U.S., European sanctions could impact careers of Russian racers

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American and European sanctions related to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine could threaten the careers of dozens of Russian drivers that are backed by the SMP Racing organization – including  those of Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Mikhail Aleshin (pictured) and Sauber Formula One tester Sergey Sirotkin.

According to RIA Novosti, the group issued a statement that says its European financial accounts have been frozen as a result of the sanctions, which were handed down last month.

SMP has gone as far to dub the sanctions “political blackmail” but also asked the U.S. and the European Union to “listen to the voice of reason by removing the limit on Russian athletes’ participation in international competitions.”

The SMP project was set up by billionaire Boris Rotenberg, who was included in the sanctions. Mr. Rotenberg was a childhood friend of current Russian president Vladimir Putin and also is part of the project himself as a sports car racer.

Said project utilizes the branding of Russian-based SMP Bank, which is co-owned by Boris and Arkady Rotenberg and Yuri Kovalchuk; all three men have been hit with U.S. Treasury sanctions.

In regards to Aleshin, who races alongside veteran Simon Pagenaud for IndyCar squad Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, his career has not yet been affected by the sanctions according to SMP’s sports director, Sergey Zlobin.

SMP is a key supporter of the Schmidt Peterson camp, and it should be noted that the team has yet to acquire a steady primary sponsor for Pagenaud since the departure of computer company HP over the winter.

The Frenchman has had two different primary backers in as many races this season: Environmental Rail Solutions at St. Petersburg, and Charter Communications this past weekend at Long Beach.

As for SMP drivers in European-based series, Zlobin adds that they may be under a more immediate threat, as they could soon be unable to pay equipment costs or participation fees.

“The problems that our European office is facing in connection with the impossibility of using funds in the account will result in our drivers not being able to take part in European championships,” Zlobin said to R-Sport/RIA Novosti.

Political turbulence also impacted Venezuelan drivers late last year but in this case, it was thanks to a sports currency scandal that stemmed from one of the country’s state agencies.

In response to the scandal, the Venezuelan government froze all disbursements of hard currency for their race car and motorcycle drivers that compete internationally.

Cooper Webb leaps from obscurity to Supercross lead

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Cooper Webb could not even locate the radar tower before the 2019 season began – let alone expect to see his number dead center in the radar screen.

His ascent to 450 competition came with little fanfare. Finishing 13th in Supercross in 2017 and then eighth in Motocross, Webb did not turn many heads as a rookie. Last year was more of the same.

Through Round 7 at Arlington, Webb failed to record a single top five. That elusive result would come the following week at Tampa with a fourth-place finish. Two weeks later, he stood on the podium at Daytona for the only the second time in his Supercross 450s career. But at season’s end, Webb was only ninth in the standings in both Supercross and Motocross.

No one expected much from him when Anaheim rolled around this year.

Webb started the season much the same as he ended 2018. A fifth-place finish in Anaheim I in muddy and equalizing conditions was followed by a modest 10th at Glendale, but the rider from North Carolina believed in himself.

In professional racing, nothing is more difficult than winning the first race. Webb’s first taste of victory came in Heat 1 of the Triple Crown at Anaheim II. Everyone remained skeptical – it was only one heat race after all. The skepticism turned to interest when he won Heat 2. Then Webb finished third in Heat 3 to take the overall victory. It was his first win in the 450 class.

That was all it took to unleash his potential. Webb won the following week in Oakland and then again two weeks later in Minneapolis.

The Supercross riders left Minnesota and headed straight down Interstate 35 to Arlington with four of them separated by two points. All eyes were focused on Ken Roczen, Eli Tomac, Marvin Musquin – and, oh yeah Webb who sat in second.

Someone was likely to stumble in Arlington and the odds on favorite to do so was Webb. That seemed to be confirmed once the feature started. While the three more experienced riders led by Tomac scooted away from the field, Webb was mired outside the top five for the first six lap.

It was Tomac who tripped and fell, however. Webb passed the stricken rider and surged to fifth on Lap 7. He was in fourth by Lap 10 and third on Lap 16.  As Webb and teammate Musquin battled for the second, they slowly reeled in the leader Roczen. Once Webb broke free on the conflict with the runner-up position firmly his, he could see the red plate on Roczen’s Honda like a cape being waved in front of a bull.

Webb charged through the final six laps getting closer and closer until he edged Roczen for the closest finish in Supercross history. It was Webb’s fourth victory of the season, coming only four weeks after he scored his first career win.

Relive the final laps in the video posted above.

As incredible as Webb’s rise to the points lead is, it has been done before.

Last year Jason Anderson seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the standings after Round 2. Anderson held the advantage for the remainder of the year, while Webb has been part of a game of hot potato in which no one seems to want to don the red plate for more than a week.

The pressure continues to mount. Webb now has a two-point advantage over Roczen, who is the only rider to sweep the top five this season.

Webb’s advantage over third is a mere four points, while Musquin has a current five-race streak of podium finishes to his credit.

Tomac’s trouble in Texas serves as a cautionary tale that a single loss of focus can be devastating and Webb still lacks the seat time of his three principal rivals, but last week’s incredible come-from-behind victory is showing that Webb is riding above experience level.

Follow the complete Supercross and Motocross seasons on NBC Sports, Gold.