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Roger Penske: Guarantee full-time IndyCar drivers starting spots in Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Roger Penske has a very simple solution for the predicament the Indianapolis 500 created when one of its most popular drivers, James Hinchcliffe, was bumped from the field during qualifying last weekend.

Teams that run the entire season should be guaranteed spots in the biggest race of the year.

“As I look at it now,” the Hall of Fame team owner said, “with sponsors being so important and the teams building up for Indianapolis, and that really being the hallmark of probably your sponsorship running at Indy, it’s a real tough pill to take if you don’t make the race.”

Indeed, one of the largest tents on the infield of Indianapolis Motor Speedway carries the logo of Arrow Electronics, the primary sponsor on Hinchcliffe’s car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Hinchcliffe is also one of the faces of IndyCar, not to mention engine supplier Honda and several other sponsors, and commercials featuring him continued to air even after he missed the field.

“I think we need to step back and look at this and be sure that people who commit for a full season know they have a place in the Indy 500,” Penske said, “because the world has changed.”

NASCAR learned long ago the importance of keeping sponsors happy. So while it’s common to have more cars attempt to qualify on a week-to-week basis than could fit in its field, the sanctioning organization implemented a charter system that assures a spot for the full-time teams.

Purists might argue that bump day is a part of the Indy 500 mystique, and that it adds a crucial wrinkle of drama to qualifying weekend. The race against the clock to make the field of 33 can be just as heartbreaking as anything that happens when the green flag drops Memorial Day weekend.

Penske has experienced that heartache, missing out on the field entirely one year.

He understands the importance of keeping bump day alive, and the fact that 35 cars were vying for 33 spots shows the health of the sport. But he also thinks there could be a compromise where perhaps the last 10 or so spots – after the full-time teams get theirs – would be left open for anyone to grab.

“I don’t think anybody would think we’re breaking with tradition,” said Penske, adding that already he’s spoken with Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles and IndyCar President Jay Frye about potential changes.

“In ’94 we didn’t make the race. I remember walking out of pit lane with 100,000 people qualification day and going back to my garage and it was a real blow,” Penske said. “On the other hand it made us better going forward. This is a place you want to race and you have to be there going in.”

Guaranteed spots isn’t the only idea that has floated through the garage area.

Several drivers mentioned eliminating double points for the Indy 500 – or eliminating points entirely – which would have made the blow to Hinchcliffe’s team a bit more palatable. Others said they wanted a true bump day to return to Indy, where the field is set Saturday with the last few spots available Sunday.

That would also make it more likely for the top teams to survive.

“It’s so exciting to watch, just unbelievable,” 2014 series champ Will Power said. “Very sad for Hinchcliffe. He’s in the championship and it’s a double points race and he doesn’t get to race. But on the other hand, you can’t take all this lightly. There are serious consequences for small mistakes.”

Penske would just prefer the consequences be a bit less serious.

“I feel good about what’s going on with the cars, the technology, the cost,” he said. “I think this is just one thing they’re going to have to tweak.”

After thrilling ‘Evel Live,’ Travis Pastrana back in action this weekend

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It’s been 2 ½ months since Travis Pastrana channeled his inner Evel Knievel in “Evel Live” in Las Vegas on July 8.

The legendary motorcycle stunt rider and rallycross driver successfully replicated three of Knievel’s most infamous career motorcycle jumps, capped off by jumping – some would call it flying – over the fountain at Caesar’s Palace.

All without a scratch or any type of malfunction.

“It was awesome,” Pastrana told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk in an exclusive interview. “Obviously, to do something live, a live stunt which hasn’t been done, is cool.

“And just the nostalgia, to live a day in Evel Knievel’s boots, literally, was awesome. To have the whole Knievel family out there, his three kids, and my mom and dad all out there, it was just a real awesome day.

“And to have the chance to jump the Caeser’s (Palace) fountain, probably the most infamous and iconic stunt location in the world. All that added up to be a really, really great event and I think it came off really well.”

MORE: Travis Pastrana successfully completes all three of Evel Knievel’s most famous jumps

MORE: Travis Pastrana’s goal to replicate 3 of Evel Knievel’s most famous jumps: ‘Try not to die’

LAS VEGAS, NV – JULY 08: Travis Pastrana peforms during HISTORY’s Live Event “Evel Live” on July 8, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for HISTORY)

Pastrana spoke at length about the logistics of setting up the three jumps in two different venues, getting from Point A in one part of Las Vegas to Point B (Caesar’s), and dealing with potential weather concerns.

“That’s the greatest part about Nitro Circus (Pastrana’s company) is having an amazing team so that when an idea like this comes up, we can make it turn into fruition and a possibility,” Pastrana said. “The idea came up less than a year before it was pulled off.

“I couldn’t have been more proud of my team and all the guys there. When we called Caesar’s, we thought for sure they were going to say no. Then they said yes.

“Then we talked to the Knievel family and they said, ‘this is going to be great. Go ahead.’ It was like, be careful for what you ask for because it just happened. And then we had a bike just like Evel’s, although a more modern day (version).”

While Pastrana and his team pulled off everything seamlessly, there was a lot of worry and concern, especially on Pastrana’s part, since he was the focal point of the stunt, which was televised live.

“I didn’t sleep at all the night before,” he said. “And then everything just worked out. It’s what you hope for, for sure. But with every race, every event, everything, there’s always something like a $5 part break in a half-million dollar vehicle. Something always goes wrong.

“The fact that everything went as well as it could – I mean, they were calling for 80 percent chance of rain with wind gusts up to 60 mph (on the day of the event).

“And the storm kind of went 20 miles south, it didn’t get that windy, and you have to think to yourself, ‘Man, that was a live event, and representing Evel Knievel, the stunt man of Vegas, you’ve gotta go for it.’”

Pastrana vowed to perform the stunts rain or shine. But if it had rained, he had his doubts that he’d be able to pull it off.

“Successfully, probably not,” the 34-year-old Pastrana said with a laugh. “That was the thing, what I had said coming up to it.

“When Evel got to Wembley Stadium (to do his infamous 13-bus jump in 1975), he said, ‘Look, the busses are bigger than they are in the U.S., I miscalculated the distance, this bike is not going to go as fast as I thought it would go. I’m not going to make it, but I told you guys I was going to put on a show, and I’m going to deliver.’

“That’s why I wanted to be the guy on this particular stunt. I can’t tell someone else when there are bad conditions or the bike is overheating or something else is going wrong to go, but with Nitro Circus and our history, and his family there, it just has to go, no matter what happens. We were just real fortunate and lucky that it all worked out.”

Pastrana jumped the fountain at Caesars Palace to wrap up a night of replicating three of Evel Knievels most infamous career jumps. Photo: Getty Images.

While he certainly enjoyed doing them, the Annapolis, Maryland native said it’s unlikely he’ll have any more Evel-like jumps in his career.

“This was a perfect storm,” he said. “Everything was just lined up on this one. For me, that was not my last hurrah, if you will, but as far as doing a big stunt, I did my biggest stunt I’ve ever done last year with the double back-flip 360 and kind of realized, you know what, I’ve been lucky long enough, let me just focus on my family.

“But then this came up, and I was like, ‘Put me in, coach.’”

Pastrana returns to the track this Saturday and Sunday for the third annual Nitro World Games at the Utah Motorsports Campus (formerly known as Miller Motorsports Park) near Salt Lake City.

Saturday will feature Nitro Rallycross (NRX) Qualifiers and Heat Races, including some of the biggest names in the sport including Pastrana and rival Ken Block having some “unfinished business,” as well as Scott Speed, Tanner Foust, Patrik Sandell, Steve Arpin, Mattias Ekstrom, Chris Atkinson and Timmy Hansen.

Pastrana and Ken Block have some ‘unfinished business’ in this weekend’s Nitro World Games near Salt Lake City. Photo: Nitro Circus.

On Sunday, the action includes the FMX Best Trick Finals, NRX Semi-Finals and Finals and FMX Quarterpipe Finals.

Among FMX Quarterpipe competitors are Colby Raha, Jarryd McNeil, Axell Hodges, Elijah Aldoff, Corey Creed and Kohl Denney.

And among riders and drivers taking part in the Best Trick Finals are defending champ Harry Bink, along with Pat Bowden, Christian Meyer, Josh Sheehan, William Van den Putte, Blake Williams, and Davi Johnson.

“Having the opportunity to kind of reinvent the sport for the American audience and for the drivers – I mean, we have Talladega-sized berms – right and left turns, dirt and pavement, huge jumps, there’s a triple-crossover,” Pastrana said. “World Games is basically the bigger of international sports. We take the most exciting sports, the biggest air, the least technical … and try to make it even bigger.

“I couldn’t be more excited. I think it’s going to be real exciting for the drivers, lots of options. It’s not a track that’s just built for a one-off event, it’s going to be a permanent place here so people can come out here and practice and keep getting better like European tracks do. So it should be good.”

Pastrana said Nitro Circus does over 70 live shows around the world per year, but he’s also excited about preparing for a lengthy residency in Las Vegas beginning next March.

Given all the things he’s accomplished over his career, Pastrana was asked if there’s anything remaining on his bucket list that he still hopes to do.

“I love racing, I love competing and I feel like I’ve competed in almost everything all over the world,” he said. “But the Daytona 500 is something … and I’ve never done a drag race. So those two would be pretty cool, wouldn’t they?”

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