DiZinno: Mid-Ohio a dream weekend for Rahal, IndyCar, fans

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Usually in IndyCar season 2015, it’s been weather that’s overshadowed the weekend.

At Mid-Ohio this past weekend, it was set to be the cloud of uncertainty regarding the series’ competition and operations department, with Thursday’s news that Derrick Walker would be leaving at season’s end.

Happily, for once, IndyCar weathered the storm. Mostly.

Because this is IndyCar after all, and there is no such thing as a perfectly sunny, clear day without the threat of clouds, rain, or storms brewing on the horizon.

Anyway, Mid-Ohio was a near perfect showcase of what can make IndyCar great – in a much better way than what Fontana did a month or so ago for arguably the most tense, but most thrilling, race of the season.

If you’re a sucker for strategy races, Mid-Ohio is the race for you. Following who is going to pit when, and who covers who when they make a move to the pits – race winner Graham Rahal admitted as much that his team astutely covered Justin Wilson, then got lucky with a full-course caution coming out immediately thereafter ��� is one of the hallmarks of the race.

If you like controversy or drama, Mid-Ohio isn’t usually the race for you, but it was this year. Some competitors thought Sage Karam’s spin on Lap 66 was a little too convenient; Karam told this writer he’d adjusted his brake bias, then misread the speed through the apex of the corner, dropped wheels off and spun out. INDYCAR will release its findings on Wednesday about the incident.

If you enjoy constant, wall-to-wall action, Mid-Ohio is the race for you. There was nary a moment of downtime throughout the three full days on site. With 12 races – IndyCar coming as the showcase after 11 other mostly intriguing races from the Mazda Road to Indy (three USF2000 and two Indy Lights and Pro Mazda apiece) and Pirelli World Challenge (two GT and two GTS races) – plus practice and qualifying, you never went more than 15 minutes without any on-track activity.

If you like uninterrupted working Internet in the press room… Mid-Ohio is not the race for you. An IT glitch on Sunday made posting difficult during and after the IndyCar race. But, as one visiting European reporter told me during the weekend, there’s a quaintness about the “treehouse” media center he doesn’t get at European venues, which have similar stale centers, and that he loved how unique the Mid-Ohio media center is. Thankfully, the staff handled the challenges well.

If you love the ambience of a natural, permanent road course that doubles as a campsite, Mid-Ohio is the race for you. Between hanging out with friends both of Friday and Saturday night and taking in a bonfire the latter night, as well as exploring the infield to see the fans, you remember why you got into racing in the first place. Seeing the grounds as packed as they were this weekend – this was my fifth time to Mid-Ohio dating to 2009 – was a welcome reminder that road racing in this country still can be vibrant, and packed with astute, dedicated, smart fans.

The “Indy Camping” group – find them at @IndyCamping on Twitter – were particular rock stars. With several different shirts throughout the weekend, “Team Dracone,” the circus shirts, followed by the Karam “Happy Buddies” shirt featuring that infamous Instagram shirtless photo he posted with him and his dog Max, then the Rahal Steak ‘n Shake get-up on Sunday, these guys showcased a fantastic sense of humor as well as a keen awareness of what is going on in the series right now.

Seeing those shirts, seeing Karam go over to receive a shirt of his own, then seeing a homemade “Rule 9.3.8” shirt added to the highlights of the weekend.

Oh, and if you love a championship fight featuring two unlikely candidates, IndyCar’s got that too.

Somehow, it’s happened that the expected preseason title favorites – Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves and defending series champion Will Power – have taken a backseat to Graham Rahal, in a single-car effort with both driver and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team having an otherworldly year and Juan Pablo Montoya, who looks to complete the Indianapolis 500-title same season double for the first time since Dario Franchitti in 2010.

Montoya has been good, while Rahal has been hot of late with four consecutive top-five finishes, including two wins.

Yes, JPM got “hosed” with the Karam caution timing on Sunday while Rahal, admittedly, got lucky.

But to win a championship, you need the combination of both pace and luck. Once Rahal was out front Sunday, he used the pace part of that combo to perfection, and did exactly what he had to do – survive strategic advances from Wilson, drive deeper into a corner and then pull away from the pack to secure the win.

The moment was there for Rahal with all the pressure on him. Wearing an Ohio State helmet, his family on site, driving a Honda in Honda’s home race, driving for his father in their home race. And he seized it with both hands.

“I dreamt of this for a long, long, long time,” Rahal said in the post-race press conference. “In fact, I had a dream Friday night that I won.

“I guess sometimes dreams do come true.”

A dream weekend for Rahal, and pretty much a dream weekend for the good of what IndyCar can be.

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes many legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcend into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time, and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on Dec. 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

With so many obstacles in the way of Alonso competing for any other team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best (and essentially his only) option come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” Brown said in a response to a question from NBCSports.com in a Tuesday teleconference. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso, and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after (the Dakar Rally) because he wanted to be very focused on that event. had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda in 2017. He got up to speed quickly, qualifying fifth and leading 27 laps before his Honda failed with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso’s worst days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux pas was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over because of disparaging and critical comments about its engine by Alonso and the team.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what then was known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. To make the deal work, the team had to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

When the Arrow McLaren SP deal was announced on Aug. 9, 2019, Alonso still was attempting to negotiate an Indy 500 deal with Andretti Autosport, and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed, and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no and held firm against doing business with Alonso for the same reasons as with McLaren.

Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver.”

Though it appeared this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized they had been wooing Alonso for several months.

The addition of Hampson, who oversaw a car Bourdais qualified for the Fast Nine in the past two Indy 500s, and a solid test at COTA helped make the case.

“These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump,” Brown said. “There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Said Schmidt: “It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November. We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal.”

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports — the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Having conquered Monaco and Le Mans, Indy remains the final event to master for the Spaniard.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. There are four corners but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

The key to completing the deal was Michael Andretti allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to follow Alonso as his Indy 500 sponsor to Arrow McLaren SP after the deal with Andretti Autosport fell through.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown said, referring to the Virgin Australia Supercars team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them.”

Alonso is just as excited to return at Indy despite last year’s disappointment, gleefully describing the Brickyard’s appeal in his interview with Diffey.

“Definitely. once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500