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NHRA: Capps (FC), Line (PS), Savoie (PSM) join Brown (TF) as 2016 champs

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The NHRA promised a tremendous weekend at the season-ending Auto Club Finals in Pomona, California.

And boy, did it deliver.

Two of the best human interest stories that the sport has seen in a long time came true as Funny Car veteran Ron Capps and Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Jerry Savoie captured their first respective championships.

In addition, veteran Pro Stock driver Jason Line earned his third championship, capping off a dominating season.

(Antron Brown, meanwhile, had already clinched his second consecutive Top Fuel title – and third championship in the last five seasons – two weeks ago at Las Vegas.)

In addition, ending the season with event wins were Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Capps and Savoie were arguably the NHRA’s Cinderella champions this season. After 20 seasons of trying, Capps earned his first career Funny Car championship on Saturday.

“I almost gave up the chance of trying so hard and wishing so hard and just focused on winning races,” said Capps, who was the series runner-up in 1998, 2000, 2005 and 2012. “With all the accolades I got this year – my 50th career win, passing some people I really looked up to in the sport with wins – that’s mind-boggling for me.

“This was the toughest Funny Car class ever and the 50th anniversary of the Funny Car, which was awesome. What a great, great season.”

And Savoie capped off an incredible story with his first PSM championship. During the week, Savoie rides herd as a “farmer” over nearly 60,000 alligators in his native Louisiana.

Savoie was a aspiring motorcycle drag racer in his late teens and early 20s until he climbed off his bike for the next 30 years to raise a family and build up his business.

He returned to racing in 2011 and Sunday, at the age of 57, capped off the biggest achievement on two wheels in his life by winning the title. Savoie clinched the championship when he reached the semifinals after former champs and teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec lost in the quarterfinals.

“To only dream of winning one race and to come out here and put a deal together with the support of Vance & Hines and my crew and to win the championship is amazing,” Savoie said. “I went to church this morning and the word was encouragement and to get encouraged from the people that inspire you.

“I want to thank everybody, especially the fans. Without these guys, this would not be possible; you make our dreams come true, and those guys are my family.”

Line, meanwhile, clinched his third career championship by reaching the semifinal round Sunday, holding off KB Racing/Summit teammate Greg Anderson.

“It’s been a great year and thanks to all of our competitors; they kept us honest and made us work hard right to the end,” said Line, who also won the world title in 2006 and 2011. “I have to thank all the Summit guys, Ken Black, and all of them.

“It has been an incredible season and I can’t believe I didn’t actually mess it up.  It is such an honor to be up here. We have had a great car all year. Greg [Anderson] and I have had probably the two best cars all year. If it had ended any other way, I would have been disappointed.”

Line and Anderson each won eight of the season’s 24 races, with Line leading the points following 22 of those 24 events.

As for Sunday’s final race results, Kalitta defeated J.R. Todd to capture Top Fuel honors, earning his fourth win of the season and 42nd of his career.

“I’ve been trying to win this last race for a long time,” said Kalitta, nephew of drag racing legend Connie Kalitta. “The history here for me, growing up watching Connie race over the years and to be able to win today was huge for me and for everybody on the team.

“It was very cool that [Todd] and I were both in the final and got to run for the money there. It will be good momentum for all of our teams and we finished off the season with some good runs.”

Johnson, who finished the year a career-best second in the standings, defeated 16-time Funny Car champion John Force in Sunday’s final round for his third win of the season and 15th of his career.

“We had fallen down to third and we came here and knew we wanted to get back to second; we knew we could do that,” Johnson said. “You want to finish strong and show you are there to contend. You want to end on a high note because it kind of sets the tone for next season.”

In Pro Stock, Anderson defeated Line in the final round, but Line had already clinched the championship at that point. It was Anderson’s eighth win of the season, 86th of his season and sixth in the Finals.

“Great day; I can’t cry,” Anderson said. “I did all I could do today, I did everything I could possibly do today. … Still a great fight. Great fight all year. We had some great battles.

“During the last half of the year the rest of the class got in and we had some great battles with them. We overachieved this year and we’re leaving here happy.”

Lastly, in Pro Stock Motorcycle, Matt Smith earned his first win since 2013, defeating Angelle Sampey.

“We haven’t had the best season in the world,” Smith said. “We’ve had a fast bike but we’ve had a lot of electrical problems and transmission issues. We finally solved that about four races ago and it was good for us to run as good as we have.

“It struggled in qualifying but it came around today. To give Victory (Motorcycles) their first (NHRA PSM) win is huge. I’m so glad I was able to get it done for them. We have big plans for next year and hopefully you’ll see us a lot more next year.”

While the 2016 season is now over, it’ll be only three months from now before the 2017 season begins with the Circle K NHRA Winternationals, Feb. 9-12, again at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER OF AUTO CLUB FINALS, THE FINAL EVENT OF 24-RACE 2016 NHRA SEASON:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Doug Kalitta; 2.  J.R. Todd; 3.  Shawn Langdon; 4.  Antron Brown; 5.  Leah Pritchett; 6.  Tony Schumacher; 7.  Steve Torrence; 8.  Richie Crampton; 9.  Wayne Newby; 10.  Morgan Lucas; 11.  Tripp Tatum; 12.  Terry McMillen; 13.  Shawn Reed; 14.  Clay Millican; 15.  Brittany Force; 16.  Troy Buff.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 2.  John Force; 3.  Courtney Force; 4.  Jack Beckman; 5.  Robert Hight; 6. Ron Capps; 7.  Jeff Arend; 8.  Tim Wilkerson; 9.  Cruz Pedregon; 10.  Paul Lee; 11.  Del Worsham; 12.  Dave Richards; 13.  Matt Hagan; 14.  Jim Campbell; 15.  Chad Head; 16.  John Bojec.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Greg Anderson; 2.  Jason Line; 3.  Bo Butner; 4.  Erica Enders; 5.  Shane Gray; 6.  Chris McGaha; 7.  Drew Skillman; 8.  Vincent Nobile; 9.  Alex Laughlin; 10.  Jeg Coughlin; 11.  Matt Hartford; 12.  Aaron Strong; 13.  Alan Prusiensky; 14.  Allen Johnson; 15.  Deric Kramer; 16. Kenny Delco.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  Matt Smith; 2.  Angelle Sampey; 3.  Jerry Savoie; 4.  Hector Arana Jr; 5.  Eddie Krawiec; 6. Steve Johnson; 7.  Andrew Hines; 8.  Chip Ellis; 9.  Melissa Surber; 10.  Hector Arana; 11.  Angie Smith; 12.  Freddie Camarena; 13.  LE Tonglet; 14.  Cory Reed; 15.  Shawn Gann; 16.  Scotty Pollacheck.

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Sunday's season-ending race winners in the Auto Club Finals, from left: Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
Sunday’s season-ending race winners in the Auto Club Finals, from left: Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

SUNDAY’S FINAL ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Doug Kalitta, 3.745 seconds, 326.63 mph  def. J.R. Todd, 3.704 seconds, 327.90 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.918, 320.51  def. John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.918, 321.81.

PRO STOCK: Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.580, 210.24  def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.570, 211.43.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Matt Smith, Victory, 8.044, 117.34  def. Angelle Sampey, Buell, Foul – Red Light.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Richie Crampton, 3.771, 316.52 def. Brittany Force, 5.890, 111.78; Tony Schumacher, 4.920, 288.77 def. Clay Millican, 4.945, 139.76; Antron Brown, 3.768, 321.35 def. Morgan Lucas, 3.789, 323.27; Shawn Langdon, 3.769, 321.42 def. Tripp Tatum, 3.815, 320.89; Doug Kalitta, 3.755, 326.40 def. Shawn Reed, 4.774, 157.04; J.R. Todd, 3.811, 308.43 def. Troy Buff, Foul – Red Light; Leah Pritchett, 3.766, 321.96 def. Terry McMillen, 3.872, 275.96; Steve Torrence, 3.739, 324.12 def. Wayne Newby, 3.779, 324.44; QUARTERFINALS — Todd, 3.762, 316.90 def. Crampton, Foul – Red Light; Brown, 3.756, 320.97 def. Pritchett, 3.760, 326.87; Kalitta, 3.742, 328.86 def. Schumacher, 3.778, 324.90; Langdon, 3.789, 325.06 def. Torrence, 5.068, 167.45; SEMIFINALS — Todd, 3.708, 329.26 def. Brown, 3.765, 324.44; Kalitta, 3.734, 326.95 def. Langdon, 3.747, 325.53; FINAL — Kalitta, 3.745, 326.63 def. Todd, 3.704, 327.90.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.964, 327.98 def. Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, Foul – Red Light; Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, Broke def. John Bojec, Camry, Broke – No Show; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.137, 260.56 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, Foul – Red Light; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.373, 235.23 def. Dave Richards, Ford Mustang, 6.365, 112.99; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.140, 234.90 def. Chad Head, Camry, 8.634, 70.32; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.929, 326.40 def. Paul Lee, Camry, 4.460, 195.28; Jeff Arend, Camry, 3.971, 314.97 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 6.367, 118.41; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.922, 325.77 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 6.290, 108.28; QUARTERFINALS — J. Force, 3.940, 324.44 def. R. Capps, 3.938, 324.67; C. Force, 3.922, 319.75 def. Arend, 3.979, 323.97; Johnson Jr., 3.897, 325.37 def. Hight, 3.921, 330.96; Beckman, 3.910, 327.82 def. Wilkerson, 4.007, 276.69; SEMIFINALS — J. Force, 3.932, 326.00 def. Beckman, 9.012, 82.04; Johnson Jr., 3.929, 297.09 def. C. Force, 3.916, 327.74; FINAL — Johnson Jr., 3.918, 320.51 def. J. Force, 3.918, 321.81.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 7.461, 201.61 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.594, 210.14 def. Allen Johnson, Dodge Dart, 6.659, 208.36; Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.582, 210.93 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.631, 209.49; Erica Enders, Dart, 6.623, 209.33 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.596, 209.82; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.600, 209.95 def. Jeg Coughlin, Dart, 6.626, 209.14; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.598, 209.79 def. Deric Kramer, Dart, Foul – Red Light; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.560, 211.13 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 6.657, 208.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.576, 210.80 def. Aaron Strong, Camaro, 6.633, 208.78; QUARTERFINALS — Enders, 6.649, 208.91 def. Nobile, 15.635, 47.85; Butner, 6.605, 209.82 def. Skillman, 6.631, 210.18; Anderson, 6.592, 210.37 def. Gray, 6.596, 210.47; Line, 6.605, 209.33 def. McGaha, 6.607, 209.43; SEMIFINALS — Line, 6.590, 210.54 def. Enders, 13.902, 63.67; Anderson, 6.596, 210.54 def. Butner, 6.630, 210.41; FINAL — Anderson, 6.580, 210.24 def. Line, 6.570, 211.43.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.879, 194.88 def. Angie Smith, 6.972, 190.51; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.899, 194.86 def. Freddie Camarena, Suzuki, 6.977, 192.69; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.930, 192.93 def. Melissa Surber, Buell, Foul – Red Light; Chip Ellis, Buell, 6.865, 194.44 def. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.980, 192.93; Matt Smith, 6.916, 193.35 def. Hector Arana, Buell, Foul – Red Light; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.880, 194.52 def. Cory Reed, Buell, 7.152, 188.10; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.850, 195.56 def. Shawn Gann, Buell, Foul – Red Light; Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.882, 195.42 def. Scotty Pollacheck, Buell, 32.616, 276.86; QUARTERFINALS — Savoie, 6.897, 196.02 def. Johnson, 6.890, 193.65; Arana Jr, 6.945, 191.59 def. Ellis, Broke – No Show; Sampey, 6.879, 193.93 def. Hines, 6.912, 193.85; M. Smith, 6.904, 192.99 def. Krawiec, 6.871, 195.31; SEMIFINALS — M. Smith, 6.946, 192.44 def. Arana Jr, 7.569, 134.10; Sampey, 6.900, 194.24 def. Savoie, 6.948, 193.85; FINAL — M. Smith, 8.044, 117.34 def. Sampey, Foul – Red Light.

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FINAL POINT STANDINGS OF 2016 SEASON:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown, 2,663; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 2,533; 3.  Steve Torrence, 2,482; 4.  J.R. Todd, 2,455; 5.  Shawn Langdon, 2,443; 6.  Brittany Force, 2,399; 7.  Leah Pritchett, 2,389; 8.  Tony Schumacher, 2,387; 9.  Richie Crampton, 2,279; 10.  Clay Millican, 2,264.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 2,605; 2.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,553; 3.  Matt Hagan, 2,493; 4.  John Force, 2,486; 5.  Jack Beckman, 2,480; 6.  Courtney Force, 2,414; 7.  Del Worsham, 2,406; 8.  Robert Hight, 2,368; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 2,314; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 2,184.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Jason Line, 2,639; 2.  Greg Anderson, 2,636; 3.  Shane Gray, 2,492; 4.  Bo Butner, 2,453; 5. Vincent Nobile, 2,449; 6.  Drew Skillman, 2,424; 7.  Chris McGaha, 2,327; 8.  Allen Johnson, 2,277; 9.  Erica Enders, 2,239; 10.  Jeg Coughlin, 2,208.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  Jerry Savoie, 2,595; 2.  Eddie Krawiec, 2,571; 3.  Andrew Hines, 2,564; 4.  Angelle Sampey, 2,495; 5.  Chip Ellis, 2,415; 6.  Matt Smith, 2,389; 7.  LE Tonglet, 2,372; 8.  Hector Arana Jr, 2,315; 9.  Cory Reed, 2,312; 10.  Hector Arana, 2,279.

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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