Kyle Larson: Sprint car racing has received “a bad rap”

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Last Saturday’s Tony Stewart/Kevin Ward Jr. incident at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park was the latest in a string of tragedies for sprint car racing that has stretched over the last year and a half.

Among those tragedies: Two people being killed in March 2013 when a car careened off track and into pit road; the death of NASCAR veteran Jason Leffler at a New Jersey track in June of that year; and the August 2013 death of hall of fame sprint car racer Kramer Williamson, which came one day after he was injured in a crash in Pennsylvania.

NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie phenom Kyle Larson first made his name in sprint car racing, and today at Michigan International Speedway, Larson said that he wasn’t happy with how the sport has been portrayed in recent times.

While saying that he offered his thoughts and prayers to all involved in Saturday’s tragedy – particularly the Ward family – Larson also asserted that sprint car racing has received “a bad rap.”

“Sprint car racing is awesome – it’s some of the best racing you’ll ever see in your life, and over the last couple of years, with all the stuff that’s gone on, sprint car racing’s gotten a bad rap,” he said.

“I just wish, you know, ESPN and stuff could go play highlights of the Knoxville Nationals that just happened this weekend and see how good the racing was there, how good it is every weekend – they race three, four times a week and the racing’s great.

“I just wish, rather than it being where everybody talks about how dangerous it is and you’re stupid if you run ’em and stuff, I just wish you could see the good parts of it.”

Larson himself said that he would like to continue racing sprint cars in the future. While his Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series duties have largely kept him from doing that this year, he said that he’d like to get in some sprint car events either during this off-season or next year.

“I enjoy doing it, and hopefully, I can do it the rest of my life,” he said.

As for the Stewart/Ward incident, Larson felt it was tough for him to have an opinion on it since he wasn’t there and he had never been there before.

He added: “There’s only one guy that knows what happened – or two, and one’s not here anymore,” a reference to Stewart and the late Ward, who was laid to rest yesterday.

However, Larson believes that after Saturday’s fatal crash and with the immediate onset of NASCAR’s new rules regarding driver protocol in the event of on-track incidents, drivers will think before letting their emotions get the better of them.

Ward was fatally struck by Stewart’s car after walking down the racing surface to apparently confront him following an on-track tangle between the two.

Said Larson: “I’m sure everyone of us has, at least one time in our careers, done something on the race track where we’d get out of the car, and we’d look back and think, ‘Should’ve thought twice about it.’

“I think a lot of people now are going to learn after seeing that video or hearing about it. We’re all gonna think twice and if we’re upset with somebody, we’re going to think about it before we get out of the car…It just really sucks that it all happened.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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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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