Who has speed for qualifying and who needs it after Fast Friday

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INDIANAPOLIS – The world’s most famous racetrack always has rewarded a sublime mix of bravery, experience and skill.

But this week’s IndyCar practice sessions have been a good reminder that sometimes even having all three in abundance still isn’t enough to tame Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Just ask Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 winner of the Indianapolis 500 and 2012 NTT IndyCar Series champion who had a major wiggle Friday before he managed to save his No. 28 Dallara-Honda from becoming the latest victim claimed during a particularly treacherous four-day stretch on the intimidating 2.5-mile oval.

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“I’ve got to go change my underwear real quick,” Hunter-Reay told NBCSN’s Marty Snider during the “Fast Friday” practice session. “That was close to writing the car off, no doubt. Yeah, I got away with one there.”

“You just have to put it aside and trust it’s not going to happen again,” he said. “You’ve got to have faith.”

There will 36 IndyCar drivers trying to put aside some uneasy feelings and bad memories to claim one of 33 spots in the 103rd Running of the Indy 500 while ignoring a rather daunting question.

After four consecutive days of harrowing moments and violent crashes (and two cars briefly getting airborne), how much hairier will it be while pushing the limits at 230 mph for four consecutive laps Saturday and Sunday?

“We’re going to earn our money,” Marco Andretti said after ranking second Friday with a 230.851 mph lap.

PRACTICE REPORT: Conor Daly atop the speed chart

The No. 25 Honda of his Andretti Autosport teammate Conor Daly topped the speed chart Friday, followed by the Honda of 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato. The top Chevrolet was Spencer Pigot (230.755) in fourth, but it’s expected that Chevys will have an advantage in qualifying.

“Certainly interesting to see what’s going to happen,” said Daly, who also will have the advantage of making the first attempt when qualifying begins at 11 a.m. Saturday (presumably under cooler conditions). “Everyone is closer than we expected, manufacturer-wise. There are some little differences there for sure, but the Honda guys are working super hard step by step make it go as fast as possible.”

In the search for speed, rookies and inexperienced drivers predictably have suffered the most this week.

First-timers Felix Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward both cracked the wall after tempting fate by running low lines around the Brickyard.

Kyle Kaiser and Fernando Alonso, both of whom are making their second Indy 500 starts, also crashed and put their teams behind. Juncos Racing is scrambling to have a backup ready for Kaiser to qualify Saturday, while McLaren Racing lost Thursday’s practice before putting Alonso back on track Friday for the 24th-fastest speed (229.328).

But there have been several veterans – namely Hunter-Reay — who also have seemed spooked by one of racing’s most treacherous tracks, particularly with Friday’s boost of 50 horsepower.

Sage Karam, who aims to make his sixth start in the Indy 500, was flummoxed by the performance of his No. 24 Dallara-Chevrolet.

“This definitely is the most difficult year for difficulty in traffic,” the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing driver said. “It’s really hard to drive. It’s 100 percent grip one second, and boom, it goes away. It’s just not consistent. It’s a really tricky car this year.

“My main concern is getting in the show. I’ve got to figure something out.”

Karam was 32nd on the list of non-tow speeds, which can be the most indicative of the single-car conditions of qualifying (which is unaffected by drafting and traffic).

Among the others who could be in trouble are Rosenqvist (26th) and Alonso, who is 30th. The two-time Formula One champion admitted he had concerns about qualifying after making 77 laps Friday.

“It’s the same for everybody,” he said. “Surprises can happen. Hopefully tomorrow we are a good surprise.”

The two-fastest non-tow laps were turned by the Chevys of teammates Ed Jones and Ed Carpenter, whose Ed Carpenter Racing car has won the Indy 500 pole in three of the past six seasons.

Alexander Rossi (who finished fourth in last year’s Indy 500 after qualifying a disappointing 32nd) was third fastest on the non-tow speed chart, and the No. 27 Honda driver is expecting that temperature fluctuations over the weekend will have major impacts on speed.

“I think it’s the most weather-sensitive track we go to just because the margins are so small, and everything is already kind of on such a knife edge,” Rossi told Snider on the NBC Sports Gold broadcast. “You have 5 degrees of track temperature, and it makes a difference on the car.

“Just trying to have a full arsenal of stuff because we know how important qualifying is going to be.”

Many drivers were anxious about the qualifying draw that was conducted early Friday evening. Though there are unlimited attempts at qualifying, those making their first attempts in late morning and early afternoon are likely to have much conditions conducive to faster speeds.

“When you will do the run is going to be a big factor if it’s a hot day,” Alonso said. “So yeah, if we are in the wrong moment of the day, which it seems that the luck will put us in that moment this week … ”

Rosenqvist also will be seeking to change his fortunes. The Indy 500 would mark the first career oval race for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who admitted Friday he is adapting to the mental challenge of navigating Indy.

“It is a very tricky place,” Rosenqvist said “It can just bite you really hard, no matter how slowly you go through it, the limit is the limit. It’s a tricky place.

“Almost like the length of the whole thing makes it even harder because if you feel comfortable, maybe you tend to just stop there and not continue to work. If you don’t feel good, you know there’s a panic to get quicker. … It’s probably more mental than anything else I’ve done or any other race I’ve done.”

Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).