INDYCAR Photo by Walter Kuhn
INDYCAR Photo by Walter Kuhn

McLaren’s arrival could dramatically change INDYCAR landscape

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A two-car McLaren team is joining the NTT IndyCar Series in 2020, poised to dramatically change the landscape of the series.

It returns one of the world’s most iconic racing brands into North America’s pinnacle of open-wheel racing on a full-time basis for the first time since 1979, and will alter the makeup of manufacturers and drivers.

McLaren announced very early Friday morning that it was aligning with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to create a new team known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP that will field two Chevrolet-powered cars next season.

Arrow SPM team principal Sam Schmidt told NBCSports.com at Mid-Ohio two weeks ago that he had been talking to McLaren officials about this arrangement and would have to switch from Honda to Chevrolet to make it a reality.

Arrow SPM had one more year remaining on its contract with Honda Performance Development, but that deal will conclude at the end of this season. HPD put out a statement shortly after Friday morning’s announcement:

“HPD is proud of its numerous accomplishments in partnership with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which include all seven of the team’s NTT IndyCar Series victories to date, as well as two coveted pole positions for the Indianapolis 500. Although we regret that this partnership will be coming to an end in advance of the 2020 season, HPD has the utmost confidence in the strength and commitment of its remaining partner teams, all of whom have won at least one NTT IndyCar Series race in each of the past two seasons. We look forward to demonstrating that same type of depth across our entire lineup for many years to come.”

Arrow Electronics, which also supports McLaren’s Formula One team, will continue as title sponsor for the new partnership.

“Chevrolet and McLaren have a storied history of racing together, going back to the mid-1960s,” said Jim Campbell, US Vice President, Performance and Motorsports, Chevrolet. “We have always had tremendous respect for Zak Brown and Gil de Ferran, as well as for Sam Schmidt, Ric Peterson and Mike Long. We are looking forward to partnering with the entire Arrow McLaren Racing SP team as we prepare for the 2020 IndyCar season.”

Ironically, these two teams are the last two big-name operations that have failed to miss the Indianapolis 500 over the past two years.

SPM’s James Hinchcliffe came up short in 2018, and two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso couldn’t get the McLaren entry into this year’s race. After the latter embarrassment, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown vowed that McLaren would be back.

“IndyCar has been part of McLaren since our early years of racing, and the series today provides not only a commercial platform to continue to grow our brand in North America, but competition with some of the best teams in international motorsport,” Brown said. “This team provides McLaren with the right synergy as a strategic partner for our return to the sport. We believe together we can help each other achieve our mutual ambitions. Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson have built a solid foundation and we look forward to working together to take the team to the next level.

“….We come to IndyCar in full respect of the sport, our competitors, the fans and the task ahead. At our core, we at McLaren are racers and where there’s competition that puts us to the test, we will race. The NTT IndyCar Series provides such a challenge.”

Under the new partnership, the infrastructure of Arrow SPM will continue with McLaren adding technical expertise, commercial experience and marketing strength.

Schmidt and Peterson will continue in their current roles, while McLaren sporting director Gil de Ferran will lead his company’s IndyCar program. That will operate from McLaren headquarters in Woking, England but remain independent from its Formula 1 effort.

“IndyCar is a natural fit for McLaren, given our legacy and determination to succeed at the top levels of international motorsport,” De Ferran said. “Our ambition, over time, is to consistently compete for wins and championships. We acknowledge the challenge ahead of us, but McLaren is committed to this partnership and to supporting the team as a whole.”

As for the potential driver lineup, fan favorite James Hinchcliffe – who married his longtime fiancée Becky Dalton last Saturday in Ontario – has a contract with the team through 2020.

The team intends to honor that, and Hinchcliffe has stated that a discussion will have to be had about his current partnership with Honda, which has increased his profile in North America in several ways – including making him a TV pitchman for their annual spring sales.

Swedish rookie Marcus Ericsson has a one-year deal with the team that concludes at the end of this season.

There is also Alonso. In the past, he has said he is not interested in a running a full-time IndyCar Series team, but if he changes his mind, that would be something for the new operation to consider. He has a contractual relationship with McLaren, and if the Spaniard wants to make another attempt at the Indy 500, McLaren would be open to a third car for that race.

One driver that is highly sought after in the paddock is 19-year-old Colton Herta from Harding Steinbrenner Racing. His contract is held by two different teams, including HSR and Andretti Autosport.

McLaren is of the understanding that Herta will not be available for next season, as Michael Andretti continues to solidify the partnership team at HSR.

The arrival of McLaren, however, will not expand the field by two more cars, as both of the current Arrow SPM entries are now part of the new team.

“I’m extremely proud of the team that Ric and I have built and that a legendary brand like McLaren Racing has decided to partner with us to form Arrow McLaren Racing SP to continue our march to the top of IndyCar,” Schmidt said. “Arrow is a tremendous partner which has been integral to our growth as a team since 2015 and to the creation of this new partnership. The combined technical resources and commercial opportunities both McLaren and Arrow bring to the table provide a winning combination.”

NHRA: Antron Brown takes major step toward team ownership

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There will come a day that when three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown wants to talk to his boss, he’ll need to look no further than in the mirror.

The New Jersey native announced Tuesday that he has begun to lay the groundwork to own his Top Fuel team, eventually branching out from Don Schumacher Racing.

“It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time, it’s also nerve-wracking because the buck stops here right now,” Brown told NBC Sports. “Now the coolest part is you get to help and drive and motivate and push the team forward, to make decisions and leave a legacy behind for my family.”

Brown will continue racing for DSR this season while beginning the transition to eventual sole ownership of the new AB Motorsports in the future. Even when he officially leaves the DSR camp as a hired driver, Brown and his new team will retain a technical partnership with the Schumacher organization.

Moving toward team ownership is just a natural evolution for Brown, who previously ran his own Pro Stock Motorcycle team from 1998 until joining DSR in 2002. It’s also a move that potentially may lead other current drivers to start thinking about their own futures.

It’s no secret that many of the biggest names in drag racing – both drivers and owners – are getting up in years. John Force will soon turn 72, while Schumacher is 75. They’re among several others in the sport who are making contingency plans for their teams to continue to operate once they’re gone – and Brown wants to do his part to help the sport grow and flourish.

“When you’re able to have ownership, you’re looking at the talent coming up,” Brown said. “You’re able to reach down and see and give other people opportunities that you had. When I came to race for Don Schumacher at DSR, he’s given all these people at his place this opportunity to drive.

“But what happens when the Don Schumachers, the John Forces, the Connie Kalittas go? You lose all the owners of our series, so who’s next in line to take over that lineage or carry that torch? It’s a necessary means for the future for the upcoming people.

Antron Brown’s plans to become a team owner were embraced by his current team owner, Don Schumacher. (Getty Images)

“I’ve been in this sport for over 20 years. This is the next evolution of my chapter, the next page of my book. What am I going to do when I decide to hang the helmet up one day? I want to be there to bring that new crop of drivers and talent up and help mold them to be the best version of themselves to carry the sport forward and to share with them what was shared with me over all my years in the sport, from Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Big Daddy Don Garlits, Mark Oswald and Don “Snake” Prudhomme, all the people I looked up to.”

While Brown will start as a single-car team once he transitions to ownership, he hopes to eventually build AB Motorsports into at least a two-car operation, with his Top Fuel dragster and a Funny Car.

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The path to eventual ownership began nearly a year ago when Brown and Schumacher discussed the future.

“Me and Don had a heart-to-heart talk,” Brown said. “When I told him what I wanted to do, Don said, ‘Antron, I know this is what you want to do. I’ll support you in this.’

“That’s a cool experience when you have a gentleman that has done everything in this sport, from over 350 national event wins, 17 world championships – and I’ve done three with him – and is in every motorsports hall of fame there is.

“What is he going to do next? He’s making the sport better by pushing people like myself to do what I’m doing now. No matter how long it takes, I know I have him on my backside, pushing me to get to that point.”

Like father, like son: Antron Brown and son Anson, who is following in his father’s drag racing footsteps. Photo: Antron Brown’s official Facebook page.

His family’s future also figured into Brown’s decision. His oldest son, Anson, soon turns 16 years old and is heavily involved in NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, as are Brown’s other children. It’s likely his son some day will follow in his father’s footsteps.

But don’t think that the elder Brown, who turns 44 in March, is ready to hang up his firesuit just yet.

“I’ll stop driving when I feel I’m not capable to drive no more and I’m not having fun no more,” he said. “That’s nowhere in the near future. I know I’m going to drive for at least another 15 years.”

Heading into this season, Brown will retain current sponsorship from Mac Tools and Toyota, as well as associate sponsorship from Hangsterfer’s on his 11,000-horsepower dragster. Global Electronic Technology also has signed on as a new associate sponsor in a multiyear deal.

“It’s no secret this has been a goal of Antron’s for a while now, and I’m happy to be able to provide the tools and resources needed for him to be able to successfully branch out on his own,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “It’s important for me to see my team members grow.”

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Brown burst upon the NHRA scene atop a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 1998, earning 16 wins over the next 10 seasons. He joined DSR in 2002 and made the switch to Top Fuel in 2008.

Since then, Brown – who now resides in suburban Indianapolis – has gone on to become one of the winningest drivers in Top Fuel history with 50 national event victories, as well as three championships between 2012 and 2015.

That performance recently earned him AutoWeek magazine’s Top Fuel Driver of the Decade.

Brown also announced Tuesday he is reuniting with former crew chief Brian Corradi, who returns to the team after spending the last two seasons as co-crew chief for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Corradi will share crew chief duties for Brown with NHRA veteran Mark Oswald.

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When he won his first title in 2012, Brown became the first African-American world champion in Top Fuel history. He hopes his move to ownership will continue to grow NHRA’s already significant focus on opportunities for minorities and females in the sport.

“I think it’s important across all spectrums, period,” Brown said. “I think a lot of fans see me, and they can relate to me because I am them. I came from a good, hard-working family in Chesterfield, New Jersey, which is right next door to Trenton.

“Everybody in my family from my great uncles to my grandpop made their own way, had their own businesses, from swimming pool to paving to septic tank businesses.

“One thing my grandpop said to me is the world is wide open. He said, ‘Son, you can have anything you want in this world, as long as you put the effort and put the work towards it.’ If people can resonate with my story from where I came from and where I’m heading, I hope it gives them this energy, this ray of hope that ‘if Antron Brown can do this, so can I.’

“That’s the only way for motorsports to grow. It’s for the young ones to get interested in it and I want them to know the opportunity is there. All they have to do is take it.”

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Brown will be among more than 30 Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers who will take part in this weekend’s annual preseason “spring training” test at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in preparation for the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals Feb. 6-9 in Pomona, California.

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