Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Thompson, Exclusive Autosport double up at Griffis test

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The shining light among Canadian drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires is Parker Thompson, the 19-year-old out of Red Deer, Alberta who completed his third season in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda this year.

Thompson had perhaps the busiest weekend of any driver at last weekend’s Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as one of three drivers (Aaron Telitz, Carlos Cunha) who balanced driving in two series.

For Thompson, the return to the Griffis test for the first time since 2014 – when he was a then-unheralded 16-year-old making his debut with JDC Motorsports in advance of a season where he overachieved as a one-car entry in his 2015 rookie year – proved a major milestone in his career. The Griffis test is always the first look at the next year of what the MRTI will look like and after missing the 2016 test and not knowing what his future may hold within the ladder system, being back on track and as busy as he was was a welcome relief.

“I was so smiley around the paddock, even more than normal!” Thompson told NBC Sports. “Last year I had no options for Griffis to test. So I’m sitting at home in my office, watching the timing & scoring on my computer! So that was a big turning point to be not at the test.

“Coming back, I know how grateful I am to be back in a seat. I’m not sure where I’ll be yet but I know I’m hopeful to have a seat, and being with Exclusive Autosport, I couldn’t be in a better spot than here to showcase myself.”

Michael Duncalfe’s Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based team made an immediate positive impact on the MRTI paddock, running up to four USF2000 cars in its first season last year but mainly two or three, with Thompson as its lead driver. He ended the year on a roll with three wins in the last five races, including a popular weekend sweep in Toronto. Unfortunately his title charge was blunted by mechanical issues outside his and the team’s control.

The new Tatuus PM-18. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Alas, Exclusive has now acquired two of the Tatuus PM-18 chassis for Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires next year, with one car that was all set from day one of the test and the second built up Saturday by the Exclusive crew before its maiden shakedown Saturday afternoon.

It meant Thompson, who’d initially only planned to test the USF2000 Tatuus USF-17 last weekend, would then be thrust into double duty with both cars, and always carrying his seat insert between the two cars. With USF2000 and Pro Mazda sessions back-to-back, Thompson wasn’t just making laps on track, but he was gathering a lot of steps to-and-from the paddock between cars.

“The USF2000 was the primary plan to have a refresher in that car, and help develop the next generation of Exclusive Autosport drivers,” Thompson said. “So heading to Indianapolis I didn’t know if I would be in the Pro Mazda. But Michael Duncalfe pulled some strings. He managed to get (the second) car within a week’s notice.

“The crew pulled a couple big nights getting the car together. It was almost ready when I got there, and they completed a few final finishing touches on Saturday before I could jump in fully. The crew did an awesome job to get a tub and engine two days before the event to piece it together, and it ran flawlessly Sunday. I was gracious to get to drive both when I thought it’d be only one!”

Even more impressive was how quickly the new car was on the pace. Barely half a second off Oliver Askew’s leading time on old Cooper Tires, Thompson’s engineer then stuck him on a set of sticker Coopers in Session 5 on Sunday morning, which propelled Thompson to a 1:19.9815 best lap – just 0.1673 of a second off Askew’s best time of the weekend at 1:19.8142 at the 2.439-mile road course.

Thompson was the only USF2000 veteran to really get on top of the new USF-17 chassis in that series this year, as it moved on from the Van Diemen. Other USF2000 veterans either struggled for consistent pace, or ran out of funding midseason. Stepping up to the PM-18, which Thompson is targeting to race next year, revealed a car more attuned to his driving style.

The Tatuus USF-17. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“It actually suits my driving style better than the USF car,” Thompson said. “I’m pretty aggressive and the new Pro Mazda seems to love that. The more you are pushing under the brakes, and rolling through the corner on power, the better it gets. If you’re not on the knife edge it doesn’t feel proper. You need the extra speed for the aero; you need the extra G-force in the corners for the car to work mechanically. The USF2000 car didn’t need it.

“I had the experience of jumping back and forth, so you had to switch up your style every time. The USF2000 is more about finessing the car; you want to keep the (corner) roll speed up. You can be aggressive but it’s a different type of aggression. The Pro Mazda car, you can unleash the anger, and it’s much better on the stopwatch!”

Nikita Lastochkin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Thompson also had a chance to reunite with Los Angeles-based Russian teammate Nikita Lastochkin in Exclusive’s Pro Mazda entry. The two were teammates with Cape Motorsports in USF2000 in 2016 and are working towards an encore of that with Exclusive in Pro Mazda next season.

“It was great to work with Nikita again,” Thompson said. “We worked with Cape a couple years ago. He’s been one of my best teammates. Off the track you can be so open. At end of the day that allowed us to develop the car so quickly. That’s a team effort. Props to Nikita for working well together and hopefully I get to work more with him.”

Thompson, who also conducts anywhere from 50 to 100 events annually for his Drive To Stay Alive campaign – a program meant to cut down on distracted driving – again hailed Exclusive’s program and also offered a suggestion to a team trying to own the “Team Canada” moniker: IndyCar operation Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

“Compared to any other team, for a rookie team, Exclusive Autosport and Michael Duncalfe have, like you said, jumped in with both feet,” he said. “They’ve been a huge supporter for MRTI. He’s shown the commitment level and it’s the place to be, where the next drivers for IndyCar will come from. It fits perfectly with his 1600 program. We have a ‘mini IndyCar program,’ to grab drivers out of karting, then move them onto our own ladder. He’ll have a great farm team for future IndyCar drivers because of the dedication.

“It’s too funny you bring that up. I talked with Michael this weekend. So we have to trademark, ‘Eh team.’ We came up with the hashtag off the Canadian phrase, and people get pretty used to it when they’re around me. We wanted to trademark it… so we’re worried this new ‘Team Canada’ might take it!

“But I’m happy Canada is getting more awareness of racing; that’s what James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens will do. So more will watch in Canada. I’m happy there’s another Team Canada. And with more of a Canadian presence in IndyCar, I think that’ll help me in the future.

“Hopefully by the time I’m ready for that jump to IndyCar, we’ll have more fans. It’ll benefit all of us.”

Thompson. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photogrpahy

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500