IndyCar officials, drivers relieved how cars have held up in heavy wrecks

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INDIANAPOLIS – The heavy impacts last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway even had an IndyCar veteran like Scott Dixon cringing, particularly when James Hinchcliffe slammed the wall in qualifying.

“Some of those crashes, when I saw them, I was like, ‘Oh man, that was a pretty big hit,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “Qualifying can be the worst because your corner speed is so high, if you do lose it in qualifying, it’s going to be massive.

“I was a little worried for Hinch, because I’m like man, that’s going to be a really big hit, much like we saw with (Bourdais, just not as direct head on, but I was really pleased to see him get out and walk around and get in another car a couple of hours later.”

Unlike the Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash two years ago that sidelined Bourdais with a broken pelvis for several months, every driver walked away.

Besides Hinchcliffe, there were jarring impacts in practice that involved Felix Rosenqvist, Kyle Kaiser, Patricio O’Ward and Fernando Alonso.

IndyCar president Jay Frye told NBCSports.com that it’s a validation of several safety enhancements, particularly a crushable impact zone on the driver’s side. IndyCar made the piece less rigid after testing last year.

“Safety is always our No. 1 priority, so the outcome of each of those incidents was good,” Frye said. “Each driver was OK and cleared. When things happen, we analyze it immediately and see how it compares to other incidents over the course of the years. In general, we’re encouraged by the outcomes. We made thousands and thousands and thousands of laps last week, and you ask, ‘Is there a trend?’ We don’t necessarily see a trend.”

If there was some commonality among the wrecks, it’s that four of the cars briefly got airborne.

But unlike Dixon’s terrifying upside-down crash in the 2017 Indy 500 (when the Chip Ganassi Racing driver avoided injury despite his car’s cockpit nearly landing on the inside SAFER barrier), Rosenqvist, Hinchcliffe, Kaiser and O’Ward each escaped having their cars turn over entirely.

The closest was Hinchcliffe, whose Dallara-Honda did slightly more than a half-flip and got up on its side before landing on its wheels.

Frye said the series worked to keep cars on the pavement by moving weight toward the center of the car.

“Not going over is obviously a good sign; that’s the result we’re looking for,” Frye said. “When the cars have turned or got up on the side, what appears to be happening is, because some of the stuff that’s been moved, they pivot right back down. That’s a great result.

“Obviously anyone getting on their side that’s something we monitor of how and why that happened. We feel very good about where this car is at from a safety perspective. Everything that happened here, the result ended up being what we always strive for, each driver got out and walked away. They were immediately cleared and competed again right away. We always look at data. That’s as good a data as you can get when that result happens.”

Frye said IndyCar had no changes planned in part because there can be “unintended consequences” from being too proactive. “The car has done what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “It’s come back down. Anything you do now could possibly have a more negative effect than a positive effect.”

Other IndyCar veterans also credited some floor holes that IndyCar has added to affect aerodynamics and help keep the cars grounded.

“The holes they have in the floor definitely prevent the flips,” Alexander Rossi told NBCSports.com. “I think that’s exactly what we were looking for. There was a period of time where we had these big pieces of body work on that were kind of designed to do the same thing, but they were atrociously ugly and ineffective and inefficient.

“So the fact we have a car that looks the part and performs the way it does but also stands up to the impacts at Indianapolis is a huge testament to what IndyCar has done, and they did a really good job at it.”

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden said IndyCar had done a good job with mitigating the inevitable at Indianapolis.

“We’re always going to have big hits here; it’s impossible to run around that month and not have someone smack the wall,” Newgarden said. “It’s really easy to do. You see Fernando Alonso, Felix Rosenqvist, Patricio O’Ward, those are all extremely talented people, and they had very capable race teams. The place is tricky, and we’ve continued to evolve safety.

“You look at the cars and the way they hit the wall, the way the airflow starts to shear over the car in a sideways, reverse impact. That’s where (IndyCar) made a lot of gains. In particular when the car gets up on its side, there’s so much surface area on the floor, because the floor is so big on the car, it turns into its own wing, but the way they’ve got the holes in the floor, the way they’ve put the reverse flaps and rear wing, it’s all worked really well. You see people get up, and the wind can catch the underside of the car, but you don’t see it turn into much more than that. So it is encouraging. Everything they’ve done seems to be proving out.”

Said Dixon: “All the guys have walked away, so I think obviously the cars are still getting up a little bit, but it seems the devices they have are thankfully stopping (full flips). I think the next iteration of car or version of car, there’s probably something we can do to help that again. I think getting rid of a lot of the surface area from the wings has really helped.”

IndyCar also has added a new Advanced Frontal Protection device to its cars at Indy to help deflect debris away from drivers in crashes. On Friday, series officials are expected to unveil the second phase of open-cockpit protection.

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