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High speed, high grip: Watkins Glen poses unique test for IndyCar

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Last year’s return of the Verizon IndyCar Series to Watkins Glen International showcased ridiculous speed for the Chevrolet and Honda-powered cars. Trying to translate that beyond the cockpit is a tough task.

But consider on the repave of the 3.37-mile permanent road course in upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes region, average lap speeds – again, on a road course – were well north of 140 mph, and the slowest point around the track was just under 100 mph.

Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN) may only be 60 laps but it’s incredibly high on commitment and sheer speed.

“I thought about that leaving the test. How do we translate that to fans?” Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport, told NBC Sports.

“The workload is insane. The amount of commitment that you do going into a corner, Turn 5, we’re pulling over 3.5 G’s on a road course – which is freaking huge! You’re going in thinking it’s not right, and it’s still not right when you reach the Bus Stop.

“I won there in ’08 and it was an actual Bus Stop, it was a proper chicane. Now you barely break, you can barely see, you hit the curbs, your hair is on fire, and you’re swatting flies in the cockpit. By time you react you’re into the fifth gear right hander. It’s a lot of fun, with absolutely huge commitment. It’s probably the most commitment you have on a road course.”

Other drivers have extolled the speed and commitment required to this track, as well.

“The Glen to me is the best road course in North America, and I cannot wait to return to its flowing, high-speed and undulating bends this weekend,” said Max Chilton, driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, who’s an unabashed fan of the track.

“I think no one has ever said that Watkins Glen is an un-favorite track,” added Takuma Sato, driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda. “We all love it! This awesome track has a beautiful series of flowing, high-speed corners with great elevation changes, and overtaking is very possible. It’s just a fantastic road course.”

Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya. Photo: IndyCar

“Watkins Glen is a beautiful track. It has great history in Indy car (racing). It has lots of grip which makes it very interesting and very fast,” summarized Simon Pagenaud, driver of the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, the defending series champion.

This year’s weekend will see IndyCar run alongside all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires for the final time, with the Pro Mazda and USF2000 making their returns to the track after extended absences. The Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires is also present, as is Robby Gordon’s Stadium SUPER Trucks series. That’ll mean four different types of rubber go down, same as a couple other circuits this year, with Firestone joined by the Cooper, BFGoodrich and Toyo rubber. How cars react following each previous session will be interesting to watch.

Watkins Glen is the fifth of six permanent road course races on the schedule this year, and figures to race similarly to Road America earlier this year. All three MRTI series, plus MX-5 and Pirelli World Challenge all raced there.

Team Penske’s quartet dominated the weekend in practice and qualifying but got usurped by Scott Dixon in the race itself. Another such performance by Dixon here, at a track where he’s won four times before, would ensure he’ll keep the championship fight within a 30-point gap heading to Sonoma in two weeks.

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Dixon’s Watkins Glen weekend a year ago was something to behold as he led every single practice session before qualifying, won the pole, led morning warmup, and won the race after leading 50 of the 60 laps. The only thing he missed was fastest race lap, pipped by Tony Kanaan.

He reflected on it in the immediate aftermath.

“These are the weekends that you definitely don’t forget, just in the sheer fact of we had such a smooth one, which made it hard also going into the race,” he said. “We had been fast in practice, fast in qualifying, obviously got the pole. You just think of the problems and maybe strategy not going your way or maybe having a mechanical and taking you out of it.

“It was definitely a very dominant weekend, but I think when you’re in those weekends, too, your mind is just running crazy with possibilities and things that could go wrong, especially in the race. Yeah, I don’t know. As I said, I think we should race here more.”

What will be interesting to see for him this year is if the baseline car setup stays as on point with a Honda package this year as it was with a Chevrolet package last year. Dixon hailed the Chevrolet fuel economy – saying it seemed like a “Chevy Volt” engine was in the car – in addition to his nailing the pace from the off.

“There’s places that we know that we have a good baseline setup and a place that we can run strong at, and this is definitely one. We didn’t really change the car too much all weekend,” he said.

And what did he think of the physicality of the race itself?

“I like to think a lot of the tracks that we go to, the most physical ones are the bumpy ones, just because you’re correcting so much,” he explained. “The street courses have a lot of grip, but places like Mid-Ohio or Road America have a lot of character to them, so the braking zones are a little bumpy, the apexes, but the speeds and loads are high. Here it’s still very smooth and you’re not doing a whole lot of correcting.

“We had a 16- or 18-lap final stint while saving fuel, you know, the pace comes down a couple of seconds and the loading comes down a lot.

“Had this been a flat-out race, I think, throughout, which they may change I think the distance of the race next year just so it’s not so much of a — kind of a — you’re right in the middle of making it on fuel and making it pretty easy to be achievable but not being that slow. So next year they may change it by five or ten laps and see how that plays out.”

The race distance has not changed so that might mean a similar amount of fuel saving, but still a similar amount of commitment throughout the weekend.

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

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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