TJ Fischer prepares to kick off European adventure at Imola this weekend in Formula Renault 2.0 Alps

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With the Formula 1 and IndyCar seasons now in full swing, the month of April heralds the beginning of a number of junior championships throughout motorsport as the stars of tomorrow try to find their feet and make a splash in the racing pond.

In terms of American talent, Alexander Rossi continues to be the most notable racer in junior circles, competing in GP2 for a third year in 2015 with Racing Engineering.

However, another youngster trying to make an impact in European racing circles is TJ Fischer. Hailing from Vacaville, California, the 21-year-old is preparing to make his debut in the Formula Renault 2.0 Alps championship this weekend at the iconic Imola circuit, former host of the San Marino Grand Prix.

An accomplished karter and racer in the Formula Car series, Fischer bucked the trend set by many young American racers by switching to the European ladder in 2014 by racing in the Protyre Formula Renault championship in England.

“We were figuring out our plans, we were thinking Pro Mazda, but budget was a little high for that series and kind of out of our range,” Fischer explained to MotorSportsTalk. “But that’s what I wanted to do. Then we were looking around and I was calling a lot of different teams looking at different options and eventually we got an opportunity to race with Cliff Dempsey Racing.

“And so it just kind of fell into place. I didn’t really think ‘I’m planning on racing in Europe’ at the end of the 2013 season I didn’t think that at all. But things just fell into place, and we got the ride with Cliff.”

Fischer enjoyed a solid year in the British championship, finishing sixth in the final standings and enjoying a run of six top-five finishes in the final seven races of the year. However, the bigger challenge he faced was acclimating to the European racing life, which he found to be very different to that of the United States.

“It was definitely a new experience for me, racing over in Europe and England especially,” Fischer said. “It was a different task for me, obviously the driving is different. It’s maybe more forgiving in the States; over in England and Europe it’s pretty cut-throat.

“Getting used to that was an acclimation period, but we just kept on learning, plugging away at it. Throughout the season we were getting quicker and quicker, and towards the end we started getting some better finishes and really started showing the potential of what we could do.”

And that potential led to a big step up for the 2015 season. After just one year in the national championship, Fischer is now preparing to embark on his debut season in the Formula Renault 2.0 Alps series that will see him race at some of the most famous circuits in the world.

Alps has produced a number of exciting drivers despite only enjoying its debut season in 2011. Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat won the series back in 2012; two years later he’d be in F1 with Toro Rosso. Ferrari junior Antonio Fuoco won the title in 2013, whilst McLaren youngster Nyck de Vries took the crown last season.

The enormity of the challenge ahead is not lost on Fischer, though, and he feels ready to make the step up in 2015.

“It still is a bit of a big step for me, going from the Protyre Formula Renault championship up to Alps,” he said. “Sometimes, the guy who wins the championship or is second or third, they’re the guys who move up.

“We weren’t quite there yet, so it’s a bit of a jump still to go to Alps. But I think we’re prepared. Testing with the new car has been going really well and we’ve been very competitive, so I’m feeling confident going into this year.”

Fischer will be racing with Salvador Duran Racing in 2015, but faced an age-old question for young racers: funding. Moving with the times, he embraced a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to help get everything in place for the year ahead, and he is now all set to race at Imola this weekend.

The famous track is just the tip of the iceberg, though. The calendar for the series features many of the most famous tracks in Europe – Spa-Francorchamps, Monza, Mugello, Pau, Jerez, and the Red Bull Ring – and racing on them is a prospect that excites Fischer.

“As an American, coming across the pond and getting the opportunity to race at these tracks – Spa, Monza, Imola – it’s pretty crazy,” he explained.

“Just looking at the circuits… I mean I’ve been watching onboards a lot, and I just get goosebumps watching it because it’s crazy to think that I’m going to be racing at them.”

It is an opportunity that many young, American racers do not get and puts Fischer on the right ladder to perhaps reach F1 one day, which remains a largely Euro-centric sport.

“Getting engulfed in the whole European experience at a young age at the junior formula level, I think is the better route to go,” Fischer said. “I get the experience of racing against the drivers that are at my same level trying to reach F1 as well, and I’m competing against them as opposed to racing in the United States and then having to acclimate later on if I chose to try and do F1 later in my career.

“I think it’s better off just getting fully immersed in the whole culture, the whole style of racing, and learning from it. That’s the most I can do, just learn as much as I can and try to improve as I go along.

“Things fell into place, and then I realized that this is very realistic and I can actually pursue my goals and dreams.”

The ‘drought’ for US drivers in F1 may be a long-running one, but it is the likes of Fischer who play a part in ensuring that the future is bright for American racers in the European scene and, one day, perhaps the top line single-seater series.

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500