ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) As usual, Helio Castroneves took charge.
Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud came in early for their news conference after a good practice at Road America for the Team Penske drivers. Castroneves, still in his firesuit, picked up the microphone and started moderating the discussion as if he was a veteran announcer.
“You’re such a natural,” Pagenaud said to laughter. “The guy is great.”
Chemistry on and off the track has helped fuel Team Penske’s IndyCar success. All four Penske drivers are sixth or better in the points race, within 63 or less of leader Scott Dixon.
“Between us, yes, we want to kick everybody inside the team,” Castroneves said. “But we want to give the win, we want to give the championship to Roger (Penske). But we know in the end of the day, working together, racing hard … but fair, everybody’s going to be benefit from that.”
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner is a headliner on another impressive IndyCar roster for Penske. Pagenaud is the reigning champion. Will Power is a former series champ.
Josef Newgarden is the new guy after joining Penske in the offseason from tiny Ed Carpenter Racing. Newgarden, who finished fourth in the series last year, is the first American driver on Penske’s open-wheel roster since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2007.
The quartet dominated practice and qualifying at Road America last weekend, with Castroneves taking the pole while his teammates filled out the rest of the front row. A large team allows drivers to share information, giving Penske an advantage over teams with fewer cars.
“We have on-board cameras, have data, have notes from the session. If you wanted to hide something, you just can’t,” Power said.
Added Newgarden: “Really, it’s like impossible. No joke. It’s 100% impossible to hide anything.”
Not that they seem to mind. The addition of Newgarden has appeared to be seamless since he replaced Juan Pablo Montoya. They poked fun at each other all weekend in Wisconsin.
Newgarden, who turns 27 in December, is one of the circuit’s up-and-coming stars. A friendly demeanor meshes well with Castroneves, the jovial veteran of the group in his 20th season.
“First of all, his talent, it definitely (suits) the team,” Castroneves said of Newgarden. “Well, his personality, it helps, too. He’s a guy that fits in.”
Known for his outgoing personality, the 42 year-old Castroneves seemed as energetic as ever at Road America after winning the pole.
“He gets faster as he gets older, like wine, matured,” Power said.
The drivers look like mischievous middle-school boys on a series of lighthearted videos produced by Team Penske. The “Penske Games” include activities like building a Lego race car ; saying the alphabet backward ; and twirling a hula hoop.
“All right, everyone, `Dancing with the Stars,”‘ said Castroneves, the 2007 winner of the reality TV show competition. “We didn’t have this on Dancing with the Stars, but it’s OK.”
Pagenaud looked mystified .
“Well, I’ve never done it,” Pagenaud said.
Newgarden swayed and smiled into the camera.
“It’s all in the hips. That’s what Helio would tell you,” he joked.
They’re much more competitive on the track and for good reason: All are in championship contention.
With Pagenaud using fresh tires, Power blocked his teammate around a turn in lap 15 at Road America. Race officials penalized Power and ordered him to give up one spot on the track.
“We were just caught up in things all day,” said Power, sixth in the points race overall. He finished fifth at Road America.
It was still a good day overall for Penske, with Newgarden finishing second, followed by Castroneves and Pagenaud. It was a reward that comes with the cooperation between the drivers, engineers and mechanics.
But Dixon spoiled the Penske party after the Chip Ganassi Racing veteran won the Wisconsin race. The series resumes July 9 at Iowa.
“It’s kind of disappointing that Team Penske didn’t get the win here today considering how strong all of the cars were. That’s the way it goes sometimes,” Castroneves said. “We’ll come back ready to go for Iowa.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”