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First IndyCar test on IMS oval moved up to Friday

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For the first time in 2017, the sounds of the Verizon IndyCar Series cars will be live from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. And it will occur a day earlier than planned.

A test originally scheduled for Saturday on the 2.5-mile oval will now occur Friday owing to impending poor weather on Saturday. This test, which is both a Honda and team test, will come only three days after the full field of competitors ran at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham.

Those scheduled to test on Friday includes this group of competitors:

  • Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball of Chip Ganassi Racing
  • James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
  • Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
  • Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power of Team Penske

Fans can watch the test for free from the Turn 2 mounds.

“The sweet sound of engines this Friday on the IMS oval will be yet another sign that the Month of May is right around the corner,” IMS President J. Douglas Boles said in a release. “The weather forecast looks warm for Friday, so we encourage fans to come to the track to enjoy seeing and hearing the cars.”

This bit of news takes IMS back on track after a couple noteworthy items of late off-track:

The “Behind the Bricks” series has premiered, featuring last year’s champion Alexander Rossi. Here’s a link to that:

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Alexander Rossi of the United States pumps his fist as he crosses the finish line to win the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in 2016 was nominated for the Sports Event of the Year award to be presented at the 10th annual Sports Business Awards, the leading recognition for the North American sports industry.

Sports industry leaders will gather Wednesday evening, May 24 at the New York Marriott Marquis at Times Square for the ceremony, presented by Street and Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal. This year’s event features 87 nominees across 17 categories.

“The 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil was an incredible success that created lifelong memories for our fans and generated significant momentum for the Verizon IndyCar Series,” Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles said. “We’re grateful to the SportsBusiness Journal for its recognition of the hard work that went into years of planning and execution for this once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Indianapolis 500 champions have quenched their thirst in Victory Lane with a bottle of milk since 1936, and a growing number of celebrities and corporate and civic leaders are sharing that same winning feeling through the #101Bottles program leading into the 101st Running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is delivering one commemorative bottle of milk per day to prominent individuals for 101 days leading up to Race Day for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday, May 28.

Reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi started the program Feb. 16 by presenting a milk bottle to Cummins, Inc. CEO Tom Linebarger at the Cummins Distribution Headquarters in downtown Indianapolis after the ticket for this year’s race was unveiled at the facility.

“This is a great way to bring the Indy 500 countdown closer to both racing fans across the nation and our community in Central Indiana,” said Allison Melangton, senior vice president, events, Hulman Motorsports. “Everyone wants to take part in celebrating the Indy 500 and one of its most iconic traditions, and these bottles have become more of a hot commodity each and every day as we get closer to May.”

Rossi also presented a bottle to the hosts of the NFL Network program “Good Morning Football” in New York during an appearance on the show March 7, sharing a toast of milk live on the air. Milk bottles also have been presented to these prominent individuals:

  • Former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, during a recent visit to the IMS Hall of Fame Museum
  • Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, during the annual flag-raising ceremony at Gate 1 of IMS
  • Kentucky Derby Museum President Patrick Armstrong, during a Town Hall at the museum featuring three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and IMS President Doug Boles
  • Indiana Black Expo Inc. President Tanya Bell, to mark 89 days from Race Day
  • Susie Wheldon, wife of late two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg race weekend
  • Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Ken Griffey Jr., during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg race weekend
  • Former NFL player and Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Grand Marshal Mark Schlereth
  • Indiana State Treasurer Kelly Mitchell, at the Statehouse and delivered by driver Stefan Wilson

Matty Brabham optimistic for Indy 500; remains ‘hungry, ambitious’

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Matthew Brabham, or “Matty,” has long been one of the talents right on the cusp of full-time Verizon IndyCar Series stardom… if he had enough for a full-season opportunity.

The two-time champion on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder, who went back-to-back in Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in 2012 and 2013 respectively, is working towards a return for at least his second consecutive Indianapolis 500 appearance, and feels cautiously optimistic he’ll be in the field of 33 cars in May.

Brabham has returned home to Indianapolis this week after spending the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend networking and renewing acquaintances. He was in Adelaide, Australia for Robby Gordon’s SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks season opener a week before that, and won one of the two races this weekend at St. Petersburg.

“That was it, yeah, be down there to catch up and have a chat with a lot of people I’ve been talking with over the last couple months,” Brabham told NBC Sports. “I had a lot of meetings and talked with a lot of people.

“I’m just doing everything I can to work towards the 500. It’s all positive right now. I’ve got PIRTEK and others helping me out… ‘Crusher’ (Brett Murray) is helping, working on things… and I’m working with Mickey Ryan as well.

“Yes there’s a lot of other drivers out there, but I think I have a good chance to get to the ‘500. They’ll need 33 cars and there’s quite a few seats left. The opportunities should still be there for a deal.”

A rough draft of the Indianapolis 500 grid at the moment sees 25 confirmed car/driver combinations, the 21 full-season cars plus announced entries for veterans Juan Pablo Montoya (Team Penske), Oriol Servia (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), Sage Karam (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing) and Jay Howard (Team One Cure with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports).

With Honda staffed to prepare for 18 Indianapolis 500 cars, it would leave Chevrolet with 15 cars to staff. There remain announced, confirmed vacancies at Andretti Autosport (fifth car) and Juncos Racing (possible second car), with others to be filled in.

Brabham, meanwhile, is in the tier of recent Mazda Road to Indy graduates who have the talent but not the funding, timing or opportunity to be in a full-season IndyCar seat at present. His counterparts are probably Spencer Pigot, Gabby Chaves, Karam and RC Enerson, all of whom are under 25 with limited if not always full-time IndyCar race experience the last couple years.

At just 22, Brabham rose quickly through the MRTI but stalled out after a tough first season in Indy Lights in 2014. The last two years, Brabham’s become one of racing’s most versatile drivers with IndyCar, Indy Lights, USF2000 testing, Stadium Super Trucks and FIA Formula E all on his scorecard, but hasn’t been in a full-time ride now for three years.

Brabham and girlfriend Kimberly Bogle during the 2016 Indianapolis 500 parade. (Photo: Getty Images)

That determination to keep plugging away is keeping him focused and as Brabham explains, it’s the rough patches on the journey that make whatever payoff all the more successful.

“It’s definitely been character-building. I’m learning just as much doing one-offs and not driving as often as I like to, compared to if I was full-time,” Brabham said.

“In the Mazda Road to Indy, my focus was pure racing. I wasn’t really thinking about other things. Yeah I had to think about if I didn’t win, what would I do… but that was an afterthought. It worked out until Indy Lights, and I didn’t win the scholarship, and it’s been tough since then without the scholarship end.

“I’ve learned so much on the business side…. because that’s the most important thing, since I don’t have mom and dad to pay the bills. My mom and dad put budget in for my first USF2000 along with a sponsor from Australia.

“I’m grateful for the battle. The guys that do well when they do make it – my idols like Scott Dixon and Will Power – they’re so good at what they do and they’re so hungry for it. The guys that are champions have gone through their journey, struggles with money, put everything on the line and risk it!”

Brabham watched with great interest – and praise – as his primary MRTI sparring partner, Pigot, had the drive of his IndyCar career to date Sunday in St. Petersburg with Ed Carpenter Racing. But Pigot’s early charge was halted when his left rear brake disc popped and he lost time for repairs, and eventually retired.

“It’s almost like a club you’ve joined, the ‘unemployed open-wheel driver club,'” Brabham laughed. “We’re all working on what we can to do. We’re all talking with same people, but we have different approaches! It should come down to talent, but a lot comes down to timing and luck. You have to create your own luck. That said, when you see each other get rides, it gives us confidence for the guys in the club to keep working at it.

“With the right team, there’s no reason we can’t succeed. Seeing Spencer do what he is comes from having a spot. It’s when you’re thrown in to last-minute deals, trying to string things together that it gets hard. If we had solid programs, we can do it too. Spencer’s a good example of that. We’re all young and hungry. We want to do everything we can to prove we can to do well. It’s just managing to get in the door.”

Brabham prepares for a run. (Photo: Getty Images)

Reflecting on his month of May program last year, Brabham actually overachieved more than he realized at the time with a limited budget.

While the PIRTEK Team Murray team brought flair and fun in spades to the Speedway, it didn’t have huge resources and as the de facto second car for KV Racing Technology, was not the best handling machine either. After an impressive Grand Prix where Brabham nearly advanced to Q2 on his debut, qualifying 14th and finishing 16th.

On the oval, it took Brabham doing some sterling work in collaboration with engineer Andy Brown to even hang onto the car. Starting 27th and finishing 22nd doesn’t sound like much, but it had been a good month’s work for Brabham in his No. 61 Chevrolet.

“Yeah man that was the challenge!” he said. “I was thinking about this over the last couple weeks. I could be – and was – hard on myself. When I got out of the month of May, I wasn’t very happy about my performance. I wanted to be top-10 and top-five, and show right off the bat I can win races. That was a bit of a too high goal.

“But now I think about the situation I was in. The first time I’d ever driven on (Firestone) red tires in qualifying was at the GP and I was 14th (in a 25-car grid). Now I look back on certain aspects, and I’m pretty proud of that. There’s a lot of issues and struggles, but that happens with any team.

“A guy like me never gets to have a full testing program. I hadn’t been in a car for a full season. It’s been one-offs since 2014, and there I was last year back in an IndyCar, open-wheel, I’d raced Stadium Super Trucks. It was just being thrown in on one-offs. But I’m happy with how it all went. I had some ‘moments’ in the 500 month, setup, running with a loose car, and had one big moment in qualifying trim and saved it… but that was more luck.”

Brabham knows he can do it – a number of key people in the paddock know he can, as well – and knowing how quickly he adapted from his first test in a commercial shoot at Iowa Speedway a couple years ago was proof positive of that point.

“The moment – the first time I got into an IndyCar – I was running at Iowa with Marco (Andretti) and those guys at Andretti Autosport. That’s the first ever track to jump in, and that’s not easy!

“From that moment I knew I could run with those guys. I could be competitive. I know I could get in there. With the right team, there’s no reason you can’t.

“When you’re under that much pressure, making it to IndyCar, and still in it after the hardships, I think you’re a lot more motivated when you do make it. I’d rather have the easy path, but nothing’s easy. Every day makes me more hungry and ambitious.”

Getting to 33: 2017 Indy 500 car count thus far

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This week sees the start of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a 21-car field. That means it’s also just over two months until practice begins for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, and inevitably the questions begin over where 33 cars will come from for this year’s race.

Here’s the breakdown thus far of confirmed entries:

  • 21 full-season entries (13 Honda, 8 Chevrolet)
  • Fifth Team Penske Chevrolet for Juan Pablo Montoya
  • Second Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda for Oriol Servia
  • Third Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda for Jay Howard
  • Dreyer & Reinbold entry for Sage Karam (expected to be Chevrolet)
  • Juncos Racing, one confirmed and two possible entries (expected to be Chevrolet)
  • Fifth Andretti Autosport Honda

So that’s a max 28, at an anticipated breakdown of 16 Hondas and 12 Chevrolets. So where do five more cars come from?

Dale Coyne Racing will have a third car, and Coyne told NBC Sports at the Phoenix Prix View test he’s working “with the usual suspect.” Although he didn’t name her directly, the implication was that he and Pippa Mann are continuing to work diligently together to see her back in a Coyne car for what would be the fifth straight year.

While not formally announced, the Larry Curry program with past Indy Lights champion and IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year Gabby Chaves appears well in the works, and looks set to be run out of the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing shop. Both Curry and Chaves were at the Phoenix test.

Question marks exist with Ed Carpenter Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises if either runs a third car, as they have in recent years.

As of the Phoenix test, Carpenter indicated they didn’t yet have plans to run a third car, but could prepare a third one if needed.

Meanwhile Foyt’s associate sponsor Al-Fe Heat Treating said upon continuation of its sponsorship with the team it wasn’t planning to sponsor a third: “While there aren’t plans to feature a third entry this year owing to the team’s reorganization over the winter, Al-Fe Heat Treating will continue to support and leverage Foyt’s motorsports program throughout the season.”

Add the Lazier Racing entry in whatever team name that is – it was Lazier/Burns Racing last year and Lazier Racing Partners before that – and the field would grow to 33 cars via some combination of an extra Honda or an extra Carpenter car. Or perhaps both. The math is tricky, but achievable at this stage.

Honda figures it can support at least 18 cars, with a 19th car a stretch. But they’d have to put 19 cars in the field of 33 if Chevrolet tops out at 14.

The list of free agents available isn’t the longest either but besides Mann and Chaves, expect NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell to continue working feverishly on his front to make it into another ‘500, as he’s probably the best and most experienced driver available at the moment.

Young guns who raced at some point in last year in Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, RC Enerson and Stefan Wilson haven’t landed yet, either. There’s others as well who could be in line to make not just their Indianapolis 500 but also their IndyCar debuts, including some intriguing names from Indy Lights.

The full season silly season drew to a close early this year, with the field all but officially confirmed in November. Now, the Indianapolis 500 silly season is in full swing.

Jay Howard confirmed in Tony Stewart’s supported SPM Indy entry

Photo: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
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Occasional Verizon IndyCar Series competitor Jay Howard will make his comeback to the series for the first time in six years, having been confirmed Monday as driver of the Tony Stewart Foundation Team One Cure-supported No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“I can’t begin to tell you how honored I am to have this opportunity,” Howard said in a release. “I’m not one to give up on a dream and I have every bit of determination to make this a successful effort for Tony, Team One Cure and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. I’m in the best condition both mentally and physically, and my race craft is on point. We will be more than ready when IMS opens for practice this May.”

Stewart added, “I have every bit of confidence in the skills of Jay behind the wheel. Growing up 45 minutes from the Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 is an important part of my racing history. Participating in this year’s race with Jay and Sam through Team One Cure, we will be making a difference in both the 500 and the race against cancer.”

SPM co-owner Sam Schmidt said, “We are pleased to have Jay competing with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports once again. Given our impressive winning record together in the past, we have high expectations for the 101st Indy 500. Jay is extremely talented in the car as well as being a great advocate for the Team One Cure initiative.”

Howard, the 36-year-old Englishman, won the 2006 Indy Lights title for Schmidt but had a bit of a roller coaster career in IndyCar over parts of three official years (2008, 2010, 2011) and two years where he was supposed to drive but didn’t (2012, 2015).

Despite being hired by Roth Racing in 2008, he was unceremoniously dispatched prior to that year’s Indianapolis 500, replaced by John Andretti, and made only one more start later that year.

A comeback occurred with Sarah Fisher Racing in a second car in 2010, also part-time, although he missed the field that year, and then was not retained into 2011.

In a jointly entered RLL/Schmidt Honda, Howard finally made his Indianapolis 500 race debut in 2011, qualifying 20th and finishing 30th after an incident. He made two other race appearances that year, at the dual Texas race and the ultimately canceled Las Vegas finale.

Two other would-be comebacks stopped before they even had a chance to begin. Howard was Michael Shank’s driver choice for 2012 but Shank was unable to secure an engine lease. Then after being announced for a second Bryan Herta Autosport car in 2015, a sponsor pulled out.

This gives Howard a quirky career stat line of 12 race starts, one race he started that doesn’t count in the record books, four other races where he was entered but didn’t start the race and two races he was announced but the car didn’t show up to drive.

His best career start (13th) came in a race where there was no qualifying, instead just a blind draw (Texas race two, 2011); his best career qualifying effort (14th) came in a race where the field was split (Motegi 2008, where IRL raced at Japan and Champ Car signed off at Long Beach on the same weekend), and his best finish (13th) he’s achieved twice (Motegi, and Kansas the following week with a full field).

All of this background makes Howard’s latest comeback all the more interesting, especially as he’s never driven the new base Dallara DW12 chassis and has been out of full-time driving for six years, instead having focused on coaching and go-karting in the interim.

Howard joins the other two confirmed entries of James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin, and is SPM’s fifth different third driver in as many years (Katherine Legge, Jacques Villeneuve, Conor Daly and Oriol Servia since 2013).

Shell, Penske extension sees Shell back for Castroneves at Indy 500

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With Shell and Pennzoil having had a longterm business relationship with Team Penske, today’s long-term extension through 2022 and beyond also means Shell’s relationship on Penske’s Verizon IndyCar Series program continues.

Helio Castroneves’s No. 3 Chevrolet will be adorned in Shell V-Power NiTRO+ colors at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28, with Shell and Pennzoil continuing as associate sponsors on all Team Penske cars in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and IndyCar.

Castroneves’ car has had either Shell or Pennzoil on his car each of the last six Indianapolis 500s dating to 2011, but has not yet won an Indianapolis 500 with Shell or Pennzoil as the primary sponsor. The Rick Mears tribute “Yelio Submarine” ran in both 2014 and 2016, with the 2014 race a particularly tough loss as Castroneves came second by a fraction to Ryan Hunter-Reay.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 17: Helio Castroneves appears at a Shell station on May 17, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images for MATTER)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 17: Helio Castroneves appears at a Shell station on May 17, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images for MATTER)

Castroneves has had Shell V-Power for the Indianapolis 500 in 2011, Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra in 2012 and 2013 and Shell V-Power Nitro+ in 2015.

In those six races, Castroneves has finished 17th, 10th, sixth, second, seventh and 11th.

“It’s an iconic sponsor; a partner actually, to be honest,” Castroneves said during the announcement at Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500.

“Since I was a kid in Brazil, watching Formula 1 and IndyCar, now I’m the one to be wearing that patch in my suit.

“I’m really excited to be back for the Indy 500. We’ll be with Shell NiTRO+ V-Power. They’re always innovating and in the technical part.

“We’re going for our fourth win… we’ve been so close. We know we can make it happen. We have the equipment and teammates to make it happen. It’s an amazing organization, and I’m so thankful to be part of it.”

Castroneves is the longest tenured active member of Team Penske’s driver lineup in all its series as he heads into his 18th season with the team and 20th overall since joining IndyCar in 1998.

Full-season teammates are defending champion Simon Pagenaud, 2014 champion Will Power and new recruit Josef Newgarden, with two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya joining the field in a fifth car for the ‘500.

Commercial partners for Montoya’s car haven’t yet been announced but with Menards (Pagenaud), Verizon (Power) and likely Verizon (Newgarden) for the ‘500, it stands to reason another of Penske’s longterm sponsors will be present for Montoya.

Roger Penske, who turned 80 earlier this week, made a great and key point during the Daytona announcement; he noted that of his 38 sponsors for the race team, he has business relationships with 25 of them.