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.”

3-time NHRA champ Larry Dixon gives back to save lives on the streets

Photo courtesy Larry Dixon Racing
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Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon is a man on a new mission: to save lives on the streets and highways as perhaps the fastest driving instructor in the world.

Because he’s not currently hurtling down a dragstrip at 330 mph on the NHRA national tour, Dixon is at a point where it was time for him to give back and help youngsters the way so many individuals helped him in his own life and career.

Much like when he became the protege of mentor Don “Snake” Prudhomme – first as a crew member and then as Prudhomme’s hand-picked choice to replace him when he retired as a driver – Dixon is now imparting some of his vast knowledge behind the wheel upon thousands of impressionable teens and young adults around the country.

Dixon recently signed on as an instructor with fellow former Top Fuel champ Doug Herbert’s nationally renowned B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) driver safety training program. Since Herbert formed the free, non-profit program in 2008 to honor the memory of sons Jon and James, who were both killed in a tragic car crash, B.R.A.K.E.S. has trained over 35,000 students across the U.S. and five countries to be better and safer drivers.

MORE: Drag racer Doug Herbert turns son’s deaths into program that has helped over 35,000 teens

After putting two of his own teen children through Herbert’s program (with a third child to go through the program soon), Dixon was so impressed with the training that his kids received that he told his old buddy he wanted to become involved with B.R.A.K.E.S.

“I’ve known Doug since we were in high school,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “We both worked at a chain of speed shops in Southern California, Doug at one in Orange County and me at one in the San Fernando Valley in Van Nuys. We came up together racing Alcohol cars and Top Fuel cars kind of along the same lines. That’s how long I’ve known Doug.

Photo: Larry Dixon Racing

“I ran my son through the course a couple years ago when it came through Indianapolis (where Dixon and his family now live), and then my daughter signed up for a class a couple months ago, and that kind of got the talk going because I’m not on the (NHRA national event) tour now and I’ve got more time and the conversation just snowballed and here I am.

“I obviously believe in the deal if I ran my own kids through the system. The program is very methodical but still personal. When you put the kids in the car, you’ve got one instructor and three students, so they’re getting taught one-on-one almost.”

Even though he’s been driving for nearly 40 years, Dixon, 52, readily admits with a chuckle, “I’ve even learned things from the program already, which shows you’re never too old to learn.”

In a more serious vein, Dixon said from his perspective as both an instructor and a parent of two of the program’s graduates is how parents are so vital to the program’s impact.

“It’s mandatory that when you’re running a student through the program that at least one parent or guardian is also there, so the message you’re teaching the teens, you have to rely on the parent to not only be on the same page as what we’re teaching, but to also drive that message home for the rest of their lives.”

Dixon isn’t teaching students to drive 330 mph or to become aspiring drag racers. On the contrary. Dixon is right at home giving instructions on how students can avoid incidents or accidents on streets and highways at speeds typically between 30 and 50 mph.

“It’s more impactful as far as your legacy,” Dixon said of his motivation to teach. “Obviously, I’ve won a lot of races, but what I have to show for those wins are trophies but they’re in the basement, and if you don’t dust them, they get dusty.

“What I’m doing with B.R.A.K.E.S., you’re making a difference for people hopefully for the rest of their lives, and that’s bigger. I remember when I first got my own racing license. The first day I had my license, I was a race car driver but I wasn’t a great race car driver right away, I just had a license. It took a lot of years and a lot of runs and laps down the racetrack to be able to be good.

“It’s the same thing with a driver’s license. You go through the driver’s education course and such and they hand you your license, but that doesn’t make you a great driver. It takes a lot of road time to be able to get that experience. And the great thing about this course is you’re trying to ramp up that experience and put the teens in situations ahead of time so that when they’re in the real world, they’ll know how to react to them.

Larry Dixon is interviewed recently during his debut as a driving instructor for B.R.A.K.E.S. Photo courtesy B.R.A.K.E.S.

“These cars nowadays have so many safety features on them, but they don’t get taught. When you go through a basic driver’s education course, they don’t teach you that you can slam on the brakes and if you have an ABS (anti-lock) brake system, let alone how to use it, so that’s part of what we’re running the kids through. It lets them speed up and then slam on the brakes and feeling what ABS does and that a car isn’t going to spin out or flip over like you might see in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie. Most people don’t know what you can do with a car and how great cars will take care of you as long as they use the tools you’re supplied with.”

Dixon has already taught three different classes in the last month, with five more sessions scheduled primarily in the Midwest in the coming months. You can immediately hear the passion and self-satisfaction he’s getting from being a teacher.

“I really do enjoy it,” Dixon said. “You get to see the difference you can make in someone’s lives. When you get them on a skid course and they’re learning how to get out of a spin or slide, they’re having fun but also learning a valuable lesson.

“After they’ve taken the course, they have a bounce in their step and know and understand cars better and have a good time doing it. That’s what Doug has done, out of his tragedy, he’s really making a difference in other people’s lives. We’re not trying to turn the kids into Mario Andretti or anything like that … just to be better and safer drivers.”

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