Ten with Townsend: Sonoma and 2015 IndyCar debrief

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Following an emotional roller coaster at Sonoma to cap off the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, we check in with our NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell for the latest installment in the MotorSportsTalk original series “Ten with Townsend.”

A series archive is linked here and as always, we thank him for his time and insights:

-When you have a tragedy such as we’ve had this week with the loss of Justin, how do you compartmentalize and move ahead while still honoring a fallen friend/great driver and greater man?

As a racing driver, there is no option when you strap in the car: it will force your focus. Perhaps that’s why, in the end, it’s the best therapy for the drivers.

-As you and I were both on assignment elsewhere at VIR instead of at Pocono, was it harder to be away or was it good to be able to come back this weekend to Sonoma and reunite with the IndyCar family?

I had the forced focus going at VIR, but the sweetness of victory was short-lived as I heard the call live on IndyCar Radio on the way to the airport.

-What are some of your favorite Justin memories?

Having him come up to me after the Richmond race in 2008. Flaming mad but uncontrollably polite. I remember thinking… “This is the nicest guy I’ve ever battled against.”

-You said during the pre-race show to watch out for Dixon. Should we call you NostraTownsend now?

No, a simple plaque will be fine.

-All kidding aside, even with as cool and calm as Dixon is, how surprising is it he was able to make up the 47-point deficit? Did double points swing the championship too much in your opinion?

It was the same for everyone. A level playing field and Dixon grabbed the pie and ate it.

(Editor’s note: Townsend wrote this now incredibly accurate line after Iowa: “I predict Dixon and Montoya down to the last lap.. Iceman cometh…as always…”)

-Did Montoya and Penske lose the title, did Dixon and Ganassi win it, or was it a little of both?

There’s a certain twinkle in PT’s eye when he reminded us that this was the seventh time in eight years where Penske has ‘lost’ the title at the final race. It would be hard not to see this one that way.

-When you look back at the season Graham Rahal and RLL had, should they be disappointed it ended how it did or be thankful they enjoyed such a successful campaign?

They punched above their weight and they should be proud of the season. The vulnerability of a one-car team was certainly exposed on the starts and restarts Sunday as the multi-car management took place.

-Sonoma race: Biggest surprise and/or disappointment you had.

Biggest surprise was Rodolfo Gonzalez. Solid all weekend and an impressive result.

Biggest disappointment was watching another great result slip through Josef Newgarden’s very talented hands.

-The 2015 season: Biggest surprises, and/or disappointments you had.

Biggest surprise: Easily Rahal. Didn’t see that coming at all.

Biggest disappointment: Penske. I thought you could make a case for them winning every race this season. In the end their total tally was three!

-Lastly, what are some of your favorite memories of the 2015 season? This was a turbulent year for IndyCar but did you think the series’ on-track product overcame some of the challenges that sprouted up during the year, notably during month of May and then here in the last month?

I think my favorite memory will be Chip “Axl Rose” Ganassi testing the shoulder strength of his Target VIPs. I thought I had seen it all.

It’s nice to see he still has the passion for winning and a much more elegant execution than his Mid-Ohio stage dive after Kimball’s victory in 2013.

Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”

Former NASCAR VP Robin Pemberton joins Andretti Autosport

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Andretti Autosport has hired former NASCAR executive Robin Pemberton to run its new Pirelli GT4 America Series program.

Pemberton spent more than a decade as the vice president before leaving the organization a little more than three years ago. He also worked as an executive for Ford and as a crew chief for several Cup drivers, including Richard Petty, Kyle Petty, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin.

Jarett Andretti, son of racing veteran John Andretti, will be driving for the GT team.

Here’s the release from the team:

Robin Pemberton has joined Andretti Autosport to oversee the team’s newest racing initiative in the Pirelli GT4 America Series. With over 10 years served as NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition, and four decades of racing involvement, Pemberton brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the pedigree team.

“The new Andretti Autosport GT4 program is an incredible opportunity for the team and McLaren to come together,” said Pemberton. “I’m excited to be involved and we are all working together to get the program off the ground. After spending time with Jarett at sprint car races last season, I’m impressed by his determination. He is a good talent with a bright future. I look forward to working with him and the entire Andretti Autosport team in this new challenge.” 

“We’re really pleased to welcome Robin to the Andretti family to oversee our new GT4 effort,” said Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti. “A lot of effort goes into building a new program from ground up, and we think Robin’s experience and expertise will be a great asset as we get up to speed. We’re looking forward to a successful first year in the Pirelli GT4 America Series.” 

Pemberton’s motorsport career started in 1979 with Petty Enterprises, where he worked his way to the role of crew chief for both Richard and Kyle Petty. The New York state-native went on to crew chief with teams such as Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing. His record as a crew chief shows 28 victories and 39 pole positions. Before moving to NASCAR in 2004, Pemberton spent nearly two years as Field Manager for Ford Motorsport’s NASCAR programs, leading development of the Ford Taurus program.

With pre-season testing in full swing, Andretti Autosport will make its GT4 America Series debut March 1-3 at Circuit of the Americas with Jarett Andretti behind the wheel of the new McLaren 570S GT4.