Rich Shepherd, ProMotocross

Enduring storylines mark the halfway point of the 2019 MX season

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Watersheds. Turning Points. Defining Moments. Whatever you want to call them, the first six rounds in the 12-round Lucas Oil Pro Motocross season has been filled with them.

Each race has been marked by an enduring storyline that foreshadowed the events to follow and subtly altered the course of the season.

From the very beginning, it was apparent this year would be special. After mounting a determined comeback not once, but twice in the past two seasons, Ken Roczen finally stepped onto the top rung of the podium in the opener. It was his first win since January 2017, after which he shattered bones in both arms and underwent extensive recovery.

Eli Tomac matched Roczen that week with a Moto win. The stage was set for these two riders to dominate the top of the order.

Also emerging from Round 1 was a storyline of recovery and rebounds as Jason Anderson returned to the track for the first time since Round 3 of the Supercross season. He looked like he had never left. Anderson stood on the bottom step of the podium and has quietly been part of the top-five hunt ever since.

Points after Hangtown: Roczen (47), Tomac (43), Anderson (38), Zach Osborne (36), Cooper Webb (35)
Enduring Storyline: Roczen’s return. | Race Recap

Jason Anderson returned to action in Hangtown with a third-place finish. Rich Shepherd, ProMotocross.com.

The preseason focus was on Tomac.

In the past two seasons, he got off to such a great start that the competition had little to do but chase him throughout 2017 and 2018. Of course, one of his main competitors was beset by injury and with the Hangtown win, Roczen threatened that dominance.

Tomac needed to establish his strength in Round 2 – and he did so with wins in both Motos at Pala Raceway.

Roczen podiumed in both events, but lost the red plate to Tomac.

Round 2 also was the first appearance of Marvin Musquin among the top five in points. Like Roczen and Tomac, he swept the podium at Pala and jumped to third in the standings.

Points after Pala: Tomac (93), Roczen (89), Musquin (74), Anderson (72), Osborne (70)
Enduring Storyline: Tomac’s first appearance as points leader. | Race Recap

Eli Tomac served notice this would be his championship to lose after winning in Round 2. Rich Shepherd, ProMotocross.com

Thunder Valley had another lead change. Roczen’s early season form continued to impress with a 1-2 in the first and second Motos and the overall victory.

This was also the week when Tomac began establishing a pattern he would prefer to avoid. A disastrous start to Moto 1 left him mired in the pack and he could manage to finish only fifth at the end of that race. His victory in Moto 2 was not enough to give him the overall win but more importantly, since points are accumulated in each race, Tomac went from being four points up to two points down.

Someone was greasing the seesaw.

Musquin was also showing inconsistency at this stage of the season with an 8-3 that landed him fifth in the overall and dropped him to fourth in the standings.

Points after Thunder Valley: Roczen (136), Tomac (134), Osborne (110), Musquin (107), Anderson (106)
Enduring Storyline: Tomac’s slow starts. | Race Recap

Eli Tomac and Ken Roczen battled handlebar-to-handlebar for the first four rounds of the season. Rich Shepherd, ProMotocross.com

High Point was the most inconsistent round to date. None of the riders ran particularly well in both Motos, although Tomac was able to podium in each. He got off to another slow start, battled back to third by sheer determination and then finished second in Moto 2 to take the overall win.

Blake Baggett became the first rider other than Tomac or Roczen to win a Moto. He took Moto 1 but then crashed in the second race and finished a disappointing 15th.

Roczen’s struggles came in Moto 1 with a sixth-place finish. He rebounded with a Moto 2 win, but lost a few points and the championship race was tied at the top. Third-place was also tied with Osborne and Anderson knotted up 32 points back.

Meanwhile, Musquin continued to lose ground in what may turn out to be his pivotal race if he cannot catch Tomac. He finished 4-7 in the Motos and landed sixth overall.

Points after High Point: Tomac (176), Roczen (176), Anderson (144), Osborne (144), Musquin (139)
Enduring Storyline: Chinks in Roczen and Tomac’s armor. | Race Recap

Blake Baggett became the first rider other than Tomac or Roczen to win a Moto in 4 at High Point. Rich Shepherd, ProMotocross.com

As soon as it looked like Musquin could be discounted, he bounced back to win in the deep sand of WW Ranch. Following in Baggett;’s footsteps, he became the second rider to win a Moto besides Tomac or Roczen and this time he backed it up with a third in Moto 2 and the overall victory.

Tomac fell behind in Moto 1 and could only ride up to seventh at the end of the race while Roczen appeared to have the points lead between the two sets. Tomac won Moto 2, however, and kept the red plate affixed to his bike.

Roczen’s second-place finish in Moto 1 was his last highlight to date. In the brutal heat, Roczen faded badly in Moto 2 and finished 10th, landing sixth on the overall rundown. He lost six points to Tomac and allowed Musquin to close onto his back tire.

Musquin may have waited too late to make his charge, but now he had the leaders in sight.

Points after WW Ranch: Tomac (215), Roczen (209), Musquin (184), Osborne (182), Anderson (182)
Enduring Storyline: Roczen fades. | Race Recaps

Marvin Musquin won the overall at WW Ranch with a Moto 1 win and had a third in race 2. Jeff Kardas, ProMotocross.com

Last week marked two milestones. Musquin became the first rider this season to score back-to-back overall victories at Southwick.

This was also the first time in 2019 that neither Tomac nor Roczen scored a Moto win with Musquin taking the first and Osborne victorious in Moto 2.

With Roczen fading in both Motos at Southwick, Tomac didn’t need to win to pad his lead, however. Roczen finished 12-10 and lost a ton of points to the leader, while Musquin’s 1-2 was only slightly better than Tomac’s 2-3 for the afternoon.

This may turn out to be the establishment race that Tomac needed in order to ride comfortably for the remainder of the season.

Musquin will need to press hard in the final six rounds (12 Motos), and often when a rider pushes too hard, they start making mistakes.

Points after Southwick: Tomac (257), Musquin (231), Roczen (229), Osborne (227), Anderson (212)
Enduring Storyline: Tomac has sole possession of first for two straight weeks. | Race Recap

The season hit the halfway mark at Southwick. Rich Shepherd, ProMotocross.com

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

INDYCAR Photo
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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500