pair of Ed Carpenter Racing drivers, Carpenter and Hildebrand, and A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly – the hope is both teams could be strong enough to make inroads into the top-10 and surprise on a track where their package is better.

Daly, in particular, is one to watch. He led the test here on the old surface (first session wrap, second session wrap) and even after the repave, is still bullish on his chances. He’s been better since team director Larry Foyt moved over to his box to call his race strategy, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility Daly could sneak a low-to-mid top-10 finish this weekend.

“I’ve been looking forward to the Gateway race since our first test there in May,” Daly said. “I’ve really enjoyed the testing we’ve done there this year, and we’ve been quick every time on track, so I have high expectations for the weekend. It’ll be supremely close as INDYCAR weekends normally are, but I hope to be fighting at the front end of the field all weekend long.”

Three veterans with Gateway IndyCar experience… plus one other

Although the repave is new to everyone, three drivers – Castroneves, Kanaan and Dixon – have raced at Gateway before. Castroneves is the track’s most recent winner in 2003. Carpenter doesn’t have an IndyCar start there, but did bank top-five finishes in Indy Lights races at Gateway in 2002 and 2003; prior to that, he raced on the 1.25-mile oval in USAC Silver Crown events.

Two more races after Gateway

This race in Gateway provides the final tight turnaround of the season, with teams arriving to setup on Thursday for the two-day show, with afternoon and evening running set for Friday and Saturday. Watkins Glen and Sonoma, the last two road course races, are back to the traditional three-day weekend schedule.

The final word

From Castroneves, the track’s most recent winner and a driver who needs a result to keep his elusive title hopes alive: “I’m really excited to go back to Gateway. Last time I was there, it was a really fun crowd and I can’t wait to see them all again. I’m one of the few in the Verizon IndyCar Series who have actually raced there since it’s been awhile since the series has been there. I feel that we have an advantage since we won there when we used to race there. However, with a new track surface, it’s anyone’s game. The No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Chevy team and I know we have a lot of work to do to gain back some points, but we’re ready to perform well and make it happen.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule: 

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, Aug. 25
4 – 5 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
6:30 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single car/cumulative time of two laps), RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)/NBCSN (Taped, 7:30 p.m. ET Aug. 26)
9 – 10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series final practice, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, Aug. 26
7:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop competition
8:01 p.m. – Driver introductions
8:40 p.m. – Command to start engines
8:45 p.m. – ABC Supply 500 (248 laps/310 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s Gateway’s most recent top 10 (2003):

1. Helio Castroneves (pole)
2. Tony Kanaan
3. Gil de Ferran
4. Tomas Scheckter
5. Dan Wheldon
6. Sam Hornish Jr.
7. Tora Takagi
8. Greg Ray
9. Vitor Meira
10. Scott Sharp

Zurich Formula E race confirmed, Switzerland’s first since 1955 motorsport ban

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Switzerland will host its first circuit race in over 60 years when Formula E hits the streets of Zurich next June.

Switzerland banned circuit racing and most motorsport activities in 1955 following the Le Mans disaster in the same year, only for a relaxation of the law two years ago to open the door for a Formula E race to be held.

Swiss racer Simona de Silvestro took part in a special showrun through the streets of Geneva in a Formula E in 2015, with the all-electric series pushing to get a race on the calendar.

Following the latest meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council in Paris, a race in Zurich was approved for June 10, 2018, acting as the fourth new city on the season four calendar.

“I am very pleased that circuit racing is returning to Switzerland next year with the FIA Formula E Championship event in Zurich,” FIA president Jean Todt said.

“To be able to reintroduce this discipline to a country where it has been absent since it was banned in 1955 is an exciting prospect and the achievement of an important goal for the FIA.

“I would like to congratulate everyone involved in making it a reality, as it is important for us to continue to bring motor sport to new audiences around the world.

“Together with the other new events on the calendar in Santiago, Sao Paulo and Rome, I believe we have a very strong season of Formula E ahead of us.”

Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag added: “The calendar for next season is shaping up to be one of the most exciting yet with four new venues – including Zurich. I’m thrilled that Formula E is bringing racing back to Switzerland for the first time in over 60 years.

“This wouldn’t have been possible without the core fundamentals of Formula E – driving the electric revolution and sustainable mobility. Following the recent law changes this race was also made possible with the instrumental support of our Swiss partner, Julius Baer.

“I would like to express our gratitude to their CEO, Boris Collardi, and his entire team for their continued belief in Formula E – we’ve again been able to break new grounds in the world of motorsport.”

The schedule also features inaugural events in Santiago, Sao Paulo and Rome, and will once again conclude in Montreal, Canada at the end of July.

The only other change to the calendar is the shift by one week of the New York City ePrix date, moving to the July 14-15 weekend.

2017/18 FIA Formula E Calendar

1. Hong Kong – December 2
2. Hong Kong – December 3
3. Marrakesh – January 13
4. Santiago – February 3
5. Mexico City – March 3
6. Sao Paulo – March 17
7. Rome – April 14
8. Paris – April 28
9. Berlin – May 19
10. Zurich – June 10
11. New York – July 14
12. New York – July 15
13. Montreal – July 28
14. Montreal – July 29

Mexican GP to go ahead as planned, facilities unharmed by earthquake

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Next month’s Mexican Grand Prix is set to go ahead as planned after facilities at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez were unharmed by the earthquake that struck Mexico City earlier this week.

A 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico on Tuesday, claiming the lives of over 200 people as well as toppling dozens of buildings in the capital.

The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is set to host the third-to-last round of the 2017 Formula 1 season on October 29, and will go ahead as planned after facilities were unharmed by the earthquake.

“It’s been inspected twice already from the track surface and also the buildings, and it’s OK,” marketing chief Rodrigo Sanchez told Reuters.

“We’ll continue doing the assessments as we go but so far there’s really no concern. We’ll have a race.

“We’re trying to put out there all the information relevant to how people can help. Right now the concern is really getting everything back to moving from the city perspective and supporting any way we can.

“If things stay the same, we’ll just keep working on what we’re doing.

“The track is fine so we just need to re-focus and get this show done.”

Mexico’s only F1 driver, Sergio Perez, has donated $170,000 to support those affected by the earthquake, while the Carlos Slim Foundation is set to match every donation made five-fold.

IndyCar delivers its second-best season on NBCSN in 2017

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In the ninth year of its 10-year contract with the Verizon IndyCar Series (formerly as Versus and now as NBCSN), NBCSN produced its second-best season on record this year.

With a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 507,000 viewers per race, the 2017 season of races on NBCSN was just 1 percent off the best mark of 510,000 viewers per race in 2015.

This season’s viewership on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app exceeded the 2016 TAD of 492,000 viewers by 3 percent (excludes Texas and Pocono races in 2016, which were rescheduled due to weather), and was just 1 percent shy of NBCSN’s record TAD in 2015 (510,000).

TAD measures consumption across multiple platforms, combining the average minute audience (AMA) for television and digital. The 2016 release details are linked here.

Seven of the 12 races aired on NBCSN had a TAD of more than 500,000 with the most coming at Pocono with 624,000. In terms of household ratings, Indianapolis was the top local market with Richmond-Petersburg, Greenville, West Palm Beach and Greensboro coming in the top five.

The full 2017 release details are linked here.

Veach, Andretti, Group One Thousand One able to build for future

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Rare are the words “American,” “young driver,” “multi-year” and “IndyCar” assembled within a sentence in modern day Verizon IndyCar Series racing.

But for young American driver Zach Veach, he’s got a multi-year IndyCar contract at his disposal thanks to Group One Thousand One at Andretti Autosport, and with it, an opportunity to build, grow and develop over that three-year time period through 2020.

It’s hard to believe Veach, the Stockdale, Ohio native, is only 22 considering his history in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires between 2010 and 2016, competing every year save for one (2015) due to injury and a lack of budget.

But throughout that period he gradually improved year-by-year, first in USF2000, then in Pro Mazda and finally in Indy Lights. Over his three years and with two different cars in Indy Lights, Veach grew into a race winner and bulked up from his already slender frame.

Veach is also the first driver in MRTI history to have been with the same team in all three levels, and graduate into IndyCar. He detoured to Belardi Auto Racing in 2016 but otherwise, was part of Andretti Autosport’s lineup from 2010 to 2014, and will now come back “home” for 2018 in IndyCar.

Veach and Michael Andretti before Star Mazda debut, Sonoma, 2011. Photo: IndyCar

“I think he was 14 or 15 when we met the first time… and he looked like he was 10. Now he’s 22, and looks like he’s 15!” Michael Andretti laughed.

“But he’s always impressed me. OK, he’d come out of the box not bad. But the next race, he got better, and you could see it. It wasn’t by mistake. You’d see how he’d work, take the information, study it for hours, and then come back so much more prepared the next day.

“I gotta say, I don’t think there’s as many drivers I’ve known outside the car who’ve worked that hard to make themselves better, and he did that all the way up the ladder system. There’s a lot of confidence in big cars, and now he’ll have more tools and will use them to his advantage. So he might start here, qualify top-18, then it’ll start to go up, up, then qualify top-10 by the end of the year and I believe the next year he’ll be more of a contender. That’s how I envision it.”

Setting reasonable and realistic expectations will be key for Veach, who should look at drivers like Josef Newgarden or Charlie Kimball for inspiration.

Newgarden’s first year with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing was littered with rookie errors, not a single top-10 finish, and ending 23rd in the championship. But knowing he had two more years to build off of, Newgarden was a podium finisher each of the next two years and had leapt 10 spots in the standings. By his fourth year and his second contract in 2015, he was a race winner.

Kimball was the same way with Chip Ganassi Racing. Barely in the top-20 in points his first year with only a couple top-10s, he ascended to podiums in year two as well, and scored his first race win in year three – when he also cracked the top-10 in points.

Given Veach’s years of preparing for this moment, he’s happy to have gotten to IndyCar now, rather than rushing it years earlier.

“I was one of those kids who thought he would be in IndyCar at 18. That’s so dumb! Looking back, I’m so glad that’s not how it happened,” Veach told NBC Sports.

“It’s hard to be patient when you’re young. I know I’m saying that at age 22, but at 15 or 16, all you care about is getting to IndyCar.

“Luckily, life forced me to be patient in some things. I would much rather have this deal at age 23 than at 18, because now I feel I can deliver what these people have put on my shoulders.”

Veach, Towriss and Andretti. Photo: IndyCar

The key person to have come through with the deal is Dan Towriss, CEO, Group One Thousand One. Veach, his pastor and Towriss all connected in the run-up to the Indianapolis 500, with Veach’s program for that race announced at Long Beach with A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

Towriss explained first off that Group One Thousand One is a separate insurance company from Guggenheim Life, which was the presenting sponsor of Veach’s No. 40 Indy Women in Tech Championship Chevrolet in Indianapolis.

“Group One Thousand One is a group of insurance companies based in Indianapolis, and again, we’re growing our business, and we’re excited to be associated with Andretti and with Zach in this newest venture of ours,” Towriss explained.

“His story is one of perseverance and continuing to work hard. It resonates with us very well; helping people help themselves, and so we will help him continue on that journey. During May, we noted the way he was able to persevere, and work with his engineers when things weren’t able to work.”

Veach at Indy 500 this year. Photo: IndyCar

Veach is one of the smallest drivers in the series, at 5 and a half feet and hovering around 130 pounds. But outside the cockpit he’s developed a love of mountain climbing, and has been able to scale several cliffs over the last couple years.

His upper body strength is something he’s focused on building and he has come a long way from his early years in the MRTI. Manhandling an IndyCar is difficult, particularly as they don’t have power steering, but it’s something Veach has been working on.

“I think the first couple of tests will be hard, but they’ll be hard for everyone after the three-month offseason,” he said. “But we’re already 10 pounds heavier than we were at the Indy 500 and I’m proud to say there’s not a lot of fat!

“We’ve been busting our butts at St. Vincent’s to get stronger. Our numbers to now from where we started are night and day. We’ll keep working hard and as we get closer to the season, we’ll shift to more cardiovascular work. I’m at 128, 130 pounds now and I’d like to be at 135 when the season starts. I think it’s well within reach.”

Veach described the challenge of advancing up the ladder despite not winning a single Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for winning any of the three rungs on the ladder.

Veach (12) with longtime friend Gabby Chaves (7) in 2013 Freedom 100. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s not something I’m proud of. But one thing I am very proud of is that I’ve been very honest,” he said. “I had some success in USF2000, it was hit and miss in Pro Mazda, and in Indy Lights, I really came into my own. I proved to people that I could run up front and win races.

“What got me there was having that work ethic, trying to learn as much as I could from teammates who were quick and put that to use. Working with drivers like Felix Rosenqvist really helped. He showed me just how deep a car can go into the braking zone, with all that Formula 3 experience!

“He’s such a good driver and I hope to see him over here. He’s one of my closest friends and I don’t know anyone who deserves an IndyCar ride more than he does.

“It was a completely different set of skills and I think that’s why we didn’t hit our stride until the last part of the year. We won Road America, but winning at Watkins Glen and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca showed me where I wanted to be all year.

“It wasn’t until then that the team and I felt comfortable with what we were doing. There was added pressure when I became the team leader but that’s when things started turning around because the setups went in the exact direction I wanted them to go. That’s when things really started to click.”

Veach with USF2000 veteran Ayla Agren and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman at Sonoma. Photo: IndyCar

The final element of Veach’s perseverance was his continued presence at the races. He found a home as a regular analyst and occasional pit road reporter for the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network in 2015, and made regular appearances there in 2016 and 2017 as well. He also drove a two-seater for the Indy Racing Experience in the same time frame.

“I think it was extremely important just from the standpoint of showing people I wasn’t going to go away,” Veach said.

“I think I got a little criticism from others involved sometimes just saying, ‘Well, why are you there if you’re not doing anything and not driving?’ You have to stay relevant, and that’s just what we were trying to do. Luckily enough, IndyCar Radio gave me a great opportunity. It’s the first kind of real job I ever had with them.

“I owe them many thanks, and of course the Indy Racing Experience with the two-seater. Even though it’s a two-seater I still got to run at places I’ve never raced at before. So I’m going to a few new tracks next year. It’s not the same thing but at least I know which way to go. I think that’s going to help us be a little quicker.

“It’s just never giving up on the dream. It’s learning every day. It’s never taking no for an answer.”