Photo courtesy of IMSA

Respective journeys for Cameron, Curran, Whelen highlight 2016 title

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In 2007, Dane Cameron was one of those can’t-miss American open-wheel racing talents who had ability in spades, but not dollars.

That same year, Eric Curran began a long and fruitful relationship with Sonny Whelen, when he drove a Whelen Engineering Corvette C6 in World Challenge GT.

And for good measure, a then-23-year-old Frenchman Simon Pagenaud was a rookie in Champ Car after winning the Formula Atlantic title a year earlier.

Their respective paths and journeys converged Saturday at Petit Le Mans, with Cameron and Curran combining to win Action Express Racing’s third consecutive Prototype championship in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, but the first for the No. 31 Whelen Corvette DP since it came under the AXR banner at the start of 2015.

Pagenaud, as the team’s third driver, helped contribute to a second championship run in three weeks, having captured the Verizon IndyCar Series title at Sonoma Raceway on Sept. 18 for Team Penske.

The road to the top for all three have been tortuous. Cameron practically needed to win that year’s Star Mazda title in 2007 to keep his career going and advance into Atlantic – a series Pagenaud needed to win, and did, in 2006. Curran drove a variety of privateer Corvette efforts with Whelen, and while success was had with a number of wins and podiums along the way – many with Boris Said as a co-driver – there weren’t championships. Pagenaud’s road we’ve covered in great detail.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

In looking at Cameron first, at age 27 he has become already one of sports car racing’s most versatile drivers. But this year, seemingly for the first time, he wasn’t bouncing around different things.

Cameron entered into the sports car world primarily driving the screaming Mazda RX-8. He delivered that car’s last professional win at Mazda’s spiritual home track of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2012.

But he’s also driven Prototype Challenge cars for multiple teams, including winning the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with Genoa Racing in 2011. He drove an LMP2-spec car for Dempsey Racing, a Lola Judd.

He then moved to a Daytona Prototype in 2013 with Team Sahlen, in a Riley-BMW where he came so close to victories but was unable to tick that box. A lost win at Road America proved particularly cruel.

Once in the merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Cameron has flourished as he’s won races in two categories and started races in three. He co-drove with Markus Palttala to win the 2014 GT Daytona title in Turner Motorsport’s No. 94 BMW Z4 GT3; Palttala missed a race and wasn’t able to share in the accomplishment. The same year, Cameron made his GT Le Mans class debut for Risi Competizione at Long Beach in a Ferrari F458 Italia, to enter as a rare non-factory driver in the primarily factory driver class, which speaks volumes of his talent.

With a move to Action Express Racing full-time in 2015, Cameron finally had the top-flight seat at a top-flight team his talent deserves. Combined with Curran, who was also in the best situation of his career after plugging away with Whelen years previous, the two overachieved and won multiple races – but came up just short of the title. For good measure, Cameron also won in a one-off GTD start back for Turner, ironically filling in for Palttala, at Lime Rock Park after an incredible fuel saving run.

The consistency of Cameron, Curran, the venerable Corvette DP and Action Express Racing paid dividends for “DC” this year, who for the first time in his career had the professional stability that wasn’t able to match his personal stability (he’s now married and a dad). This is a driver and past Team USA Scholarship winner whose talent has never been in question, but for whatever reason the struggle to stay in one spot for more than one year at a time was real.

“I’ve raced everything – PC, GTLM, GTD and Prototype, and won in all those levels except GTLM. So that’s a box I wouldn’t mind ticking in the future,” Cameron relayed Saturday to NBC Sports.

“It’s special to have an overall championship. And it’s neat to have one with DPs… a lot of people have made a big impact on this program.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

“For Eric and I, for me anyway, this is the first time I’ve done a program 2 years running, with no changes. So we can build on the relationships, and the co-driver partnership, and push each other on driver changes. The first year was helping Eric understand the downforce cars. But he’s done such a great job. He was fantastic in the rain last year here. And Simon and I have driven together a couple times now. He brings such a good attitude and he’s such a rocketship. I wanted him part of this program this year, so I was happy to bring him on board.”

Cameron and Curran won twice this year – back-to-back at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Road America – and Cameron noted the pair’s run to the title by three points over teammates Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi owed more to execution and strategy than outright pace. Eight finishes of fourth or better in 10 starts, including seven podiums, were enough to do the trick.

“The P2s haven’t put the races together; our wins were almost given to us,” Cameron admitted. “I think the better teams have had DPs. The future is now and it’s a cool feeling to have the last DP championship as we look forward to the future.”

For Curran, the title was about delivering for Whelen, who has been an ardent supporter of sports car racing for more than a decade.

“Thinking back to years past, driving for Sonny Whelen where we were a few years ago to now winning a championship. It’s been unbelievable,” Curran said. “Working with Dane Cameron is so top notch. It was down to the wire today… as we entered one point ahead. We brought in our buddy Simon Pagenaud to help driving. It felt really good though, this is our time, this is our day. For Sonny Whelen and Whelen Engineering… this such a good deal for him.”

Pagenaud, the third member of the trio who raced at Daytona and Petit Le Mans, praised Cameron’s ability level.

“I’ve always loved worked with Dane. My first drive in Daytona was with him. He’s a tremendous driver,” Pagenaud said. “I’ve told so many people how good he is. Some day I could see him in an LMP1 car at Le Mans… he deserves it.”

And it’s with that tie-in we go back to Cameron, noting how like Pagenaud, he had to win earlier in his career to even have this opportunity on Saturday.

“Star Mazda was so, so important. My career hung in the balance. If I didn’t win that championship, I had no money to go anywhere else,” Cameron reflected. “I wasn’t going to move to Formula Atlantics – I couldn’t afford it! So that was the most personal pressure on me… I had to win to keep the dream of being a professional race car driver alive.

“The GTD title was a bit of a surprise after a topsy turvy year. But that cemented myself a bit more in sports cars. It was the first one I could get. I wedged my feet in pretty good.

“This completes the set nicely. After my ‘rookie year’ with Sahlen DP in GRAND-AM, we were just coming on song at the end of year. We had poles, we led laps, but wins slipped through our fingers.

“So coming back to Prototype, I had to finish what I thought was unfinished business.”

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”