Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Roller coaster ride for Ed Jones leads to Indy Lights title, U.S. home

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The newest Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion, Ed Jones, probably has one of the most intriguing international background descriptors you’re going to find. Especially when you consider a name like Ed Jones is actually quite a simple one.

Jones is often referred to as a Dubai-based Brit, he’s entered under the United Arab Emirates (UAE) racing license, he resides in Miami when he’s in the U.S., and he’s driving for a British racing team that’s based its U.S. headquarters in Florida. And again, he’s got a name that is almost more American-sounding than American driver Josef Newgarden, who also drove for Carlin earlier in his career.

The two years he’s spent racing at the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder, Indy Lights, though have provided him some career stability he hasn’t had earlier in his career.

Having bounced back from a back injury in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship, Jones wasn’t sure what lay ahead for him the rest of his racing career.

But upon moving to America, Jones made an impression early. Three wins from his first three Indy Lights starts with Carlin in 2015 defied expectations on-track, and all the while, he began to learn about his U.S. surroundings.

Finding a U.S. base of Miami helped Jones find his footing much easier compared to the cutthroat world of Europe where he’d raced previously.

“I love being in America and all the different places and the experiences are new again,” Jones told NBC Sports. “I’m still finding things I like, Miami feels like a base now. When I was racing in Europe, I never really felt like I had one (base), so it’s nice to have something like that.

“The people are so friendly and welcoming. It’s a place I see myself for a long time.”

Jones was arguably disappointed to have lost the 2015 Indy Lights crown but unlike his two title rivals of a year ago, Jack Harvey and Spencer Pigot, Jones stayed for a second season. Harvey had already raced two seasons; Pigot, who perhaps surprised by winning the title as a rookie, advanced into the Verizon IndyCar Series and ran 11 of 16 races this year.

The changes were significant at Carlin this year for its second go-‘round. Carlin moved into Del Ray Beach, Fla., roughly an hour and a half north of Miami, from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Jones stayed on while Felix Serralles switched from Belardi Auto Racing, and Neil Alberico stepped up from the Pro Mazda ranks.

Still, as team owner Trevor Carlin related, it was an easier year knowing the battlefield he and the team would be facing this year. And keeping Jones and engineer Geoff Fickling for a second year was always going to pay dividends from a continuity standpoint.

Carlin said the paddock atmosphere is better in America, and explained how having been through the ringer of 2015 helped prepare them for the second season in 2016.

“The biggest thing is that when you’re in the paddock and you’re mixing with people, everyone is far more friendly and amenable and do things to encourage racing to go ahead,” Carlin told NBC Sports. “It’s a far friendlier environment. But when they’re on-track, the racing is as fierce as in Europe. You’ve seen Lights this year, and like IndyCar, it is always incredibly tough.

“People still behave correctly over here and enjoy the sport and then let the drivers do the fighting. The teams and mechanics and engineers shouldn’t be fighting, they should be doing their job and enjoying their job. It is a sport at the end of the day, and we do it because we love it. We don’t want to get bogged down in politics and bureaucracy.”

Funny how telling that last quote would be once we got to the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca season finale.

The year for Jones first centered around consistency. Through Round 9, Road America race one, Jones had seven straight top-four finishes, including his only two wins of the year at Barber and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. There was the bitter heartbreak at the Freedom 100, losing to Dean Stoneman by only 0.0024 of a second in the closest finish in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history.

Jones. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Jones. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

And then there was, and there’s no way of sugarcoating it, the Jones-Stoneman-Santiago Urrutia battle that raged the first half of the year and that eventually reached a crescendo in Road America race two.

Stoneman and Urrutia had both driven perhaps overaggressively the first half of their rookie years, and Jones felt it his task to become the enforcer to say, “this isn’t happening anymore.” Once Jones drove Stoneman off the road at Road America race two, it was the flashpoint in the battle between the three of them, and the resulting incident at the next corner was enough to ensure Race Director Tony Cotman put all three on probation for the balance of the season.

“At the time it felt like the right thing. But obviously now it wasn’t the right thing,” Jones reflected at Monterey. “I can’t regret what I did. That’s a way of life.”

Anyway, for better or worse, Jones fell into a midseason slump where from that race of contact at Road America through his only actual DNF of the year – a heavy crash at Mid-Ohio race two – he only banked one podium in six races and lost the points lead.

It was a moment that would have tested most drivers but this is where his being a series sophomore, having been through the ringer of a title battle, paid dividends.

“It never should have got as close as it did,” Jones reflected. “We had so much speed, but I made too many mistakes. It’s kind of embarrassing to not win it earlier.

“We had quite a few lows, like Mid-Ohio and Toronto and then Watkins Glen was probably one of the biggest highs because we just got everything back up there, had a solid weekend and put us in a good position for Laguna. If we didn’t have that, it would have been very difficult to do it, but that’s what changed everything.”

So, Watkins Glen. Jones entered 20 points behind Urrutia and then was furious when he lost a potential pole position, after Urrutia spun and then resumed on track right in front of him. Urrutia was docked his fastest lap, but his second quickest was enough to secure the top spot.

But Jones and Carlin had been smart enough to focus on tire preservation earlier in the weekend, and were well prepared for the long run that followed in Saturday’s race. Having opted only for short runs, Urrutia and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports found themselves on the short end of the stick in the race, and a puncture after a lockup in the final laps resigned him to 12th, and dropped his points lead to just 1.

A second-place there positioned him well for Mazda Raceway. Once to the second race of the week, though, Urrutia ran second and was set to claim the title on a tiebreaker. Jones trailed teammate Felix Serralles for fourth, before Serralles pulled aside on the final lap to ensure Jones had the title by two points.

Despite some people condemning the move, Serralles moved over on his own accord rather than this being a team orders edict, and it was an unfortunate flashpoint that overshadowed the rest of Jones’ arguably more consistent season. Urrutia, to his credit anyway, handled the defeat in a classy manner.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

Jones then embarked on a weeklong media tour after the title win, first with the banquet – and a legendary plug for his sponsor E11even Night Club in Miami during his banquet speech – and then a really cool opportunity to drive the Verizon IndyCar Series’ two-seater with the Astor Cup on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and then making the rounds in Sonoma for the season finale.

“Yes, it’s been really nice. The banquet is always a good event and driving around in the two-seater with the Astor Cup in the back was certainly pretty cool to do, as well as being around the other drivers,” Jones reflected.

“I’m out here for the race at Sonoma before I go back and see my family. Once I see them, it’ll all sink in then. It’ll be nice to see them after all they’ve put in to it.”

“It’s very different for me to be on the other side. I was on the IndyCar radio earlier, and then in race control, and to see everything that goes on up there, when you’re racing you have no idea you’re being watched, everything you do, so you have to be more careful the next time.”

As he’s guaranteed a three-race step-up to the Verizon IndyCar Series, the next step for Jones is locking down where he’ll take the $1 million Mazda advancement scholarship in 2017. He’s had conversations with multiple teams and looks to nail that down this month.

“We’ve been to talk to quite a few. At the moment, it’s still quite broad. Still need to narrow it down, but it’s still early,” he said.

“The sooner, the better. It’s not just us that has to sort things out, but also the teams have to sort out the crew and things like that. Ideally within a month or two, to have it done early, Therefore, everything can start flowing earlier and the more prepared you are the better it’s going to be.”

Jones isn’t one to get too high when he’s winning or too low when he’s not. The even keel driver said the same of his title, that the magnitude of the dream realized will take time.

“It’s still taking time,” he said. “I’m one of those guys where I find it hard to feel emotion on things. It’ll take time to sink in.

“We’ve worked together with Geoff Fickling for two years. He’s brought me on massively as a driver. Our personalities match very well in a working way. Without him, there’s no way we would have been able to do this. The Carlin team would have suffered without having him here.

“And coming over here with Trevor was a big change for me. For it to pay off, the job the team has done is incredible. You have to realize what a job they’ve done, to have competed with teams that have been for so many years. When they make it to IndyCar, they’ll be one of the top teams.”

As Jones prepares for his IndyCar debut, the hope also exists for him he’ll become one of its top drivers as well.

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida