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What Drivers Said after Saturday’s IndyCar qualifying at St. Petersburg

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Here’s what drivers — some excited, others dejected after their collective performances — had to say after Saturday’s qualifying for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the 2018 season-opening race for the Verizon IndyCar Series:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet): “Not the best qualifying for us. Everyone picked up more than I thought they would but, for us, it just wasn’t enough. I didn’t do a good enough lap and it’s a shame we weren’t able to capitalize more in our first session for the year, but I feel like we’ve got a great car. I’m really happy with the Chevrolet engine that we’ve got this weekend. I think we’ve got what it takes to win this race and it’s been fun driving the Hitachi car for the first time so, not the perfect way to start the weekend off, but I think we’ll have a good car.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I’m very happy with the whole team and with our performance throughout the whole weekend. I’m looking forward to my first INDYCAR race, my first time doing pit stops, saving fuel and saving tires, so I have a lot of things to learn yet. Tony (Kanaan, teammate) is a very special guy, he’s been helping me a lot, not just inside the track, but outside the track as well. And not just him, but A.J. (Foyt, owner), Larry (Foyt, team manager), and everyone on the team is helping me a lot because I’m a rookie. Tony is a very special guy and I’m super grateful to have him as a teammate. I grew up watching him and Helio (Castroneves), so having him as a teammate is a dream come true for me.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Obviously not the day we wanted on the No. 5 Arrow Electronics car. We got caught out by the rain there and only had one lap to get it done and transfer into the top six, which we only missed by a couple hundredths of a second. I’m pretty disappointed as the car is quick and Robbie (Wickens) proved that. Huge congratulations to everybody on the No. 6 car. It’s great to see the team rewarded for all their hard work. That was an amazing lap in really difficult conditions. He’s totally proven to everybody that he is a force to be reckoned with, and like I said, proves the car is fast, so hopefully we move up from seventh tomorrow.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I’m a little speechless. First off, Group 1 was dry and normal. The best of the best, you know, rises to the top, and I was happy to make it through. My goal going in to today was just a top 10. If I made Fast Six at all, it would have been amazing and the fact that we topped Q2 was already a surprise. From there I’m like, well, I’m in the top 6, let’s go and have some fun and somehow we had great strategy to get out right at the end, to get a lap on the track, in my opinion, when it was probably at its best. It was tough but the No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda was fantastic. My whole team behind me, we all kept our cool and we made the right changes for the wet there for the last qualifying and, yeah, we got it.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda): “We thought it would get drier as the qualifying session went on, so we elected to go with the black (Firestone primary) tires. The track felt good the first few laps, but then when the rain came it was all too late. Turn 1 was especially bad with the painted runway there. There were several cars that went off there, including myself in the PNC Bank car. So I think we just misread it there. The car is still really fast, though, and we’ll have some work to do to get to the front tomorrow. But we’re here to win and that’s the goal.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda): “This morning we struggled a bit with the car and we went back to what we had yesterday on the NTT DATA Honda. I felt more comfortable for qualifying, but we just missed advancing by a fraction. We had a car come out in front of us, which deterred our progress and that’s unfortunate. It’s frustrating in that sense, but we’ll see what the weather will bring tomorrow and how things will shake out.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “Starting up at the front is definitely better as far as getting through the first corner and that sort of thing. Obviously pole is the best position you can be in. It will be interesting. We don’t know how these cars race. I know they follow well, but I don’t think they draft that well. But yeah, very close (to pole position). I had a big mis-shift during my lap where I just got stuck in gear for quite a while, and then when I saw how tight it was, it was like, yeah, probably lost a tenth of a second or so there. Fantastic job by (Robert) Wickens, first time out, to get pole.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I am extremely happy with the team effort so far this weekend. We came here with the intention to put two ABC Supply Racing cars in the top 10 and we actually did one better, putting one in the top 10 and another in the top three. I am looking forward to the race tomorrow.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 United Rentals Honda): “I’m obviously disappointed. I got good signs out of the car in the back section, and I knew that the first lap on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) was supposed to be the really good one. Yesterday we didn’t get a good feel for that, but obviously I wanted to go out there and push hard, and I just came out of Turn 10 and stood on it. It seemed OK and the next thing I knew, it just went around. I’m disappointed clearly for everybody. I don’t know what the pace would have been, but it was giving me positive vibes. I thought that on the used blacks (Firestone primary tires), when others were on new blacks, we were pretty competitive, so I felt like going forward we should be half decent. I’m disappointed for the first race to start off this way but we can’t get too down on ourselves. We’ve just got to stay focused. Tomorrow is a new day and we are going to work hard to get the United Rentals car to the front. (Sebastien) Bourdais started last here last year and won. With the pit windows and the fuel strategy and everything else now, there are big opportunities, so we’ve just got to think through it.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda): “It’s frustrating. We were obviously pretty good on blacks (Firestone primary tire). We were P2. It was just the wrong timing for the red flag for us. When you are at the back of the pit lane, you can’t get a quick out lap. I passed one car and I picked up the next car in Turn 10, so I had to back off. You can’t get heat in your tires. I had one lap, but I was four or five tenths off my fastest lap by the time I got to Turn 1. I came back some, but one lap…one lap for everybody is fine, but the guys at the other end of the pit got a quick out lap, so they could put some heat in the tires and we didn’t.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 The Paysafe Car Honda): “It was a tough session. We worked on the car all day. We struggled a bit in the morning session and there are some places that I need to work on as well. That said, I’m confident we’ll be fine for tomorrow. I’m always better in the race. And judging by how the team did last year with the team starting in the back and Seb (Sebastien Bourdais) managing to win it, and his teammate was third for a lot of the race, so I’m confident we’ll be OK.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It’s good, but I still think we should have been a bit quicker. I’m really happy. It’s all gone well. We made some really good progress from the first time. I can’t grumble too much, but when there was potential to be a little higher up you can’t help, as a racing driver, to want a bit more. It was quite slippery at Turn 1, and actually at the back of the circuit, it was really quite dry. But unfortunately, I almost went off at Turn 10 on my first push lap. I came in on the last lap a little bit tentative and looking at the time (of the last lap), that’s why I’m a little bit like, well, it could be more. I can’t complain for my first time. I don’t want to put too much expectation on it. We’ve got a good car. If I do my job, I’m sure the rest will unfold nicely.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Autogeek Chevrolet): “It was a messy session there with the red flag, then trying to find a gap to get a good lap in. I made a few little mistakes; one area, I accidentally upshifted twice when I should have only done once that that cost us. Overall, I am just frustrated. Hopefully we can get the Autogeek car back up front tomorrow where we need to be.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “Mother Nature kind of got us today. The Menards Chevy was really good for qualifying but in the second round we just didn’t execute with our tires the right way for the rain we saw toward the end. We should have put on the red Firestone tires early on and that would have helped in the end. Instead we struggled to stay on track when it was wet and we couldn’t advance. The good news is we feel really good about the car for Sunday’s race and the Menards guys will work to get us up to the front.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Our qualifying result might not have been exactly what we wanted, but at the same time we made progress every session on-track especially during qualifying. The No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet has run without any mechanical issues this whole race weekend so far and that’s a credit to the work of Trevor (Carlin), Colin (Hale), and all the mechanics at Carlin. We’re making progress, we’re learning. With new bodywork, there’s a lot to learn aerodynamically and mechanically for everyone. We’re making good progress and we’re learning quickly. I know we’ll be ready to put a good, clean race together tomorrow.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): 
We just got a little bit too aggressive with the car today. There at the end, I think it was just down to the drivers figuring out, and I was quick around the rest of the track, but I just didn’t get it together in Turn 1 and 2, and that’s down to me. Every time I passed start finish, they kept telling me P1, P1, P1, and then it fell from there the last two laps. But good job for these guys, and obviously to (Robert) Wickens. He certainly sorted out Turn 1 and 2 out there. It was like running on ice. Somehow those runway strips – we’re sitting so low in the car. You can’t really place your car and try to get around them because they’re so wide you have to get over them, and you can’t see them until you’re on them. It was definitely tricky out there. I’m surprised we didn’t end up with any cars in the wall. Fun session, though. That’ll definitely keep you on your toes.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Panasonic Honda): “I enjoyed qualifying. Obviously it was tricky conditions and I wish I could have been little higher but I’m not complaining. The Firestone Fast Six is just the best place to be for the race. The guys did a tremendous job in very tricky conditions. They sent me out in the perfect time. It’s a little bit of a shame because being on the front row would have been nice but the important thing is to have a strong car in the race which I believe we have.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “My first qualifying attempt in the Verizon IndyCar Series was most interesting, but challenging as it was more or less my first use of the Firestone red (alternate tires) set. We used two sets of tires with only two push laps. My focus was on maintaining a decent pace and not to push it to the limit, and to also understand the course and get comfortable. We will continue to go over the data we gathered and focus on identifying a good race set up for tomorrow.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “That’s the end of our first INDYCAR qualifying effort for Carlin. Both cars made big improvements throughout the weekend. Every time we went out, we felt better about the car balance and overall performance. Both Charlie and I felt pretty happy with our laps, but we were just lacking the speed we needed to advance into the second round. We aren’t where we’d like to be quite yet, but the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet is now definitely in a place where I’m happy with the balance which gives us a good race car. I think we should do better in the race tomorrow and I’m really looking forward to green flag.”

JACK HARVEY (No. 60 AutoNation/Sirius XM MSR w/SPM Honda): “Our first set on Firestone reds (alternate tires) went pretty well. We just couldn’t improve the right amount on the second set to progress. For now, we will just try to understand why that happened and how we can work on that for next time. Where we are starting will give us the opportunity to move up which is great. Now we will just look at strategy and try to see what we can do to have a good race.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “I am so proud of this team. Everyone has worked tirelessly this offseason to get here, and I’m beyond happy that we were able to go out on track and qualify in the top 10, especially after some of the issues we had after Practice 1 yesterday. This team works hard and I’m so excited to finally get to race tomorrow for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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