Barber weekend, Saturday notes for IndyCar, MRTI, PWC

Photo: IndyCar

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – It’s a busy Saturday here on track at Barber Motorsports Park for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

LIVE qualifying will be on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra from 4 p.m. ET for the Verizon IndyCar Series, to see who sets the pole position.

Here are additional notes from the weekend and updates as they come in:

8:00 a.m. CT: Here are a couple additional notes from Firestone and the Pirelli World Challenge we didn’t quite get to yesterday:

Buford at Barber. Photo: PWC
Buford at Barber. Photo: PWC

PWC has GT/GTA/GTC qualifying and the second GTS race up this morning before the first GT race at 1:45 p.m. CT. Some additional notes in the field:

  • Local driver John Allen, who races a Porsche Cayman in GTS, grew up in Selma, Ala. After majoring in electrical engineering at the University of Alabama, he signed up for an initial four-year commitment in the Air Force… which he then continued for another 17 years. Engineering has been his passion but he made his professional debut here last year.
  • A pair of notes on the two Racers Edge Motorsports drivers in the SIN R1 GT4s. Jade Buford, Friday’s race winner, is a Porsche school instructor and has been coming to Barber for over ten years and has more experience at this facility than any other driver in the GTS field. Meanwhile teammate Scott Heckert, 22, in the second car, is a four-time winner in the NASCAR K&N Filters East Series including two victories at Watkins Glen. He’s tested at Roebling Road before.
  • Teenagers racing here this weekend include newly named Ginetta factory driver Parker Chase (15 years old), Nathan Stacy (16), Harry Gottsacker (16), Austin Cindric (17) and Ernie Francis Jr. (18).

Andretti at Texas. Photo: Getty Images

Firestone, meanwhile, has launched a cool sweepstakes. It’s not very often you can say “I got to race Mario Andretti” unless you’re a driver yourself, but Firestone is giving fans the opportunity to say so.

From a Firestone pre-race release:

“Firestone is giving fans an opportunity to compete against racing legend Mario Andretti in the “Race Andretti” sweepstakes. The sweepstakes invites fans to race Andretti while performing every day, household tasks. The online sweepstakes will result in one grand prize winner receiving an all-expenses paid trip for two people to the 100thh Running of the Indianapolis 500. The grand prize winner also will have an opportunity to meet Andretti at IMS.

“The first challenge is to see how quickly participants can peel an orange. A new challenge will be revealed each week through May 15. An additional, special challenge will be launched on May 15, offering participants the chance to win a milk bottle autographed by Andretti and the winning driver of the 2016 Indy 500.

“To enter the sweepstakes, fans must visit to register and access Andretti’s challenge videos before posting their own videos to the site or fan post videos to Twitter, using #RaceAndrettiSweepstakes.”

Jones. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Jones. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

8:45 a.m. CT: The first on-track session of the morning was the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires qualifying (races air on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN as a lead-in to the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, LIVE at 3 p.m. ET).

Carlin’s Ed Jones posted a late flier of 1:12.6738 in the No. 11 Dallara IL-15 Mazda to edge Juncos Racing rookie Zachary Claman De Melo, at 1:12.8472.

Jones scored three poles in 2015 but this marks his first P1 appearance in 2016; he posted his first podium at Phoenix, when he finished second behind Juncos’s Kyle Kaiser, the series points leader. De Melo, meanwhile, has his best career start after lining up seventh in each of the last two races.

9:30 a.m. CT: Oriol Servia has been confirmed for the third Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry at the 100th Indianapolis 500; that’s been broken out into a separate post with an as-it-stands entry list.

Pirelli World Challenge GT/GTA/GTC qualifying is complete with Michael Cooper scoring his first GT class pole, unofficially, with a best time of 1:22.748 in the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R. Long Beach winner Alvaro Parente starts second in the No. 9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3 with Michael Lewis, Johnny O’Connell and Bryan Heitkotter completing the top five.

Martin Fuentes (GTA) and Alec Udell (GTC) have the other two class poles. The first race for them this weekend is at 1:45 p.m. CT later today, and the second GTS race is set to begin shortly.

11:00 a.m. CT: A post-script from Indy Lights qualifying, where De Melo got disqualified following post-qualifying technical inspection.

It moves Andretti Autosport’s Dean Stoneman into second on the grid and RC Enerson into third, with Shelby Blackstock and Santiago Urrutia moving up a spot as well.

The Pirelli World Challenge GTS race was a weird one. Jade Buford stalled off the line in his No. 45 Racers Edge Motorsports SIN R1 GT4 from pole, but the remainder of the 22-car field managed to avoid him – a particular shoutout goes to Scott Dollahite in his No. 46 SDR Motorsports Lotus Evora who swerved left from P3 on the grid.

The race went to a full-course caution immediately while Buford restarted, but was able to stay on the lead lap.

Lawson Aschenbach led the way before Scott Heckert, in the No. 54 Racers Edge SIN, made his way past.

Heckert led the majority of the race before a spin on the Turns 10 and 11 chicane from the lead. Amazingly, he continued without being hit by anyone – although Buford, who’d moved through the field, then moved back into the lead.

Parker Chase then made a pass of Dollahite for second at Turn 5 late in the race in his Ginetta GT4; Aschenbach hung on as long as he could but told NBC Sports post-race the challenge is that the wear of the Pirellis on the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R is too severe over the course of a run, compared to the lighter GT4-spec cars.

Alas, Buford’s got a weekend sweep in the books with Chase and Dollahite making it three different manufacturers (SIN, Ginetta, Lotus) in the top three. Aschenbach was fourth with Heckert holding off Harry Gottsacker in another Ginetta for fifth.

1:45 p.m. CT: IndyCar third practice is in the books and there remains a possibility of an 18th Honda becoming available for the month of May. Those links are in the previous sentence.

In the most recent on-track activity, Ed Jones has bagged the first Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race win of the weekend, keeping his cool at the front of the field while there was a fair bit of chaos behind him.

With De Melo DQ’d and Stoneman having an electrical issue sideline his progress, RC Enerson moved into second off the start with Scott Hargrove in third. Hargrove only took that position after Santiago Urrutia knocked into Felix Rosenqvist, and sent the Swede into the gravel at Turn 1.

With all that out of the way, Felix Serralles, who’d started 11th, and Zach Veach, who’d started sixth, moved into second and third respectively, where they’d stay the remainder of the race.

Serralles pushed but was unable to pass Jones, who scored his fourth career series victory and first since Long Beach last year. After three street course wins this is Jones’ first win on a permanent road course.

Behind the podium, Shelby Blackstock posted a season-best fourth place with De Melo turning in quite a drive from last up to fifth.

Points leader Kyle Kaiser endured a fraught day with engine issues resigning him to 15th.

Unofficially, Serralles takes a one-point lead over Kaiser (88-87) with Jones now up to third on 82 points.

6:00 p.m. CT: Lots to catch up on here, so let’s go in chronological order:

In the first Pirelli World Challenge GT/GTA/GTC race of the weekend, Alvaro Parente controlled the field in the No. 9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3 from pole over the Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R teammates, Michael Cooper and Johnny O’Connell, respectively. After Parente won following a post-race penalty for O’Connell in Long Beach, this marked Parente’s first win on the road.

“It looked a lot calmer in the race than it was inside my car as this was a very difficult race.  Early in the race I knew I would have trouble with my rear tires.  I was fighting with my car more than I wanted to.  I had to drive hard but I didn’t want the rear tires to go away.  I knew that the smallest mistake and Michael Cooper would get by me. And Johnny was right there too,” said the Portuguese factory ace.

Meanwhile Martin Fuentes won GTA for the sixth time in as many races in his No. 07 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 GT3 Italia, and Alec Udell snapped Sloan Urry’s three-race win streak in GTC in his No. 17 GMG Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup. It’s Udell’s second win of the year, same as Parente’s.

Things weren’t all brilliant for K-PAX however, with the K-PAX and Flying Lizard Motorsports crew diagnosing that Colin Thompson’s No. 13 McLaren was damaged too much to repair on site from an accident at Turn 3 and 4. It’ll mean Thompson is out of action for Sunday and it’s yet another wrecked McLaren within PWC; Austin Cindric had heavy shunts at both St. Petersburg and Long Beach, through no fault of his own, and GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing’s Jon Fogarty also had a heavy accident at Long Beach.

We broke Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying out into their own posts. Here they are, linked below:

Two more Mazda Road to Indy races have taken place after IndyCar qualifying.

In the first of two Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races, Team Pelfrey’s Pato O’Ward took the win after a restart, making a move on polesitter and erstwhile dominant driver Aaron Telitz, who’d led prior. A wreck for Juncos Racing’s Jake Parsons brought the field closer together; Parsons’ teammate Garett Grist finished third.

In the second Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda race of the weekend, there were a number of incidents – all of which occurred behind race winner Parker Thompson, who completed a weekend sweep and is first to win multiple races this year with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing. Luke Gabin (JAY Motorsports) was second with Robert Megennis (Team Pelfrey) making a late-race move of Anthony Martin (Cape) for the final podium position. Other contenders such as Jordan Lloyd and Victor Franzoni had issues during the race.

I’d refer you to a detailed look at each three of these races via TSO Ladder, the ladder arm of Trackside Online’s coverage, for more information on these events. We’ll have more Mazda Road to Indy coverage to come next week and in the days to come, leading into the month of May.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500