Fernando Alonso to race in 101st Indianapolis 500 with McLaren, Andretti

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Two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso will miss this year’s Monaco Grand Prix to take part in the 101st Indianapolis 500 as part of a joint entry between McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport.

Alonso has previously expressed an interest in racing in the 500, but was announced on Wednesday as a shock entry for the race at the end of May, becoming the sixth Andretti-backed car entered.

“I’m immensely excited that I’ll be racing in this year’s Indy 500, with McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport,” Alonso said in a statement.

“The Indy 500 is one of the most famous races on the global motorsport calendar, rivalled only by the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Monaco Grand Prix, and it’s of course a regret of mine that I won’t be able to race at Monaco this year. But Monaco will be the only 2017 Grand Prix I’ll be missing, and I’ll be back in the cockpit of the McLaren-Honda MCL32 for the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal in early June.

“I’ve never raced an IndyCar car before, and neither have I ever driven on a superspeedway, but I’m confident that I’ll get to grips with it fast. I’ve watched a lot of IndyCar action on TV and online, and it’s clear that great precision is required to race in close proximity with other cars on the far side of 220 mph.

“I realize I’ll be on a steep learning curve, but I’ll be flying to Indianapolis from Barcelona immediately after the Spanish Grand Prix, practising our McLaren-Honda-Andretti car at Indy from May 15 onwards, hopefully clocking up a large number of miles every day, and I know how good the Andretti Autosport guys are. I’ll be proud to race with them, and I intend to mine their knowledge and expertise for as much info as I possibly can.”

Andretti IndyCar chief Michael Andretti added: “It’s a great honor to partner with McLaren for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 and to bring Fernando into one of our Andretti Autosport Hondas. I want to thank Zak [Brown, McLaren executive director], Honda and McLaren for this tremendous opportunity.

“We’ve been working very closely in the planning of this new partnership and I believe we’ve laid the foundation for a successful month of May. We’re looking forward to giving Fernando an effort in reaching one of his biggest career goals of winning the Indy 500.

“Fernando’s lack of experience on superspeedways is not of concern to me. I do believe that the Indianapolis 500 is one of the best places for a rookie to start because there is the opportunity for so much practice time on the track – and, as we have demonstrated, it can be won by a rookie. Fernando is a great talent and I have full confidence that he will represent very strongly for McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport.

“Fernando’s addition to the team takes our stable of entries to six, working in a cooperative effort. This sharing of experience and knowledge is what makes Andretti Autosport stand out and gives us that extra competitive edge.”

McLaren has won the Indy 500 on two occasions before, back in 1974 and 1976 with Johnny Rutherford, and its 2017 entry will hark back to that as Brown confirmed the McLaren-Honda-Andretti entry will be “decked out in the papaya orange livery made famous by our founder Bruce McLaren, and in which Rutherford drove McLaren IndyCars to Indy 500 victory”.

By missing Monaco, Alonso has opened up a seat at McLaren for the street race, which the team said it will fill “in due course”. This is likely to be taken by reserve driver Jenson Button, who stepped back from full-time racing at the end of last year.

NHRA: Funny Car driver J.R. Todd looks to snap slump, make history at U.S. Nationals

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In addition to being the most gratifying achievement of his NHRA drag racing career, winning the 2018 NHRA Funny Car championship was also the hardest thing J.R. Todd has ever done.

That is, until he tried to defend the title in 2019 – which has now become the hardest thing Todd has done behind the wheel.

After winning a career-best six wins en route to his title last season, Todd has had a rough campaign in the first 17 races of the current season, having earned just one win (Las Vegas) and two runner-up finishes.

In addition, he’s failed to make it out of the first round six times, and was stopped in the quarter-finals eight other times.

And as he prepares for next week’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis – the biggest race of the season – the 37-year-old Todd is mired in a difficult slump. Since losing to Ron Capps in the final round at Richmond, Todd has dropped from second to eighth in the Funny Car standings, unable to get past the second round of the nine subsequent events.

That’s why Todd is hoping for a major turnaround at the U.S. Nationals, the final qualifying race for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

J.R. Todd (Photo: NHRA).

A massive 416 points (the equivalent of more than three wins points-wise) out of first place, Todd needs to start a big comeback if he hopes to do well in the playoffs, and the U.S. Nationals is the perfect place for him to do so. Todd comes into this year’s race having won the last two Funny Car crowns at Indy in 2017 and 2018.

If he can make it three in a row, Todd will make NHRA history. To date, only two drivers – Top Fuel greats “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Tony Schumacher – have won three in a row at Indianapolis. But no Funny Car driver has ever done so, not John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme or anyone else.

“That’s some pretty elite company right there with Big Daddy and Tony Schumacher,” Todd told NBC Sports. “Really you try not to think about things like that and just focus on the mission at hand – and that’s to win the race.

“When you do that, then you can enjoy all the accolades that come with it. I have the two trophies that I can look at every day – and it’s an awesome reminder of what we’ve done. It was a dream of mine as a kid to go there and race in the U.S. Nationals as a professional someday and to have won it is still kind of a surreal feeling.”

Todd, who lives in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana, wants to be the first Funny Car driver to pull off that achievement — and at his home track, to boot.

“It’s the biggest race of the year and the one that everyone wants to win,” Todd said. “To go back there and win there three years in a row would be pretty special.

“For me, it’s the race I grew up going to as a kid. I have a lot of family and friends that go there. I live five minutes from the track, so it means everything to me.”

In a sense, his situation this season is kind of deja vu for Todd. Last season, he won two races earlier in the season (Las Vegas and Houston), then went into a slump much like the one he’s currently in.

But starting with last September’s win at Indianapolis, Todd went on to win four of the final seven races of the season — including three in the playoffs — to motor on to the championship.

What makes Todd’s success at Indy all the more unique is that while he’s a long-time drag racer, he only switched to Funny Car prior to the 2017 season. That means in just two seasons, the former Top Fuel pilot has not only twice won the sport’s biggest race, but also the championship.

The team Todd races for, Kalitta Motorsports, has a history of starting to hit its stride just before the playoffs begin in Funny Car. From 2014 through 2018, the organization has won 13 Funny Car races beginning with the second-to-last regular season race at Brainerd, Minnesota through the six playoff races. That’s 13 of 40 races, roughly 33% of the races that NHRA has won.

In addition to Todd’s two U.S. Nationals wins, Team Kalitta also won the Funny Car event in 2014 with now-retired driver Alexis DeJoria.

I knew coming over to drive the DHL Toyota Camry that we would have some good opportunities to win races,” Todd said. “For whatever reason, it seems like we pick up a lot of momentum at that time of year. We’re hoping we can keep that trend going this year.”

In a sense, the U.S. Nationals – the 18th and final regular season race of the overall 24-race NHRA schedule – are to the NHRA what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR or the Indianapolis 500 is to IndyCar.

“It sets the tone for the next six races,” Todd said of the playoffs. “The U.S. Nationals are a marathon. It’s the one race where everyone brings out their best stuff because it’s so important.  So much of that preparation then carries over into the Countdown.

“If you ask drivers that haven’t won Indy before, I think they’d trade pretty much any win for that one.”

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