Nico Jamin. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Road America test underway with rebuilt cars, Indy Lights quartet

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The fact that the six Verizon IndyCar Series cars that are testing today at Road America are, in fact, testing is a small miracle in itself after the tornado of carbon fiber swept through Texas Motor Speedway last Saturday night in the Rainguard Water Sealers 600.

Three Andretti Autosport, two Dale Coyne Racing and a single Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda are all in attendance at the 4.048-mile circuit for a scheduled team test.

Both Andretti and SPM are using this day to test Indy Lights drivers in the opening half. Nico Jamin and Matheus Leist have taken their first ever laps in an IndyCar in the No. 27 and No. 98 Hondas, respectively, for Andretti. Meanwhile Dalton Kellett returns for the first time since Watkins Glen and Zachary Claman De Melo, for SPM, is in a car for the first time since Mid-Ohio last year.

Kellett had tested Marco Andretti’s car last year but is now in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda today. The Canadian who now lives in Indianapolis arrived Tuesday night along with the rest of the Andretti team.

The Andretti trio are in their road course chassis, with repairs coming to the No. 26, 28 and 98 Honda oval chassis from Texas last week. Of those three, the No. 98 was the worst damaged after contact in Texas.

Claman De Melo has taken over James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda and PaySafe is on the sidepods, which is more than you usually see changed over for an Indy Lights driver test.

Coyne’s team, though, has had the biggest thrash to get here in what’s been a bizarre, expensive and whirlwind month-plus.

With both cars damaged in Texas, Coyne’s team is down to two tubs and two gearboxes, both of which are on site at Road America.

The team arrived at the track this morning before 6 a.m. to unload its two transporters after a thrash to get two cars built up late Tuesday afternoon, then get on the road before rush hour for the roughly five-hour drive from the team’s Plainfield, Ill. shop to Elkhart Lake, Wis.

The No. 18 Honda running today is the repaired James Davison chassis from Indianapolis, which keeping things straight, was the road course backup car pressed into oval duty for the Indianapolis 500. The No. 18 Honda that was last an oval chassis, Pippa Mann’s No. 63 car from the Indianapolis 500, now falls out of the rotation after Tristan Vautier suffered significant damage in the Texas eight-car pileup on Lap 152. Ed Jones’ No. 19 Honda is repaired from Texas.

As for the identity of the No. 18 driver this test? It’s a weird one, and also recalls the IMSA test at Daytona in November 2015 involving Ford GT drivers.

Back then, the drivers tested the Ford GT but were technically not allowed to say they were there, because Ford had not formally announced them.

The same situation is presenting itself today. A driver known to the Dale Coyne Racing team was in the car today for the test; the team anticipates making its driver announcement for the Road America race in the near future.

Officially, we can say “TBA” was in the car for today’s test, thus making “TBA’s” official debut in an unofficial capacity, because this isn’t an official session.

Jones, meanwhile, now had his first IndyCar running at Road America today, and was the first of the full-season drivers out before the others – Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe – took over in the afternoon.

The four Indy Lights drivers ran the morning session before lunch. Jamin, in his first running in an IndyCar, was the only one who revealed a time – an unofficial mark of 1:44.9 – but figure between the 1:44s and 1:46s, the Lights guys were pretty much on pace.

Jamin was thrilled to add the IndyCar to his other repertoire of cars he’s driven in 2017. He adds the Honda, where he drove at least 35 laps, to the Dallara IL-15 Mazda (Indy Lights), Ligier JS P3 (IMSA) and KTM X-BOW GT4 (PWC).

“It was absolutely incredible. It was a lot more than what I expected,” Jamin told NBC Sports. “As any driver who’d drive it for the first time, I was a bit nervous, but after the install and the first laps it all felt natural. The car felt extremely smooth and it brings confidence to a driver. I was able to get up to speed quickly, we had a good run on the first set, the degradation got worse but I got the same kind of lap times.

“We put new tires on and I was able to do a pretty fast lap time. I did a (1:44) 4.9, which was good, and 10 seconds quicker than Indy Lights! New tires it feels like this car has no limit; it can push like crazy. In less than a year I was here in Pro Mazda; now I’m testing an IndyCar.

“On the power side, the power is linear. Indy Lights has a huge kick on the turbo. It’s easier to put the power down here. 2,000 vs. 6,000 pounds of downforce. The carbon brakes are quite insane as well. You can brake later.”

Leist, who drives for Carlin in Indy Lights, was the other first-timer. Perhaps a surprise nomination, Leist was in Brazil last week when he found out he’d be in the seat. Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta, age 17, is less than the required 18 years old (Leist is 19) to be in an IndyCar, per the INDYCAR Rule Book.

“I think I was fastest on my first set of new tires,” Leist told NBC Sports. “It’s faster, but not as much as I was thinking. The main difference is the cornering speed is amazing because of the downforce. When I tried to go on my second set of new tires it rained. I hope to do two more runs.

“The braking point here is crazy. It’s the fastest car that I’ve ever driven. The high speed corners, there’s a few corners where it’s almost flat in Indy Lights and here with more power, more downforce, it’s easy flat!”

Meanwhile the two returning drivers picked up the slack just fine. Kellett was flat out this morning in 37 laps and didn’t have time to take a breath.

“I think Road America is a friendlier track to be at to learn the car than Watkins!” Kellett laughed. “The cornering speed is maybe 20 mph higher there. It didn’t take long to get to the speed where I was at the level I needed to.

“We’ve been talking about it for a while, but the date I found about maybe a day or two before the Freedom 100. It’s been a quick turnaround.

“We didn’t have a chance to stop and look at anything. It was go, go, go. We went hard this morning! This was different with the (PFC) carbon brakes; at Watkins, we were still with the Brembos. It was a long time ago, but there were no issues today!”

Claman De Melo’s session, meanwhile, was truncated. He had a spin in the morning and after lunch, suffered another engine issue from a Honda, which was confirmed by HPD to NBC Sports.

“It’s been a similar feel. They all helped me at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports,” Claman De Melo said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in an IndyCar.

“Still, everything went according to plan. I had a small spin but got back going. I’m getting used to everything again. It’s been a good morning.”

Further Indy Lights driver test days figure to occur later this summer, as the next round of talent from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder prepares for their eventual ascension into the big show.

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

Arrow McLaren Racing SP Photo
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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500