Hawksworth praises Road America, wonders why IndyCar isn’t there

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – It’s a story that’s as frequent to write as rain in the spring, traffic construction in the summer and snow in winter in Wisconsin – the wishes of someone involved with IndyCar, racing at Road America in another championship, to hope that one day IndyCar will return to the picturesque 4.048-mile permanent road course in Elkhart Lake, Wis.

Bryan Herta Autosport rookie Jack Hawksworth is making his track debut this weekend, again filling in for Alex Tagliani at RSR Racing in the team’s No. 08 Oreca FLM09 in the Prototype Challenge class. Tagliani is racing the NASCAR Canadian Tire event at Trois-Rivieres this weekend for his Tagliani Autosport team.

I caught up briefly with Hawksworth just before Saturday’s practice for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship race here – the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase – merely to gauge his initial impressions of the track. He was fastest in PC practice on Friday.

“I absolutely love this place,” Hawksworth told MotorSportsTalk. “Best track I’ve been to in North America. I can’t believe IndyCar isn’t here. It’s a bit like the Nurburgring.”

While Road America is long – the 4-plus miles makes it one of North America’s longest tracks – it only has 14 corners to the 174 you’ll find at the original “Green Hell.” Still, given the trees lining the track and the reverence most people have for the joint, a still apt comparison.

Let’s face it. Hawksworth echoes the wishes of many, but until IndyCar and Road America could ever find common ground on a sanctioning fee and suitable date for turning on the TV cameras to cover this 4-plus mile track and share the costs, it ain’t gonna happen.

My colleague from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Dave Kallmann has reported extensively on the long-running saga of “will they, won’t they” return for the first time since the 2007 Champ Car race there. And as of this weekend, IndyCar is no closer to a date at Road America for 2015 than they were earlier this year, or last year, or on down the line.

IndyCar won’t share on the track’s NASCAR Nationwide Series weekend in June, and the TUDOR Championship has made it clear it will only partner with IndyCar when it’s the only way to get onto a race weekend. TUDOR wants to be its own lead show and on an IndyCar weekend, they simply aren’t.

So if Hawksworth and any other IndyCar driver wants to run at Road America, they need to figure out a way to race here in another championship that doesn’t conflict with a regular IndyCar weekend. A shame, but it is what it is.

In the meantime, Wisconsin race fans better do their part to support the sole remaining Wisconsin race, and a rare oval left on the IndyCar calendar – tickets are still available for next week’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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