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.

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500