INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens

Schmidt explains why he left Honda to make McLaren IndyCar deal happen

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For most of Sam Schmidt’s career as an NTT IndyCar Series team owner, he has been loyal to Honda. But all of that loyalty was put aside when McLaren CEO Zak Brown convinced him to a lucrative arrangement where McLaren will join forces with Arrow Schmidt Peterson to create Arrow McLaren Racing SP beginning in 2020.

In order to make that happen, Schmidt had to break a contract with Honda Performance Development (HPD) that had one more year left. Next year, Arrow McLaren Racing SP will be powered by Chevrolet.

“It was an extremely difficult (decision) because there is that loyalty,” Schmidt responded to a question from NBC Sports.com on a national teleconference Monday afternoon. “There is that length of time and a lot of success, and at the end of the day, they (Honda) are a great motorsports and OEM operator.

“When they aren’t winning, they do everything possible to win, so we wanted to stay in that camp.”

Business is business, however, and the opportunity to align his team with the powerful McLaren group from England outweighed Schmidt’s loyalty to Honda. That is why he broke the contract, much to Honda’s dismay.

“When you draw the line down the center of the paper and you put your pros and cons on each side, that was definitely a big negative to doing this deal,” Schmidt said. “On the other side of the page, there was so many positives that it really was, a no-brainer.

“At the end of the day, it’s just unfortunate, but it’s ultimately their decision.”

Because of an acrimonious split with Honda following the 2017 Formula One World Championship season, Honda Japan will not allow American Honda to conduct any future business with McLaren.

There are four races left in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule for Schmidt and the two-driver team that includes James Hinchcliffe of Canada and Marcus Ericsson of Sweden. Next year, Hinchcliffe’s contract with the team will be honored, but the team is actively seeking candidates for the second ride.

The team also confirmed it would field a third entry for the 104thIndianapolis 500 on May 24, 2020. That could potentially be two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso of Spain, should he decide to return to the Indy 500.

“The phone has definitely been very active since we have announced with all sorts of individuals, but I’ll let Sam comment further on the driver situation,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown said in response to a question from NBC Sports.com.

Schmidt admitted it’s a key decision to make sure this arrangement is successful.

“It’s a big decision, so, between ourselves and Arrow and McLaren, there’s a lot of great minds there with years of experience,” Schmidt said. “The first goal was to get past the announcement last week, and then as Zak said, see how the phones light up and then make that list, and then reconvene later this week and start making some of those decisions and offers and whatnot.

“Stay tuned, but it will be a few weeks before we make any announcements.”

McLaren already owned new equipment and two Indy cars to run a team in the NTT IndyCar Series. That equipment will now move into the current Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports shop on the northwest side of Indianapolis.

McLaren, Arrow, Schmidt and Ric Peterson of Calgary, Alberta will be the principals of the operation with two-time CART champion and 2003 Indianapolis 500 winning driver Gil De Ferran in charge of running the operation. He is currently McLaren’s Sporting Director.

“I’m super excited that McLaren has placed Gil de Ferran in sort of the head connect for us there, because with his championships in Indy car and Indy 500 victory, his long-term association with Roger Penske, his ownership of his own team that was successful, really excited to work with him as a major conduit in the McLaren situation,” Schmidt said. “But then it’s just kind of we want to make sure we manage the opportunity. That’s probably our biggest challenge is the fact that we see a lot of opportunities, both on the technical side of the business and on the commercial side of the business, and I think we need to manage those opportunities carefully to not be overwhelmed. Just setting up the structure to do that and moving forward, very exciting for all of our partners.”

Current Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports general manager Taylor Kiel and team president Jon Flack have met with McLaren management.

“That was to meet some of the people that will be working alongside them and to start identifying and understanding what some of McLaren’s capabilities are,” Brown said. “Now you will see Gil and some other McLaren people at the remaining INDYCAR races and in Indianapolis.

“We have started the education process from SPM and looking into McLaren, and now we’ll have McLaren look into SPM, and then over those next few months, start to identify areas in which we think we can further support and amplify what SPM has sitting within their capabilities as of today.”

Australia SuperCar Champion gets IndyCar Test at Team Penske

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Scott McLaughlin’s latest reward for winning the 2019 Virgin Australia SuperCar championship is an INDYCAR test at Team Penske.

“Scott has been incredibly successful for DJR Team Penske over the last three seasons and he has become a true champion of our sport,” said team owner Roger Penske, who will become the owner of INDYCAR, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 in early January. “He certainly embraces new challenges and we think this is a great opportunity to utilize the IndyCar Series rookie testing program so Scott can experience what it is like to get behind the wheel of one of our Indy cars.”

McLaughlin, who has scored back-to-back Virgin Australia Supercars Champion for DJR Team Penske (DJRTP), will participate in an INDYCAR Rookie Evaluation test at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla. on Monday, January 13.

“I am always open to new challenges and I’m thankful to Team Penske for providing this opportunity to test an Indy car,” said McLaughlin, who established a new Supercars single season record with 18 victories this past season. “We had an amazing year in 2019 and I’m looking forward to defending our Supercars championship next season. I’m also excited to grow as a driver and being with Team Penske creates cool opportunities to try something new. Although I have spent a few hours in a simulator earlier this year, it’s going to be a blast to see what one really feels like at a place like Sebring.”

McLaughlin joined DJR Team Penske in 2017 as one of the brightest stars in Supercars. He has produced 35 victories and 44 pole positions over the last three seasons while helping DJRTP claim team championships in 2017 and 2019, the driver’s title each of the last two seasons and the legendary Bathurst 1000 race in October, along with co-driver Alex Premat.

McLaughlin will defend his Supercars title for DJRTP in 2020 in the No. 17 Shell V-Power Ford Mustang.  He will build on his already successful racing career by driving a full-sized open-wheel car for the first time.

Team Penske enjoyed another successful IndyCar Series season in 2019. The team earned its record 18th Indianapolis 500 victory as Simon Pagenaud captured the checkered flag in May, while Josef Newgarden won his second series title in three years and the team’s 16th INDYCAR Championship. Team Penske will once again compete with three full-season entries in 2020, featuring series champion drivers Newgarden, Pagenaud and Will Power.

Team Penske is one of the most successful teams in the history of professional sports. Cars owned and prepared by Team Penske have produced more than 540 major race wins, over 620 pole positions and 37 Championships across open-wheel, stock car and sports car racing competition. Over the course of its 53-year history, the team has also earned 18 Indianapolis 500 victories, two Daytona 500 Championships, a Formula 1 win, overall victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring along with a win in Australia’s legendary Bathurst 1000 race. Team Penske currently competes in the IndyCar Series, the NASCAR Cup Series, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The team also races in the Virgin Australia SuperCars Championship, in a partnership with Dick Johnson Racing, as DJR Team Penske.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500