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Sperber bullish on IndyCar as ‘new Phoenix’ groundbreaking begins

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – As groundbreaking began for the new Phoenix Raceway today, track president Bryan Sperber said maintaining the momentum from the Verizon IndyCar Series’ return here last year is just as important to carry through alongside the track’s NASCAR races before 2018.

Sperber said the awareness of having a first comeback for IndyCar last year, plus the fact the event occurs several weeks later after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race compared to last year, should help the IndyCar crowd for this year’s race.

“Oh I think it helped a lot,” Sperber told NBC Sports in an interview at Phoenix.” There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the IndyCar Series coming to Phoenix Raceway.

“Obviously Phoenix is an iconic track on the IndyCar calendar for decades, and not having IndyCar here for 10 years was really tough on everybody.

“I think being able to bring the series back last year was incredibly exciting for our staff, for the drivers, the teams, the IndyCar Series itself. Everywhere we went, people were really enthusiastic, so I think it was a great debut if you want to call it that, or return.

“And that’s given us a tremendous amount of momentum going into 2017. I think the date change will be a positive as well, so we’ll have more date separation from the NASCAR weekend. And I like that time of year, the late April timeframe will be really nice under the lights, it will be very pretty here at that time of year.”

Last year’s race was called the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, and while that entitlement sponsorship has not yet been confirmed by the track yet, Sperber said he “anticipates that will be the case” again in 2017.

Today though marked a new beginning for Phoenix, as construction has begun for the new $178 million “new Phoenix Raceway” construction and enhancements project, powered by DC Solar.

To kick off the occasion, Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves took to a Caterpillar excavator to begin the construction process.

“When I got invited to come… ordinarily they tell me not to break things, and this is the first time they tell me to break things!” Castroneves joked.

“It’s a fun fact. The first time I came to Phoenix, it was my first short oval ever. So this place is so special for me, when I came for Indy Lights.

“I’m excited to be here. Phoenix is an amazing place. They’ve been coming for so many years.

“The progress is incredible! At PIR, they’re giving back to the community, and the marketing is so incredible. For that machine… I’d do some great damage with this.”

Phoenix’s grandstands and current configuration will continue through April 2018, ahead of the third IndyCar race installment, which Sperber says will be the last with that configuration.

“It will be cool. I think the IndyCar race in 2018 is the last race with the old start/finish line, if you call it the old race track,” Sperber said.

“They’ll close out quite a long chapter in terms of history at Phoenix Raceway. It’ll be here before you know it. We’re already looking forward to April next year.”

While Sperber is optimistic for how IndyCar will run this year, drivers have stressed the need for a more entertaining show compared to last year.

It’s been said in the past the second year of an event is often a more important barometer for future success than the first year.

In that case, the Verizon IndyCar Series’ upcoming return to Phoenix for its second race on April 29 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) after returning to the schedule last year for the first time in 11 years is going to be key to watch.

“Our first objective as a series, but mostly as drivers, is to make a better show for the fans,” said Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. “It’s better for us. It’s more fun for us. When it’s more entertaining for you, it’s fun for us, and we wanted to do something. When we have a last year when it takes 30 laps to pass a car, it becomes frustrating and we know that that’s not what the fans come here and want to see.”

Added defending race winner Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, “I think it’ll be better. It’s always a fine line and something that’s very tough to achieve and takes multiple attempts, I think, at doing it. Right now is a very tough time, too, because this is a non-development year and everything has stayed stagnant, it’s very hard for Honda to change any of the parameters because this is — basically nothing is meant to change.”

Lewis Hamilton takes F1 pole in dramatic Russian GP qualifying

Russian pole Lewis Hamilton
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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SOCHI, Russia — Lewis Hamilton took a step closer to equaling the Formula One win record Saturday by clinching pole position at the Russian Grand Prix, after narrowly avoiding early elimination when Sebastian Vettel crashed.

Hamilton charged to a track-record time of 1 minute, 31.304 seconds, beating the Red Bull of Max Verstappen by 0.563 for his fifth straight pole position. Hamilton can achieve his 91st career win in the race on Sunday, matching the record held by Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was beaten into third by Verstappen’s fast run at the end of the session and was .652 off Hamilton’s time.

The long run from the grid to the first significant turn means Bottas could yet threaten to overtake Hamilton at the start Sunday using the slipstream from his teammate’s car.

“It’s nice being on pole but here is probably the worst place to be on pole,” Hamilton said.

“This year you’re seeing that our cars are more draggy and there’s more tow this year than we’ve seen in other years. So I generally expect one of (Verstappen and Bottas) to come flying by at some point. I think I’m just going to focus on my race and run the fastest race I can.”

Bottas earned his first win at the 2017 race in Russia after starting third and overtaking the two Ferraris ahead of him at the start.

Verstappen and Bottas both start the race on medium tires, which could give them an edge in terms of pit strategy over Hamilton, who is on soft tires, which wear much faster.

“I’m just going to have to nurse those tires for as far as I can. These guys, if they get by, they’re going to be pulling away,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen said he was delighted to start second.

“I wasn’t expecting that and of course it’s great for us. If we can get a good start tomorrow you never know what can happen,” he said.

Vettel lost control of his car over the kerb on the inside of the 90-degree, right-hand turn four and spun into the wall, before the Ferrari bounced back onto the track. Teammate Charles Leclerc was following closely behind and narrowly missed the wrecked car, driving over its discarded front wing.

“Oh my God, that was very, very close,” Leclerc told his team over the radio. Leclerc qualified 11th and Vettel 15th as Ferrari failed to reach the top-10 shootout with either car for the third time in four races.

Vettel’s crash meant the red flag was waved while Hamilton was trying to set his first valid lap time to make the third session – after his first attempt was earlier ruled out for going off the track.

After the track was cleared and the session restarted, Hamilton had to rush his out-lap to make it over the line in time for another flying lap with just a second to spare.

“It was horrible,” Hamilton said. “Heart in the mouth.”

Hamilton was also asked to report to race stewards over another incident in which he went off the track in the first part of qualifying. No further action was taken. It was found Hamilton didn’t gain an advantage because the lap time wasn’t counted.

Hamilton is the runaway championship leader with a 55-point advantage over second-place Bottas and 80 over Verstappen. If he can earn four more pole positions in the last seven races, he would be the first driver to 100 in F1 history.

Earlier in the third and final practice Saturday morning, Hamilton set the pace with a time of 1 minute, 33.279 seconds that was 0.776 better than his Mercedes teammate Bottas, who had been quickest in the first two sessions.