Advertisements

IndyCar Owners Hinting At Depths Of Status Quo

We’re coming off of the best Indianapolis 500 we’ve seen in years. The new Dallara DW12 is incredibly racy on all tracks, providing drivers with passing opportunities. Speaking of “DW,” the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gave the late Dan Wheldon a fantastic tribute on Sunday, with former owner Bryan Herta driving his 500-winning car from last year around the track one more time. The payoff was an 8% increase in TV ratings and plenty of momentum as the series heads into its busiest month of the season.

So why are we looking at status quo?

Multiple sources – including AP writer Jenna Fryer as far back as May 21 and Robin Miller in a radio interview yesterday – are suggesting that, in the wake of Honda’s successful appeal to adjust the turbochargers on its engine, Chevrolet IndyCar owners want IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard out of a job. Bernard has confirmed it in a tweet:

#INDYCAR@indycar it is true that an owner is calling others trying to get me fired. I have had several owners confirm this. disappointing

Bernard, Fryer, and numerous others have said that the owner is not Roger Penske, arguably the series’ biggest power player and winner of the first four races of the season before Honda received its engine alterations. Rumblings suggest that the culprit could be Tony George, IndyCar founder and current co-owner of Ed Carpenter Racing, though Carpenter, his stepson, has taken to Twitter to vehemently deny the allegations and plead with fans to make 500 winner Dario Franchitti, not Bernard, the story of the week.

Beyond that, the culprit is anyone’s guess. Michael Andretti now promotes two races, Milwaukee and Baltimore, so unless he has a power trip in mind, it doesn’t seem like he would be the culprit. Kevin Kalkhoven used to run the Champ Car World Series before merging it into IndyCar in 2008, and could be unsatisfied with the sport’s direction. John Barnes of Panther Racing was recently fined $20,000 for a tweet critical of the series, but many have suggested that it’s not him.

Sadly, whoever is responsible for the unrest in the IndyCar owners’ community seems to forget how poorly an owner-led series has worked out for American open-wheel racing in the past. The hubris of the former CART series, especially in its ill-fated attempt to launch a rival to the Indianapolis 500, eventually led to its downfall as its biggest teams eventually began to defect to get back to Indianapolis. George, however, created a decade-long rift in the sport that utterly destroyed what had been a feasible rival in popularity to NASCAR and in talent to Formula 1.

The result is a series that struggles to attract attention, merely flirts with stability, and could be completely ruined with one stupid move. Ousting Bernard could prove to be that move.

While Bernard hasn’t been perfect since taking over IndyCar in 2010, the advances seem to greatly outnumber the detriments. He established the ICONIC committee, which led the series to select the car and engine specifications that have performed so well this year. He landed series title sponsor Izod, as well as a host of other partners, and has overseen a car count that has increased every season.

He took a lot of blame for creating the conditions that contributed to Wheldon’s passing in Las Vegas last season, but many factors – not just the ones that Bernard created by establishing a $5 million prize if Wheldon could win the race – contributed to that accident. This year, the chief complaint has been Lotus’ failure to provide a competitive engine, but that has very little to do with Bernard, who had no control over when the company began to build its engines or its sale, which halted development for 45 days as its finances were frozen.

So instead of celebrating Franchitti’s win in the most exciting Indianapolis 500 in years, we’re stuck with psychoanalyzing an ownership group that has lived up to the “psycho” end of the term for decades. Unrest in IndyCar management is an accepted part of fandom these days, and most fans are desensitized to the whining after 12 full seasons of two series whose initial sum was far greater than any of its parts. But that doesn’t make the complaints any less ridiculous – not after all that Bernard has done to help try and turn the series around.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail (perhaps if aforementioned anonymous owner’s team scores a victory this weekend at Detroit) and this will be a non-story by next week. If not, this may be a long year – and IndyCar may have a short future.

– Chris Leone

Advertisements

GRC Instant Reaction: Charlotte

Marcus Gronholm established himself as the man to beat in this year’s Global Rallycross Championship with tonight’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Gronholm will take a three-point lead over Olsbergs MSE teammate Tanner Foust into Texas for the second round of the championship on June 9.

Tonight’s GRC debut featured some incredible racing, major spills, and a show that offered some serious promise for a sport that looks to establish itself as this season continues. Here are some notes from the event, in (mostly) chronological order:

  • The first set of heats were a mess as drivers adjusted to the new, all-tarmac racing surface. Both Ken Block and Travis Pastrana suffered major accidents that ended their heats early; Block’s suspension failure and subsequent accident was major enough for the series to call off heat 1A, while Pastrana’s contact with Brian Deegan in the water hazard just saw his Dodge parked on the infield grass.
  • We learned very early on that starting from pole and taking the shortcut on the first lap was the way to go. Gronholm and Foust established that very well. On the other hand, being the second driver to take the shootout – as Block and Pastrana were – didn’t end quite as well.
  • Image via @GronholmM

    The barrier chicanes in front of the lip on the frontstretch may have been too close for drivers to avoid consistently. Multiple times during the night we saw drivers clip the plastic barrier closest to the jump. In fact, it may have started the chain of events that led to Block’s eventual suspension failure and accident. These barriers provide moving obstacles that make the race interesting, but the setup may have left something to be desired. Not to worry: the major jump that the series promises, while not ready for tonight’s event, will be present at Texas.

  • We only saw one false start all night, from three-time defending European champion Sverre Isachsen in heat 1B, but it’s important to note that false starts can provide serious detriments to those who commit them. Isachsen was forced to start a full carlength behind the rest of the pack, while a second jump would have meant disqualification.
  • Part failure without contact is a distinct possibility for drivers, as Deegan found out in the second heat and Isachsen learned while in the lead of the last chance qualifier. Deegan was unable to compete in the LCQ due to his issues, while Isachsen fell to fourth place in a matter of seconds and failed to advance to the final.
  • Give Pastrana’s crew some major credit for reassembling his car in time for his second heat. By scoring the win in that heat, he guaranteed a front row place in the main event. Block’s crew put his car back together in time for the LCQ, but it failed on the start.
  • Pastrana’s poor luck in the water hazard continued in the final, ruining his right front suspension and wheel and ending his race early. It was a tough end for a long day for Pastrana, who lost control of his Nationwide Series car multiple times in that race earlier today as well.
  • Toomas Heikkinen also has a fast ride, but his car control leaves plenty to be desired. Heikkinen bounced off of teammates Gronholm and David Binks in the shortcut on the opening lap of the main event, before spinning Dave Mirra midway through and eventually finding himself disqualified despite crossing the finish line in third.
  • Image via @CLTMotorSpdwy

    Foust’s decision not to take the shortcut immediately in the main event may have had a huge effect on Gronholm’s win. Gronholm, despite contact from other cars, managed to pull away on the frontstretch, and by the time Foust could take the shortcut, the gap was too large.

  • Binks, Gronholm’s less heralded Best Buy Racing teammate, had put together a solid night, advancing to the final by finishing second in his second heat race. But losing control of his car while entering the hairpin caused him to slam violently into the barriers and relegated him to a seventh place finish.
  • Mirra’s spin capped off a disappointing night for Subaru, especially with its Puma Rallycross Team. Neither Isachsen nor Bucky Lasek made it out of the last chance qualifier, while many of the older, privateer Subarus were effectively moving chicanes all night. Mirra was classified eighth in the main event.
  • Stephan Verdier’s car was underpowered for much of the night, but by utilizing his strategy of keeping his car clean, still managed to score a quiet third pace finish. During his heat races, opponents managed to pull away from his Hyundai, but issues for Isachsen in the second heat gave him the opportunity to advance to the final without having to go through the last chance qualifier. Verdier made the most of the opportunity.
  • For a privateer team, Scott-Eklund Racing have some serious speed in their Saab 9-3s. Co-owner Per Eklund’s expert preparation meant that Samuel Hubinette won his second heat despite only signing a deal to join the team two hours ago, while Andy Scott’s pass of Rhys Millen in the last chance qualifier showed strong acceleration and car control. Their fourth and fifth place finishes in the final, respectively, show that this team is going to be competitive in the GRC.
  • Image via @GronholmM

    Finally, crowd interest was fantastic. Juan Pablo Montoya stopped by to watch the event, while Kenny Wallace tweeted that the GRC crowd was bigger than the Nationwide crowd from earlier today. “What have we learned?” he asked. Well, that the GRC is here to stay – and a hell of a fun time.

Charlotte Main Event Results:

  1. Marcus Gronholm, #3 Ford
  2. Tanner Foust, #34 Ford
  3. Stephan Verdier, #12 Hyundai
  4. Andy Scott, #26 Saab
  5. Samuel Hubinette, #77 Saab
  6. Rhys Millen, #67 Hyundai
  7. David Binks, #17 Ford
  8. Dave Mirra, #40 Subaru
  9. Travis Pastrana, #199 Dodge
  10. Toomas Heikkinen, #57 Ford

– Chris Leone

GRC Pre-Race Notes: Charlotte

Here are the qualifying results for tonight’s Global Rallycross opener at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Qualifying took place last night:

  1. Marcus Gronholm, #3 Ford, 41.715 seconds
  2. Tanner Foust, #34 Ford, 41.802 seconds
  3. Brian Deegan, #38 Ford, 41.925 seconds
  4. Toomas Heikkinen, #57 Ford, 42.491 seconds
  5. Ken Block, #43 Ford, 42.573 seconds
  6. Sverre Isachsen, #11 Subaru, 42.635 seconds
  7. Travis Pastrana, #199 Dodge, 42.763 seconds
  8. Samuel Hubinette, #77 Saab, 43.011 seconds
  9. Rhys Millen, #67 Hyundai, 43.149 seconds
  10. David Binks, #17 Ford, 43.524 seconds
  11. Stephan Verdier, #12 Hyundai, 43.745 seconds
  12. Dave Mirra, #40 Subaru, 44.297 seconds
  13. Bucky Lasek, #81 Subaru, 44.325 seconds
  14. Tim Rooney, #47 Subaru, 47.167 seconds
  15. Pat Moro, #59 Subaru, 49.943 seconds
  16. Richard Burton, #41 Subaru, 50.785 seconds
  17. Andy Scott, #26 Saab, 66.773 seconds

Heats 1A-D will take place beginning at 6:45 PM. The heat matchups will be as follows:

  • Heat 1A: Marcus Gronholm, Ken Block, Dave Mirra, Richard Burton
  • Heat 1B: Tanner Foust, Sverre Isachsen, Stephan Verdier, Pat Moro
  • Heat 1C: Brian Deegan, Travis Pastrana, David Binks, Tim Rooney
  • Heat 1D: Toomas Heikkinen, Samuel Hubinette, Rhys Millen, Bucky Lasek, Andy Scott

Heats 2A-D will take place beginning at 7:30 PM. The last chance qualifying race will take place at 8:10 PM, while the main event will take place at 8:20 PM. ESPN2 will break into television coverage at 8:00 PM, but WatchESPN (formerly ESPN3, ESPN’s online coverage platform) will begin coverage from the heat races.

A few more pre-race notes:

  • Samuel Hubinette was the top privateer qualifier in eighth. Hubinette is driving for Scott-Eklund Racing in a ride that came together late this week.
  • Travis Pastrana will perform double duty today, the only driver to do so at Charlotte. He starts 42nd in today’s Nationwide Series race after a spin in qualifying.
  • Liam Doran has elected to focus on the European Rallycross Championship this weekend, racing in Austria. Doran’s schedule suggests that he will make his GRC debut at Texas on June 9.
  • Rough landings from the jump on the Charlotte frontstretch have scuffed the pavement. NASCAR officials patched up the gouge in the pavement before today’s Nationwide race, but it remains to be seen how it will hold up during tonight’s event.

– Chris Leone

GRC Race Preview: Round 1 – Charlotte

Race Details: Saturday, May 26, 8:00 PM ET (TV: ESPN2)

Storylines: This is the first round of the 2012 GRC schedule, and it brings together one of the deepest fields that the sport has ever seen. Defending series champion Tanner Foust, 2011 X Games Rallycross gold medalist Brian Deegan, and two-time World Rally Championship title winner Marcus Gronholm are back together as teammates. A contingent of strong European drivers, from three-time defending European champion Sverre Isachsen to defending head-to-head X Games gold medalist Liam Doran, will also join the series. And Ken Block and Travis Pastrana, arguably the two biggest names in rallycross in America, have committed to run the full season. Add in a diverse mix of action sports athletes and independent teams and predicting the winner may prove impossible.

Top Picks: Chances are, an Olsbergs MSE-prepared Ford is going to wind up on the top step of the podium at the end of the night. Foust and Gronholm dominated last year’s GRC, and Gronholm would have won the title if other commitments hadn’t kept him out of the Snoqualmie round. Meanwhile, Doran made a name for himself in America by scoring a popular underdog win at last year’s X Games, and has had a chance to get comfortable with his new Citroen DS3 in European rounds.

Dark Horse: Sverre Isachsen only counts as a dark horse because he’s never raced in America, so many fans won’t have heard of him. But after signing a three-year contract to drive for the Subaru Puma Rallycross Team, he’s here to stay, and fans shouldn’t underestimate the aggressive Norwegian. He took last year’s ERC title with authority, winning the final four races of the season to take home his third consecutive championship. He also beat Foust, Doran, and fellow GRC rookie Toomas Heikkinen to do it.

GRC Power Rankings: Round 1 – Charlotte

A host of new driver and team combinations. A completely new schedule. A field which has, for the most part, only raced together once – at last year’s X Games. Suffice to say, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to put together power rankings at the start of this Global Rallycross Championship season.

But that’s exactly what we’re going to try to do here. Factoring in last season’s performance (though as we’ve said, this year’s schedule is unrecognizable to a GRC fan from last season), European results (one driver shows up high on this list based on three European titles alone), X Games medals (though they’re not as important as you might think), and strength of the car, these power rankings attempt to take every possible variable into account for the upcoming season. But because the base of information is so broad, and the series so unpredictable, don’t be shocked if this list looks foolish at the end of the year.

Without further ado, here are our inaugural power rankings coming into the GRC season:

  1. Photo via Ford Racing Facebook

    Marcus Gronholm – Had he not missed the two rounds at Snoqualmie last season, the two-time winner of the World Rally Championship probably would have taken the inaugural GRC title. After all, he finished on the podium in every race he contested, taking three victories in six starts, and Andreas Eriksson added another win and podium while replacing him, a performance that Gronholm easily could have replicated. Best driver, best car, best team.

  2. Tanner Foust – The Top Gear host will have his work cut out for him if he wants to repeat as champion after winning the first GRC championship. Two wins were fine last year, but with Gronholm almost assuredly on top of his game, he’ll have to match the flying Finn podium for podium. Winning the opening round of the European championship at Lydden Hill is, of course, a nice start.
  3. Liam Doran – Last year’s surprise winner in the head-to-head event at X Games has been shaking down his new Citroen DS3 in the ERC and is pleased with its reliability. Of course, the competition will see him coming this year, but Doran is young, fast, and aggressive enough to beat his rivals on adrenaline alone.
  4. Sverre Isachsen – Like Doran last year, Isachsen is a European rallycross star who could easily come over to America and start putting folks on notice.  In fact, he’s won the past three ERC titles, beating future GRC competitors like Foust, Doran, and Toomas Heikkinen in the process. He went out on a high note; Isachsen won the last four rounds of last year’s ERC to stretch a 24-point lead on Foust for the title. He’s not the best-known name in the series by any means, but underestimating such a strong record in the European championship would be a major mistake.
  5. Photo via TravisPastrana.com

    Travis Pastrana – Pastrana will drive Dodge’s factory-backed Dart, and with both Red Bull and Discount Tire behind him, will certainly have one of the best-funded teams in the paddock. A veteran of many X Games, four-time Rally America champion, and now a budding NASCAR talent, Pastrana’s skills aren’t limited to his dirt bike; if his busy schedule doesn’t wear down his focus, a GRC title could be easily claimed.

  6. Stephan Verdier – Rhys Millen’s teammate in a new Hyundai Veloster, Verdier scored three third-place finishes last season in an older-model Subaru Impreza. Those results leave room for improvement, but with the advantage of a new car, Verdier is a dark horse threat who has the talent to rocket to the top of this list very quickly.
  7. Ken Block – The hoonigan himself is adding rallycross to his already busy schedule of rally proper; when he’s not competing in limited rounds of the WRC, he’ll take on the entire GRC schedule. One of the sport’s most popular (and best marketed) drivers in America, thanks to his status as a co-founder of DC Shoes and representative for Monster Energy, Block should contend for podiums and race wins.
  8. Rhys Millen – Millen ran consistently last year, but failed to score any podiums. Don’t expect that to happen this year – Millen is too good of a driver, and his Hyundai factory support is too valuable. He’s invested in new engines to help improve the Veloster’s horsepower and will sample one for the first time at Charlotte.
  9. Photo via Ford Racing Facebook

    Brian Deegan – A popular winner in the rallycross final at X Games last year, the general of the Metal Mulisha scored two podiums in his four 2011 starts. But with a deep field ahead of him, it’ll be a struggle to repeat.

  10. Dave Mirra – Mirra has been appointed de facto team leader at the new Subaru Puma Rallycross Team, alongside Isachsen and skateboarding legend Bucky Lasek. Isachsen will probably score the team’s best finishes, though, as Mirra failed to score a single podium last season; he finished fifth twice, in the head-to-head race at Snoqualmie and in the rallycross final at X Games.

– Chris Leone

2012 GRC Primer: Meet The Tracks

Last year’s Global Rallycross Championship featured four tracks on the schedule – Irwindale Speedway, Old Mill Adventure Park, Pikes Peak International Raceway, and the traditional streets of Los Angeles that comprise the Rally Car events at X Games. This year, save for X Games, that entire schedule has been scrapped.

Thanks to a deal with Speedway Motorsports Inc., the GRC will expand to six venues for 2012, five of which will be SMI tracks. The season will open at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, before making stops at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, X Games on June 30 and July 1, New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, and a venue to be determined on September 1, before closing out the season on September 29 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But new tracks mean new track layouts, as the GRC cars won’t simply be running the ovals like a typical NASCAR event. Most of the track layouts haven’t been released to the public yet, meaning that fans may not have any idea what to expect. To get a better idea, we placed a phone call to Stephan Verdier, driver of the No. 12 Motorcity/Disney XD Hyundai Veloster for Rhys Millen Racing, who explained the changes in this year’s composition.

“Charlotte, Texas, and New Hampshire – since we’re using the ovals, the layouts are about 90% the same for those three races,” Verdier said. “X Games, I would assume that X Games is going to be the same as last year. I don’t think they’re going to change it. They might, but I would assume it’d be the same. Then Vegas and the TBD, wherever we’re going will obviously be different. But the layouts should be pretty much the same for the whole season except for X Games.”

However, Verdier noted, the new schedule also poses challenges for teams as they look to prepare their vehicles.

“The big difference is, we were expecting dirt. And except for maybe X Games, and maybe another one at Vegas will be on dirt, but we don’t think the other ones will (have any dirt). We know for sure Charlotte won’t have any dirt, and it might be a work in progress with GRC to try it and slowly bring dirt back. So that was the big challenge for us, outfitting our cars for 100% tarmac.

“It’s a big difference in the tires – we’re using the Cooper rallycross tire, which is made for dirt and gravel, so when you go to a track that’s fully (paved), the tire is too soft for it. So there’s going to be tire degradation. The good thing is, we’re all going to be on matching tires, so that’s even on that side, but before it was just all-out.”

Part of the change came from working with SMI, which is partnering the GRC with NASCAR and IndyCar race weekends. “I think it was really hard for NASCAR, for us to say ‘Oh, we’re going to put dirt on your track,'” Verdier noted, “so trust me, we won’t make the oval dirty. NASCAR probably can’t handle us bringing dirt to a track. But I think they’re going to work it out, and hopefully we can get some dirt in.

“But we’re going to have something called the car wash, a section where they’re going to spray water on the ground, so that’s going to help on the tire temperature. Running through that every lap is going to cool down the tires, and it’s going to make the track a little bit slippery in that section too. So it won’t be dirt, but it’ll be some other slippery stuff.”

As for the most exciting part of the track, the 70-foot jump that made rallycross an X Games staple, Verdier confirmed that it would return, albeit in slightly altered form. “Instead of being dirt jumps, they’re going to be ramp to ramp, so they can transport the jump around. Which is a good thing, because now we know we’re going to have the same jump at every track. The same angle, everything is going to be exactly the same.

“The difference is, now, last year when you made a mistake by nosediving into the landing, it wasn’t that big of a deal because you were landing on soft dirt. Now you’ve got to land on a ramp.

“There are a lot of unknowns for everybody, but I think it’s going to work out and be pretty cool.”

– Chris Leone

2012 GRC Primer: Meet The Cars

Photo via Ford Racing Facebook

It’s not difficult to tell the difference aesthetically between a rallycross car and any other American racecar. From the utilization of smaller models to the closer exterior resemblance to stock models, rallycross cars clearly aren’t NASCAR racers, or even GT-spec; they’re in a class all their own, with significant major differences.

Rallycross cars feature significantly smaller engines than most American racecars; only 2.0 liters in size and featuring four cylinders, their closest comparison is the Global Racing Engine that Audi’s Unrich Baretzky tried to bring to IndyCar for this season to no avail. By comparison, a NASCAR V8 has a displacement of up to 5.9 liters, almost three times larger, while IndyCar engines before this season were anywhere from 2.65 to 4.0 liters, depending upon the sanctioning body and season.

Because the twisty, multi-surface courses outline the need for an agile car, rallycross cars are also all-wheel drive, unlike the rear-wheel drive cars in NASCAR and IndyCar that frequently compete on paved ovals. In fact, all-wheel drive is almost unheard of in any racing series that American fans would know of. In response to the six-wheeled cars that Williams was developing in the early 1980s, Formula 1 established a rule in 1982 that its cars could only have four wheels, of which only two could be driven.

Photo via Rhys Millen Racing

In most cases, successful cars have a factory team building and running them, somewhat like in sports car racing. For Ford, Swedish team Olsbergs MSE prepares Fiestas for a host of drivers; they’re the sport’s most successful team, having won seven of eight events last season and four X Games gold medals in the past three years. Subaru’s flagship rally team in America has been Vermont Sportscar, which backed Travis Pastrana to four Rally America titles and two X Games gold medals, and will field three entries this season. Meanwhile, longtime Hyundai driver Rhys Millen fields two Velosters for the Korean-based manufacturer.

However, that doesn’t mean that privateer teams aren’t involved in the sport, or that they can’t be competitive. Scott-Eklund Racing, a joint venture between 2011 British rallycross champion Andy Scott and legendary rally and rallycross racer Per Eklund, will field Saab 9-3s in this year’s championship. Last year, Stephan Verdier raced a privateer Subaru to three podium finishes, but with backing from Disney XD’s new animated show Motorcity, was able to step up to Rhys Millen Racing this season.

One final important difference to note is that these cars aren’t the same as their stage rally counterparts. For one, the Global Rallycross Championship doesn’t require a co-driver to dispense stage notes, as the courses aren’t long enough to require them. That, as well as the lack of dangerous obstacles on the course, contribute to the need for significantly less safety equipment in a rallycross car. According to Marcus Gronholm, who has excelled in both disciplines, the rallycross cars have greater power than their World Rally Championship counterparts, but are thus more difficult to drive. Ken Block, meanwhile, has cited major differences in driving style that come with racing against competitors rather than the clock, meaning that rallycross cars need extra reinforcement in their bodywork to put up with the beating and banging that drivers can put on one another.

– Chris Leone

2012 GRC Primer: Social Media Guide

Social media is a major part of any sport’s marketing program in this day and age, and the Global Rallycross Championship is of course no exception. Through its Twitter at @GlobalRallyX, the series provides fans with updates on its drivers and races, whether through retweets or original tweets. With over 2,600 followers before the first race of 2012, it’s a great source for GRC information.

One of the coolest ways they’ve chosen to interact with fans is by engaging in ticket giveaways for different races. But instead of running the giveaways entirely through the GRC Twitter, they’ve gotten multiple drivers to help facilitate the giveaways. Both Travis Pastrana and Liam Doran have given away tickets to New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, while Dave Mirra will give two away of his own for the NHMS race on May 27. Judging by the start of the season, these giveaways may take place all year.

Photo via Ford Racing Facebook

Some of the teams and sponsors have begun to open up their own social media platforms to better engage with fans as well. On May 17, Bucky Lasek took over Puma’s Twitter account to answer questions about the GRC, his first profession of skateboarding and whatever else the fans could throw at him. The previous day, Brian Deegan traded rides with NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Greg Biffle at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in an event that Ford Racing promoted extensively on their social media platforms. Meanwhile, after lacking an official web presence for years, Marcus Gronholm opened up both a website and Twitter account on May 10.

In case you haven’t read our GRC Preview Guide, here’s a list of drivers and their websites and Twitter handles (where applicable):

The tracks of Speedway Motorsports Inc., as well as the streets of Los Angeles in X Games, play host to this year’s GRC schedule. Here are their websites and Twitter handles:

*The September 1 race has not yet been confirmed, but because most of these events are on NASCAR or IndyCar race weekends at SMI tracks and NASCAR holds a Sprint Cup race at Atlanta that weekend, don’t be surprised if it’s the proper fit.

– Chris Leone

Indy Bump Day Produces Heartbreak Of A Different Variety

Photo via IndyCar Media

Bump Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the highest-attrition, most exciting days in motorsports. As cars attempt to fill the 33-slot field for the Indianapolis 500, only the fastest survive, sending slower cars and drivers home with only the thoughts of what could have been.

But this year’s field of 33 won’t feature any of that, thanks to a new engine formula and mid-season brand switches that have overextended the engine departments at both Honda and Chevrolet. Meanwhile, Lotus, left with only two remaining entries, has failed to show any sort of reasonable speed all month, leading Jean Alesi to call the car “unsafe.”

As such, a handful of teams pondered the idea of putting together extra entries, which would likely have had no issues in bumping the Lotus racers from this year’s field. At one point, Roger Penske reportedly said that he had the capability to field five cars, while A.J. Foyt and Sam Schmidt, this year running two cars apiece, have both entered more in the past. In response, the hungry drivers started patrolling the garages; both Jay Howard and Pippa Mann, graduates of the Firestone Indy Lights Series who have struggled to make the full-time jump to the IZOD IndyCar Series, tried to put together deals all month, while former IndyCar competitor Vitor Meira was also seen visiting the Honda camp during the week of practice. Howard, in fact, had a deal with Michael Shank Racing that was abandoned when the team couldn’t acquire a competitive engine, and Shank refused to accept a Lotus.

Sadly, Howard and Mann won’t make qualifying attempts in “Sunday specials” today, due to engine manufacturers pulling out.

Photo via IndyCar Media

Though Mann abandoned her pursuit of a ride before qualifying yesterday, saying that she had a sponsor, car, and engine available until that morning, yesterday’s three qualifying crashes could have affected the pursuit. Chevrolet owner-driver Ed Carpenter, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Oriol Servia (in his first race with Chevrolet power), and Honda’s Bryan Clauson all had various incidents, with at least Clauson’s requiring a new motor for the already stretched thin Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Howard put out a press release saying that his engine manufacturer didn’t abandon plans for a last-minute ride until after Pole Day.

Another part of the reason, likely, is so that Honda and Chevrolet don’t force Lotus out of the series entirely. All three manufacturers are obligated to power as much as 40% of the field in a three-brand setup, and up to 60% if a brand drops out, but neither Chevrolet nor Honda is looking forward to the latter possibility when they’ve already waived the former.

Of course, Bump Day has brought stranger surprises before. In 2005, Felipe Giaffone was pulled out of a mall to qualify a third entry for Foyt and help fill the field. If the Lotuses qualify early in the day, and show speed far off yesterday’s low qualifying pace (Sebastian Saavedra’s four-lap qualifying average of 222.811 miles per hour ranked 24th, making him the final driver to set his time on Saturday), the series will be stuck in a strange position, with a lot of questions to answer.

Is 33 cars “just a number,” as Tony Kanaan said before qualifying, and does that justify starting only 31? Would race director Beaux Barfield allow the Lotuses to start, and then park them if they can’t reach 105% of the race leader’s speed? (Were that rule to apply to qualifying, both Alesi and Simona de Silvestro would have to hit 215 miles per hour, which neither have done all month.) Could Barfield justify leaving the qualifying horsepower boost on the Lotuses for the sake of safety, knowing that neither could contend despite the unfair advantage?

Photo via IndyCar Media

Or, ultimately, would the possibility of starting two cars that run between 10 and 20 miles per hour off the pace be sufficiently worrisome enough to Chevrolet and Honda to make extra engines available? After all, roadblocks cause accidents, and if one of the Lotuses were to cause a melee that eliminated either manufacturer’s top contender from the event, they might be livid.

Starting and parking, like a lower-budget NASCAR team, isn’t an option. The issue isn’t a lack of funding – both Howard and Mann, your presumptive 32nd and 33rd starters, would have had enough money to run the race – but a lack of motor. And neither manufacturer would likely consider pulling in their last-minute entries, lest they alienate the traditionalists at Indianapolis to an incredible extent. (Indianapolis fans don’t take too kindly to failure to provide acceptable parts. Just ask Michelin.)

To the chagrin of many, this Bump Day will likely go without any of the bumping that makes it so entertaining. Instead, race fans will likely have to wait until next year, when a greater surplus of entries will be available. Maybe then, having a sponsor and car at the ready will be enough to make a qualifying attempt at The Greatest Spectacle In Racing. It usually is.

– Chris Leone

Interview: Verdier Poised To Challenge For 2012 Global Rallycross Crown

Photo via Stephan Verdier Facebook

You might not know Stephan Verdier now, but if you’re planning on following this year’s Global Rallycross Championship, prepare to get acquainted.

As a privateer entrant last year, Verdier scored three podium finishes in his No. 12 Subaru WRX STi. This year, with the help of Disney XD’s animated series Motorcity, Verdier will join Rhys Millen Racing in a brand new, WRC-spec Hyundai Veloster, with the intent of taking home the 2012 GRC crown.

“We’ve got a great team, we definitely have the equipment, and my goal is to win the championship,” Verdier said via phone interview on Friday. “I mean, if we end up top three, I think that’s successful, but my number one goal is to win as many races as possible and win the championship.”

He’ll have plenty of success to build upon from the 2011 season. At all three tracks – Irwindale Speedway, Old Mill Adventure Park, and Pikes Peak International Raceway – Verdier managed to score a podium in one of the two events, driving a car that he built himself.

“Irwindale was definitely a shocker because I didn’t think my car was going to be that fast, and the way the track was designed with the big banking, the car was working perfectly on the banks,” Verdier noted. “And we had a great engine with a lot of power compared to the other guys, so that was good.

Photo credit: Alex Wong

“In Seattle it rained a lot, so even if we were a little bit low on power compared to Ford, they were getting wheel spin, so we managed to qualify number one because of the rain. Pikes Peak we were doing great, we kind of kept our nose clean and finished third.

“So it was about keeping my nose clean, not making a mistake driving it, and it worked out good.”

Last year’s success was made even more impressive by the fact that Verdier’s car didn’t feature many of the performance upgrades that his competitors had. “Not only was my Subaru an older model, but it was all stock. Everything was OEM. I mean the hubs were OEM, the control arms were OEM, everything was off the shelf. But we had a great suspension, and we had great horsepower and a great gearbox.”

Photo via Rhys Millen Racing

Those successes led to Disney XD sponsoring Verdier at last year’s X Games, and the relationship will carry over into this season. Through the sponsorship, Verdier will promote the network and its new animated series “Motorcity” at GRC events, and will even appear on an episode of the show. But more importantly, it enables him to strengthen his program by abandoning his privateer status.

“Disney XD came on for X Games last year as a tryout,” Verdier said, “and were really happy with what I did. So we decided to go on with a full program for this season because we had the funding for it. And my car was a good car, but it was built by me in my backyard. With the funding of Disney XD and Motorcity, it gave me the opportunity to go to a professional team.”

Enter Rhys Millen Racing, which serves as Hyundai’s factory GRC entry. Millen is a friend and longtime drifting competitor of Verdier’s, and the French driver is pleased with the progression from his privateer entry.

“They’ve adapted (the Veloster) from a WRC car to a rallycross car,” Verdier said, “and at X Games it was pretty fast. When I tested three weeks ago, the car was phenomenal. Personally, I think that the Hyundai is the best handling car in rallycross. I was really impressed with how the car was turning with no understeer.”

Photo via Rhys Millen Racing

Verdier continued, “Going to the Hyundai, which is a full WRC-spec car, everything is made one-off on the car. Everything is custom made to make sure that it works perfectly. When I was working on my car, there was a lot of stuff that I did myself, and because I’m not an engineer, I had to compromise. So from the little details in the Hyundai – my brake pedal lines up perfectly with my left leg, so I don’t have to move my left foot to the right side to push the brake like I do on a regular car – everything is in line, so it’s like driving a go kart.

“That little detail, at the end, makes a big difference.”

Equipped with his new car, Verdier is ready for the challenges that a new season brings, even if they include a completely reworked schedule and a much stronger field. “The other guys are great drivers and great personalities, but I’m not really afraid of them – that might be a bit cocky to say that!” Verdier joked. “But I think there’s definitely more good cars than we had last year. There were four or five top cars – now we have, what, 14 top cars? So it’s going to be tougher.

“And if you look at the level of the rallycrossers in the US, I think we’re at a better level than they have in Europe. We have all the big names, like Sverre (Isachsen), Liam (Doran), Tanner (Foust), have been there in Europe and are coming to the US too. Also Toomas (Heikkinen), Dave Binks, all these guys who were really good in Europe are doing the US championship.

“And I think with the level of driving, and the level of recognition from the rallycross world, it’s gonna be quite a year, let me tell you. It should be very interesting.”

– Chris Leone