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Mid-Ohio weekend, Thursday and Friday notes

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – There’s lots to keep up with from a jam-packed weekend of action at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Here’s the first round of updates:

ANDRETTI’S IN OR OUT OF HONDA?

The first and major domino on the engine manufacturer front in the Verizon IndyCar Series is what does Andretti Autosport decides to do, whether it will continue into 2018 with Honda or, following discussions, switch to Chevrolet.

Michael Andretti told veteran reporter Bruce Martin in a piece for Autoweek posted today, “I have to weigh all kinds of things and make a decision. It will be a very difficult decision.” This was in addition to a second piece where Andretti praised the end of the manufacturer aero kit era as it can’t seem to come soon enough, given the vast expense that’s been required of capital outlay.

The common thinking is if Andretti goes to Chevrolet, as has been rumored, it ups the competitiveness for Chevrolet to have two of IndyCar’s generally perceived “big three” teams in one camp. And certainly for Andretti, they’ve had success with Chevrolet before – the team’s last championship came with Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012, when the car carried the “Bow tie.”

But staying doesn’t appear to be as out of the question as it seemed even a week or two ago.

Art St. Cyr, Honda Performance Development President, told NBC Sports Friday at Mid-Ohio he “expects to continue with its current lineup” of teams. And the team also has confirmed it hasn’t made its decision yet.

Perhaps more importantly, St. Cyr said Honda can continue with fielding up to 13 full-time cars next year as he has this year. If Chevrolet was to increase its number up from eight cars, which it has this year to double digits next year that would likely alleviate Honda needing to supply a greater percentage of the field.

It’s very much an “if this, then that” dynamic at the moment. An Andretti shift to Chevrolet would open up possibilities for either manufacturer to make more moves from there, and it’s not inconceivable based on what we’ve heard that another existing team could make a shift one way or the other.

Honda expects to add at least a second car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing next year, and that would more than likely replace an existing Honda car from 2017.

Either way, stay tuned for Andretti’s decision, as it will trigger several elements of the 2018 silly season from there.

PWC SATURDAY POLES SET

While the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires had its first two races of the year, after waiting nearly all day for their own crack at the track, Pirelli World Challenge was able to do its qualifying for the first races for its classes to cap off nearly 12 hours of on-track activity.

In GT, Alvaro Parente delivered the pole in the No. 9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3 at 1:19.748. That was better than the pair of Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.Rs in second and third, Michael Cooper ahead of Johnny O’Connell, with Kyle Marcelli in the No. 61 Ferrari and Patrick Long in the No. 58 Porsche completing the top five.

GT’s first race runs from 4:55 to 5:55 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Harry Gottsacker, driving the No. 69 Ginetta G55 GT4, will have the pole for the first GTS race for the Performance Motorsports Group. The teenager out of New Braunfels, Texas has raced off-and-on in the series this year.

Thus far in GTS, there have been five manufacturers from five different teams who have swept the weekend. Ford (Andrew Aquilante), KTM (Nico Jamin), SIN (Jade Buford), Porsche (Rodrigo Baptista) and Panoz (Ian James) have won races so far.

The GTS first race runs at 10:55 a.m. ET.

ARCHIE GRIFFIN AS GRAND MARSHAL

Thanks to a connection between Graham Rahal, a devout fan of The Ohio State University and Archie Griffin, the lone two-time Heisman Trophy winner in history, Griffin will serve as Grand Marshal for Sunday’s Honda Indy 200. He’ll send the field off with the command to start engines.

“We are incredibly excited to have Archie Griffin as our 2017 Grand Marshal,” said Craig Rust, President of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. “While his accomplishments on the football field were tremendous, it is his impact on the central Ohio community and beyond through his professional career and public service that make him so special. He’s a great Ohioan, and we’re proud to have him be a part of the Honda Indy 200.”

DARTH PAGENAUD… AND VADER

Honda’s weekend camping theme of “May the G-Forces Be With You” is Star Wars themed in everything but name, and the first sign of some additional guest stars came during Friday’s activity.

Prior to Friday’s second practice, renowned Star Wars fan Simon Pagenaud donned a Darth Vader mask on top of his primarily black Menards firesuit. Pagenaud is a past Honda driver, now in a Team Penske Chevrolet, but happily participating in the festivities.

An actual guest dressed as Vader then made the rounds in the media center near the end of the day.

TAILGATE TOSS

More on Pagenaud here… and also with Conor Daly, Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe in the “Tailgate Toss 200.”

OTHER PRE-WEEKEND EVENTS

Tony Kanaan was honored at the 6th Annual Safelite AutoGlass “Rally for The Ranch,” a three-event extravaganza to be held July 27-30. The event is supported by The Bobby Rahal Foundation and benefits The Buckeye Ranch and its programs that help area youths and their families dealing with mental, behavioral and substance abuse issues. Previous honorees include Johnny Rutherford (2012), Al Unser, Jr. (2013), Rick Mears (2014), Bobby Unser (2015) and Dario Franchitti (2016).

Scott Dixon and Ryan Norman paid a visit to NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center on Thursday. Norman debuts the No. 48 Journey Dallara IL-15 Mazda for Andretti Autosport this weekend. More here on the visit from IndyCar.com.

Dixon also visited the Cleveland-based Angie Fowler Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Institute – part of Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, Scott toured the facility, played foosball, met and talked with teen patients ahead of their treatment that day.

“It’s always fun to stop by and visit. I hope it kind of breaks up their day. We got to play foosball, and I had a long conversation about wresting, and underground wrestling! I got to hear how some procedures affect or don’t affect their daily routines. And, I think they got a kick out of seeing my crash at Indianapolis and hear about some of the things we as race car drivers go through,” Dixon said.

Char Fowler, Angie’s mother, said: “It means so much to patients and families to have famous people take the time to stop and recognize them, what they are going through, and to visit here with them. I know it’s especially meaningful to have Scott visit because he has worked with other young people with cancer and understands their challenges.”

Meanwhile in the build-up to his home race, Graham Rahal visited the Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Steak ‘n Shake on Thursday.

Rahal was also into the pressroom on Friday after coming second in first practice. Among other usual topics, Rahal was also asked to reflect on where he is as a person at 28 coming into his home race – given he’s accomplished so much and is developing a big career outside of racing as well in the business arena.

“This is something I’ve recognized in myself recently that I’m trying to change,” he said. “I don’t stop thinking about business. I need to try to disconnect a little bit. Business isn’t, for me, just racing any more. You have the dealerships, our performance line, everything else that we’re doing. There’s a lot of stuff going on. I don’t take enough time to really maybe sit down and think in a different way.

“But, you know, I mean, I’m proud of where we’ve gotten to over the last few years. In the start, obviously from a professional standpoint, my career, things were a little bit of a rocky road. But I’m very proud of where we are today. I think that we have a lot to look forward to in the future.

“People forget I’m 28. People think I’m a lot older because I’ve been around a long time. But really, you know, I’m still pretty young. I feel like I have a long career left in this sport. I’m excited for the team that we’ve assembled.”

ENERSON MAKING THE ROUNDS

For those that were here last year at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, there was a debut down at Dale Coyne Racing that dazzled many paddock insiders – RC Enerson had a heck of a weekend in the second Coyne car. Though his start and finish weren’t representative of his overall weekend pace, Enerson impressed throughout.

The now 20-year-old has made sporadic appearances throughout the IndyCar season, including this weekend at Mid-Ohio, and has also done some two-seater driving. His one race this year came at the Rolex 24 at Daytona with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports. Nonetheless he’s kept busy with other testing and at the Lucas Oil School of Racing, where he’s one of the key driving instructors.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget or overlook the talent that’s available if you’re not seeing them on a regular basis, and with the IndyCar silly season expected to kick into overdrive, it’d be good to see Enerson’s name mentioned more frequently in the conversation. He’s here this weekend along with his father Neil and his sister Rachel, who enjoyed birthday celebrations the Thursday night before the race.

REMEMBERING “KING DAVE”

The IndyCar paddock lost a big man with a bigger smile and an even bigger heart this week. Veteran spotter David Reininger passed away from cancer at age 60 and leaves a hole atop the spotter’s stand.

Reininger won a pair of Indianapolis 500s with Dario Franchitti (2007) and Tony Kanaan (2013) and was affectionately known as “King Dave” – also as Big Dave to those who got the chance to work with him.

Beyond his spotting work in IndyCar and Indy Lights, where he won countless races and championships, Reininger was a radio veteran in the Northeast and writer for Trackside Online and Motorsport.com (the latter outlet where I had the opportunity to work with him for a few years). More than that, he was a racing lifer who put a huge smile on most people’s faces and was an integral part of the paddock. He will be missed; rather than a full tribute on this page, I posted one on my blog here.

TEAM USA SCHOLARSHIP’S TEN CANDIDATES AT LUNCH

A chance to meet most – if not all – of the candidates for this year’s Team USA Scholarship occurred today at INDYCAR’s Paddock Club. A further dinner with all of them was set to occur later Friday night.

From brief chats with one of the 2016 winners, Kyle Kirkwood, along with three others nominated this year, Sabre Cook, Aaron Jeansonne and Jacob Loomis, it’s apparent the potential there – and that’s before you get into the other six that are nominated as well.

EXCLUSIVE AUTOSPORT’S NEW CAR

The first team to announce the purchase of the new Tatuus PM-18 chassis for next season’s Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires is the Canadian Exclusive Autosport team. Michael Duncalfe plans to run a two-car program in the series next year, after running largely three and occasionally four cars in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season this year. The full release from the team is linked here.

Further announcements of other teams purchasing the new chassis are expected to come throughout the coming weeks. From talking to a few teams in the paddock, the thinking with the new Tatuus USF-17 car was that teams could upgrade from the USF-17 to the PM-18 with limited additional capital outlay, but it’s possible teams may opt to purchase the PM-18 directly instead.

MARCELLI’S MAD LAST MINUTE MID-OHIO DASH

R. Ferri Motorsport returns to Pirelli World Challenge GT this weekend with its No. 61 Ferrari 488 GT3 and Kyle Marcelli, rather than Alex Riberas, set to make his first Sprint race starts of the year. The talented Canadian was Riberas’ co-driver in SprintX this year prior to Riberas’ accident at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Other than a GTA entry with a gentleman driver in the older 458 at Road America, R. Ferri has been out of action since.

Marcelli recapped his late change of plans to get to Mid-Ohio this weekend: “Last week, on Wednesday, we’d been told we were done… and a day later on Thursday it was, we’re going to Mid-Ohio!” Marcelli raced with CRP Racing last year in the previous generation Audi R8 LMS ultra.

PAPPAS’ PRE-RACE PRESS RELEASE PUNDITRY

Speaking from experience and from the voluminous number received, it’s hard to make ordinary run-of-the-mill pre-race press releases interesting. Luckily when you’re your own team boss and driver and you employ the creative services of a PR group that not only allows but also embraces humor when the opportunity arises, you get a pre-race release gem from Black Swan Racing and owner/driver Tim Pappas for Mid-Ohio.

Pappas, not pleased with the series Balance of Performance adjustments that have seen the Mercedes-AMG GT3 hit with additional weight, promptly delivered this pre-race release this week.

The headline was “Black Swan Racing Determines Key Ingredients for Winning” and the three “ingredients” were these:

STEP ONE: Just find 80lbs to lose.
STEP TWO: Just find 6mph top speed.
STEP THREE: Collectively Beat Our Heads Against a Wall

The full release, in all its glory, can be found here.

2016 Knoxville Nationals champ Jason Johnson succumbs to injuries from sprint car crash

Photo courtesy Jason Johnson Racing official Facebook page
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Former Knoxville Nationals champion sprint car driver Jason Johnson has died from injuries suffered in a crash Saturday night in a World of Outlaws race at Beaver Dam (Wisconsin) Raceway).

Known as the “Ragin’ Cajun” for his aggressive style of racing, Johnson, 41, passed away this morning, according to an announcement by WoO. He was one of the most respected and well-liked drivers on the circuit by both fellow competitors and fans.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson, a Eunice, Louisiana resident, was racing for the lead in the main event on the one-third-mile clay track with eventual race winner Daryn Pitman, when Johnson crashed on Lap 18 shortly after a restart.

Johnson’s car left the track surface in Turn 3 and flew through at least one billboard adjacent to the racetrack, according to media and witness reports.

It took rescue workers several minutes to extricate Johnson, who was taken by ambulance to a local hospital before being airlifted to Aurora Summit Hospital in Summit, Wisconsin, according to the Journal Sentinel report.

How many will remember Johnson:

Johnson, who won the 2016 Knoxville Nationals – the sport’s biggest race – in Iowa in storybook fashion, had been a primarily part-time racer on various sprint car circuits from 1998 until he went full-time on the Outlaws series, capturing Rookie of the Year honors in 2015.

MORE: Knoxville win should be big boost to Jason Johnson’s season, career

Johnson had 12 wins on the Outlaws circuit, including two victories this season.

The Journal Sentinel also posted a statement from SLS Promotions, which promoted Saturday’s race:

“Everyone at SLS Promotions offers our deepest, most sincere thoughts, prayers and condolences to Bobbi Johnson (Jason’s wife), Jaxx Johnson (the couple’s son) and the entire Johnson family and JJR Racing team.

“Jason was a great competitor and true ambassador for the sport. It was an honor and a privilege to work with him during his time on the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series trail. Jason will never be forgotten”

Other notables also commented on his death on social media:

According to the Journal Sentinel, Johnson is the second driver in four years to die at the small track northwest of Milwaukee. In September 2014, Scott Semmelann, 47, was killed there while practicing for an Interstate Racing Association event.

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