Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Blackstock’s 5-year road with Andretti leads to first IndyCar test


In his fifth season with Andretti Autosport in the Mazda Road to Indy, Shelby Blackstock will fulfill his dream today as he makes his Verizon IndyCar Series test debut at Watkins Glen International.

All three of Andretti’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers – Blackstock, Dalton Kellett and Dean Stoneman – will be in the three IndyCars. Blackstock takes over Carlos Munoz’s No. 26 Honda with Kellett in Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Snapple Honda and Stoneman in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda.

Kellett is a more recent Andretti addition having run for the team in both Indy Lights and Pro Mazda, and Stoneman is the team’s newest driver in his first full season in North America.

Blackstock’s though been the team veteran, in all three MRTI series – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda since 2012. And the 26-year-old out of Nashville has made a habit of learning more every year.

“My racing career has been very young. I started racing seven years ago,” Blackstock told NBC Sports. “It’s something that’s come easier than most, but it’s still a big learning curve. Working with Darren Manning this year as my driving coach has definitely helped a lot with driving-wise and also how to approach different sponsors and opportunities and just overall learning the business outside of racing on top of it.

“There’s not really a team leader. Everybody’s struggled at some point, while everybody’s had their good times at other points. Each other kind of helps the whole team grow and also make the car better. Yeah, we’ve struggled here and there, but you have to drive the IL-15 a certain way. If it’s not driven a certain way, you’re not going to be fast.”

Blackstock’s second season in Indy Lights has been markedly better than his first. With two more weekends to go at Watkins Glen and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, he sits eighth in points with five top-five finishes, all between fourth and fifth. Much of it is attributable to having a full-time teammate, but the Andretti team’s Lights setup has generally been better most weekends in 2016.

“Last year, a lot of our notes were inconclusive,” he explained. “This is really Andretti’s first year getting the new car right, so it’s been a learning curve for a bunch of us. Racing-wise, there’s been some opportunities and some of us have capitalized more than others and vice-versa. There’s really no team leader, just a huge, big team effort.

“Results-wise, I think we could have done a lot better this year, but driving-wise, I think it’s come a long way. This year, the talent pool has been so deep. There’s been seven different winners this year and every single day, anyone can win. That’s what makes the series rise to make you step up your game. You could be just searching for a tenth and that could cover six places at some places. It’s really big to really be on your game and to be on point every single time you step into that car.”

Blackstock’s particularly keen to make his IndyCar test debut at Watkins Glen given his personal history at the track.

“Last year, as a part of my contract, it was my first year in Indy Lights and (I said) this year I’d love an IndyCar test as part of the young guns test,” he said.

“I knew it was going to happen eventually. I didn’t know where. I was kind of bummed that I didn’t hear about the Mid-Ohio test because I like Mid-Ohio a lot. But then they one-upped it and said you’re going to be testing at Watkins Glen.

“Well, the Glen was the very first racetrack I’d ever been to, working as part of the crew guys. I wasn’t even a pit guy; I was the tire guy, basically, dragging tires on and off cars. I figured out it was backbreaking work and it was miserable.

“I love Watkins Glen. I raced there in Skip Barber, Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge in IMSA, I had a lot of fun and a lot of good results there. I just like the track a lot.

“And now, after the repaving, I was talking to some of the IndyCar guys and the place is ridiculously fast and awesome, so I can’t wait.”

Blackstock’s hoping this step will be the first step to an IndyCar graduation in 2017, but as ever, funding is the determining factor.

“Yeah, that’s the goal. It’s motorsports; you have to have sponsors behind you,” he said. “You have to find that.

“I’ve been in meetings constantly for the past couple months. … You’re constantly always trying to make the next step and see where you can go for 2017.

“Yeah, I’d love to be in IndyCar. If that doesn’t work, maybe a partial season. There’s so many options on the table that it’s really open.”

Occasionally you’ll hear Blackstock referred to only as Reba McEntire’s son, but he’s never felt as though he’s in her shadow.

“I don’t think anything of that nature. I just go out and try to get the most out of the car whenever I’m in it and let the driving do its own talking,” he said.

“My mom’s a huge supporter of my racing. It’s also helpful at times when it comes to some deals together.

“Overall, she’s a full supporter. I love when she comes out to the races and when she’s out here. I’ve never thought anything of being in her shadow or anything like that.”

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.