INDYCAR: Alexander Rossi dominates, holds off Will Power to win Long Beach GP

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Alexander Rossi and his NAPA Honda dominated from start to finish to win Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Starting from the pole, Rossi led 71 of the 85 laps to earn his first win of 2018 and the third of his career, behind the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and Watkins Glen last season.

“I can’t really put into words how good the car was all weekend,” Rossi told NBCSN. “I think we proved that and I’m just so glad we were able to capitalize on that and nothing crazy happened.

“When the car’s that good, I don’t have to work so hard.”

Rossi, who won in his home state (he’s a native of Auburn, California, near Sacramento), finished with an average speed of 88.622 mph, taking the checkered flag with a 1.2413 second margin over runner-up Will Power.

“This is kind of like our second home race (Sonoma is his first home track),” Rossi said. “We had a lot of people here. It was really cool to be able to get them the result.

“They didn’t get to see me race in Europe, so the fact they’re here and we were able to get redemption on last year (engine failure relegated him to a 19th-place finish at Long Beach) is really special. I’m really happy.”

Rossi also takes a 22-point lead atop the Verizon IndyCar Series standings with his win.

Power gave the strongest challenge of any driver in the race to Rossi, using push-to-pass several times in the last 10 laps, but could not get enough to pass Rossi.

“They were definitely very good,” Power said. “That was absolutely driving as hard as I could go, and I’m sure that was as hard as (Rossi) could go, too.”

Second-year IndyCar driver Ed Jones of Chip Ganassi Racing finished third, followed by Rossi’s Andretti Autosport teammate, Zack Veach and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal.

It was Jones’ second podium in his brief IndyCar career. He finished third in last year’s Indianapolis 500.

“It’s great to be back up on the podium,” Jones told NBCSN. “Hopefully, this is the start of many.

“Long Beach has been good to me. I won here in Indy Lights, was sixth in IndyCar last year and third today. It’s been a good track for me and hopefully next year it’ll be a win for me.”

Veach was the highest-finishing rookie with his best IndyCar finish, including his first top-five and top-10.

“I’m just so thankful, this feels like a win,” Veach told NBCSN. “Our qualifying pace hasn’t been what we want it to be. It’s just putting that lap together is so tough in these things. I feel like once we got into the race, things started to flow our way.

“To be fourth in my fifth ever IndyCar race; hopefully we can get on the podium at Barber (next race, April 22) and keep going up from there.”

Sixth through 10th were Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti, Phoenix winner and Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden, Tony Kanaan of A.J. Foyt Racing, defending Long Beach winner James Hinchcliffe of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Charlie Kimball of Carlin Racing.

 

IN-RACE NOTES:

* On the first lap, heading into Turn 1, Graham Rahal got into the rear of Simon Pagenaud, appearing to break the rear suspension and ending his day. Rahal was given a drive-through penalty for the incident.

“It seemed like, felt like he never broke,” Pagenaud told NBCSN about Rahal. “It’s a real shame. It could be very costly in the championship.

“I don’t know what else we could have done. It’s on to the next one. I had a car to win the race. I don’t think anything is going to solve my pain, so it is what it is.”

Rahal tweeted an apology to Pagenaud after the race:

* Ryan Hunter-Reay also got some residual damage after his right front wing clipped the left rear tire of Scott Dixon when the field bunched together to avoid Pagenaud and Rahal. Hunter-Reay came back into the pits on the following lap to change the front wing.

Later, on Lap 47, Hunter-Reay suffered a flat left rear tie after touching tires with Jordan King. He was forced to pull aside and let the field go past as he limped his way to pit road.

* Robert Wickens, who came close to wins in the first two races, experienced gearbox problems after 25 laps, causing him to pit twice to make repairs, ending his hopes of potentially getting a win today.

* Kyle Kaiser added to his weekend woes when he stopped in Turn 8 on Lap 42. He actually was two laps down at the time of the incident.

* On Lap 60, rookie Zachary Claman De Melo wrecked, bringing out the caution.

* With about 22 laps to go, rookie Jordan King – who was on track for a potential top-five finish – had to pit to bleed the brakes on his car because he was having stopping issues.

* Scott Dixon had worked his way up to second place, but was forced to serve a drive-through penalty for stopping on pit road for service before he was allowed to do so under De Melo’s caution.

* On Lap 71, Sebastien Bourdais, Hunter-Reay, King and Wickens were involved in the fourth caution of the race. King made a rookie mistake by trying to squeeze past Bourdais on the inside of the hairpin turn and spun him, collecting Hunter-Reay and Wickens in the process. Everyone was able to get going except Wickens, who couldn’t get his car restarted.

* With 8 laps to go, Hunter-Reay’s rough weekend continued as he hit the wall, breaking a wing and damaging his suspension.

PRE-RACE NOTES:

* Coming into Sunday’s race, there had been different winners in the last six races at Long Beach.

* Scott Pruett, who retired from racing after this year’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, was grand marshal of the race and gave the command to start engines. And true to the form he became famous for in his career, he made sure to say “hi to my family back home” before giving the command.

* While this was the 44th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, it was the first without legendary racer Dan Gurney, who passed away in January at the age of 86. Gurney and promoter Chris Pook joined forces in 1973 to convince Long Beach officials to hold a race on the city’s streets along its ocean side. The Long Beach GP has gone on to be arguably the second most-popular IndyCar race in the U.S., next to the Indianapolis 500.

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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