Full Red Bull GRC season a tantalizing prospect for Ward, SH Rallycross

Photo: SH Rallycross
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For Jeff Ward, getting into this year’s full Red Bull Global Rallycross season in the No. 07 SH Rallycross Ford Fiesta is a huge piece of excitement for driver, team and the series.

Ward will run the car that will run with MET-Rx primary sponsorship support, with an additional commitment from WIX Filters, and 360fly adorning two parts of the car all season.

Now 54 years old but in a case where age is just a number, the veteran open-wheel and motorcycle and off-road truck ace and champion will embark on his first full Red Bull GRC campaign in 2016, and looks forward to a big amount of success.

Ward described how the deal came together with SH Rallycross, the team co-owned by James “Sulli” Sullivan. Ward ran the 360fly colors with Chip Ganassi Racing in two race weekends last year, at Daytona and Washington, D.C.

“Last year went well with my two drives,” Ward told NBC Sports. “I’d always wanted to do rally from the X Games. It’s kind of tough to get in because you had to run Rally America and get invited. But this was always the niche.

“I did the off-road truck stuff; I did the two races last year. I put the feelers out and talked to a few teams. I met with ‘Sulli’ and everything fell in place. It worked out great.”

Ward described how many people he’s actually familiar with in this world.

“Even though it looks like a new team on the outside it’s a great group of guys I’ve known forever,” Ward explained. “It’s a solid group. I’ve known Jimmy Vasser from my IndyCar days, ‘Sulli’ was in Motocross, Dennis Reinbold in IndyCar.

“Between them and our partners they’re ecstatic about this series and where it is going.

“360fly for instance is very cool. I’ve worked with them for a long time. They’re a great company and it was nice to bring them on board. Then add SH Rallycross having MET-Rx and WIX back again, and they’ve been there, it makes for a great combination.

“I’m grateful for where this team is at and how well it did last year. They made every main event last year, which is not easy to do.”

Indeed with Nelson Piquet Jr. in the main season and Andreas Bakkerud in the non-points X Games, SH Rallycross did what no other team did in making every final event of the season. Piquet won at Washington, D.C. for his first Red Bull GRC win and finished fourth in last year’s points standings.

Although Ward has driven a wide range of machinery, adapting to the Red Bull GRC beasts took a bit of time.

“It’s pretty impressive. These cars are definitely impressive cars,” he said. “They do what you want them to do. I’ve never driven a four-wheel drive car before until Daytona. I raced IndyCar for five to six years and those things accelerate pretty damn strong! But on a standing start, the rally cars are extremely impressive.”

Ward loves doubleheaders and thinks he should do well at them this year. Additionally he feels in great shape heading into the year because he’s still been active.

“Yep, the last year full-time in IndyCar was with Chip (Ganassi) in ‘02. But I did two to three seasons in Lucas Oil Pro 2 off truck seasons. Maybe 4-5 in Super Motos. Mountain bikes. Six-hour endurance races. So I haven’t stopped,” Ward said.

“I’ve been busy doing stuff. You have to stay in great shape.

“I still have that fire of wanting to win the championship. I’ve worked really hard to get in the hunt day one. That’s all I’ve done is race to win championships.

“It’s not just one race as a whole. At end of the season, you don’t want to think you’ve lost one or two points somewhere.”

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds