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Menards, DHL extensions help IndyCar’s corporate growth

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It’s not that often anymore you go to a Verizon IndyCar Series race meeting and get one partner announcement press conference, let alone two.

Yet this weekend, in addition to the obvious story line of the weekend and the championship battle that went with it, IndyCar’s corporate health and upward trajectory with team sponsor extensions was a positive story line that emerged.

On Saturday, Menards announced it was growing its initial five-race deal with Team Penske – which began as a three-race deal for 2016 – into 10 full races for Simon Pagenaud in 2017. The fact that now Menards will be adorning the champion’s car, whether Pagenaud switches to No. 1 or keeps the No. 22, is another thing for the home improvement warehouse magnate to hang his fluorescent colored hat on.

And then on Sunday, DHL took its relationship with Andretti Autosport to another level, extending three more years through to 2020 with the team and with its lead driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Both companies expressed their take on why being in IndyCar is good for their business.

“I think IndyCar is on an upward trend now, for sure,” John Menard said Saturday. “I think that they are to be commended, the people that are running it right now, because I think they’re doing a great job.

“It’s not easy right now competing for attention in the sports world with all the things that are going on, all the different new sports coming in. To see IndyCar having some growth, having really successful races in the Indy 500 this year, Elkhart Lake was just a tremendous race. Only thing that could have made it better is if you would have won it. There’s been some wonderful races and wonderful things.”

“The decision was easy for us,” added Mike Parra, CEO of DHL Express Americas. “We continue our relationship that’ll be 10 years with Ryan in 2020. He’s an iconic driver … he’s great with our employees, our customers and great in the series. To add to it, be part of Andretti Autosport, the team history. No better time than to do it now.

“For us, it’s the opportunity to go international, go to China, Australia, the Middle East; that would be big. We want Montreal back, and we’re already in Toronto.”

Hunter-Reay, for his part, has been afforded the stability with DHL and Andretti Autosport that countered the instability he had earlier in his career.

Ironically, Hunter-Reay was teammates with German driver Timo Glock in 2005, when DHL first appeared in Champ Car. But the road from 2003 to 2009 was rocky for him before 2010 when he joined Andretti, and 2011 when DHL joined the renumbered No. 28 car.

“This is fantastic. To not stress about that, I can’t tell you how beneficial that is for the racing side,” Hunter-Reay expressed.

“I sure hope so, that this is becoming an iconic partnership, and it’s on its way there right now. You couldn’t see me in anything but a yellow suit. Pick me out of a crowd and I love that.

“To know the next four years are locked in and stable is priceless.”

Pagenaud, meanwhile, has not only grown as a driver but he’s grown as a professional within the Penske empire.

Like Hunter-Reay before him, Pagenaud went through a hodgepodge of cars, teams, sponsors and series before joining Team Penske.

And he’s quickly learned and grown to understand the importance of the Penske business – he noted it was key he won a race for all three of his primary partners this year, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, PPG Automotive Refinish and Menards. He also had a runner-up finish for DeVilbiss back at Phoenix in April.

“This is the kind of dream relationship,” Pagenaud said at Saturday’s Menards announcement. “Like Roger said, then comes the partnership relationship. Team Penske has this incredible way of doing things with partners. It’s not just sponsorship, it’s really a partnership where it’s a business-to-business relationship. I think that’s where it becomes interesting for any sponsors or partners to be with us at Team Penske.”

Penske praised Pagenaud’s understanding of the business side.

“I can tell you that he’s done a terrific job, not only with Menards but with all the sponsors,” Penske said. “I think the first year he was kind of getting his feet on the ground with us. I think he saw the information that’s available across the other three drivers which is certainly important. He’s executed. De Ferran really is the one who gave me the heads up when he drove for him. We had a lot of confidence in what Gil would say.”

It’s perhaps good timing that these two team extensions – along with Andretti Autosport’s recent signing of hhgregg, as well, in a primary role for Marco Andretti’s car – comes on the same weekend where Target signed off its 27-year run with Chip Ganassi Racing’s IndyCar program.

Knowing Ganassi, you have to think there’s a good chance of getting a big company or companies in to replace them as the primary sponsor on Scott Dixon’s car, and there’s a good chance it could be one of the vendors that’s been at Target or one of the existing alternate liveried cars coming on for a greater opportunity.

Looking at it from INDYCAR’s perspective, President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye, whose past has been on the team side and then on the commercial side with INDYCAR, Frye is pleased to see the companies committing what they are, now.

“It’s funny because I was thinking of that this weekend,” Frye said. “Seeing those, with DHL, Menards and hhgregg, is big.

“It’s encouraging, it’s something you work on all the time, but it’s a good sign.”

Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.