Tracy hails Newgarden’s integration, title push with Team Penske

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Like in his driving career, Paul Tracy isn’t afraid to give the verbal “chrome horn” during his NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series commentary if it’s needed. Watkins Glen, after all, was the site of Tracy’s famous one-liner last year that if Marco Andretti didn’t have a ride at Andretti Autosport, “his only other option was Uber.”

But he’s not afraid to bestow praise when it’s deserved, either.

Tracy’s tenure with Team Penske in the 1990s was a case of being a promising, talented young driver making his way against the establishment – in his case Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi as teammates – and not being afraid to rough it up if needed.

1 Mar 1996: Paul Tracy of Canada waits to go out on the track in his Penske PC25 Mercedes-Benz IC108C during practice for the IndyCar Miami Grand Prix at the Metro-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex in Homestead, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondea

Enter Josef Newgarden, who with his pass for the win last Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park on teammate Simon Pagenaud, may well enter Penske lore as a series champion following his most decisive pass for the lead yet in IndyCar, against an established teammate.

The Gateway pass, occurring at more than 180 mph into Turn 1 of an oval, stands out even more than his pass on Will Power for the lead at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which Tracy’s fellow NBCSN analyst Townsend Bell called “legendary” on that broadcast.

“For sure it was a risky pass that Newgarden took. But the door was open, and it was barely enough to get through, and Newgarden said, ‘Okay, the door is cracked open just enough for me to get through, I’ll kick it open the rest of the way,’ and I don’t think Pagenaud liked that very well,” Tracy told reporters on a conference call previewing this weekend’s NBCSN motorsports tripleheader from Monza (7 a.m. ET), Watkins Glen (1 p.m. ET) and Darlington (6 p.m. ET).

“He felt he had the move covered. He was frustrated after the race, and frankly he kind of gave the race away. He could have closed the door down a little bit more, but he left it just enough open for Newgarden to come through.”

Tracy said Newgarden, now in his sixth season in the championship, has fulfilled the potential evident in his early years – and he knew he had his eye on him from as early as his rookie season, when a passing attempt for the lead on Dario Franchitti went awry at Long Beach in 2012.

“He’s not new to the series. He’s been around for four or five years now, and when he first came in to the series with Sarah Fisher, I knew right away just watching him on track that he was a tremendous talent,” Tracy said.

“He had a lot of talent, a lot of speed. He was brave, and I had said a couple years ago when he was driving for Fisher and the team was folding — about to go on the brink of folding up (eventually merged with Ed Carpenter Racing for one season to form CFH Racing, then reverted back to ECR in 2016 -Ed.), I said, you know, publicly in an interview that somebody like Penske or Ganassi needs to give this kid a chance because he’s the real deal, and it didn’t happen at that point, and he got picked up by Ed Carpenter, and he obviously had a great couple years with him, and then really started to kind of come into his own in terms of the speed and got some wins last year.”

Considering the number of drivers that have passed through Team Penske’s halls, what followed next from Tracy was really high praise, following a meeting he, Bell and Kevin Lee had with Roger Penske pre-race last week at Gateway.

“I said to Roger, I said, ‘This kid is like — he’s the whole deal. He’s American, he’s good-looking, he’s fast, he’s brave as hell, he gets all the sponsors in, he goes to all the sponsor events and loves doing it.’

“He moved down to the shop. He’s in the shop every day with the guys. He’s with his engineers at dinner. He’s everything that you would want as a driver, and Roger completely agreed with me.

“He goes, ‘I haven’t had a guy in a long time that has integrated himself into our team as quickly as Josef has done in six months.’”

High praise indeed. Pagenaud backtracked earlier Thursday at a media luncheon when he sought to downplay any tension. Tracy, who spoke to Newgarden earlier this week, said he’s past it and Pagenaud needs to do the same if he is to retain his championship crown – or risk losing it to his new teammate, the points leader, in his first year at Team Penske.

“I think having looked at it in hindsight and having spoken to Newgarden this week, I had a conversation with him, and you know, they had a little bit of a — not an argument but a disagreement after the race, and he was reminded of the fact that he pulled the same kind of move on Power at Mid-Ohio the year before and hit him wheel-to-wheel and pushed him off the track for the win in the closing laps of Mid-Ohio. So he kind of had selective memory of some moves he made,” Tracy said.

“So I think having thought about it now for a week, he’s probably over it, and he knows he needs to win the next two races if he’s going to win the championship, and you’ve got to move on.”

Hunter and Jett Lawrence walk a delicate balance between winning races and favoring the fans

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ANAHEIM, California – Hunter and Jett Lawrence are two of the most popular riders on the Monster Energy Supercross circuit, with fan bases that established and grew immediately when they came to America to ride for HRC Honda. Connecting with those fans came naturally for the charming Australian brothers, but it has not come without cost.

“It’s cool they’re there and it’s one of the things we try to do is give the fan that interaction,” Hunter told NBC Sports during Supercross Media Sessions ahead of the 2023 season. “It’s why we do ride days, meet-and-greets, press conferences  – all that stuff, because it’s exciting for them. We are trying to bridge the gap so they get personal interaction. Because that’s all they’re after. It’s all about getting that fan to think, ‘I know that guy. I didn’t meet him, but I get him. I get his humor.’ ”

There is no artifice in either brother. Their fan appeal is directly attributable to who they are at their core. And it’s that very genuineness that has throngs of fans standing outside their hauler, waiting for just a moment of their time.

“It’s about being yourself – talking to people,” Hunter said. “It’s not like I turn it on or turn it off; it’s just about being yourself. This is who we are, this is who you get and this is how it will be. You can’t portray something you’re not. If you keep saying you’re an orange, but apples keep popping out, it’s only a matter of time [until they figure it out].”

The key word is ‘throngs’, however. One person wanting just a few moments of time is incidental. Dozens are an entirely different matter.

“It’s tough in Supercross because it’s such a long day,” Hunter said. “The recovery side of it’s tough to do everything. We get stuck outside the grid; we can’t be there for like 10 minutes. We’re stuck there for like an hour. It gets overwhelming at times.

“You feel bad because you want to sign everything, but you’re still here for a job. Every race day is like that. We do the best we can, but there are so many people who wait out front. They’re screaming for you. Even when we’re coming off the sessions, they’re already yelling before you put your bike on the stands. You don’t even get time to take you helmet off.”

It can be a double-edged sword. Personality is only one part of the equation. A much bigger part of the brothers’ fan appeal comes because of their success. Hunter finished second in the last two Supercross 250 West title battles and third in the past two Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championships.

Jett won the last three titles he competed for, including last year’s 250 East Supercross Championship and the last two Motocross contests.

“I think they expect me to have nothing else to do on a Saturday and that I have unlimited energy,” Jett said. “But, I’m trying to recover for the next race.”

It’s a matter of timing. Jett has gained a reputation last year for handing out hundreds of donuts before the races during Red Bull fan appreciation sessions. And after the race, once the business at hand has been settled, Jett is equally available to the fans.

“After the race it’s fine; I’ll stay behind.” Jett said. “My job is done on the racing side of things, but until that last moto is done, my main thing is dirt bikes. The fans come along with it. The fans are part of the job, but main job at hand is the racing side of things. After the race, I’ll stay there for an hour or so. It’s a lot calmer.”