Fernando Alonso’s frustrating day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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INDIANAPOLIS – It was a frustrating day for two-time Formula One World Champion and 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona winner in his return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as his time on the track was limited by rain and later, an electronics issue with his Chevrolet.

By contrast, it was a breeze for 19-year-old NTT IndyCar Series regular Colton Herta, who sailed through his Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) with ease and is cleared to compete in full practice for the Indianapolis 500 when practice begins on May 14.

There they were, the 37-year-old international racing superstar seating alongside the 19-year-old rookie who grew up in racing and has been around big-name race drivers his entire life. But when asked if it were, “pretty cool” to be seated next to Alonso, Herta spoke with the savvy of a veteran.

“It’s cool, but I don’t see it that way because I have to beat him,” Herta said to NBC Sports.com. “Maybe if I were at a grand prix weekend, I’d feel that way a bit more, but not on these weeks.

“He’s coming to my playground now. It’s different here.”

Photo by Bruce MartinAlonso discovered how different his latest attempt at the Indy 500 was from his first effort in 2017. Two years ago, McLaren partnered with Andretti Autosport and had a solid car and team right off the trailer. That allowed the driver from Spain to quickly get up to speed, qualify fifth for the 101stIndianapolis 500 and ultimately lead 27 laps in the Indy 500 before his Honda engine blew up 21 laps from the checkered flag.

He finished 24thbut was determined to come back to Indy and attempt another run at the Indianapolis 500.

This year, however, it’s a full McLaren effort with Chevrolet. The car was built at McLaren’s racing facility in Woking, England. It has a technical alliance with Carlin, a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team, but the car and crew are all McLaren.

The test session was originally scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. and last until 6 p.m. Eastern Time. But rain halted the session about 11 minutes into the session and the track was shut down for the next four hours.

Once the rain subsided, the veterans were on track for 94 minutes. After that, Alonso and the other drivers that had to take a “refresher test” were allowed on track.

Just after Alonso drove his McLaren Chevrolet onto the track for its first lap, the engine died. That brought out yellow flag as the team tried to fix an electrical issue that prevented the car from running. He finally got on the track at 6:33 p.m. and ran until 7:18 p.m. when more rain fell on the track.

At 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time, INDYCAR officials threw the checkered flag, ending the test session.

Herta completed all three phases of his ROP. Alonso completed just one of the three phases and will have to complete his refresher on May 14.

Herta ran 61 laps with a best speed of 226.108 miles per hour in a Honda. Alonso ran 29 laps with a best time of 218.690 mph in a phase that limited the driver to 15 laps under 220 miles per hour.

“It felt good to be back and again feel the magic of the place and this facility,” Alonso said. “To come in the morning and see the size of this place and the magic, it felt good. Unfortunately, the weather did not allow us to have the times we wanted for practice. There were not enough laps and time in the car to get a proper feeling.

“I guess it’s the same for everyone.”

Alonso believes even the limited amount of time that he had in the car that he had on Wednesday was better than no track time at all.

“It’s always important,” Alonso said. “The track time that you have, you might discover issues with the car and issues with a driver. This is a brand-new car.

“Today was a difficult day for the weather and for the time they gave to the rookies, but there is nothing we can do about it this time.”

Alonso comes from racing series, such as Formula One and World Endurance Championships, where the show goes on, even in the rain.

“It was frustrating for everyone,” Alonso told NBC Sports.com. “We lost a little bit of track time at the beginning, but that was expected because it was a brand-new car, and everything was finished last week. We expected to run slowly, step-by-step, and that is what we did.

“If we could have had the installation laps at mid-day, maybe we would have discovered those issues in the morning and then have hours to work on the car and get ready in the afternoon. But because of the weather delay, you do the installation lap at 5:30 p.m. and then have no time to get the car ready for longer runs.”

Alonso said it was an electronics issue that plagued his Chevrolet.

Photo by Bruce MartinOther than that, he was happy to be back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“This place is great,” he said. “The event is going to be amazing. We were slow because of the weather and some of the decisions people make for running time, but we believe we can do well.

“It’s a bigger challenge, no doubt. We have to do everything ourselves as far as setup and operational side and strategy and tire management. All of these basic things were ready with Andretti and that saved a lot of time.

“It’s a bigger challenge, but it could be a bigger reward in the end. McLaren is making the decisions now and with Andretti, we just followed what we knew was working. It was easier, but now we can discover new things.

“That is our hope.”

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