Marco Andretti (27) and Takuma Sato (26) in St. Pete. Photo: IndyCar

Andretti Autosport’s street course program comes alive at St. Pete

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One race does not a complete year-to-year turnaround make, but it’s safe to say Andretti Autosport had a significantly better opening weekend to kick off its 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season than it did this time last year.

Although the team didn’t get on the podium as it did with Ryan Hunter-Reay last year, all four Andretti Autosport cars were more competitive over the weekend. All four cars qualified within the top 15 and finished in the top 11 in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The first stat doesn’t sound like much but considering Marco Andretti only made it outside the bottom three rows on a road or street course twice last year – starting 14th at both St. Petersburg and Sonoma – it was a solid achievement. And there were far too many occasions last year for the whole team, owing to a deficit in overall mechanical grip, struggled to break into the top 15 and would all line up from 14th or 15th on back with all four cars.

Hunter-Reay’s Sunday was a roller coaster in the No. 28 DHL Honda and at a track he’s traditionally done well at, ending fourth after his brake failure-induced morning warm-up crash and first lap power woes was a significant result.

Takuma Sato came fifth in his No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda, same as he started after making the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday, which itself came after a possible brake-related issue sent him into the wall Friday afternoon in practice.

This marked Andretti Autosport’s first double top-five finish on a street course since Detroit race one 2015, when Carlos Munoz and Andretti finished 1-2 in a rain-shortened, strategy-affected race.

Those were the good finishes and yet for Andretti, who ended seventh in the No. 27 hhgregg Honda after starting 15th and Alexander Rossi, 11th in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda after starting eighth, these were probably the two drivers who could have ended even higher.

Andretti ran in the top three earlier in the race after the Lap 26 yellow flag caused following contact between Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin, having vaulted there on the first notable strategic move from Bryan Herta since going onto Andretti’s No. 27 timing stand. He fell back during the race as he had to save fuel and his brake pedal was too close to him throughout the rest of the event, and caused him to cramp up a bit. It’s crazy to note the seventh was better than Andretti finished every race last year, when his best was eighth.

Rossi’s day was compromised by the yellow as he hadn’t pitted yet and fell from sixth back down the order. He eventually made it back to 11th, but with a slow puncture limiting his forward progress. Like Andretti, Rossi was happy with his new strategist, in Andretti’s Rob Edwards.

The out-of-the-box good result for Andretti and Honda may have been overlooked by Dale Coyne Racing winning for the manufacturer and with Chip Ganassi Racing hogging most of the offseason headlines with its highly publicized switch from Chevrolet to Honda. But that makes it no less important.

The early cohesion between the new elements from an operational standpoint are important to note, with Eric Bretzman stepping in as technical director thus allowing Ray Gosselin to focus exclusively on Hunter-Reay’s engineering car, the aforementioned strategist switch, and new engineers for Sato (Garret Mothershead, who he’d worked with before) and Rossi (Jeremy Milless, coming over from Ed Carpenter Racing) respectively.

“We made a lot of changes,” Michael Andretti explained during a Friday media availability. “Ray Gosselin used to be our technical director and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s engineer. Eric Bretzman who used to be in NASCAR with Ganassi is here, and that takes a lot of pressure off Ray. We brought in Jeremy as well. We have a lot of time for him. We made some changes within the team, and I think we made it much better.”

Rossi, who was newest to the team a year ago, outlined how different the mentality at the team is year-to-year, compared to how Hunter-Reay and Andretti are team veterans while Sato was in his first race weekend since joining Andretti Autosport this offseason.

“I think it’s just less running around to be honest and less chaos,” Rossi explained to NBC Sports during that availability. “Last year not only was I new as you know, but everyone was in new roles. It was a really stressful first weekend. Now we know what we’re trying to achieve.

“I miss (Bryan), but that’s OK. He’s still co-owner of the car, so he’s pretty involved with what’s happening with me. But Rob is amazing, I worked a lot with Rob last year away from the track, learning how Andretti Autosport and IndyCar worked. Bryan was in California.”

Marco Andretti, too, hailed his respective new additions in separate conversations.

“He’s fantastic. It’s what we needed in the team,” the youngest Andretti said of Bretzman. “I talked to him a lot in the offseason. He really includes us in the development process.”

Of Herta he said pre-race: “He is so good at working through to make big problems, little problems. He helps turn mountains into molehills.” After the race, he said, “That was big… still, as much as it helped we had to save (fuel) all race. I didn’t run one flat out lap. We got a gift. It’s better to be lucky than good, but we want to be both all year.”

For once, Andretti Autosport as a team was both, and the fact they had a good St. Petersburg weekend and could afford to be disappointed with four cars ending in the top 11 is a very positive sign for the rest of the season.

EXCLUSIVE: NHRA’s Don Schumacher, all 7 of his drivers to donate brains for concussion research

From left, DSR Top Fuel drivers Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher. Photos courtesy Auto Imagery.
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In a collective large-scale move never before seen in motorsports or any other form of professional sports, NHRA drag racing team owner Don Schumacher and all seven of his drivers have pledged in writing to donate their brains upon death to the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk has learned exclusively.

The pledges were all signed this afternoon at suburban Denver’s Bandimere Speedway, site of this weekend’s Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals.

Team owner Don Schumacher (in red shirt) and his seven Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers sign written pledges to donate their brains for concussion research Friday at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver.

Don Schumacher Racing is the second-most successful team overall in NHRA history, with 11 Top Fuel and five Funny Car championships, as well as over 300 combined nitro national event wins by all seven of its drivers (as well as retired driver Gary Scelzi).

This is the first time an NHRA driver, owner or team has announced they will donate their brains to science for further study on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be detected and diagnosed after death.

However, more than 3,000 current and former athletes in other sports have already pledged their brains to research post-mortem, including NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., U.S. Women’s Soccer Team star Brandi Chastain, and several former NFL Pro Bowlers including Randy Cross, Keith Sims, Shawn Springs and Gary Fencik.

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. plans to donate his brain to CTE research

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s decision inspires NASCAR Hall of Famer to donate brain for CTE research

While concussions are not a widespread problem in the NHRA as in, for example, the NFL, they still happen from time to time.

With the g-forces, high-speed explosions and crashes and intense vibrations Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers endure while exceeding 330 mph in 1,000 feet, concussions are always a threat, but that threat is usually mitigated by the safety equipment found in the race cars.

Don Schumacher Racing’s Funny Car drivers, from left, Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps and Matt Hagan.

In pledging their brains, Schumacher and his seven drivers will also “immediately begin a comprehensive brain monitoring process to ensure an in-depth brain profile upon donation,” according to a team statement.

DSR’s pledges coincide with CLF Project Enlist, a new program launched this week by CLF and Infinite Hero Foundation (IHF) a non-profit organization (and a partner of DSR) that assists military veterans returning from battle and their families. IHF’s main goal is to “accelerate research on traumatic brain injury (TBI), CTE and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in military veterans.”

DSR and Project Enlist are conducting recruiting and outreach to military and veteran communities to increase participation in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation (VA-BU-CLF) Brain Bank brain donation registry.

The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank is the world’s largest CTE brain bank specializing in research into concussions, ALS, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Schumacher, who was one of the sport’s most successful drivers in the 1960s and 1970s, has since gone on to build a vast business and racing empire that employs over 2,000 individuals. He is also regarded as one of the top innovators in performance and safety in drag racing.

“Donating my brain for research to help other individuals in this world is something that I’m more than willing to do,” said Don Schumacher, who was recently named to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America’s Class of 2019. “It surprised my wife, Sarah, but she also agreed to me doing this based on its potential to help drivers, soldiers, business people and the population of the world.

Team owner Don Schumacher.

“I support (the CLF) 100 percent and was thrilled that my seven drivers agreed to donate their brains.”

Here are comments from all of Schumacher’s seven drivers who have pledged to donate their brains to research post-mortem:

Tony Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “I think any athlete donating their brain is a great idea once you’re done with it here on earth. If people can come up with a better system, and a better way to keep future drivers safer, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to improve our world. The doctors and the technology with all athletes right now, they’re diving in deep to come up with concussion research, and as a driver that goes through 11,000-horsepower, 2.5-Richter scale shaking every single run, I think we’re good candidates to research.”

“Fast Jack” Beckman, driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “My wife didn’t take the news that I was pledging my brain quite the way I thought. Apparently, she wants to have me stuffed and put in the corner of our living room (he said with a laugh), but (growing serious) I’ve been an organ donor since I was 16. My thought is, if it can help somebody else, that’s fantastic. When you see these veterans coming back with traumatic brain injuries and PTS, and there’s no one cure for this, it makes you realize how much more we still need to learn about the human brain to have effective treatments for the majority of the injured vets. To be a part of that in some small way; well, I can’t take my brain with me, haven’t used it since I started driving a Funny Car (he said with another laugh), so someone else might as well take advantage.”

Ron Capps, driver of the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “When approached with the chance to help the Concussion Legacy Foundation and have an opportunity to help with advancing the study, treatment, and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes as well as other at-risk groups, we said ‘yes’ without hesitation. The Concussion Legacy Foundation is a group of dedicated people doing great things to help the next generations to come, and we’re proud to help in any way we can.”

Antron Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “We always want to do whatever we can to help elevate the safety in our sport, and be proactive in bettering the safety for all.”

Matt Hagan, driver of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car: “I think it’s pretty cool to donate anything to science. My brain is kind of mush anyways (jokes). Anytime we can do something to help is a good thing and being able to have research off of how your brain is affected by g-force and things like that, is interesting. Driving a nitro Funny Car is not something just anybody gets to do. There are only maybe 50 people in the world that really, truly experience the g-forces we do on a regular basis. These cars are extreme, we put on a show, and we put our bodies through elements that most people will never even understand. If we can help with the research of concussions and saving lives, that’s a great thing, and I’m all about it.”

Tommy Johnson Jr., driver of the Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “I elected to donate my brain because of all of my years of racing, suffering explosions and experiencing tire shake. If the Concussion Legacy Foundation can learn something that would help the next generation, I would be very proud to be a part of that. Tying it in with the soldiers who experience traumatic brain injuries, if we can work together and help one another, I think it’s a great opportunity for the road to recovery for everyone.”

Leah Pritchett, driver of the Mopar Dodge Top Fuel dragster: “When I was first asked if I would be open to donating my brain for future research, there wasn’t even a question in my mind at all. All of us are safer in our passenger cars and safer in our race cars because of what we’ve been able to learn from the past. We get to do what we do and are safe because of technology and science. If I have a legacy to leave behind, and it can benefit anybody in any way, from the sports community to the military to a child that wants to play football, whatever it may be, once I’m gone, I won’t need my brain so I’m proud to know that it will benefit others.”

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