Indy Lights pre grid. Photo: Photos @ Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Plenty of stories, nuggets emerge from MRTI, PWC finale weekend

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MONTEREY, Calif. – What follows in this post isn’t so much a recap of things that happened at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, as much as it is an outlining of what is to come following the results of things that happened at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, across the Mazda Road to Indy and Pirelli World Challenge.

  • Whose headliner was it anyway? In theory, the concept of two of INDYCAR’s usual dancing partners – the full complement of Mazda Road to Indy series and the Pirelli World Challenge GT and GTS classes (as well as the TC classes, which used to be on INDYCAR weekends but were moved off for 2015 due to lack of available track time) – getting their own headline weekend sounded good. In reality, it didn’t feel as “big” as it should have… which wasn’t really anyone’s fault but stemmed from a few factors. From the promotion of the event seeing both listed as co-headliners with neither taking precedence, to both series feeling aggrieved by track time, load-in dates and schedule quirks, to Pirelli signage needing to be covered up on Cooper Tire podiums and vice versa, it seemed a case of “please, it’s your feature, sir,” to then “no, please go ahead, it’s yours.” With Pirelli World Challenge announcing both Sonoma and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca again for next year, with Mazda Raceway moving to October, it would make sense for the Mazda Road to Indy to crown its champions in front of INDYCAR teams at Sonoma in 2016, rather than in front of a small group of hardcore, dedicated insiders and fans who made the trek out west for the second time in three weeks. You could make the argument the Mazda Road to Indy champions being crowned at Mazda Raceway made sense, and there was live streaming via RoadToIndy.TV throughout the weekend. But in reality, the scope of what champions Spencer Pigot, Santi Urrutia and Nico Jamin wasn’t exposed to nearly as wide an audience or media gathering as they – or the Mazda Road to Indy series and its partners – deserve.
  • Deserving MRTI champions. Now that Pigot, Urrutia, and Jamin have their titles – and their Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarships for 2016 – we’ll break out features on each of them in the coming weeks to tell more stories about what they’ve done and where they’re going next. Suffice to say if they didn’t win their titles, their careers would be at a crossroads…
  • And hard luck MRTI runners-up. … To piggyback off the last bullet point, the question of “what’s next?” for drivers like Jack Harvey, Ed Jones and RC Enerson (Indy Lights), Neil Alberico (Pro Mazda), Jake Eidson and Aaron Telitz (USF2000) now arises, as the next generation of drivers who are talented but unsure of where the next step in their career may come. For Harvey, to have lost consecutive Lights titles in crushing fashion, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. However, both he and Jones impressed in IndyCar tests, and hopefully either or both have a chance to join Pigot in advancing into the Verizon IndyCar Series next season.
  • Overlooked weekend race winners. Outside of Pigot and Jamin, who swept the Indy Lights and USF2000 races, winning the last race on a championship weekend is somewhat unfortunate because you get overlooked by the title races. In this case, Garett Grist was overlooked after one of his best weekends yet in the Mazda Road to Indy – he swept the two Pro Mazda races. And in Pirelli World Challenge, aside of the climactic championship battle between Johnny O’Connell and Olivier Beretta, you had Alessandro Balzan show what he can do in a car with an authoritative win over teammate Alessandro Pier Guidi. The other PWC weekend winners included Eric Lux (GTA), Colin Thompson (GT Cup), Kris Wilson (GTS), Adam Poland, Corey Fergus and Ernie Francis Jr. (TC), Jason Wolfe and Paul Holton (TCA) and Joey Jordan (TCB), the latter of whom completed a three-race weekend sweep, in a Mazda 2, at Mazda Raceway.
  • PWC’s next move(s). News came late Sunday night as part of the Pirelli World Challenge championship celebration that WC Vision’s Scott Bove had resigned as CEO, along with its 2016 schedule release. The line of note, “Scott Bove did not do this alone,” from Bob Woodhouse spoke volumes, although it must be stated Bove made plenty of decisive and good strategic moves that helped the championship’s growth over the last five seasons. How the series addresses the concerns and pulse of its paddock from here will determine how much the series can continue to grow beyond what has been done the last few seasons.
  • A thrilling end to GT title bout. While Johnny O’Connell and Olivier Beretta had dueled for the PWC GT season title, O’Connell took several opportunities Sunday to praise Ryan Dalziel, who many will acknowledge as one of the top sports car drivers in the world at the moment. Had Dalziel not had two conflicts that cost him three races, the likable Florida-based Scotsman could well have usurped “Johnny O” for the title. As it was, O’Connell’s championship victory was a popular one – few seemed to care for Beretta’s driving tactics most of the season, and this great photo from Richard S. James showed the reality of what happened at the Corkscrew. It was the defining moment of the season.
  • What’s next for Mazda Raceway? Simple answer is we don’t know. This could well have been the last professional weekend before Porsche Rennsport Reunion in two weeks run under SCRAMP operations; ISC has entered into a 90-day due diligence agreement with the track within the last month or so. As ever, watch this space…

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500