Gateway’s strong return, Newgarden’s forceful pass big for IndyCar

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Whereas last week at Pocono Raceway the Verizon IndyCar Series delivered arguably its best race of the season, on Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park it delivered its most pleasant surprise.

With an actual crowd of fans on site at the 1.25-mile oval just outside downtown St. Louis in Madison, Ill., there was a proper pre-race buzz so palpable it was on par with IndyCar’s marquee events on each of its three types of circuits: Indianapolis (ovals), Long Beach (street courses) and Elkhart Lake (permanent road courses).

And then when Josef Newgarden delivered his second statement, authoritative pass for the lead of one of his Team Penske teammates in three races – he snookered Will Power at Mid-Ohio and forced his way past Simon Pagenaud in Gateway – it showcased a will-not-be-denied moment of glory that could net him his first series championship.

Those combined elements provided IndyCar an excellent capper to its six oval races for the year, following IndyCar’s return to a track that last hosted a race in 2003.

THE EVENT ITSELF

A two-year process to bring IndyCar back to Gateway reached its conclusion this weekend.

The initial series test in May brought about the subsequent repave prior to August, which were the latest signs of the commitment from Gateway officials. Title sponsor Bommarito Auto Group was hailed across multiple outlets for its local activation.

Week-long fan events were front and center in downtown St. Louis all week, culminating with a several-hour fan fest on Thursday afternoon prior to the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres baseball game, ensuring fans knew the race was on and close to the area.

Pagenaud and Newgarden in happier times, earlier in the week. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s amazing to see the community come together, between the city, civic leaders and race fans. It’s been an amazing opportunity to bring this event back to St. Louis,” Curtis Francois, Owner & CEO, Gateway Motorsports Park, said Thursday at a media lunch in the Ballpark Village outside Busch Stadium.

Fans started trickling in on race day even prior to Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires qualifying sessions at 1 p.m., which was as impressive as it was surprising. Single-car qualifying for fields of 15 cars or less don’t usually qualify as “scintillating,” but this was proof positive fans heeded the advice to come early, beat the traffic, and get situated.

Then with the autograph sessions happening on race day, long lines were evident for all three series competing, between IndyCar, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. Some of the MRTI drivers said they were impressed and surprised with the turnout for their autograph sessions.

Both Pro Mazda and Indy Lights put on entertaining shows as buzz built in the infield with fans either coming through the paddock to watch the IndyCar race preparation or competing on the Gateway karting complex. That made it difficult to get places at times because of the swath of people, but again, not a bad thing.

Photo: IndyCar

Inevitably for a first-year or returning event, there were a few kinks that needed to be ironed out. There were some complaints witnessed about signage, credentials and ticket pickup, and parking that arose on social media. Leaving the track post-race was made a bit more complicated by a train derailment that closed I-55.

Then the actual start of the race left a bit to be desired with a handful of people in the paddock suggesting dust and debris from the pre-race fireworks display, more than rubber from the previous series, actually dirtied the track. That may have contributed to Tony Kanaan’s spin before the green flag and then the Turn 2 accident that involved Will Power, Ed Carpenter and Takuma Sato all making contact, so race action didn’t get going until Lap 18.

But compared to some of the other first-year or returning events INDYCAR has had in recent years – street races in Baltimore and Houston and the one-year NOLA Motorsports Park experiment come to mind – there was nothing at Gateway that suggested these were elements that can’t be fixed. Instead, the cohesion between the sanctioning body, the track officials and the city of St. Louis combined to create a first-year event without most of the first-year headaches.

“Curtis Francois, Chris Blair and the staff did a phenomenal job,” Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, told NBC Sports. “Everything we did from day one exceeded our expectations, which were very high going into the event. We can’t thank them enough for all the hard work and enthusiasm they did for the effort.

“Curtis had a great vision for the future of this track and this event, and we had great confidence in Curtis. They showed what had to be done, and they did it. Those are the type of people you enjoy working with.”

Once the front straight grandstand was close to filling up, the crowd was eager to witness a good race. And thanks to the race winning pass, the estimated 40,000 in attendance weren’t disappointed.

THE PASS, AND MENTAL CHESS MATCH BETWEEN NEWGARDEN, PAGENAUD

IndyCar is better with rivalries and thanks to Josef Newgarden’s forceful move on Simon Pagenaud for the win Saturday night, one may have just been launched within Team Penske.

The move itself has ignited debate on whether it was a cheap move by Newgarden to contact Pagenaud, or whether Pagenaud could have defended better to where the inside line wasn’t left open in the first place.

The attitudes by both drivers after the race reveal a lot about where they sit mentally at the moment.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 25: Simon Pagenaud of France, driver of the #77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda Dallara, pits during the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Pagenaud’s attitude about the pass is an interesting case study in his psyche. Consider Pagenaud has said the late Ayrton Senna is his racing inspiration, and he was able in a very cool moment to pay tribute to him with a Senna-inspired helmet design at the 2014 Indianapolis 500, his last year driving a Honda-powered IndyCar (above).

Would Senna, known for his ruthlessness on track, have gone for that gap that Pagenaud left slightly ajar – but enough ajar – that Newgarden did? It’s hard to say no, and very easy to imagine yes, even though we never got to see Senna, like Nigel Mansell, race on an oval.

“I think if it wasn’t me, he would be in the fence with somebody else. That’s what I’ve got to say,” Pagenaud said Saturday night in perhaps his most tense, angry moment in IndyCar.

“There’s no crash (so it wasn’t reviewed); it’s more, how do you call it, a driver rule. It’s how much you respect each other,” he added.

“When you think the gap is open enough to risk it on an oval. I’m not talking road course. I think on a road course, that was a beautiful pass. But we’re not on a road course. There we are going 40, 50 miles an hour. Here we’re doing 190 there. It’s completely different story.”

Pagenaud knows of what he speaks because last year at Mid-Ohio, he delivered arguably his best pass for the net lead yet in IndyCar when he barged his way past Power in the Carousel.

Yes, it was at a slower rate of speed – but the point still exists that he went for a gap, made contact with a teammate and got ahead in the process. Such a pass was key to him securing last year’s championship, and created a 20-point swing in a single move.

Newgarden knows that just as well, because his move did just the same. What would have been only an 18-point lead had Pagenaud held off Newgarden has swung to a 43-point lead now with two races to go.

And Newgarden was far from angry in the post-race press conference. He wasn’t oblivious to the controversy; he was more matter-of-fact about it.

“I mean, Simon gave me a lane to work with,” he said. “I had a good tow on him, put my car inside in the opening, got about halfway alongside of him. One thing I didn’t want to do was touch him too hard. I think if I would have stayed too far left, I would have jumped the curb and that would have taken both of us out.

“I tried to get Simon to move over a little when we were coming to the opening of the corner. We both had to slow up. Fortunately worked out well for us on the 2 car side. Pagenaud, didn’t get up into the wall or anything like that, so I would say it worked out okay for him, too.”

Where Pagenaud made a mistake in this case was by leaving the inside open to begin with, and if I had to guess, was probably more upset about that than he was the fact there was contact.

It was showcased in the two earlier MRTI races Saturday that moving from outside of the track to the inside, and forcing drivers to go around the outside, would be the way to defend the lead and break the draft. Had Pagenaud mirrored Power’s late-race defense of Newgarden last week at Pocono, he may well have held him off.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Simon Pagenaud, driver of the #1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet, prepares to practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The big question I’ve had with Pagenaud all year is if he’s been in the same excellent state of mind he was last year, when he immediately declared himself the team leader at Penske courtesy of his incredible five-race start of three wins and two runner-up finishes, which created a championship gap he worked to maintain the rest of the year.

Pagenaud executes at his best when he’s the clear team leader and has the full focus of the team around him. This was often the case for him in sports car racing and when he was at Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports his first few years in IndyCar, and was also true for the better part of last year as he ascended up the unofficial Penske depth chart.

This year, it seems he’s been playing catch-up both on pace and in the headlines.

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Josef Newgarden, driver of the #2 Team Penske Chevrolet walks to driver introductions before the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Newgarden’s arrival dominated the winter discussion, even as Pagenaud was enjoying the spoils of his first championship, and got to celebrate at home in France. Will Power had a baby over the offseason and has been far more laid back all season, as he keeps wracking up the poles, but has fought inconsistency. Helio Castroneves’ future has been a talking point in his 20th season, with his future in a Penske IndyCar for the following year not assured for the first time in a decade.

That’s left Pagenaud, who’s been most consistent of all of them this year but not quite as fast, almost overlooked.

Pagenaud and Newgarden were utilized in a couple videos together throughout the 2014 season, notably one when they were both lost within the Iowa corn fields. However a funny video emerged Monday looking at how their relationship has changed, set to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”

Pagenaud had a chance Saturday night to deliver his first real statement he was ready to defend his title, had he held off Newgarden for the win at Gateway.

But the pure optics and undertones of the new Penske driver, driving car No. 2, forcing his way past the defending champion in car No. 1, was too sweet and savory to ignore.

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.”