Editor’s note: Sage Karam, 3GT Racing Lexus driver in IMSA, a past Indy Lights and USF2000 champion and Verizon IndyCar Series podium finisher, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month for a second straight year (2016 archive here).
Here’s his fourth entry, as he recaps qualifying and final practice, and is prepared for Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil where he will start 21st.
You can read his first, second and third blogs of 2017 here. He’ll run the No. 24 Mecum Auctions Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in partnership with Kingdom Racing.
Hey there, Sage Karam back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We’re almost to race day, finally.
It’s been a hectic week since my last blog with you. We qualified two days last Saturday and Sunday. We trimmed out the downforce on the No. 24 Mecum Auctions DRR Chevrolet for Saturday and ran almost a 228-mile per hour average.
It wasn’t great but it wasn’t awful either. We worked in the garage on Saturday night and Sunday morning to improve the car for Sunday’s final day of qualifications. And, despite not running any laps in the practice, we came out strong.
I ran my first 230 mph lap on the first circuit of the four-lap average and I was super pumped up. The car felt good and I was thrilled with the 230. Now, I have to admit I was so excited with that lap that I messed up a bit on the next lap. I didn’t shift down to fifth gear for a few more RPMs on lap two. And I had to lift off the throttle just a bit in fighting some wind off of turn two.
After the four laps, we had a 229.380 mph average and I was excited. However, the other guys ran well too, and we’ll start 21st this Sunday. Last year, I started 23rd and moved up to fourth by lap 94. That’s before I got a little too aggressive and got caught outside with another car in turn one and hit the wall pretty hard.
I think I have learned a lot since that incident last year at Indy. This will be my fourth Indy 500 and I am still the youngest driver in the field at age 22. But I feel I have matured since last year. Heck, when I was 19 and in my first Indy 500, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just driving hard and trying to get to the finish. We came from 31st to finish ninth and I received the “Hard Charger Award” in 2014 as a rookie.
My Mecum DRR crew worked on getting back the race setup with my car for Monday’s final practice session and the car was good. Just like the final practice last year. I feel confident we can pass other cars. We did that in Monday’s runs.
Race week is always busy because you don’t spend much time on track. You do a lot of media and promotion for the race.
After Monday, it was off to Philadelphia with my neighbor, Marco Andretti. I grew up across the street from the Andrettis in Nazareth, Pa. So, we have been friends a long time. In Philly, we did the annual Indy 500 media day with a variety of interviews and appearances at Independence Hall, the Art Museum with the famous “Rocky Balboa” steps and posed with the “Rocky” statue.
Then we headed to Citizens Bank Field for the Phillies and Rockies game. Marco and I threw out the first pitches at the game. We saw the Phillies’ manager, Pete Mackanin, and former player Mickey Morandini, who knew a lot about the Indy 500 since he played at Indiana University. We also talked with Bud Black, the Rockies manager, who is a racing fan. His team has a driver pool in the clubhouse the morning of the race. Black has never seen the 500, but it is on his bucket list.
On Wednesday, we went to a local Indianapolis school with Scott Dixon and Ed Jones to have activities and some competition with the kids. It was fun. I was doing a little jump rope with them (below) as well as building an IndyCar out of Legos with a group of children. Dixon’s group beat us in that one. RATS!
For some reason, the track had less grip than usual. I’m not sure if it’s because of the rain or the tire wear from the Indy Lights cars. A lot of people seemed to struggle with that today. But, I think we have a good race car like we did last year.
It was a good practice week and a good month overall. I’m feeling good about the car. It feels the same as it did when we unloaded, so that’s excellent.
We were in the Pit Stop Challenge, we placed second in that one in 2014. I thought we had a good chance again. However, Helio’s crew beat us in the first round. It was a disappointment but I am still excited about Sunday’s race.
We’ll see how the weather holds up for Sunday. We might have a few showers in the morning, but I’m hoping the race can get started at 12:15 p.m.
We are looking for a good showing and race to the checkered flag. I believe if we can get to the last 25 laps in a solid position that we can pass cars. I know I’ll be charging if things fall into place.
So, watch for the No. 24 Mecum Auctions DRR Chevy on Sunday. I’ll be fighting to drive to the front.
Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.
In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”
To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes many legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.
On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcend into the mainstream of popularity.
“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “I can’t wait to see that get started.
“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.
“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time, and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”
McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”
His contract with McLaren ended on Dec. 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.
“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.
“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”
With so many obstacles in the way of Alonso competing for any other team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best (and essentially his only) option come with the McLaren-backed operation.
But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.
“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” Brown said in a response to a question from NBCSports.com in a Tuesday teleconference. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.
“If you are Fernando Alonso, and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.
“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after (the Dakar Rally) because he wanted to be very focused on that event. had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.
“He chose to move forward with us.”
Alonso’s best days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda in 2017. He got up to speed quickly, qualifying fifth and leading 27 laps before his Honda failed with 21 laps remaining.
Alonso’s worst days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux pas was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.
It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.
McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over because of disparaging and critical comments about its engine by Alonso and the team.
Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.
Brown found a partner at what then was known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. To make the deal work, the team had to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.
When the Arrow McLaren SP deal was announced on Aug. 9, 2019, Alonso still was attempting to negotiate an Indy 500 deal with Andretti Autosport, and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed, and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.
Honda Japan said no and held firm against doing business with Alonso for the same reasons as with McLaren.
Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.
All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.
“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar.
“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.
“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver.”
Though it appeared this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized they had been wooing Alonso for several months.
The addition of Hampson, who oversaw a car Bourdais qualified for the Fast Nine in the past two Indy 500s, and a solid test at COTA helped make the case.
“These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump,” Brown said. “There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”
Said Schmidt: “It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November. We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal.”
In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.
Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports — the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.
Having conquered Monaco and Le Mans, Indy remains the final event to master for the Spaniard.
“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.
“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. There are four corners but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”
The key to completing the deal was Michael Andretti allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to follow Alonso as his Indy 500 sponsor to Arrow McLaren SP after the deal with Andretti Autosport fell through.
“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown said, referring to the Virgin Australia Supercars team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them.”
Alonso is just as excited to return at Indy despite last year’s disappointment, gleefully describing the Brickyard’s appeal in his interview with Diffey.
“Definitely. once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.
“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”
And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.