Max Chilton makes intriguing career shift with Nissan LMP1 move

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One of the stories I’ve been monitoring closely this offseason is the development of the new Dallara IL15 chassis and what it can mean for the growth of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.

The addition of Carlin Racing, I pegged as perhaps the most important story for IndyCar during the offseason, because it showed the investment of a high-caliber international team joining the U.S. shores.

Max Chilton was confirmed to a test and development program for Carlin over the winter, and impressed during Indy Lights testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway and NOLA Motorsports Park.

From his tests thus far, he was the proverbial big fish in a small pond, and as a driver with nearly two full years of Formula 1 experience in the bank, he provided an excellent measuring stick for those drivers seeking to advance into the Verizon IndyCar Series this year.

However, hopes of him becoming the first former F1 driver to race in Indy Lights since Hideki Noda and Naoki Hattori did so in 1997 appear to be dashed with his confirmation this morning to Nissan’s GT-R LM NISMO LMP1 program in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Frankly, his signing to Nissan is a surprise, and it’s something of a disappointment – for the moment – for Indy Lights, if he doesn’t undertake any Lights races or a full season.

Plenty of ex-F1 drivers make the switch to LMP1 machinery, but it often takes time to adapt.

Any of his contemporaries – count Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Alex Wurz, Stephane Sarrazin, Mark Webber, Lucas di Grassi, Andre Lotterer and Marc Gene among those with past Grand Prix experience now racing in LMP1 full-time this year – have all had years to hone their craft and develop their skills in this type of machinery.

Chilton, as a full season rookie in a developmental, outside the box program, with a less than amazing F1 career on his CV will likely enter with lower expectations. He was consistent and finished his first 25 races consecutively, but in qualifying, outside of Suzuka 2013, he rarely dazzled.

The better example for Chilton to measure up against this year will be Nico Hulkenberg, who is dovetailing his full season with Force India in a two-race trial run with Porsche in its third 919 Hybrid at Spa and Le Mans.

These two F1 drivers are newer to the rigors and style of endurance racing; setup compromise is essential, and you have to get on well with your co-drivers in order to achieve success.

It is Chilton, though, and not Jenson Button, Adrian Sutil or other potential candidates who is the latest F1 veteran now headed to LMP1.

“I’m honored to have been asked to join a manufacturer as prestigious as Nissan in a championship that is growing year on year,” Chilton said in Nissan’s release.

“Le Mans has always had an amazing following and to be racing there as a works driver is a dream come true. My aim has always been to race at the highest level and the technology that has gone into the Nissan GT-R LM NISMO is as impressive as a Formula 1 car. Having met with the team and seen first-hand the dedication and desire to win that exists within this project I can’t wait to get on track.”

Will Chilton earn more press for his WEC shift than perhaps winning races on his own in Indy Lights? It’s likely, given the wider scale of coverage WEC has gotten and will continue to get this year, given the level of manufacturer involvement and given how Nissan is shooting to upset the apple cart with its car design.

Still, it’s a surprise signing that will test how well Chilton adapts to endurance racing, and if he doesn’t race, it would open up one of the better remaining seats in Indy Lights.

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida