The three upcoming races for the Verizon IndyCar Series are all on ovals, but they couldn’t be more diverse.
Essentially, you’ve got provolone, cheddar and Swiss cheese all in a row. Are they all cheeses? Yes. Are they the same in any way, shape or fashion beyond the fact they’re cheeses? Nope.
The first in the “ovals as cheese” trifecta is this weekend’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN), which has been done no favors in terms of scheduling since it came back on the schedule in 2012.
It was in mid-September in ungodly heat, moved to a more reasonable mid-October date the following year, then moved back up to end of August last year.
Its reward for 2015? A new track president, in the form of Dave Allen to replace the departed Gillian Zucker, and another new date – it’s now the end of June in a Saturday afternoon race.
Conditions might be miserable but the drivers will all have to make do. Here’s a decent explanation of what drivers will face, as outlined by Takuma Sato, driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda.
“Running the race during the heat of the day will be very tough,” Sato said. “You lose tons of downforce from the high ambient temperature and you lose significant mechanical grip due to the high track temperature, as tires are given a very hard time. So there will be not enough grip and the race will be a tough one to deal with as a driver.”
Sato – and the other 22 drivers competing in the MAVTV 500 – will look to survive the heat, tire wear and the seams that make Auto Club Speedway so treacherous. While there have been disconcerting rumors put out this could be the race’s finale, MAVTV did sign a two-year sponsorship extension at last year’s race through 2016.
As for this year, it would seem fairly likely the winner will come from Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing. Is that a surprise? Hardly.
On the Penske side, Juan Pablo Montoya is a 500-mile master and looks to add an ACS win to his already stellar 500-mile resume, while Will Power’s arguably best ever oval race came here two years ago. Helio Castroneves will be motivated as ever to get his first win of the year, while Simon Pagenaud has what should be a much better wagon underneath him after a trying Fontana last year in his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports swansong.
It’s Ganassi that enters as defending race champions. Tony Kanaan finally earned his first win as a member of CGR last August, and Scott Dixon gave chase the rest of the night. Charlie Kimball is a sleeper and has been very solid the last two years at Fontana; Sage Karam returns to the site where he won his Indy Lights title two years ago after a one-race absence.
Of the other Chevrolet-powered teams, the KVSH Racing entry of Sebastien Bourdais and KV Racing Technology entry of Stefano Coletti both struggled at Texas, as did CFH Racing’s pair of Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden, somewhat surprisingly. On outright performance you’d expect both teams to find their form this weekend, and Newgarden told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week he expects CFHR to be on better terms than they were after a disastrous Texas.
Coming to the Honda teams, and it was Andretti Autosport’s pair of Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti, Schmidt Peterson’s Ryan Briscoe and James Jakes and Bryan Herta Autosport’s Gabby Chaves who all banked top-10 finishes in Texas. Briscoe and Andretti, of that quintet, you’d figure to do well in Fontana this weekend.
Of the other Honda runners, Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay needs an exorcism or something similar to erase what’s been a brutal 10-race stretch from the start of the season. Fontana has good memories for him as it’s where he clinched his 2012 title.
The others – Graham Rahal of RLL, Coyne’s Pippa Mann and Tristan Vautier and Foyt’s Sato and Jack Hawksworth – all seek trouble-free runs and better finishes than they had at Texas.
On paper it’s likely Montoya or Dixon’s to lose. Of course with it being 500 miles, nearly anything is possible.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.
“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.
The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).
He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.
“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”
There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).
He was even better this year at Daytona.
He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.
A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).
“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”
Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.
“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.
“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).
“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”
Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.
The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”
Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.
And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.
“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.
“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.
“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”
A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.
It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.
“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”
Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.
“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.
“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”
Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.
“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.
This is what it’s all about. Not just a team but a 𝙁𝘼𝙈𝙄𝙇𝙔
“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”
Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.
A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.
With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel
“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.
“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”