Josef and Hinch. Photo: IndyCar

DiZinno: After qualifying, 100th Indy 500 has plenty of dream stories

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INDIANAPOLIS – For months, hell, even years, anticipation has been building for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

If you think about it, preparing for this 500 goes back to 2008 when the formal unveil of the “Centennial Era” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was launched. And so began a three-year period celebrating the track’s opening (1909) through to the first running (1911) some 100 years later.

But because World War II stopped four years of running (and World War I stopped two), it’s taken until 2016 for the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing to actually take place.

And for all the bitching and kvetching I’ve heard in the paddock, in my five full-time years covering the Verizon IndyCar Series – whether it’s about schedules, management changes, drop-off of teams, “insert your favorite driver here” doesn’t have a ride, TV ratings, the latest proposed international race that won’t happen or a lack of promotion/activation/marketing – this Indy 500 has the potential and the story lines to actually justify the hype and properly drown out the negativity.

The buildup to this year’s ‘500 in season 2016, naturally, has been par for the course.

We lost a race unexpectedly (Boston); INDYCAR then worked a minor miracle to pull together Watkins Glen as an 11th hour replacement in two weeks.

We had drivers bitching about the infamous domed skids and the cars being harder to drive. Well it turns out they are harder to drive and the depth of talent – 1 to 33 – in this year’s field, is perhaps better than ever.

We had the usual “ARE WE GONNA GET TO 33 CARS?” drama. We had one team fall through nearly a year after a press conference announcing its plans. We had no bumps. Yet we’re coming off of two of the most fascinating qualifying days that IMS has witnessed in recent years.

It now sets up a week of buildup about the race, about the drivers, about the stories – that properly set the scene for this race that has been oh-so-hyped.

HINCH, AND THAT ONE THING WE CAN’T FORGET

Schmidt, Hinchcliffe and Ric Peterson. Photo: IndyCar
Schmidt, Hinchcliffe and Ric Peterson. Photo: IndyCar

On pole, you have James Hinchcliffe. You know the story by now; he damn near lost his life here 12 months ago and I’ve lost track of how many times the damn #HinchI5Back hashtag has appeared in my timeline since.

Hinch was back when he tested at Road America last September. That was it. He didn’t need to be back again, because he already was.

And since that day, all that’s been building has been the meshing, the performance of he and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team as a whole.

“I’m super happy for Hinch, he’s one of my really good friends,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who starts third next Sunday.

“To be sitting in his hospital bed a year ago.  I was there with him, his first Road America test.  And I thought to myself, because I was asking my guys, I thought to myself, ‘It’s going to take him a day to get back in the mix.  That’s a big jump back in.’

“I remember asking like two hours into the test, ‘How quick is Hinch?’ You know, he’s a tenth and a half quicker than us right now.” 

“I was blown away.  I couldn’t believe right away he was back into it. That just shows the courage he has and how resilient you have to be. It’s incredible. I don’t think anybody can really describe almost losing your life out here on the same track and get back in and doing 240 (mph) into the corner and doing what he is doing. It is just incredible. Absolutely incredible. Very deserving pole winner. ”

And does Hinch like the continual talking about it? Not really, but he gets why he has to do it.

“Honestly?  Yeah, definitely (I was sick of it),” he said. “But I get it. It was a big deal. It was a big deal to me, too.

“And I understand that. And I really appreciated that people wanted to hear the story, wanted to tell the story for me. There was a lot of really, really nice pieces done, a lot of nice tributes done in that sense. But no, then you’re coming back to this place and you want to focus on the here and now and not remember or focus on hitting the wall at 125 Gs.

“So there was definitely a point where it’s kind of like, “Hey, is there anything else you want to talk about? Let’s lead with that and kind of see where we go from there. But we’ll see. Hopefully this is the topic of conversation for the next week and a week from now we’ve got an even better story to tell.”

THE ‘MERICA FREEDOM TRAIN STARTING P2 AND P3

Hinch winning would justify that “better story to tell” card.

Another in that department? That would be Josef Newgarden, who starts second.

I’ve lost track of how many Hinch and Josef videos I’ve seen. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked or wondered, hey, there’s 19-20 other drivers in the series, why not use them?

But IndyCar’s two arguably most marketable stars are starting 1-2 next Sunday for a race that is almost guaranteed to have massive eyeballs.

A Newgarden win would justify the hype for the driver who’s been hailed as IndyCar’s “next big thing” for five years. I’ll admit to having jumped on the Newgarden Fan Train early when he won the Freedom 100 here in 2011; I’ve watched as others have hopped on other cars over the later months.

Hunter-Reay's No. 28 DHL Honda. Photo: IndyCar
Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda. Photo: IndyCar

Hunter-Reay? He’s got a better story line this year, almost, than last year when he entered as defending champion. For one, Honda has a chance. For two, he’d add a second win to match his number of kids. Ryden stole the show here in 2014 in his DHL firesuit; Ryden and Rocsen won a press conference earlier this week. And his would be a comeback story, after driver, team and Honda endured a mostly nightmarish 2015.

A Honda win? That’d be a great story. It’s a story of a manufacturer living up to its Japanese roots, the old “Phoenix rising from the ashes” line, and making the necessary gains to its product to win. And it would be greater here because this is a track where the INDYCAR-allowed update boxes don’t have the same huge impact.

AND THERE’S NEARLY 30 MORE WOULD-BE OUTSTANDING STORIES TO COME

Bell and engineer Craig Hampson. Photo: IndyCar
Bell and engineer Craig Hampson. Photo: IndyCar

You look at others in the field and the positive story lines keep flowing:

  • NBCSN analyst Townsend Bell has starred as the month’s top one-off entry. He’s got the veteran guile, experience and tenacity to contend in his pizza delivery mobile on wheels.
  • Mikhail Aleshin has been exciting as hell and doing the near impossible: making a bunch of Hoosiers root and cheer for a Russian when you see the DOOM car sliding all over the track.
  • Team Penske is the Goliath now starting down the order. Will Power in sixth is their highest starter; he and Simon Pagenaud seek their first ‘500, Juan Pablo Montoya his second straight and third overall, Helio Castroneves his record-tying fourth. Plus there’s the 50th anniversary of the team this year and the exhibit in the IMS Museum to match. This is the team you want to win if you’re a fan of numerology.
  • Can Chip Ganassi Racing pull off a 2012 encore? Like in 2012, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon were nowhere. Then they promptly ended 1-2 in the race. Between Dixon and Franchitti’s replacement Tony Kanaan, perpetually underrated Charlie Kimball and rookie Max Chilton, it’s been a tough month but they’ll look for a big result on Sunday.
  • Row 5 is a fascinating row. In Dixon, Marco Andretti and JR Hildebrand you have the 2008 winner and two Americans who came oh-so-close to wins in 2006 and 2011, respectively. Marco has said a win in this year’s race would be everything. He’s not wrong.
  • Each of the 5 rookies has a story to tell. I’ll have a post on these five later this week but this year’s rookie crop, while unlikely winners, have been largely impressive. Strongest among them has been Alexander Rossi – who not only has adapted to Indy, but embraced it.
  • Row 9 has three intriguing drivers. In Pippa Mann, there’s a huge fan favorite. In Graham Rahal, a determined driver who’s become known in the aero kit era for his and his team’s fight backs from difficult qualifying runs. In Matty Brabham, a wonderfully goofy Australian American rookie who is the perfect driver for a throwback, but new, team – PIRTEK Team Murray – that has brought fun, veterans and a wonderfully Australian theme to this year’s race led by team principal Brett “Crusher” Murray.
  • There’s the guy from 1996 in the final row. Buddy Lazier is the link for the IRL fans, those who liked that era, which began 20 years ago in 1996. He doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning but it’s damn cool that at 48, he and his family are still living out their dreams – 20 years on from winning an emotional triumph.

That 1996 year is an interesting one for me. It was my first year following the sport full-time as a kid growing up; I was fortunate I didn’t know what “the good old days” were because I watched IndyCar racing, I thought it fast and cool, and I got hooked.

Now, 20 years later, I don’t want to hear the words “back in the good old days” because longing for “back in the good old days” has left IndyCar where it is now – needing this one race to build positive momentum to erase the overflow of negativity that has perpetually weakened – if not killed – the sport for most of the last 20 years.

For one week, we have nothing but positive stories lined up.

Embrace it. And promote the hell out of it.

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

Arrow McLaren Racing SP Photo
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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500