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Sonoma weekend, Thursday and Friday notes

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SONOMA, Calif. – There have been a lot of things happening at Sonoma Raceway this weekend for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

So, here’s some bullet points of what they are:

  • Wednesday’s pre-weekend event was held at Ram’s Gate Winery with the top five championship contenders.
  • As it stands, is GoPro’s last year as title sponsor of the race. It took over as title sponsor prior to the 2012 race. GoPro has activated here over the years with a number of interesting course videos.
  • Honda had its final media availability of the year at its hospitality tent today, with Honda Performance Development President Art St. Cyr providing updates on Honda’s engines for 2018 as well as its two Acura sports car programs – the NSX GT3 program which moves to a customer program in 2018, and the new ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) program, which comes online next year. St. Cyr confirmed three Acura NSX GT3s have been sold. Further information about what else Honda brought to light from this availability, beyond its existing teams and car count, will be posted in the coming days.
  • There are lots of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veterans here this weekend making the rounds. Zachary Claman DeMelo makes his debut, while Kyle Kaiser, Zach Veach, Santiago Urrutia, Matheus Leist and RC Enerson are all making themselves visible doing a mix of media, meetings or driving. Veach and Enerson have been on two-seater duty.
  • Kaiser was busy today in a number of roles, thanks to tireless efforts from Andersen Promotions PR ace Diane Swintal. Between getting interviewed by Katie Hargitt during NBCSN’s second IndyCar practice session, and additionally by NBCSN’s Anders Krohn for an upcoming episode of the digital Paddock Pass show, talking to both local and national media in the media center, completing an IndyCar Nation Q&A with USF2000 champion Oliver Askew, hosted by Trackside Online’s Steve Wittich, and challenging yours truly to a type-off in the media center, Kaiser was plenty busy without actually being in a car. It remains to be seen when the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion makes his IndyCar test debut.
  • Askew and fellow Rising Star Racing driver Neil Alberico were both able to visit Facebook HQ earlier this week, thanks to Klipsch.
  • Meanwhile IndyCar PR rep Arni Sribhen coined, in tribute to Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network pit reporter and the “voice of the Mazda Road to Indy” Rob Howden, “Back-to-Back Zachs” in the media center this afternoon on his birthday. That line is a play-on-words of one of Howden’s favorite sayings, “Back-to-Back Jacks” when a driver wins two races, and almost close to Howden’s trademark “Book it!” line for passes. Anyway, the “Zach” line occurred as Claman DeMelo and Veach completed back-to-back press conferences this afternoon.
  • Claman DeMelo, who confirmed his second part of his last name doesn’t have a space between the De and Melo, told a very interesting story about why he races with No. 13, which this week is the No. 13 Paysafe Honda. “My grandmother got freed from the Holocaust on Friday the 13th and the numbers on her arm all added up to 13, so it’s always been a lucky number for me my whole life, so I’ve always worn it all throughout karting and all the series I’ve raced.”
  • Claman DeMelo didn’t rule out a return to Indy Lights for a third year, but is targeting a step-up to IndyCar. “I think IndyCar is my main goal at the moment. I’m not opposed to doing another year of Indy Lights. If that’s what I need to do, I’ll definitely do it. I think winning the championship would be nice for me, nice for my résumé and just showing that I can win the championship and I do deserve to be in IndyCar, but IndyCar is still my goal, but if I have to do another year of lights, I’m definitely not opposed to it.”
  • For Veach, today was a culmination of months of waiting since signing with Andretti Autosport for his full-time IndyCar bow. What wasn’t necessarily expected was the sponsor, Group One Thousand One, announced alongside. Group One Thousand One is formerly known as Delaware Life Holdings, is a newly-rebranded insurance holding company in the United States, with current combined assets under management of approximately $37 billion. Group One Thousand One includes Delaware Life Insurance Company and its subsidiaries and affiliates, including Delaware Life Insurance Company of New York.
  • Dan Towriss, CEO, Group One Thousand One, confirmed Guggenheim Life and Annuity Company is a separate company from Group One Thousand One, although is a similar Indianapolis-based financial company. Guggenheim was the presenting sponsor of Veach’s Indy Women in Tech Championship Chevrolet for A.J. Foyt Enterprises at this year’s Indianapolis 500. “I have multiple companies I run. So these are separate deals; it’s a separate organization,” he explained. Veach and Towriss had met prior to their Indianapolis 500 program being announced at Long Beach this year.
  • Towriss described his and Veach’s working relationship: “So we met Zach earlier this year and we formed a relationship and really just quickly identified in Zach a lot of shared values that are important to us, and as that relationship grew and the opportunity came to be involved with Michael and with Andretti Autosport, we just saw a match there for us that was perfect. We loved the way Zach will represent our brand, and we think, again, those shared values will be key to that.”
  • Good news, Johnny O’Connell led practice for Pirelli World Challenge. Bad news, he may be needing to go to a backup car after an accident in practice. Per PWC: “Unfortunately, O’Connell’s Cadillac made contact with the turn six wall in the afternoon practice and the Cadillac Racing team is currently assessing the damage for Saturday’s Qualifying round and Round 18 50-minute race.
  • “It doesn’t happen often but everyone falls off and I’m disappointed in myself (for the crash),” said O’Connell, a 20-race winner in PWC GT competition.  “I just understeered into turn six and hit a bump.  The next thing I know I was in the air and face first into the wall. Very grateful that Cadillac Racing builds one heck of a strong car. That was a huge one.  I haven’t had a huge one like that since my IndyCar days (in the 1990s).”

There’s more to write, but it’s already about 9:30 p.m. ET. So, more later.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).