All photos: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Pelfrey’s Megennis arguably the revelation of USF2000 field

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A 27-car field appeared at the season-opening weekend of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship in St. Petersburg.

Packed among the grid were proverbial title favorites Anthony Martin and Parker Thompson, Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires veteran Victor Franzoni, Martin’s two Australian countrymen of note in Jordan Lloyd and Luke Gabin, all of Gabin’s 2015 Team Pelfrey teammates in Ayla Agren, Nikita Lastochkin and Garth Rickards and a host of other dynamic rookies.

Pelfrey’s new quartet for 2016 featured a wide range of competitors. Jordan Cane stepped up from Pelfrey’s F1600 program and it was fair to call the British teenager a prodigy, given his number of wins there. TJ Fischer had the unique story of being a football player who restarted a racing career. James Munro came over from New Zealand looking to impress, and Cane’s fellow F1600 graduating teen Robert Megennis completed the lineup.

Few could have predicted what would happen from there.

"Can you believe it?" -Rob Howden, most likely, to Megennis (right). Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway LLC Photography
“Can you believe it?” -series announcer Rob Howden, most likely, to Megennis (right). Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway LLC Photography

Megennis, the 16-year-old New Yorker, emerged from this stacked USF2000 field with a third place on debut, a shock podium finish after starting ninth, and added an eighth on Sunday for good measure.

And that first weekend laid the groundwork for what would be an incredible season beyond pretty much anyone’s wildest expectations, least of all Megennis, who had struggled in preseason testing.

“It was ridiculous! It was nothing like what I’ve expected,” Megennis told NBC Sports, reflecting on that weekend. “Usually I was slowest in testing. So I had no expectations; it was, let’s learn as much as I can, as a first-year rookie driver. I was loose and free, then I got the results.

“But yeah on the start there was the crash ahead, I was fourth, then I dived Gabin into (Turn) 3, I’m in third and I had Martin, Franzoni and Luke behind me, and three-quarters into race, I’m still in third!”

Up against the significantly more experienced veterans, Megennis then went through a whirlwind of events in the following weekends.

Munro left the team after Barber, which left just three cars for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course weekend. Then Cane left after that weekend, with Fischer also leaving after being bumped up last-minute to a Pelfrey Pro Mazda seat starting at Road America.

Suddenly, Palo Alto Networks-supported Megennis was the equivalent of an Internet startup: he was a one-man wolfpack at Team Pelfrey. At 16.

The circumstances of how the car count within the team went from four to one had nothing to do with Megennis but everything to do with the other drivers being uncomfortable with their situations, and also with a bit of team turmoil at the top. Fischer maintained the Pelfrey relationship as the year went on, though.

“It was pretty chaotic because a lot went on,” Megennis explained. “So it was, James is gone, now TJ’s gone, now Jordan’s gone.

“But I kept the same mindset from the beginning of the year. I’m here to learn and do the best I can. And I think it actually helped me… of course, you don’t want the situation to occur. But initially, I learned from the experienced guys, and I learned how to drive and set up car, then I was forced to do it on my own. I’ve seen everything this year!”

Megennis at Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Megennis at Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Just two weekends after the driver exodus, Megennis turned in another drive on par with St. Petersburg, when in Toronto he went from 18th to fifth in race one and 12th to fifth in race two.

The street course drives were exceptional, because coming from F1600, Megennis had never been on a course with concrete confines. The F1600 races are almost always on permanent road courses.

“That race was a little awesome; I hadn’t got a proper time in qualifying so I knew I had pace to move forward,” Megennis said. “The first lap, obviously, I don’t want to crash, because this is Toronto, it’s sketchy. But I realized I had meta pace. I don’t know if it’s my fencing legs or something done to the car, but I was so good on the brakes all year. I don’t know how.

“It doesn’t seem like others seemed near the peak. I out-braked everyone. I went for every opportunity I saw. It was calculated, but it was good.”

Megennis went into Mid-Ohio nominated as a finalist for the Team USA Scholarship and although he didn’t win it – that honor eventually went to Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood – being nominated was a seminal moment because of his relative inexperience, and the fact he’d caught the eye of renowned North American open-wheel talent scout Jeremy Shaw.

“When you look at the alumni from Team USA Scholarship, there’s so many legendary drivers and people that have come from it,” Megennis said. “When Jeremy sees you have a shot to make it, you’re humbled. He has a good eye for it. He’s been in it for years. He knows what he’s doing.”

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

Megennis ended the year with a pair of eighth-places at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, with Pelfrey back to a multi-car team for the first time since May. Kaylen Frederick and Phillippe Denes made their USF2000 debuts.

He ended sixth in points, behind the Cape twins, Franzoni, Lloyd and Gabin, but ahead of five drivers who had 2015 USF2000 experience. He won the Tilton Hard Charger award, with a season total of 67 overtakes, and was also the top-finishing American driver in the series.

He reflected on the step up on the whole.

“You’re moving from F1600 weekends which are chill, with not that many drivers, to IndyCar weekends, where it’s a big deal,” he said. “You meet so many important people and try to manage it around your track time.

“But you just have to focus on yourself. There’s no point in focusing on anyone else or setting super high expectations. If you do, you get disappointed and mentally screw yourself over.”

There’s one other intriguing nugget that makes Megennis’ year all the more miraculous. When he’s not racing, he’s actually a competitive fencer, as a nationally ranked sabre fencer.

The worlds couldn’t be more different but the competitive juices flow just the same.

Megennis in the new USF-17. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Megennis in the new USF-17. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“Those two sports could not be further apart. But there’s the mental preparation and focus, and everything you need for sports in general in the real world, that’s what it’s taught me. It’s a big part of my edge, being so chill,” he said.

Megennis also starred in the rollout of the new USF2000 chassis, the Tatuus USF-17, which premiered at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The New York driver, who’s half Korean, set a track record of 1:25.3194 (102.912 mph) on the first day of testing in session four.

“It was an epic first test in the new USF-17,” Megennis said. “I am super happy with how everything went this weekend. We made a ton of tweaks to the car and made vast improvements. We showed serious speed and I can’t wait for the for the first rounds in March!”

Megennis will likely slot in as a potential title contender for the 2017 USF2000 campaign, as he’ll be back for a second season.

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500