Red Bull GRC: LA preview, new drivers and Friday notebook

Picturesque backdrop in LA. Photo: Tony DiZinno
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LOS ANGELES – Red Bull GRC Los Angeles presented by Honda is upon us this weekend, to mark the end of Red Bull Global Rallycross’ 2016 season from the Port of LA.

There’s quite a bit to get to, so we’ll package it all in this post:

Speed wins pole for first race

Scott Speed has won the pole for the first leg of the two races that make up this weekend’s season finale, driving the No. 41 Volkswagen Beetle GRC for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, in qualifying that was just concluded.

These six drivers made it in:

Speed then laid down a fastest time of 43.816 seconds. The rest of the top six: Joni Wiman (44.022), Brian Deegan (44.099), Tanner Foust (44.190), Sebastian Eriksson (44.321) and Patrik Sandell (44.562).

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing teammates Alex Keyes and Cabot Bigham, who turned 20 today, paced the way in GRC Lites qualifying, with Bigham among those in GRC Lites title contention.

PREVIEW: It’s Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross’ pair’s title to lose

Separate breakouts are linked here on Tanner Foust and Scott Speed, with the pair of Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammates separated by only 13 points (465-452) for the championship going into this weekend’s pair of races.

Still, five drivers are mathematically eligible this weekend. The pair of Chip Ganassi Rallycross Ford teammates, Steve Arpin and Brian Deegan, and Bryan Herta Rallysport’s Patrik Sandell are also alive with 399, 373 and 357 points, respectively.

It’s going to take the pair of Beetle GRCs – both of which are adorned in separate #PinkBeetle liveries this weekend – having some trouble to open it up to the rest of the pack. But it remains a possibility.

In terms of the rest of the 13-car Supercars field, the full-season pair of Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE drivers, Sebastian Eriksson and Joni Wiman, look to be the first to deliver the new Honda Civic Coupe its first final round win. The two drivers both finished on the podium last time out in Seattle. Austin Dyne is the last of the eight drivers entered this weekend who’s been in every race, and he’ll look to better a best finish of fifth in either of the two races.

Copy. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Higgins (DirtFish) and Whitten (WIX) among those in the Supercars field. Photo: Tony DiZinno

The five remaining drivers in Supercars have intriguing subplots heading into the weekend. Subaru Rally Team USA fields a three-car lineup for the second time in three races, now with Chris Atkinson and David Higgins installed in the two primary entries with a third car added for Japanese rally ace Toshihiro Arai.

Two youngsters making their series debut round out the field, in the form of GRC Lites graduates Mitchell DeJong and Tanner Whitten with Honda Red Bull OMSE and SH Rallycross/DRR, respectively. DeJong waltzed to the 2014 GRC Lites title having won all but two races; Whitten has been a regular winner in GRC Lites competition and this year split time with Alex Keyes in one of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Lites cars.

On The Debutantes

DeJong rolls out. Photo: Tony DiZinno
DeJong rolls out. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Owing to the limited number of spaces on the grid and the deep talent pool that fills them, there haven’t been many opportunities for GRC Lites drivers to step up into Supercars. So getting two in one weekend isn’t just rare, but also matches how many have done so in the last two years combined!

Both Honda drivers, Wiman and Eriksson, debuted in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Wiman promptly won the Supercars title as a rookie even without winning a race, while Eriksson won a race and came second in points last year. Eriksson, incidentally, took over in the second then-Ford for OMSE in 2015 after DeJong had been announced first.

With the thinking it’s better late than never, and with DeJong still only 19 years old and Whitten 23, both drivers get their shot this weekend after successful tests in the last couple weeks. If both drivers can make the main event final in either or both races, it’ll have been a good first weekend for them in the Supercars division.

“I’m really excited being able to finally make my first Supercar start!” DeJong said. “This is kind of a home race for me, there’s nice weather, and I have a lot of friends and family coming out, so it’ll be a nice hometown crowd. It’ll be nice to finally race a Supercar—it’s been a long time, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m just going to take it as a learning experience, do the best I can, not put too much pressure on myself, and see what we can do with it.”

“This is extremely special,” Whitten added. “It’s one of the moments that I’ve been looking forward to and praying about. I’ve been working for it ever since I had the opportunity to drive the Lites car back in 2012. It’s been great to have the opportunity—it’s the last event of the year and it’s been a big deal for the last couple days to get this program put together. I’m really excited for the finale in LA.”

GRC LITES: Four drivers with realistic title hopes

Five drivers have mathematical title hopes in Supercars, while in GRC Lites, the title battle is much closer.

Oliver Eriksson (Olsbergs MSE X Forces) is in search of his second straight title, and enters with a 25-point lead 378-353 over Cabot Bigham of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Eriksson’s teammate Miki Weckstrom and DirtFish Motorsports’ Conner Martell sit third and fourth at 349 and 327 points, respectively.

The rest of this division’s 13-car field is fairly similar, with Alex Keyes back in DRR’s No. 24 car and Colin Braun back in CORE autosport’s No. 54 car, rather than team principal Jon Bennett, who is on site this weekend but not driving. Scott Anderson continues in CORE’s No. 56 car for a second straight weekend.

K1 Karting Event Kicks Off The Weekend

Prior to the weekend kicking off in earnest, most of Red Bull GRC’s 2016 competitors gathered at K1 Speed in Gardena for a go-kart race. Despite local driver Tony Chen setting the fastest time in preliminary runs – the inside joke being that my presence has affected things – Wiman upheld the glory for Red Bull GRC’s drivers in the race itself with a dominant victory.

A few pics from the evening, via @RedBullGRC’s Twitter, are below.

The Port Of LA Event Site Itself Rocks

Panoramic view from the stands. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Panoramic view from the stands. Photo: Tony DiZinno

As a sidebar, having been at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach more than 10 times, it’s weird being in Long Beach/Los Angeles in October since the Grand Prix runs in April. But nonetheless, it’s quickly apparent even from just the first day how much this event means to Red Bull GRC.

The views are majestic, with the backdrop of water at the Port of LA sun-drenched and without any chance of rain – a welcome deviation from a number of Red Bull GRC events this year. For those fans who will be in attendance this weekend, you can see the entirety of the 0.699-mile track from either the preferred or GA grandstands and it will look festive.

Honda Presence is Profound

Hopefully we’ll have more on this to come later this weekend, but with this race being a race featuring a presenting sponsor in Honda, there’s increased Honda signage and presence than normal. From a display tent on the way into the event site through to the Joker Lap being called the Honda Joker Lap, there’s a good amount of Honda presence.

And The Hot Lap, Courtesy of Mr. Speed

Speed's #PinkBeetle. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Speed’s #PinkBeetle. Photo: Tony DiZinno

I’ve written before about hot laps in Red Bull GRC and how they’re generally unlike anything else in racing, and so was fortunate enough to be treated to another one today with Scott Speed in the No. 41 Oberto #PinkBeetle for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross. Not bad when you can say you’ve taken a couple laps with the reigning and still defending champion.

The track here is such where straightline speed isn’t so much a thing as cornering ability. From the launch point, where again, you get thrown back in the seat of the Beetle GRC, you’re immediately concerned with how the BFGoodrich tires will grip as you go uphill, then down the road, leaning on both right sides as you’re sliding through the first couple turns and into the left-hander.

There’s a slight kick on the throttle before going into another left-hand hairpin, of which the Honda Joker Lap is on the inside. You accelerate out, briefly, into the right-hander and then still on the pavement before another right-hand hairpin leads into the dirt, and a left-hand hairpin before the jump. All the while, you have a fantastic view of the port and water, so it’s impressive these guys don’t get distracted.

Once over the jump, it’s back to another left, hard on the power before launching back and into the front straight – straight is used loosely here because it’s all a left-hand turn – and that’s a quick lap of the circuit. Speed spent most of it between 2nd and 3rd gear – there’s not a ton of high-gear areas and laps will click off fairly quickly.

More to come tomorrow, including a note on the IndyCar presence – seemingly – that always seems to pop up around Red Bull GRC races.

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”