mid-ohio sports car course

Photo: IndyCar

Pigot: ‘The important thing is people see the potential’

Leave a comment

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Like many drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Spencer Pigot doesn’t have his 2018 plans sorted, and probably won’t for at least several more weeks.

Pigot matched his car number, 20, in terms of career starts his most recent outing in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course slightly more than a month ago.

Heading into this Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the two-time Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires champion has a point to prove results-wise as he looks to solidify his status in the series beyond being a perennial part-timer, sharing the car with his team boss.

“It’s not been the ideal situation, but the series schedule is somewhat compact that I’m racing fairly often,” Pigot told NBC Sports. “This has been biggest downtime, between Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen. Doing the long distance races with Mazda has kept me fresh as well. You just try to take advantage of all the sessions to get back into the swing of things.”

The Rising Star Racing-supported driver would like to continue with Ed Carpenter Racing and is working towards that retention. Carpenter’s team had a significant change this year with both Josef Newgarden and engineer Jeremy Milless moving on; JR Hildebrand and Justin Taylor came in on the No. 21 side, respectively. Pigot was retained for 2017.

“The next year is always in back of my mind, to try to continue in IndyCar. Finding a full-time ride and being there every weekend is the goal,” he said.

“I’m very happy with where I am. I want to stay with Ed Carpenter Racing. After Sonoma will be the time for talks.”

Pigot’s second season has been more cohesive than his first (all with Carpenter with the exception of the Indianapolis 500 for Juncos Racing), and he’s one of a handful of drivers on the grid where results have not showcased his performance in race weekends.

Just this year alone, Pigot has executed more than 50 on-track passes for position, but has been caught out by a myriad of unfortunate circumstances throughout the year. While running fifth in St. Petersburg, a brake rotor ignited; a misfire of the engine following a pit stop in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dropped him from sixth; and he had worked his way up to eighth at Road America when he had to make two lengthy pit stops for repairs to the front suspension. In Toronto, Pigot gained seven positions in the first 15 green flag laps but was relegated to the rear of the field following unscheduled pit stop after another competitor cut one of his tires.

“I think it’s a tough situation to be in. Our top-10s could have been top-fives. Or 11th or 12th places could have been top-10s,” said Pigot, who’s banked three top-10s this year but in those races at St. Pete, Indy, Road America and Toronto, he finished 20th, ninth, 12th and 18th.

“The important thing is people see the potential and some of the races that we’ve had have been pretty impressive. The amount of cars we passed or pace we ran was good. Even if the end result hasn’t shown it, we’ve shown we can be competitive. We’ve shown if we’re behind a car, we can get by.”

The Floridan is a bit perplexing in these two points: he’s shown that aforementioned excellent race craft and bravery on the PFC brakes, as witnessed by his overtaking numbers. But the fact he’s needed to do so has come from poor qualifying positions, still yet to make his first appearance out of Q1 in a road or street course qualifying session.

Pigot worked to explain this dichotomy when talking about his comfort level on the brakes, and how he feels he has improved in qualifying anyway (and the stats back that up – he has improved his qualifying position in all but one of his starts this year at tracks he raced at last year, although his best start is 13th) having had an extra session on Friday to run on Firestone’s red alternate tires, which was a new introduction this year.

“I would say they’re not quite as grabby, initially, as you don’t feel the braking power quite to the same extent as last year, but the consistency is there,” Pigot explained. “With the PFCs, through the second half of the braking zone, you can go in and trust the downforce. And you can go in quicker than you might want to.

“With the Friday red tire run, it’s a help. Qualifying will always be a bit different but now you know what to expect. The reds last year changed the balance of the car once you got to qualifying. With that kind of drastic difference now you can get some feeling with that, and get moving into qualifying.”

Pigot has worked decently well with Hildebrand this year although neither’s really had a genuine standout start-to-finish amazing weekend on a road or street course this year.

Either of the cool young Americans, who are facing uncertain futures in IndyCar, will look to pull a result out over these last two weekends. Pigot probably amplified his cool status when he sent out a tweet asking if he was the only person who hadn’t seen HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and got a widespread response including more than 300 “likes.”

“Probably my most popular tweet ever,” Pigot deadpanned.

But in all seriousness…

“We’ve had a lot of weekends that could have been a lot better. The results don’t show how well we’ve worked together and developed the car,” Pigot said.

“It’s been nice to have the continuity throughout the whole season. Having the same group of guys, seeing how they operate, helps us develop our race car.

“Last year I did a few races with Rahal and a handful with Ed, and the times I was doing those races, Graham (Rahal) and Josef (Newgarden) had largely developed the car for themselves.

“Now it’s a bit different. We’ve had more time to test and zero in on what I like this year. That’s showing in the pace we’ve shown in specific events, and hopefully the results to come.”

Bourdais cleared to drive; return date still TBA

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sebastien Bourdais was in Indianapolis on Tuesday and for good reason – not even three months after his devastating accident in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, he received medical clearance that he is cleared to return to racing action.

Bourdais posted late Tuesday night he’d had his final appointment with his doctor and has been cleared to return to action. He’d targeted mid-August as the date to get this clearance, and this lives up to that target. He sustained pelvic and hip fractures in the accident in qualifying.

The Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT team welcomed Bourdais back to the Indianapolis shop on Woodland Drive on Tuesday, in anticipation for what would be Bourdais’ return to sports car competition at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale, Motul Petit Le Mans, Oct. 5-7.

As for his day job, back in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, the team is yet to reveal when Bourdais will be back racing. Bourdais has set Watkins Glen as a target on Labor Day weekend, following the next two races on ovals at Pocono Raceway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Gateway Motorsports Park.

Provided the Coyne team can get through these two oval races cleanly with the rookie pair of Esteban Gutierrez and Ed Jones, that would increase the likelihood of a Bourdais return at Watkins Glen.

Bourdais tested at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course the Monday after that race, which was a huge step towards his formal comeback. He spoke to NBCSN contributor Robin Miller during the Honda Indy 200 race telecast.

MRTI: Mid-Ohio weekend digest

Anthony Martin leads Victory Franzoni at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

It’s taken a few days to wrap my head around all that went down in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend, but will attempt to do so here.

Notes and reflections from Kyle Lavigne and myself over each day are linked here (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).

We’ll start off with a bit of housekeeping:

Pro Mazda post-weekend tech clear; no issues

After Sunday’s Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires race, the top three cars from three different teams were impounded and taken back to Indianapolis for further evaluation, in response to allegations of malfeasance that had arisen during the weekend.

Following the review, Pro Mazda confirmed there were no issues found. Here is the full statement from Andersen Promotions:

Following the post-race impounding of Pro Mazda cars 8, 23 and 82 immediately after Sunday’s Cooper Tires Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Presented by Allied Building Products, series officials have determined that no illegal components, unauthorized parts or other items that would fall outside of the series technical regulations were in use. This process not only included a complete mechanical inspection and review of the vehicles but also inspection and analysis of aero, engine performance, Timing & Scoring data, oils and fuel.

“This process may occur at any time within any Mazda Road to Indy category and it should be viewed as an extension of the rigorous inspection process already in place,” said Technical Director Daryl Fox. “As it is a more intrusive process which requires more time, it needs to be completed away from the race track in a private setting. We would like to thank the teams involved for their professionalism. We recognize that it adds an unexpected burden on them. We also would like to thank the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for permitting us to complete the work in their track garages.”

The results from Race 3 at Mid-Ohio are now classified as final and we look forward to the outcome of this very close championship.

And now for the rest of the weekend recap…

Franzoni, Martin Pro Mazda rivalry reaches a fever pitch

Martin (center) and Franzoni (left) crack smiles after Race 3. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

If Road America was the appetizer in the rivalry between Pro Mazda title combatants Victor Franzoni and Anthony Martin, then Mid-Ohio was the main course.

Martin won Friday’s first race easily, but it was Saturday’s second race of the tripleheader that saw the battle almost descend into war.

As Martin came upon Franzoni’s Juncos Racing teammate Jeff Green entering the Carousel, he tried to go around him on the outside of the right-hander, but Green washed up the road through the corner trying to get out of the way, and then spun to the inside on corner exit. As he washed up, it was enough to slow Martin down but allow Franzoni past both of them on the inside. That was enough for Franzoni to score a win.

Martin, who like Australian countryman Daniel Ricciardo is rarely without a smile, was downcast on the podium and understandably miffed post-race.

“To get taken out by Victor’s teammate isn’t the way you want it to end; unfortunately these things happen, but there needs to be some more investigation,” Martin said. “I think the biggest thing now is to focus forward. I take that into everyday life too. We’ll look into the race tomorrow, we’ll improve it as we had a great car today.”

Franzoni described his vantage point: “I was a little bit behind, so I saw Jeff’s car moving a lot – then I saw him go outside, and I just went inside and it worked.

“Well, it hasn’t been so clean between us since Road America! That changed it. But we’re racing for the championship, it’s big money at the end of the year, and we have to win it. I understand his part; I understand my part. I think this is a good fight. He’s a really good driver; he doesn’t make mistakes. This race were both in the limit.”

A comprehensive win for Martin in race three helped ease the pain a bit after Saturday, and moved him back into the points lead by four – 259 to 255 – with two races to go.

“It was extremely awesome how today panned out; it couldn’t have gone any better,” he said. “I think after the race yesterday I went over some data, looked at how we could improve and straight from there I put it behind me.”

Franzoni at least took one win from the weekend, to save Martin completing a three-race sweep: “One victory this weekend was huge for me. I needed at least one. This has always been my bad track – here and St. Pete I suck a little bit! But finally we got one.”

A key point here is that the Martin vs. Franzoni battle in Pro Mazda doesn’t happen at all without Jeff Green being in the field. Green’s interest in advancing to this level and support for both Franzoni and the Juncos Racing team is what’s even put these two cars on the grid to make it happen; we have to remember Juncos was not planning to do Pro Mazda this year, initially. Traffic management is something the young drivers need to learn as they advance up the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. What happened Saturday will be a teachable moment for both Martin and Franzoni and serves as the counter to Franzoni’s being frustrated having lost at Road America.

USF2000: Askew’s starts nearly stop title push; VeeKay, Thompson press on

Askew’s (No. 3) starts and restarts have been worth watching in 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The story of the year in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda has been the combination of speed, poise and start ability turned in by Team USA Scholarship recipient Oliver Askew, who’s been the star of the year for Cape Motorsports. The Floridian won again in race one this weekend but fell off the podium in race two.

His race one win Friday though was not without controversy. Askew’s starts and restarts have been something worth monitoring all year – he’s walking a razor thin tightrope between excellent launches and jumping starts and restarts – and on Friday, he tilted towards the latter. Askew, who was already on probation for previous start violations, was docked 10 points post-race for jumping the initial start, but three other drivers were later assessed a 17-second post-race time penalty for jumping a restart.

It’s worth wondering how the title battle could have changed had Askew been assessed a drive-through penalty for jumping the start immediately after the race, and whether he would have been able to respond and charge through the field from there. Askew’s shown great pace in clean air this year but hasn’t had as many opportunities to carve through traffic.

“The penalty doesn’t change my mindset. The focus is to just keep on winning races and the championship will come in the end. We have the speed to qualify on pole and that’s huge here because it is quite difficult to pass. There was a ton of pressure going into this weekend and that pressure is still there,” Askew said Friday.

From left to right, Thompson, Askew, VeeKay after Friday. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The Askew start drama has not helped his closest title rivals, Rinus VeeKay (Pabst Racing) and Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport), who are both genuinely nice drivers and super respectful publicly but no doubt were probably seething privately after Friday. Thompson turned that frustration into his third win in the last four races on Saturday, continuing the roll he and Michael Duncalfe’s team have been on. The same story is true for VeeKay, the Dutch teenager having been the ultimate USF2000 model of consistency with finishes between first and fourth in all but one of the 13 races. Askew leads VeeKay by 13 points with one race left; Thompson is locked into third.

“That was amazing. In maybe two percent of my career can I say I had a perfect car but today, I had a perfect race car. We’ve worked so hard to get to this point that it almost looked easy – and it almost was easy. It was almost unreal when I got to the podium. Right now, I’m not racing for a championship, I’m racing for my career,” Thompson said.

VeeKay added,“My plan going in was just to drive smart and gain as many points on Oliver as I could. I saw Lucas (Kohl) and Kaylen (Frederick) pass him but I had to keep going. Parker had a good start and I was not so good so I had to defend from Oliver. I kept him behind so that was good.”

Indy Lights: A pair of winners who make you ask what might have been for title

Jamin and Urrutia have to wonder what could have been in 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

With Santiago Urrutia and Nico Jamin winning the pair of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races this weekend, it was hard to see them up there and think they don’t really have a shot at the title, after a series of lost points throughout the year.

In Urrutia’s case for Belardi Auto Racing with SPM, a slow start out of the gate put pause to his title hopes before they ever really got going. Four finishes of 13th or worse in the first four races left him with 48 total points. Leader Colton Herta had 101 at the time. Urrutia sat 11th in points, 53 back. Now, 10 races later, Urrutia is tied for second in points, only 42 back of leader Kyle Kaiser after a better run of form – one win and four runner-up finishes – but probably too far back to claw back those remaining points unless Kaiser has two more terrible weekends in Gateway and Watkins Glen.

“If I win the next few races there’s nothing else I can do; what happened to me in Toronto where the engine stopped working could happen to Kaiser too. There’s still three or four other drivers fighting for the championship,” he said. “I have the same engineer as last year so the car here was pretty much the same.”

Jamin will be ruing a nightmare stretch of two-plus months from the Freedom 100 through Toronto. The Andretti Autosport driver fought myriad mechanical issues with AER and only scored 53 points in a six-race stretch – the lowest of any driver in the series in that period – which dropped him back outside the top five in points.

“It’s been extremely tough… we’ve had a lot of issues, you guys know,” Jamin reflected after Saturday’s race. “But my whole team and 27 crew has been fighting behind me. It definitely feels so good to be back on the podium.”

With those two having their own rough stretches of races, with Herta having such a roller coaster year where podiums and finishes of 10th or worse have seemed to alternate, and with Matheus Leist having his worst weekend of the year at the worst time as Carlin never quite found the balance this weekend, it allowed Kaiser to maintain a healthy gap in the Lights points with just two races remaining despite his own off-the-boil weekend.

Team USA Scholarship candidates make their pitch

One of the highlights of the Mid-Ohio race weekend is always when the next batch of candidates for the Team USA Scholarship arrive, having been nominated and then meeting a number of key industry stakeholders from IndyCar, the Mazda Road to Indy and sports cars. Many of these stakeholders then go on to judge the candidates as the field gets whittled from 10 to six, and eventually down to the winner of the scholarship(s).

It’s remarkable how the field of 10 candidates are so well prepared and poised for this opportunity. Jeremy Shaw, who runs the program, is renowned for his talent spotting ability and it’s also cool to see so many Team USA Scholarship alumni – Patrick Long, Andy Lally, Spencer Pigot, Josef Newgarden, Charlie Kimball, Conor Daly, Neil Alberico, Aaron Telitz and Oliver Askew were among several on site this weekend – who still support and give back to the program.

Take note of the names present here now before they become big stars, and potentially one or more will be on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder next year.

Other weekend notes

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Shelby Blackstock and Zachary Claman De Melo turned in two of the more quietly impressive weekends in Indy Lights this weekend. Blackstock (Belardi) finally had a trouble-free weekend and with third in race two, made his return to the podium for the first time since this race two years ago. Claman De Melo (Carlin) led Carlin’s charge and the usually boom-or-bust Canadian turned in a pair of top-fives.
  • Blackstock’s teammate Aaron Telitz fought through back pain and made major strides in the races after a pre-race one engine change. Eighth and fifth were good results from lower qualifying spots at a place where passing is difficult, and continued the Wisconsin native’s consistent run of improving all year.
  • The litany of Journey puns made the rounds for Ryan Norman’s No. 48 entry this weekend (above), but the Cleveland native didn’t stop believin’ as he made several good passing moves en route to ninth and seventh place finishes; he’s on a run of seven straight top-10 finishes, second only to Claman De Melo (eight) for most consecutive top-10s.
  • In Pro Mazda, Team Pelfrey banged home three more podium finishes – TJ Fischer on Friday then Carlos Cunha on Saturday and Sunday – as part of the team’s 11-podium weekend across Mid-Ohio and Pittsburgh. Kaylen Frederick gave the team a USF2000 podium on Saturday.
  • National class driver Bob Kaminsky kept his nose clean all weekend with three overall top-10s (eighth, seventh, ninth) and three class wins; son Colin Kaminsky also returned to USF2000 competition after a couple-weekend hiatus. John Cummiskey Racing runs these cars; JCR is renowned for its preparation.
  • The younger Kaminsky was one of several drivers back in action in USF2000. He was 13th and 17th in his two races with other returnees or debutantes Bruna Tomaselli 15th and 14th, Andres Gutierrez 12th and 11th, Jacob Abel 16th and 13th and Phillippe Denes 18th both races.

The Mazda Road to Indy has testing at both Gateway and Watkins Glen to come before their final two weekends of the year. Indy Lights and Pro Mazda have a race apiece at Gateway, while at Watkins Glen, Indy Lights and USF2000 race once, and Pro Mazda races twice.

DiZinno: Mid-Ohio thoughts, musings, observations

Photo: IndyCar
1 Comment

Here’s some final thoughts after this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course:

  • Newgarden’s first dominant Penske win. Yes, he led the majority of laps in Toronto (58 of 85) but vaulted to the lead there based on the yellow timing and when he pitted. At Barber, he got into the lead after Will Power’s late-race puncture. Finally, Mid-Ohio saw Josef Newgarden exorcise demons of the last three years at this track when potential wins went begging. Between qualifying second, his first front row start of the season, that fake-out, then blow past Power move for the lead (second straight year Power’s been snookered by a teammate at Mid-Ohio) and subsequent check-out the rest of the day, this was one you have to say the No. 2 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet earned from the off. Newgarden was just happy to not see it fall away, like it did at Road America. “It’s always stressful, even when the car’s fast. It seemed like the car was working on reds, blacks, didn’t really matter. It just got better throughout the race and as the track gripped up. Only real drama was the restart, felt like we were on the wrong tire again, kind of like Road America. Fortunately, we had a bit of a buffer, even with the car in between. Even there, I thought Gutierrez was going to run into us on Turn 4 for a second, but we seemed to skate through.”
  • An age thought on the new points leader. Newgarden is 26, and that’s an interesting point to note. As one of the leading 20-somethings in the series, Newgarden has an opportunity to become IndyCar’s first under-30 champion since Scott Dixon, then 28, in 2008. Since then, it’s been Dario Franchitti (three straight 2009-2011), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2012), Dixon (2013 and 2015), Will Power (2014) and Simon Pagenaud (2016) who have won titles since. All of those drivers have been in the series at least six full seasons and been 31 years of age or older. Newgarden is in his sixth season. The last 20-year-old American champion was Sam Hornish Jr., driving for Team Penske in 2006, at age 27. He’d won titles at 22 and 23 with Panther Racing in 2001 and 2002, and Dixon’s first title in 2003 came at the tender age of 23.
  • Speaking of Dixon, a tough ninth owing to valiant effort. Results like 10th at Toronto and ninth at Mid-Ohio may not do much for Scott Dixon in the moment, but could do much more for him as the year rolls on. Dixon fought a horribly ill-handling car in the second stint and needed several turns of front wing taken out to make it viable later in the race. You knew something was wrong when he was barely hanging on ahead of a pack of others behind him, led by Helio Castroneves, and almost holding them up. Dixon’s valiant effort was the capper to a tough weekend for the Chip Ganassi Racing quartet; none of Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball looked anything more than a midfielder all weekend, although all three had fun with NBCSN contributor Robin Miller during his “Grid Run” segment pre-race, Chilton in particular making the most of Miller’s gift basket presented ahead of his upcoming wedding later this month.
  • Rahal’s roll continues. Another special performance from Graham Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team got turned in this weekend. They continue to fly the flag as regular contenders for great qualifying and race results. In some respects it’s a pity their start of the season was so bad as he’d be even closer in the championship picture.
  • Not much shakeup in the field from qualifying. Without a yellow coming at the wrong time – all but JR Hildebrand got away with it on Sunday although Hildebrand was caught out despite doing a good fuel-save run – each of the top 11 starters finished in the top-11 positions, and only Conor Daly advanced into a top-10 finishing position from outside the top-10 on the grid, passing his old landlord James Hinchcliffe. In some respects that was nice to see a race not get inverted by a yellow lottery. In others, as Newgarden noted earlier in the weekend, the lottery doesn’t give drivers a chance to make something of a weekend where their qualifying doesn’t go to plan.
  • Funny Chevrolet, Honda and PPG sponsor win notes. Honda swept both Chevrolet-sponsored races this year in Detroit, GM’s backyard. Chevrolet has now gone three-for-three in Honda-sponsored races in Barber, Toronto and Mid-Ohio, with Newgarden winning all three. Of Newgarden’s six career wins, five have come in Honda-sponsored races and all with Chevrolet power. Newgarden also noted he won in the PPG colors, with Simon Pagenaud won with three times last year and Juan Pablo Montoya won with at Pocono in 2014. Honda always does a good job of making the Mid-Ohio weekend a fun one with its camping theme – this year’s galactic one was a hit – but one wonders if they’re sick of the run of Chevrolet wins in races they sponsor!
  • Other quick thoughts. Conor Daly turned in his best weekend of the season at an important time. With a good qualifying run, it made a top-10 achievable, and was properly earned in a race where all 21 cars finished and there was only one caution. … After his strong start to the year, Ed Jones has hit a rough patch of results with one seventh the only bright spot in a six-race period with five finishes of 17th or worse, and three DNFs. …  It was a tense weekend in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, culminating with impound of the top three Pro Mazda cars after Sunday’s race. … The four Pirelli World Challenge races were interesting enough, particularly in GTS and the GTA subclass within GT.

Although there aren’t any further races until Pocono Raceway on August 20, IndyCar still has several tests between now and then, including the road course test of the new Dallara 2018 universal aero kit at Mid-Ohio today, and at Iowa Speedway on August 10, and a Gateway Motorsports Park test on August 3 following the repave.

PWC: 2017 Midseason Update with Gill, Haselgrove

Photo: PWC
Leave a comment

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