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DiZinno: Reflecting on racing’s rapid month of change

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My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith and I have had an internal running joke about this year, where we insert another word in-between 20 and 17 to describe the sheer insanity in racing (among other world topics) this year has been.

The last month in particular, however, has brought more winds of seismic change to the motorsports landscape than any I’ve seen in 20-plus years as a fan, and 12 as a reporter.

No matter the discipline of motorsport, the tidal wave of change is coming – and it’s up to the series’ decision makers to work on the next steps for success.

NASCAR: Where fewer dollars make more sense in youth movement

KANSAS CITY, KS – OCTOBER 16: Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 16, 2016 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images)

NASCAR’s silly season in 2018 combines the elements of sponsors being willing to spend less money for a certain number of races, high-priced veterans out of contract and a glut of young talent now ready to break through all happening at once.

Boiled down simply by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will head to NBC Sports next year at the end of his full-time driving career, it’s a simple matter of economics.

“You can’t pay a driver $5 to $8 million a year if you ain’t got but $10 million worth of sponsorship. You can’t. That ain’t going to work. Guys aren’t getting $20, $30, $40 million a year on sponsorship. Owners aren’t getting that anymore,” Earnhardt Jr. said at Watkins Glen, via NASCAR Talk.

With young talent come cheaper price tags and a next generation of stars.

Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at least have multiple years under their belts. Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are developing in their first full seasons. Alex Bowman and William Byron arrive in their best opportunity full-time next year. One hopes others, such as Darrell Wallace Jr. for instance, get their shot as well.

The departures of Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle are there, and with Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch all facing free agency, suddenly there are a lot of fans that will need a new driver to support. The race will be on between these young guns to capture the enthusiasm to drive NASCAR’s major generational shift in one of the series’ grids biggest upheavals.

INDYCAR: A number of big questions loom, as internal excitement remains high

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series chassis in a Chevrolet livery. Photo: IndyCar

Quite how the Verizon IndyCar Series progresses for the final month of 2017 and into the start of 2018 is another big question mark.

There’s a championship to sort out first; starting with this weekend’s ABC Supply 500, there’s three races in as many weeks that should begin to sort out the realistic title contenders. With four races to play, seven drivers could lay claim to this year’s crown but there’s really four that are close, with three others on the fringe.

The title battle isn’t necessarily IndyCar’s top story heading into its final month of the year though, when looking at the big picture.

Three successful tests of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit have built excitement more about the future as the manufacturer aero kit era reaches, some would argue, its merciful conclusion after three years.

The question over Verizon’s continuation as title sponsor beyond 2018 lingers, and so too does the question of what the series will develop in regards to its new TV deal, which is also set to end after 2018. INDYCAR made several long-term partnership extension announcements at the start of the year (Dallara, Firestone, Honda and Chevrolet) but these two elements are ones that have to get sorted soon.

Additionally, with Long Beach now set to continue on the IndyCar calendar following a new agreement reached between the Long Beach City Council and the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, it sets into motion the question of what tracks get renewed next for long-term deals. INDYCAR has finally, after 20 years of upheaval in the schedule, reached stability and date equity with most tracks – this needs to be a priority going forward as tracks, promoters and the sanctioning body all look to keep working together.

F1: New owners, newer stars, and the rivalry we’ve been waiting for

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 15: Third place qualifier Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari talks with pole position qualifier Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in parc ferme after qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 15, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Formula 1’s major news tidal wave came earlier this year with the change at the top from Bernie Ecclestone to Liberty Media, the new group having made headlines and some interesting changes throughout the year. A focus on fans and a number of in-weekend changes have been the selling points.

Elsewhere it’s been the year on-track that’s been the top story with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel properly contending for this year’s title as the headline act. It feels as though this was predestined to occur at some point once Ferrari got its act together and now that it has, it’s forced Mercedes to raise its game after competing against each other. Valtteri Bottas has more than served as a capable replacement for outgoing World Champion Nico Rosberg, and bizarrely, Rosberg’s absence hasn’t loomed large over the season.

For the future, F1’s news peg could come with the emergence of more young – or revived – stars coming into the championship. The performances of Charles Leclerc in F2 and Lando Norris, the F3 teenager, have mouths watering; meanwhile a potential race return for Robert Kubica also has activated the hype train on full bore. Its post-2020 engine formula is also a talking point, although perhaps not immediately.

FORMULA E: The electric, supersonic manufacturer boom?

Photo: Steven Tee/LAT/Formula E

The FIA Formula E Championship has, in an incredibly short period of time, gone from a newly debuting mystery on the worldwide motorsport stage to a desired platform for manufacturers to enter into.

The recent confirmations that Mercedes-Benz (having also announced the end of its DTM program after 2018) and Porsche (having announced the end of its LMP1 program after 2017) will join the championship in future years, coupled with fellow German manufacturers Audi and BMW, and in addition to the already active manufacturers including Renault, Jaguar, DS, Mahindra and Venturi means this is now the “hotbed de jour” for manufacturers to develop electric technology to go into future road cars.

Quite how this sudden surge of manufacturer interest will further the series on a worldwide stage may come down to activation, as we’ve seen with booms and busts in other championships before. When a series has that high level of investment from sponsors or manufacturers, it takes off.

For the moment, while Formula E generates a wealth of internal buzz, it hasn’t yet ascended to the level of international consciousness beyond its hardcore participants, media and fans. The fascinating perspectives about Formula E’s evolution are outlined here in columns from Smith and Parker Kligerman, who were both in Red Hook for the New York City ePrix.

It’s a championship to watch going forward because of all this new involvement, but it must guard against a spending arms race and also find a way to make electric racing “sexy” and “cool” – a bit beyond the current product it has offered on display. It says something about the sheer shock of how different this series is when its crash compilation video for season three produces the loudest moments on the circuit, rather than the racing itself.

FIA WEC/LE MANS: Reset needed following Porsche’s LMP1 pullout

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 17: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout image provided by Red Bull, The #7 and #8 Toyota TS050`s lead the #1 and #2 Porsche 919`s at the rolling start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the third round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship at Circuit de la Sarthe on June 17, 2017 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

The writing has been on the wall for LMP1 hybrid the last couple years, as the evolution to the category all began after a fascinating few months in 2015.

By mid-summer 2015, a new LMP2 formula was introduced to debut this year, which reduced the number of constructors down to a maximum of four, but with higher top speeds having been produced from the standardized Gibson V8 engine. At the same time, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the LMP1 field featured 14 cars – a grid of three Audis, Porsches and Nissans apiece with a pair of Toyotas making up 11 hybrid entries, and three more privateer cars from Rebellion and ByKolles.

It’s all evolved from there. Nissan, whose ultimately one-off front-engined GT-R LM NISMO never ran with a working hybrid system, announced the end of its efforts in December of 2015. That came as the VW “diesel gate” scandal was beginning to take earnest and take root across all the VAG’s motorsport programs. It was always unsustainable that VAG would have competing manufacturers from under its parent company racing against each other; Audi’s drawdown came first at the end of 2016 and now, Porsche has announced its to do likewise at the end of this year.

Toyota now stands alone within the LMP1 hybrid space, still devoid of a Le Mans overall win and even if it achieves one next year, with the asterisk it will have come only against privateer competition within the category. It’s an unfortunate spot for the likable German-based team and Japanese manufacturer to be stuck in.

In its sixth season, the FIA WEC now meets a sincere fork in the road, with its road map to be announced next round at Mexico City a critical one to determine the next course of action for the championship without the majority of its marquee class present. Those next steps will determine whether the championship progresses forward down a sustainable, viable path or meet a similar fate as prior world sports car championships in the past.

IMSA, PWC: American sports car series look to seize their chances domestically

Photo courtesy of IMSA

It’d be hard to chronicle a better month for IMSA, and its headline IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, than what has taken place in its last month. The confirmation of two marquee prototype programs in Team Penske with Acura and Joest Racing with Mazda add an extra degree of legitimacy after what’s already been a successful debut year for the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) platform. A return to Mid-Ohio also is a strong news peg.

Meanwhile North America’s primary sprint race sports car series, Pirelli World Challenge, has grown its car count by leaps and bounds – but it’s also made a good thing that was easy to follow a bit more complex in recent years. As it continues to develop as a championship, it has to be careful not to loose the roots that made it so rich for growth in the first place, as it maneuvers or positions itself towards having more standalone weekends and SprintX races away from its classic, single-driver, 50-minute format.

The nice thing for both these series is there is room for both, and is avoiding overlapping, as they continue to evolve for 2018 and beyond.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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