IMSA teams prepare for ‘sprint race’ at Long Beach

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LONG BEACH, California – After the two longest races of the season, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series switches gears for its shortest event on the calendar.

It’s Saturday’s 100-minute BUBBA Burger Long Beach Grand Prix, the headline act of Saturday’s full day of racing at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

It tests the versatility range of the drivers on the DPi and GTLM teams. Instead of the long endurance events, such as the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring in March, there is no margin for error in Saturday’s 100-minute sprint to the finish.

Everything takes on added pressure, from shorter practice sessions, to qualifications, to race strategy. Even the mandatory driver change has more pressure because the slightest mistake can be the difference in track position on a race course that is so narrow, it’s probably the hardest circuit on the schedule to pass.

The Long Beach street course is just 1.968-mile with 11 turns.

“It’s a tight, short course,” Tommy Milner, one of the drivers for Chevrolet in the Corvette C7.R with Oliver Gavin in the GTLM Class, told NBCSports.com. “There are some corners that are more important for lap times. The hairpin in the last corner is a pretty important corner for as unique as it is. It’s something we don’t see normally on our calendar. It leads onto the long straightaway. Getting that hairpin turn down and into the corner is not only important for lap time, but also for race craft and protecting from a passing opportunity for the car behind or putting yourself in position to pass the car ahead of you.

“While it is the slowest and not the most fun corner on the track, it is very unique. To get that hairpin turn down and figured out is a pretty important corner not only for lap time, but also for racing.”

Milner and Gavin are currently eighth in the GTLM standings after finishing eighth in class at both Daytona and Sebring. But they’ve won each of the past two years at Long Beach and won the 2016 GTLM championship.

Joao Barbosa competes in IMSA’s top Daytona Prototype International class. He co-drives the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R with Filipe Albuquerque. They are currently fourth in the DPi championship standings with a third-place result at Sebring and a seventh-place outing at Daytona.

Barbosa admits after the two long endurance races of the season, everything speeds up in the 100 minutes of competition at Long Beach.

“Actually, it’s a very challenging race not only for the drivers, but also for the team,” Barbosa told NBCSports.com. “Just to get the right strategy for that race is the key point. Coming after the two longest races of the season, and now, it’s a sprint.

“Last year, the team did a great job and ended up winning the race with great strategy and great race. It’s a great challenge because with a short race, track position and fuel consumption, everything is super critical in a short race like that, especially on a street course where overtaking is difficult.”

If the Rolex 24 at Daytona is like simmering all day in a Crock Pot, the BUBBA Burger Long Beach Grand Prix is like preparing a meal in a pressure cooker.

“Everything has to be spot on,” Barbosa explained. “There is no room for mistakes. Every mistake you make, the other team might not make that mistake and they end up in front. Track position is very important so the least time you spend in the pits – fueling, tire change, driver change – everything has to be done perfectly.

“If there is any mistake, there is no room to recover, there is no physical time to make up for that mistake. Everything from driver change, to the crew to the strategy has to be perfectly executed to get the best results possible.”

Barbosa believes fuel consumption will be a key point in this race as it has been in the past. It’s important to focus and have the best race as possible and save as much fuel as possible.

It’s not easy.

Qualifying takes on added significance because there is so little room on the actual race course to make a clean pass.

“Qualifying for Daytona and Sebring are for bragging rights and ultimately aren’t a key part of your finishing position,” Milner said. “At Long Beach, it’s a street race, the track is narrow and it’s hard to pass qualifying becomes a crucial part of how you finish the race. With one pit stop in the race and it’s hard to pass. It’s always possible, but it’s difficult. Qualifying as high up as possible at Long Beach becomes the most important round because of how you do in the race.

“Qualifying at Long Beach becomes incredibly important. Any spots as far forward as you can qualify helps you in the race. The classes are so competitive now, the cars are so close, and the drivers are so close, if you have a fast car by a couple of tenths, that may not be enough to make the pass happen at Long Beach.

“To have a car fast right out of the box is important.

“The pressure is on at Long Beach, from the moment you show up, the first laps you turn, you squeeze every ounce of information and data that you can out of the teams and the drivers to really give yourself the best chance at the win on Saturday.”

To achieve success in the short race, the preparation before arriving at Long Beach is vitally important. There is very little practice time for this race and even shorter qualification sessions.

That is why a team has to be fast by the time it rolls off the truck.

“It’s a big adjustment for us to go from our two longest races – 24 Hours and 12 Hours – and then go into our shortest one,” Milner said. “Certainly, strategy changes quite a bit for Long Beach, how you go throughout the weekend, what you do to prepare for the weekend at Long Beach. Even our practice and qualifying schedule is compressed.

“Getting there and doing your homework as far as engineering goes and having what they think will be the best setup for the weekend. Luckily, for us at Corvette, we have a long history book of competing with this car, the C7R at Long Beach and have had success with the car. I think we feel pretty confident, but our class is so competitive, going off our past results is not going to be good enough.

“Mindset-wise, we have come from two long races where you want to get your first stint done and out of the way and what the track is doing and what your car is doing and then try to work from there to improve the car.

“At Long Beach, you have an hour’s practice for each driver and then you have to be on your game from the drop of the green.

“I’ve been on Corvette Racing for nine years now and we have had this experience in the past and have been in this position. Going off that past experience is going to be crucial.”

The mandatory driver change also creates one more obstacle for the teams. Even the slightest mistake in changing drivers can cause a delay that will adversely affect track position.

“There is a little extra pressure because we know if we don’t do our job right, it might cost us,” Barbosa explained. “In the long races, you know you have a long race to recover and it’s no big deal unless it is the last hour of the race.

“Here, with the mandatory driver change in such a short race, it’s important to have it done right.

“It puts a lot of extra pressure to execute everything perfectly.”

Milner isn’t exaggerating when he stresses how important the driver change can be to determine the outcome of Saturday’s race.

“That one pit stop, the one driver change, of all the races is probably the most pressure and most important one we do all year long,” Milner said. “One slip-up, one problem, one slow driver change, all of those things are magnified because you don’t typically have the chance to make that back up again.

“All of the drivers practice that throughout the year, practicing and honing and getting the driver change done as quick as we possibly can. The way the races play out at Long Beach and with the way the strategy is and how long the cars can take fuel, we aren’t waiting for the fuel to be finished, which normally takes the longest. Sometimes, we will pit early in the race and get the driver change out of the way, so we don’t have to spend as much time in the pits later on.

“That one pit stop becomes reliant on how fast you can get out and how fast you can get your teammate in. We practice this all year long and the crew guys practice it relentlessly at the shop. Everyone knows it is an important pit stop, the intentions are high and flowing for that one pit stop and that is why we spend time at the shop practicing these things.

“It’s racing, anything can happen, and you just try to make sure you have everything covered and hope luck is on your side. Then, your on-track performance can help determine your outcome rather than something in the pits.”

The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach features two headline events in consecutive days. IMSA is the main show on Saturday and Sunday features the NTT IndyCar Series in a continuation of one of the greatest street races in the world.

“It’s great to have the opportunity to bring the races to the fans,” Barbosa said. “Being in Long Beach, it’s such a big race that has been around for a long time. We are relatively new in certain aspects to that race, but we are attracting more and newer fans each year. The fans love to see sports cars racing around Long Beach.

“For the drivers, it’s an extra plus because we don’t have many street courses in the year. Just the challenge to go to Long Beach and the challenge and go as fast as you can, top speed is pretty high, and the track is a very interesting setup. It’s very cool for the drivers and also the fans. I think the fan base is growing around Sports Cars.

“It’s also very cool to be with IndyCar. We can really show what sports cars are all about to IndyCar fans. It’s a very special opportunity we have to race there.”

Milner also loves the fact that the street of Long Beach actually allows the drivers and teams to get a little more physical on the race track.

Instead of finesse, there will be some “Beatin’ and Bangin’”

“Most guys are ready for the fun street race, the fun Long Beach Grand Prix, go door-handle to door-handle a little bit and rub the wall a little bit here and there,” Milner said. “That gives you the thrill and excitement of racing has to offer.

“Long Beach brings that in large quantities.”

IMSA DRIVER FACTS:

Joao Barbosa

  • Two-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype champion
  • Four-time IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup champion
  • Three overall victories in Rolex 24 At Daytona
  • 2015 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring overall winner
  • 23 career IMSA victories
  • Took overall and Prototype class victory at Long Beach in 2018 with co-driver Filipe Albuquerque in No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R for Action Express Racing
  • 2018 was Barbosa’s first Long Beach victory

Tommy Milner

  • 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Le Mans (GTLM) champion
  • 2012 American Le Mans Series GT champion
  • Two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans class winner (2011, 2015)
  • 2016 Rolex 24 At Daytona GTLM winner
  • Two-time Sebring class winner (2013, 2016)
  • 16 career IMSA victories
  • Three-time class winner at Long Beach in No. 4 Corvette
  • Won GTLM class each of the past two years with co-driver Oliver Gavin

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

Arrow McLaren Racing SP Photo
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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