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Fernando Alonso, Lance Stroll add Formula 1 flavor to Roar Before the Rolex 24

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Given that the Rolex 24 takes place in January, when most other racing series are in their off seasons, it often draws in drivers from a number of championships outside of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. While most one-off drivers come from INDYCAR or NASCAR, and the various series they sanction, other series also are represented, such as the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Yet, one series is consistently unrepresented in terms of its full-time drivers making the trek over for the Rolex: the Formula 1 World Championship. While many drivers on the grid have Formula 1 experience on their resume, rarely do current drivers on the F1 grid make an appearance at the 24-hour endurance race.

However the 2018 iteration sees a change in that vein as a pair of full-time Formula 1 drivers, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and second-youngest ever podium finisher Lance Stroll, are set to enter the event, Alonso with United Autosports and Stroll with Jackie Chan DC Racing, with both scheduled to be at this weekend’s Roar Before the 24.

In terms of fanfare, Alonso arrives with possibly the most among any of the drivers entered in this year’s Rolex. His entry at the Rolex 24 is a continuation of an American odyssey that began last May when he made a surprise appearance at the Indianapolis 500, kicking off his personal journey to complete the triple crown – victories at the Monaco Grand Prix (of which Alonso has two), the Indianapolis 500, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Although Alonos’s Indy 500 effort ended on lap 179 with an engine failure, he endeared himself to many by simply making an attempt, and he handled every challenge with dignity, humility, and even humor, and he quickly became a fan favorite.

Now making the jump to sports cars, Alonso’s Rolex 24 entry is widely regarded as a tuneup of sorts for a possible venture to this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. United Autosports confirmed Alonso’s Rolex entry in October, and the 36-year-old completed his first outing with the team in a November test.

Alonso’s transition has appeared seamless and has undoubtedly helped the fact that the United Autosports team co-owner, Zak Brown, also serves as executive director for the McLaren Technology group, the parent company of McLaren F1 Team, with whom Alonso competes in Formula 1. Brown lauded Alonso’s initial test with United Autosports, calling his effort “awesome.”

Alonso will share the No. 23 Ligier LMP2 Gibson with Phil Hanson and Lando Norris, newly named as the McLaren F1 test and reserve driver.

While Alonso may receive a lot, if not the most media attention of all the drivers, his full-time F1 counterpart Lance Stroll is not to be forgotten. The irony here is that Stroll, who is 17 years younger than Alonso, is actually the more experienced of the two when it comes to the Rolex 24.

Canada’s Lance Stroll will join fellow Formula One driver Fernando Alonso in this weekend’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 (Getty Images).

Stroll previously contested this event in 2016 with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing in a Daytona Prototype. Though his apprenticeship wasn’t exactly smooth sailing that year – he crashed at that year’s Roar test – Stroll did eventually finish fifth overall with co-drivers Alexander Wurz, Brendon Hartley, and Andy Priaulx.

Stroll enters this year’s Rolex 24 with Jackie Chan DC Racing, which operates in a partnership with JOTA Sport. Stroll is slated to partner Felix Rosenqvist, Daniel Juncadella, and Robin Frijns, with all four include on the entry list for the Roar.

Outside of Alonso and Stroll, there are other drivers currently aligned with Formula 1 teams who will appear at the Rolex 24, beginning with this weekend’s Roar. One is the aforementioned Lando Norris, a McLaren junior driver who recently claimed the FIA European Formula 3 championship along with being named McLaren’s test and reserve driver. Norris will share the No. 23 United Autosports entry with Alonso, as previously described.

Additionally, 2017 Williams test and reserve driver Paul Di Resta will also feature at the Rolex 24, in the sister United Autosports No. 32 entry, and is entered at the Roar entry list alongside Will Owen, Hugo de Sadeleer, and Bruno Senna.

Of note, Di Resta is in for a busy January, as he will also be a part of the FIA Formula E rookie test next weekend in Marrakesh before returning to the U.S. for the Rolex 24.

The opening practice for this weekend’s Roar Before the 24 kicks off at 11:00 a.m. EST on Friday.

Follow@KyleMLavigne

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 

NHRA: How this weekend’s championship battles shape up

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After nine months and 23 races, the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season all comes down to this: one race for the championship.

This weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, California will crown champions in a number of classes, most notably the four professional ranks of Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

This weekend’s race is one of only two – the other is the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day Weekend – that offers drivers 1.5 times as many points as they earn in the season’s other 22 races.

To give you a better idea of how valuable those extra points are, here’s how they break down for all four classes: Winner (150 points), runner-up (120 points), third-round loser (90), second-round loser (60) and first-round loser (30 points).

Drivers also earn qualifying points: 10 for first, 9 for second, 8 for third, 7 for fourth, 6 for fifth and sixth, 5 for seventh and eighth, 4 for ninth through 12th and 3 for 13th through 16th.

In addition, every driver that qualifies earns 15 points each. Plus, performance bonus points are awarded for each qualifying session for: low elapsed time of each session (4 points), second-quickest (3 points), third-quickest (2 points) and fourth-quickest (1 point).

Here’s a quick breakdown of what – and more importantly, who – to watch for in those four pro categories:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence is going for his second consecutive championship. But the route to this year’s title has not been nearly as easy as it was last year, when Torrence became the first driver in NHRA history to sweep all six races of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Steve Torrence (Photo: NHRA)

Torrence has still had a very strong season, but his championship hopes are anything but secure. He leads 2017 champion Brittany Force, who has come on strong late in the season, by a mere 16 points coming into this weekend.

And don’t count out third-ranked Doug Kalitta, who at 55 points behind Torrence is less than two rounds of points away from taking the top spot if Torrence is upset. Kalitta is seeking his first career Top Fuel championship.

Mathematically at 86 points behind, even fourth-ranked Billy Torrence – Steve’s father – is still in contention, although it would take a complete first- or second-round meltdown in Sunday’s four final rounds of eliminations by his son, Force and Kalitta for dear old dad to rally to win the championship.

Still, that’s the beauty of NHRA racing: anything can happen.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight is aiming for his third championship but has some of the best in the class all still within striking distance heading into this weekend.

Robert Hight (Photo: NHRA)

Hight, who is president of John Force Racing when he isn’t hurtling down a drag strip in his AAA Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro, leads a pair of Don Schumacher Racing drivers, Jack Beckman (46 points behind Hight) and Matt Hagan (-56).

And don’t rule out 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, who is 72 points behind his teammate. Force needs to win the race, as well as have Hight, Beckman and Hagan all lose in the first two rounds, to potentially earn his 17th championship.

Still in it mathematically is Bob Tasca III, but at 104 points behind Hight, he would likely have to be No. 1 qualifier, set both ends of the speed and elapsed time national records, and have the four drivers in front of him all be eliminated in the first or second rounds.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders has a very healthy lead in her quest for a third Pro Stock championship.

Erica Enders (Photo: NHRA)

Enders leads teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. by 92 points heading into this weekend.

Three other drivers are mathematically still in the running, but if Enders gets past the second round, they’ll be eliminated unless they potentially go on to victory.

Those three drivers – who are separated by just five points – are 2017 champion Bo Butner (113 points behind Enders), Jason Line (-116) and Matt Hartford (-118).

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: About the only way Andrew Hines fails to clinch his sixth career PSM championship is if he fails to qualify for Sunday’s finals, is kidnapped by one of his rivals or simply doesn’t show up.

Andrew Hines (Photo: NHRA)

Fat chance of any of those things happening.

Hines has a commanding 115-point lead over 2016 champion Jerry Savoie.

Right behind is three-time champ Eddie Krawiec (-116 points), leads last year’s PSM champion, Matt Smith, by 117 points and has a 124-point edge over Karen Stoffer.

Follow @JerryBonkowski