DiZinno: Alonso’s arrival is 101st Indy 500’s magic bullet

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Much the same as in December when I got the Facebook message from my colleague Luke Smith that said simply “Rosberg’s retired!” I had to a double take this morning when I saw the “Mate, you’re not going to believe what happened!!” message.

Fernando Alonso. Running the Indianapolis 500. This year.

Really? Seriously? Yes.

Details of how the out-of-left-field deal came to be reality emerged a bit during conference calls with Alonso, Michael Andretti and Zak Brown today. Taking a long story and condensing it, Honda had an 18th engine lease available for this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil that wasn’t filled, it was later determined Andretti Autosport would be the best fit, and Stefan Wilson had the inside line on the seat.

But just in the first two Formula 1 race weekends, Alonso and Brown had some meals, the two-time World Champion decided he wanted to run Indy and mountains moved between various parties to make it happen. Wilson, ironically, gets better PR value out of being the sidelined driver this race than he probably would have had he got the seat. Alonso was always going to be a bigger story and Wilson, much like his late brother Justin, is the bigger man for stepping aside as part of the process. It’s a hope he will be rewarded properly in the long run.

It matters not who was first in reporting the news when the news is this big, except for those who need the glory of saying so.

What matters instead is that the story is in fact real, not a belated April Fool’s prank, and that suddenly a race that didn’t have a magic story line has one.

Frankly the big question for the 101st Indianapolis 500 was going to be what was the big thing the race needed. Last year’s 100th running was always going to have the extra hoopla and drama associated with it. That the race was sold out and had a dramatic finish featuring a rookie’s unheralded shot at glory didn’t hurt, either, and Alexander Rossi has more than proven a worthy champion.

Without a new car though (that comes in 2018), or a big-name star driver though, the race fails to extrapolate much beyond its standard sphere of influence – this is to say in Indianapolis and Indiana locally, to the core fan base of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and the one-off extra fans that come to watch this race either on television or on site.

Alonso at Indy though? That’s as Earth-shattering as it gets in the motorsports world. It’s on par with Nigel Mansell’s arrival in 1993 and the first occasion for a younger generation of a driver from Formula 1 actively leaving their day job for a shot at the single biggest race in terms of a one-day spectator total.

If Indy didn’t matter in the world sphere, Alonso wouldn’t have come. Period, point blank. And how he does will dominate the headlines beyond us usual web minions who cover the series full-time.

“I think the interest is very clear. It’s one of the best races in the world,” Alonso said during a teleconference today. “It’s very prestigious. If you want to be considered the best, you have to drive all type of cars. So after successfully winning F1 championships, I think the opportunity to race in Indy 500, then one day in the future in Le Mans, that dream of the Triple Crown is very attractive, together with McLaren and Zak.”

Zak Brown knows a thing or two about marketing; JMI was his baby and he needs a way to turn opinions back the way of positive press given the current struggles his new baby, McLaren, is having in Formula 1. And what better way to do so than with a stunner like this, which was remarkably kept quiet?

“I had a desire for McLaren to come back to Indianapolis,” said the American, who understands the magnitude of his brand. “It is a great part of our history. But we didn’t think the timing would be right to try to put together the effort.

“We started flirting with Fernando on the topic and he started flirting back. In Australia, we had breakfast with Honda, and he stated his desire to race triple crown of Monaco, Indy and Le Mans. He said I’d love to race with Honda at Indianapolis 500. We didn’t know the timeline. He had a real desire to race there.

“But we spoke the Monday after Australia. Hey you mentioned you wanted to do Indy… he said very. Let’s talk at China dinner. You thinking this year? Was it doable? He was very serious.

“We had dinner Friday in China and I laid it out in the table, he wants to do it, we think we could make it happen. He told me Saturday morning after sleeping on it ‘I want to do it.’

“We signed it last night from the airport, and here we are announcing it. We could not be more excited to run the McLaren Honda Andretti entry with Fernando Alonso. It’s an incredible day of motorsports.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Alexander Rossi driver of the Andretti Herta Autosport Dallara Honda leads a pack of cars on his way to winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Andretti Autosport has six entries on its own, all of whom already had incredible stories anyway before today’s news.

To wit:

  • Rossi, surprisingly, goes for a repeat of last year.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay seeks his second ‘500, after losing last year thanks to contact with his teammate in the pits.
  • Takuma Sato has been stealthily good at the Speedway, despite a lack of results. Few forget his daring, if failed, attempt trying to pass Dario Franchitti.
  • Marco Andretti, going to break that eternal Andretti curse, nearly 50 years on from Mario’s famous 1969 win.
  • Jack Harvey, a talented rookie making his debut with Mike Shank, a popular team owner, making his Indy debut.

And now they add Alonso to this? If the old axiom of “a rising tide lifts all boats” is true, then all five of those other entries will be buoyed by the prospects of having one of the greatest drivers of his generation now needing to draw on them to help his debut, while all getting the extra PR value out of it.

Alonso racing Scott Dixon, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya? That means he’s going up against seven IndyCar series champions.

And he’ll be competing against at least six other Indianapolis 500 winners in Dixon, Kanaan, Montoya, Rossi, Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves (seven if Buddy Lazier makes the race).

Plus, from a rookie-of-the-year standpoint, suddenly the trio of previously confirmed rookies in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires graduates Harvey, Ed Jones and Zach Veach can say if they win rookie-of-the-year honors, they beat Fernando Alonso to do so.

It’s hard to see this as anything other than a massive positive for a race where one extra driver can make a big difference.

And for Alonso, it’s a masterstroke in terms of writing a chapter of his career where he knows he’s going into a big challenge, is taking it with open arms, and has the support of his team, his engine manufacturer, and one of the most famous last names in motorsport all at his side.

We don’t know where he’ll finish in May, but in terms of an announcement, Alonso, McLaren, Honda, Andretti and Indianapolis have already won.

NHRA playoffs kick off with Beckman, Crampton, Line, Savoie wins

Photos and videos courtesy of NHRA
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(NHRA media release)

MOHNTON, Pa. – It’s been over a year since Jack Beckman parked his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car in an NHRA winner’s circle but on Sunday at the 35th annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil he came out on top.

Not only did Beckman defeat John Force in the final round at Maple Grove Raceway, he also took over the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series points lead.

“Our Sunday, I think it was perfect,” Beckman said. “That car was consistent, and it was fast. It’s one thing to be consistent and be a 10th (of a second) off the field but to run numbers as good as any other car out here, up and down the race track all four runs on race day.”

Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were victors in their respective divisions at the first race of the 2019 Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Beckman has been the runner-up four times in 2019 but it was his 3.958-second pass at 330.07 that gave him the holeshot win over Force’s quicker 3.952. One of the runner-up finishes was just two weeks ago at the U.S. Nationals against Force.

“In NHRA, you have zero control over what the car and driver in the other lane are doing,” Beckman said. “Did I want to beat him? Of course. Did it sting that he beat us in the Indy final? Duh. But none of that was going to help me be any better. Some fans came over before the final and said, ‘Hey, we’ll go razz John.’ And I said, ‘Don’t poke the bear.’ That guy, always seems to find a way to get motivated and win more races.”

It was a battle of Kalitta Motorsports in the Top Fuel final round but it was Crampton who raised the Wally trophy when he defeated his teammate Doug Kalitta with his 3.738 pass at 329.10 in his DHL dragster. Crampton now ties team owner and NHRA legend Connie Kalitta with 10 career wins.

Doug Kalitta snagged the Top Fuel points lead when previous leader and reigning champion Steve Torrence made an early exit in round one.

“It was definitely a great day for the whole team,” Crampton said. “All four cars are running good, particularly the dragsters, of course. But for Doug to take the points lead heading out of here, and we made a good jump in the points as well, that’s what we need to do. It’s that time of the year. It’s time to execute on race day and Connie and (crew chief) Kurt Elliott gave me the car to do it.”

Line earned his 50th Pro Stock title when he defeated Fernando Cuadra in the final round of eliminations thanks to his 6.553 pass at 210.60 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro. Line also took over the points lead from his KB teammate Bo Butner. Cuadra, who was completing in his first career final round, is also a KB powered car.

“It was a big victory, for sure,” Line said. “Not one of my shiner moments, but big victory, nonetheless. I was a little tardy (leaving the starting line) so not what you want to do in the final round. But 50 wins just means I’ve had some great race cars to drive and some great people I’ve gotten to work with over the years. It’s been a fun ride.”

Savoie picked up his second consecutive win on his White Alligator Racing Suzuki. He took down Steve Johnson with his 6.774 lap at 198.55 in the final round and went on to claim the Pro Stock Motorcycle points lead.

“It was just a great, great day for everyone. My whole team. I don’t take any of this credit. (Crew chief) Tim (Kulungian) and everybody on the team worked their butts off and here we are. At my age, I can do it. I didn’t count on making the top 10 because I took three races off. And, bam! Here we are. No one, not even myself expected this.”

The Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues Sept. 27-29 with the second race of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs, the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway in St. Louis.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Richie Crampton; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Austin Prock; 4. Brittany Force; 5. Clay Millican; 6. Mike Salinas; 7. Leah Pritchett; 8. Antron Brown; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Jordan Vandergriff; 11. Dan Mercier; 12. Terry McMillen; 13. Todd Paton; 14. Billy Torrence; 15. Lex Joon; 16. Smax Smith.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman; 2. John Force; 3. Ron Capps; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. John Smith; 6. Tim Wilkerson; 7. Matt Hagan; 8. Robert Hight; 9. Shawn Langdon; 10. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 11. Jim Campbell; 12. Cruz Pedregon; 13. Jonnie Lindberg; 14. Mike McIntire; 15. Bob Tasca III; 16. Terry Haddock.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line; 2. Fernando Cuadra; 3. Matt Hartford; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Bo Butner; 7. Erica Enders; 8. Alex Laughlin; 9. Aaron Stanfield; 10. Kenny Delco; 11. Chris McGaha; 12. Bob Benza; 13. Greg Anderson; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. David Miller; 16. Val Smeland.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Steve Johnson; 3. Matt Smith; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Angelle Sampey; 6. Eddie Krawiec; 7. Andrew Hines; 8. Hector Arana Jr; 9. Angie Smith; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Kelly Clontz; 12. Jianna Salinas; 13. Michael Ray; 14. Scotty Pollacheck; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Ron Tornow.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Richie Crampton, 3.738 seconds, 329.10 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 3.779 seconds, 331.28 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.958, 330.07 def. John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.952, 328.78.

PRO STOCK: Jason Line, Chevy Camaro, 6.553, 210.60 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.594, 208.78.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.774, 198.55 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.805, 196.59.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Austin Prock, 3.698, 331.61 def. Jordan Vandergriff, 3.757, 322.34; Mike Salinas, 3.818, 252.80 def. Billy Torrence, 4.727, 163.53; Brittany Force, 3.691, 326.79 def. Todd Paton, 4.265, 207.98; Leah Pritchett, 3.731, 326.40 def. Lex Joon, 4.858, 152.73; Doug Kalitta, 3.722, 330.96 def. Smax Smith, 8.356, 74.14; Richie Crampton, 3.733, 329.26 def. Dan Mercier, 3.892, 310.63; Antron Brown, 3.743, 328.30 def. Terry McMillen, 4.130, 237.59; Clay Millican, 3.752, 329.67 def. Steve Torrence, 3.741, 330.15; QUARTERFINALS — Crampton, 3.781, 324.44 def. Brown, 9.080, 81.48; Kalitta, 3.740, 329.83 def. Salinas, 4.354, 196.39; Prock, 4.735, 219.51 def. Pritchett, 5.736, 105.48; Force, 3.784, 306.67 def. Millican, 3.927, 266.42; SEMIFINALS — Crampton, 4.656, 164.57 def. Force, Broke; Kalitta, 3.740, 333.91 def. Prock, 4.015, 295.66; FINAL — Crampton, 3.738, 329.10 def. Kalitta, 3.779, 331.28.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — John Smith, Dodge Charger, 4.280, 245.05 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 6.422, 144.74; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.926, 320.36 def. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 10.025, 83.22; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.909, 327.51 def. Mike McIntire, Toyota, 5.898, 119.98; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.908, 331.45 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.204, 249.21; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.938, 326.40 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 4.752, 172.94; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.919, 331.04 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 5.774, 127.88; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.915, 329.58 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.977, 327.66; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.899, 332.02 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.961, 329.91; QUARTERFINALS — Force, 3.944, 331.61 def. Wilkerson, 7.140, 133.20; Beckman, 3.927, 331.61 def. Hight, 9.203, 83.25; Capps, 3.916, 329.18 def. Hagan, 8.623, 79.91; Todd, 3.949, 324.75 def. J. Smith, 4.013, 313.80; SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 3.916, 331.12 def. Todd, 5.501, 167.26; Force, 3.929, 329.42 def. Capps, 4.262, 240.25; FINAL — Beckman, 3.958, 330.07 def. Force, 3.952, 328.78.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Fernando Cuadra, Chevy Camaro, 6.588, 209.75 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.578, 209.75 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.622, 211.06; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.549, 210.21 def. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 6.557, 210.54; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.552, 210.08 def. Bob Benza, Camaro, 6.593, 208.10; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.564, 209.92 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.587, 209.30; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.540, 210.44 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 17.922, 45.55; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.554, 209.36 def. David Miller, Dodge Dart, 19.609, 36.81; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.568, 210.44 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — Hartford, 6.591, 209.75 def. Laughlin, 7.169, 205.82; Cuadra, 6.578, 209.56 def. Enders, 6.581, 209.07; Coughlin, 6.568, 209.65 def. Kramer, 6.571, 209.92; Line, 6.549, 210.41 def. Butner, 6.575, 210.41; SEMIFINALS — Cuadra, 6.598, 208.46 def. Coughlin, Foul – Red Light; Line, 6.572, 210.57 def. Hartford, 6.604, 210.73; FINAL — Line, 6.553, 210.60 def. Cuadra, 6.594, 208.78.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Matt Smith, 6.843, 198.15 def. Scotty Pollacheck, 7.109, 192.91; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.807, 195.11 def. Hector Arana, Foul – Red Light; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.891, 196.36 def. Angie Smith, 6.902, 196.19; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.837, 194.72 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.971, 193.18; Hector Arana Jr, 6.897, 197.19 def. Ryan Oehler, 6.946, 194.46; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.822, 197.31 def. Ron Tornow, Buell, Broke – No Show; Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.865, 195.03 def. Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 6.976, 191.40; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.871, 197.31 def. Michael Ray, 7.009, 189.71; QUARTERFINALS — M. Smith, 6.862, 199.58 def. Sampey, 6.857, 196.07; Johnson, 6.854, 195.42 def. Arana Jr, 6.967, 192.08; Stoffer, 6.847, 196.96 def. Krawiec, 6.878, 196.70; Savoie, 6.818, 197.10 def. Hines, 6.904, 196.44; SEMIFINALS — Johnson, 6.834, 195.70 def. M. Smith, 6.847, 198.64; Savoie, 6.818, 196.42 def. Stoffer, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Savoie, 6.774, 198.55 def. Johnson, 6.805, 196.59.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 2,180; 2. Brittany Force, 2,147; 3. Steve Torrence, 2,133; 4. Antron Brown, 2,127; 5. Richie Crampton, 2,126; 6. Mike Salinas, 2,104; 7. Austin Prock, 2,094; 8. Leah Pritchett, 2,093; 9. Clay Millican, 2,092; 10. Billy Torrence, 2,032.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman, 2,179; 2. John Force, 2,160; 3. Robert Hight, 2,155; 4. Ron Capps, 2,136; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,105; 6. Matt Hagan, 2,092; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,089; 8. Bob Tasca III, 2,072; 9. Tim Wilkerson, 2,057; 10. Shawn Langdon, 2,043.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line, 2,194; 2. Bo Butner, 2,155; 3. Alex Laughlin, 2,139; 4. Erica Enders, 2,116; 5. Matt Hartford, 2,103; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 2,099; 7. Deric Kramer, 2,095; 8. Greg Anderson, 2,092; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,041; 10. Val Smeland, 2,031.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie, 2,166; 2. Andrew Hines, 2,160; 3. Matt Smith, 2,143; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,134; 5. Karen Stoffer, 2,120; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,117; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,083; 8. Angie Smith, 2,062; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,042; 10. Hector Arana, 2,032.