Picturesque backdrop in LA. Photo: Tony DiZinno

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

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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.

Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”