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.”

Kyle Busch interests McLaren for Indy 500, but team is leaning toward experience

McLaren Indy Kyle Busch
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With Arrow McLaren SP heavily weighing a fourth car for the Indy 500 next year, Kyle Busch is a candidate but not at the top of the IndyCar team’s list.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown addressed the possibility Wednesday morning during a video news conference with Gavin Ward, the team’s newly named racing director.

“I have not personally spoken with Kyle Busch, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has,” Brown said. “We want to make sure if we run a fourth car, we’re in the mindset that we want someone that is experienced around the 500. It’s such an important race, and from a going for the championship point of view, we’ve got three drivers that we want to have finish as strong as possible, so if we ran a fourth car, we’d want to be additive, not only for the fourth car itself, but to the three cars and so bringing in someone who’s not done it before potentially doesn’t add that value from an experience point of view.”

Busch will race the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next season in NASCAR under a new deal that will allow the two-time Cup Series champion to make his Indy 500 debut. Busch, who had a previous deal to run the Indy 500 nixed by Joe Gibbs Racing, openly courted Chevy IndyCar teams to contact him during his introductory news conference with RCR last month.

After Team Penske (which has given no indications of a fourth car at Indy alongside champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), McLaren is the second-best Chevy organization, and it’s fielded an extra Indy 500 car the past two years for Juan Pablo Montoya. The Associated Press reported last month that McLaren was in “serious conversation” about running Busch at Indy with Menards sponsorship.

But with its restructured management, the team is in the midst of significant expansion for 2023. AMSP is adding a third full-time car for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to team with Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and a massive new shop also is being built in the Indianapolis area.

“(It’s) not because of him but purely because of experience,” Brown said of Busch. “He’s an awesome talent and would be huge, huge news for the speedway. But yeah, I think everyone is under consideration if we decide to do it, but experience is right at the top of the list as far as what’s going to be the most important to us.”

And it seems likely there will be a veteran joining Rossi, O’Ward and Rosenqvist at the Brickyard.

“A fourth car at the 500 is very much under consideration,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves, but we wouldn’t be ruling out a fourth car in the future on a full-time basis. That definitely wouldn’t be for ’23. But as we expand the team and get into larger facilities and things of that nature, it’s something that Gavin and I have spoken about.

“I think we would be in a position to run a fourth car at the 500 this upcoming year. If we do decide to do that, we’ll make that decision soon for maximum preparation, and I would say we’re open minded to a fourth car in ’24 and beyond and probably will make that decision middle of next year in time to be prepared if we did decide to do that.”

Brown also addressed the future of Alex Palou, who will be racing for Chip Ganassi Racing next season after also signing a deal with McLaren. Though Brown declined to get into specifics about whether Palou had signed a new deal, he confirmed Palou will continue to test “our Formula One car from time to time.

“Everyone has reached an amicable solution,” Brown said. “We’ve now had Alex in our Formula One car as we have Pato. That will continue in the future, which we’re quite excited about. At this point we’re laser-focused on 2023 and glad to have the noise behind us and now just want to put our head down and get on with the job with the three drivers we have.”