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Hildebrand ready to claim success with ECR in the Verizon IndyCar Series

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There’s a good deal of satisfaction in seeing a deserving driver get second, third or even fourth chances to make his or her way to the top of the field.

The announcement that JR Hildebrand takes over the Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) No. 21 Chevrolet full-time in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series has to elicit cheers throughout the Indy car world.

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Like many drivers, including fellow American Ryan Hunter-Reay, Hildebrand has taken a circuitous path to his current situation. Starting at the age of 14, he’s raced karts, Formula Russell, USF2000, Champ Car’s Atlantic series before winning the 2009 Indy Lights title and earning a two-race INDYCAR deal with Dreyer & Reinbold the following year.

Hildebrand caught the eye of two-time INDYCAR champs Panther Racing and was duly hired for a multi-year contract in 2011. Driving the No. 4 National Guard entry in his first Indianapolis 500, Hildebrand led the race through pit stop exchanges after the mid-point but crashed on the final turn of the final lap while trying to avoid a rapidly slowing Charlie Kimball. He managed to limp a three-wheeled racecar to the Yard of Bricks to salvage second place behind the late Dan Wheldon.

Unfortunately, Hildebrand was involved in the 15-car crash that killed Wheldon at Las Vegas in October of that year, suffering a sternum injury, but he continued to race with Panther until the 2013 Indy 500, where he finished 33rd and last, prompting the team to release him.

Hildebrand ran some Formula DRIFT races with Tyler McQuarrie and joined ECR at the 2014 Indy 500. In one way or another, he’s been with the team ever since and now has the opportunity he’s been looking for – a chance to win an Indy car championship and that elusive Indy 500.

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It’s not terribly far-fetched either, that Ed Carpenter would consider JR Hildebrand as his full-time driver of this No. 21 Chevy; after all, when then-driver Josef Newgarden had a bad accident at Texas Motor Speedway in June, it was Hildebrand that filled in, performing scheduled testing for the team. And please remember, he’s finished in the top 10 in every May race he’s competed in with ECR, including a sixth place result in this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500.

When he first became connected to Ed Carpenter Racing, it was a conjoined team with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. He had Brent Harvey as his engineer in 2014, 2015 but when Fisher and husband Andy O’Gara left to concentrate on their indoor karting enterprise in Speedway, IN, Harvey moved to strategizing for the No. 21 car of Newgarden. Last year Hildebrand worked with veteran engineer, team manager and former team co-owner (Bryan Herta Autosports) Steve Newey; it’s unknown whether Newey intends to get back in the game full-time or not.

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Hildebrand and Steve Newey at Indy this past May

The engineering aspects is exceptionally important in Indy car racing because of the challenges in such a competitive series and also because of the coming season’s lack of innovation – all vehicle specs for Chevrolet and Honda aero kits are frozen. According to the team, there have been plenty of discussions about the pending engineering additions, but no decisions have bee made.

There’s nothing but optimism at the team, for both team owner Carpenter and his No. 21 driver Hildebrand. Newly married and now gainfully employed, Hildebrand can now look forward to knowing his 2017 plans and acting on them. The time he spent working with Newgarden’s team – now his – and the interaction he was able to have with them, with the car, with his Chevrolet engineers, it’s all going to assist the Californian going forward.

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The decision to continue working with Hildebrand who, like his team owner is a college graduate and who has a basis in engineering, was pretty much of a no-brainer. “ I think the chemistry of the team, the cohesion that we already have I think is going to accelerate this and make it less of a rebuild, but more of a continuation of what we had been than if we had gone a different direction,” Carpenter said when making the announcement.

Carpenter had discussions with many different drivers once Newgarden departed for Team Penske. Hildebrand, he said, was always atop the list. “JR has done a good job for us, has been patient with me as an owner and us as a team getting here. But every time we’ve had him in a car, at the Speedway, different races, different tests, even outside of last year, JR has always done everything that we’ve asked and then some. It gave us a lot of confidence that it didn’t need to be a difficult process, really we didn’t need to make it any more difficult than necessary, because the guy we needed was sitting right in front of us.”

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Being out of a full-time ride doesn’t keep your name at the top of most owners’ lists, but here, again, Hildebrand, who turns 29 early next year, had the benefit of working with ECR on a part-time basis for the past few years, keeping his hand in. “We all know how volatile racing is, both from a sponsorship perspective and from an opportunity perspective for drivers,” he said. Carpenter contacted Hildebrand shortly after his Panther ride evaporated and the duo decided, at that time, “We would work together to try to make something happen, whatever that would be,” Hildebrand said.

The familial atmosphere at Ed Carpenter Racing and the team’s drive to succeed as a smaller team in the difficult and competitive Verizon IndyCar Series have helped exacerbate Hildebrand’s maturity, inside and out of the race car. Even with the uncertainty of not knowing when or where his next chance to race would arise, Hildebrand kept with Carpenter’s team, gaining success with each continuing opportunity. “I felt like the environment here at ECR has been a part of my execution (in the car) when it mattered. I think my maturation and sort of recognition of the things that really matter have also played a role in that, as it’s developed over the last few years.”

Although ECR has not yet named their road-course driver in the No. 20 car for the upcoming season – or named an engineer for the No. 21 – both Carpenter and Hildebrand expect, once testing resumes after the first of the year that they will be properly prepared. “I think a big part of the focus for me,” Hildebrand said, “is being totally prepared to be able to [race] right from St. Pete, have there not be a period of sort of layoff and using the first few races to get back in the swing of things. I’ll be highly focused on being totally prepared to really hit the ground running when the season kicks off.”

Words and Photos by Anne Proffit

2016 Nissan Altima SV gets great mileage on our road trip together

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The 2016 Nissan Altima SV has svelte body lines – Anne Proffit photo

It’s been a while since I’ve evaluated a Nissan Altima – can’t remember the last time, in fact – so when the 2016 Altima 2.5 SV was offered for a trip to Aguanga, CA and on to Gilbert, AZ (just google them), I jumped at the chance to experience the fifth generation of this mid-size, front-wheel-drive, four-door sedan.

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The Altima has Nissan’s extended V-shape grille – Anne Proffit photo

No doubt about it, the newest Altima has looks that state it’s a Nissan, with cues from the upmarket Maxima sedan and Murano SUV. Nissan calls this “Energetic Flow” styling; to this eye it’s a cohesive design platform that’s really quite appealing, from its modified V-shaped grille that’s become part of the genetics of this and other Nissan vehicles, the husky forward shoulders and upper body line strake that delineates the flow from front to rear as the strong arching tail lamps lead to a pair of twin pipes.

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The engine has older technology but works quite well – Anne Proffit photo

The looks of this Brilliant Silver on charcoal sedan scream performance but the mechanicals, alas, do not. Nissan fits its old-style port-injected 2.5-liter, inline four-cylinder engine that puts out 179 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 177 lb-ft of torque at 4,000; redline is at 6,500 rpm. Nissan, as it does with nearly every vehicle, uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that never seems to know what gear it’s in.

Suspension is through struts and multi-links, with upgraded shocks and struts for 2016. Nissan fits electrically controlled hydraulic steering on the Altima, which gives it somewhat better feedback than a pure electric unit. The disc brake system works as expected and the Continental 215/55R rubber mounted on twinned, five-spoke polished and flat 17-inch alloy rims are pretty but a wee bit on the noisy side.

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The Altima’s business-like interior is actually quite welcoming – Anne Proffit photo

While the running gear on his car is boring, and not terribly proficient in a vehicle that weighs at least 3233 pounds (we didn’t go to a scale, but figure with many options, it’s got to be heavier than stated), one feature everyone can appreciate is the mileage achieved, using regular unleaded from the 2016 Nissan Altima SV with this four-cylinder engine.

Rated at 27/39/31 from its large 18-gallon tank, the Altima regularly returned figures in the 40-mpg range over the long trips and even as we worked our way up the Rte 74 grade from Palm Springs to Anza. After more than 900 miles, the average for our trip was more than 38mpg, easily beating the federal estimate. For highway runs, we’d estimate an easy 550 to maybe 600 miles, even with a heavier right foot.

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Plenty of space in the rear of this sedan – Anne Proffit photo

Inside the cabin this refreshed Altima feels a bit more upmarket than it used to and has quite a few soft touch materials on the upper dash. The cabin has an airy feel, thanks to the fairly low dash. “Zero gravity” front seats are power-operated for the driver and manual for the passenger. They were comfy for three-plus hours behind the wheel, thanks to the lumbar adjustments, but the seat bottom could use better bolsters to these cloth seats. There’s plenty of rear legroom and the backseat trio have their own air flow and complement of cup holders in doors and pull-down armrest.

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Steering wheel operation is excellent – Anne Proffit photo

The 2016 Nissan Altima SV sedan has an inviting interior. The steering wheel offers audio and trip computer operation on the left with cruise control and phone operation on the right. Pairing the phone was a 20-second operation. The trip information system gives both average mpg and mph as well as driving miles and time. Below that the screen shows dual trip odometers and range.

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This was a an excellent environment for the traveler – Anne Proffit photo

At the base of the central stack lie a single USB, auxiliary and 12-volt plug with a grippy floor for the phone. There are high/low seat heaters at the central tunnel, together with a bilevel armrest and storage; another 12-volt plug is on the lower level or the central storage. Both front windows offer one-touch operation in both directions.

One aesthetic note: I just love the door handles and locks with their chromed triangulated buttons. So pretty. Of course the fob stays in your pocket as this is a true proximity key; operation to release the trunk and fuel filler are on the lower left of the dash, along with trip odometer operation. The trunk offers 15.4 cubic feet of space with the ability to lower the rear seats.

Nissan Connect is the manufacturer’s hands-free technology, connecting mobile apps, the SiriusXM travel link and SiriusXM traffic. There’s a hands-free text messaging assistant and one can access streaming audio through Bluetooth. It all works seamlessly. The navigation system is quite good on the 2016 Altima SV. The map offers points of interest that are viable and helped me find my way through the Phoenix area and in Palm Springs on the way back. The rear camera is excellent and crisp.

The cost of this technology in a motor-driven package is $28,935. Moving from a base of $26,295, Nissan gives this Altima SV carpeted floor mats and trunk mat, a cold weather package (two-position heated front seats, heated leather-wrapped steering wheel and heated outside mirrors), a convenience package of a rather tiny power tilt/slide sunroof, rear-seat vents, passenger’s one-touch window, auto-dimming inside mirror and other inessential items like manual folding exterior mirrors with imbedded LED turn signals and Homelink. There is also a navigation package that includes Nissan Connect.

While the Nissan Altima’s ride is on the soft side, that works well on the highway when you want comfort. Body control is much improved on this vehicle and it doesn’t seem to want to roll on itself in cornering. Noise isolation is pretty darn good in this car as well.

The 2016 version of Altima is much improved from earlier versions and is meeting little resistance in the marketplace – we see them everywhere. For comfort, styling and over-the-road panache, this Nissan has what it takes. And for the tech-savvy driver, it’ll make the long rides even more enjoyable with its capabilities to amuse and entertain.

Words and Photos By Anne Proffit

Minimal but fun times with the Ford Focus RS

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These days, Ford Motor Co. has two-day grab-a-ride sessions for journalists to test a vehicle for oh, about a half-hour or so for each one. They did one of these festivals recently in the Los Angeles area, bringing their new 2017 Fusion Sport AWD, Fusion Platinum Hybrid, Fusion SE, Titanium and Platinum Energi sedans, four “crew” 4×4 trucks – F250 gas, F250 diesel, F350 and F450 diesel and a quartet of Focus RS hatches.

Because of time constraints and an out-of-town job on the first day, we had only a short amount of time to sample the wares and that allowed for only two drives: the Fusion Sport AWD 2.7L (V6) turbo and the Focus RS. Only one guess as to which one got thumbs up? Yep, the Focus.

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It wasn’t that the Fusion Sport wasn’t sporty enough for a big, heavy four-door sedan. Giving us a less-than-favorable impression is steering that seemed vague, the number of “nannies” on the car was a turn-off – like when those big red lights flashed on the windshield as the car thought it was going to crash, even though the driver is attentive to surroundings, that rates a thumbs down. The Ford engineer said that was adaptable, but this photojournalist isn’t a fan. Period. The Fusion Sport driven wasn’t even a production vehicle, so never mind.

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After that, getting into the 2017 Ford Focus RS was a real pleasure. Opening the door to a power Recaro seat, slithering into it, finding all the controls and setting up seat, mirrors, audio, navigation and taking one last swig of the water bottle before heading out in this six-speed manual racer for the street felt like coming home.

The Focus RS dressed in Stealth gray with black interior is a truly stealthy car, unnoticeable, even with its lovely rear winglet and diffusers, together with that aggressive front grille emphasizing downforce without lift.

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A mid-size vehicle, the 2017 Ford Focus RS has running gear to die for: a directly-injected turbocharged 2.3L four-cylinder engine propels the beast to 350 horsepower at 6000 rpm and the same amount of torque at 3200 rpm; redline gnarls at 7000 rpm. Connected to a supremely direct six-speed manual transmission, this Ford just scoots.

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Even the EPAS electrically-assisted power steering is precise, something we’re not used to with this type of system. Brembo brakes perform as expected and the strut/control-arm suspension is well-modulated for both street and track usage. On this vehicle Ford fit P235/35 Michelin Cup 2 summer track tires on 19-inch forged alloy wheels. They were close to being track-ready by the time we climbed in – the tires are a $1990 option on the Focus RS.

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Okay, pricing: the base price of a 2017 Ford Focus RS is $36,775 including freight. The second option on this car is an RS2 package, which includes power/heated outside mirrors, heated front seats and steering wheel, along with voice-activated navigation, set into the central dash display. It’s quite nice, as is the trip computer that allows us to see all truly pertinent info directly ahead in one window – what a novel concept. MSRP all told is a hefty $41,550.

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Steering wheel operation is excellent – Anne Proffit photo

The provided Sony audio system includes 10 speakers and subwoofer under the hatch’s covered floor. There is no spare tire but Ford includes a repair kit in the nifty below-floor compartment. HD and SiriusXM radio are part of a standard audio offering and speed-adjusted volume control tends to drown out the lovely dual pipes.

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Even in the abbreviated drive of the 2017 Ford Focus RS, we’re able to feel the linear power delivery and check out the Sport, Track and Drift driving modes available on this car. Listening to the audible feedback from the exhaust pipes is sensual – far more than the delicious Sony audio.

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Handling is superb in any of the chosen modes but trying to break free in this nose-heavy hatch (59.4 percent of weight is over the front wheels), but in Sport mode the ride is definitely hard. Mileage is rated at 19/25/22 mpg; when the ride began, the average was just over 14mpg from other drivers. No comment on whether it increased or decreased by the time we returned.

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Yes, it was a quick trip but it definitely was fun. If your budget doesn’t groan under the weight of the entry fee, this is a great car to have and can be used in practical manner. It earns high marks here, and aside from the Subaru WRX STi and the late, lamented Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution driven earlier this year the best choice for a sporting hatch. There is not substitute.

Words and Images By Anne Proffit

Alexander Rossi and Matt Jaskol to race SKUSA SuperNationals

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In the winner’s circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with his team, Alexander Rossi is joined by Matt Jaskol, to the left of Michael Andretti and wearing white sunglasses.

When he won the 100th Indianapolis 500 on May 29, Verizon IndyCar Series rookie driver Alexander Rossi thanked, among others, Matt Jaskol for getting him to this point.

As Rossi turned 10 years old, his father Pieter enrolled him in a karting class to help advance his son’s newly realized love of motorsport. One of the teachers at his school was Jaskol, who realized this student had real talent. Jaskol took the young Rossi under his wing, coached him for a year in karts before Rossi began his move up the racing ladder, going into single-seaters in the United States (Skip Barber, Formula BMW) and then taking off for Europe in 2009 and further training – that eventually landed the American in Formula 1 as a reserve driver for Marussia Manor.

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Rossi wasn’t on anyone’s radar at Indy until team co-owner Bryan Herta’s strategy worked to perfection.

Sixteen years – and a tumultuously successful INDYCAR season – later, Rossi is returning to his roots with his former teacher, as the duo intend to race together in the most prestigious American kart competition: the SKUSA SuperNationals near Jaskol’s Las Vegas home. Rossi won’t be the first ex-Formula 1 or INDYCAR driver to come to this race as Michael Schumacher, Sergio Perez, Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, Will Power and Marco Andretti have also competed in these races.

Jaskol admitted the duo have been planning this get-together competition since Rossi won at Indy, where they met up again at the 500. Jaskol was visiting with his former roommate and best friend, Grant Haughawout, tire engineer and truck driver for Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti. Haughawout insisted Jaskol come to the 100th race after giving Jaskol a home during his time representing Red Bull’s Junior Team in Formula BMW and through Jaskol’s 2008 Indy Lights driving career.

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Pieter Rossi, Alexander Rossi and Matt Jaskol pose with the BorgWarner trophy – photo courtesy Matt Jaskol

“I hadn’t seen Alexander or [Rossi’s father] Pieter for years and the fact that I just showed up renewed the relationship,” Jaskol recalled of that May day. “I hadn’t seen or spoken to Alex in almost 10 years, although Pieter and I had kept in touch, but it had been a good five years since we spoke. I was standing outside the garage with Grant and I see Pieter. We started catching up, found Alex and had a little reunion.

They started talking about the SKUSA SuperNationals before the 500 took place. “I remarked how cool it would be if Alex and I were to race as teammates. The rest went from there and we’ve planning ever since,” he said.

For the SKUSA race Matt and Alexander will team up with Factory CRG Racing Team in two categories: KZ Pro Class (which used to be known as ICC) and the 125 Moto Honda Pro Class, S1. Each of them will run the two classes as teammates – and most likely get to see who’s got the upper hand these days?

Rossi, who claimed both Rookie of the Year honors at Indianapolis and for the 2016 IndyCar season stated he’s “thrilled to be taking part in this year’s SKUSA SuperNationals racing alongside Matt and the best karters in the world. This is where it all began and for me to give back to the foundation and roots of my profession is something I really look forward to.

“Matt was and is an inspiration to me and a really big part of the reason I took the next step in racing. He’s an incredible go-kart driver and champion, and it’s a huge honor to finally be racing with him. I believe Matt and I have a good program and we will work very hard to be as competitive as possible.”

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Matt Jaskol winces in direct sunlight on the crowded Indy 500 grid

This writer first met Jaskol in 2000 – two years before he became Rossi’s tutor – at a CART-promoted kart race on a track formerly owned by Bryan Herta, that was a bit south of Las Vegas. Jaskol was racing with Paul Tracy’s kart team at the event and I was writing a story for CART.com. We became friends and still keep in touch. Currently, Jaskol  manages Woodcutters, the family business, continues to instruct at Dream Racing, works with Hammer Nutrition and, just last weekend helped Travis Pastrana (and friends) celebrate Pastrana’s birthday with a sky-dive into a RAD (Real Action Daily) park in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Just normal stuff.

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Celebrating Travis Pastrana’s birthday in Panama – photo courtesy Matt Jaskol

By Anne Proffit

Time to crown a champion in Sonoma

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Simon Pagenaud owns a 44-point lead in the double, points-paying race.

It’s less than two hours before the Verizon IndyCar Series holds its season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Taking place on the 2.385-mile Sonoma Raceway undulating road course, this 85-lap contest will determine which Team Penske driver earns the 2016 title in the team’s 50th anniversary season. Will it be Frenchman Simon Pagenaud or Australian Will Power?

A half-hour warm-up was held just before noon, under sunny, growing hotter-by-the-minute skies. We’re expecting temperatures around start time to peak well into the 90s and stay there throughout. This will cause even further tire degradation than the teams have been talking about since their Friday arrival and could change the status of the race greatly.

This morning, Josef Newgarden was quickest in the half-hour of running; he starts 10th later this afternoon. Pole sitter and points leader Pagenaud was only 18th in practice and his sole challenger for the title, 2014 INDYCAR champion Power (starting fourth) turned only the 21st best lap in practice, of 22 drivers.

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Will Power knows how to win a title; he was the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion.

While you can’t call the outcome of a race from its warmup session, it’s easy to see who’s working on what aspects of the upcoming 85-lap enduro. Yes, there were plenty of race-ready pit stops performed but with 382 laps turned in half an hour, it’s obvious everyone was focused on how their cars perform in traffic on this low-grip racetrack.

So take a look at the warmup results versus the qualifying standings and starting positions. And please note, everyone but rookie Conor Daly starts on Firestone’s red, alternate tire, which has shown itself to be short-lived. It would appear most team managers are expecting an early caution period by doing that, so they can get their obligatory two laps of green on the alternates completed before the race finds its true groove.

By Anne Proffit

Pagenaud and Power prepare for their championship battle

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Will Power practices at Sonoma Raceway

They were teammates a decade ago; they’re teammates now. In Team Penske’s 50th year, either Simon Pagenaud or Will Power will bring The Captain, Roger Penske a new prize: the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. The question is: which one?

Pagenaud, the Frenchman who’s been on a tear in his second season with the team leads his Australian teammate by 43 points, but that’s not nearly enough to wrap the title in the 85-lap GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma this coming Sunday afternoon.

The season finale offers double points for all 22 INDYCAR drivers and teams, so much depends on the second Friday practice. None of Team Penske’s four drivers, Pagenaud, Power, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya turned lots of laps in the cool morning practice, holding onto their Firestone tires in anticipation of this afternoon’s one hour, 15 minute session instead.

The rationale is easy to understand. “It was cool, so that made the car a lot better,” Power said. “It didn’t make sense to run very much,” after turning only four laps around the 12-turn, 2.385-mile undulating road course. “I think the next session is going to be real telling. I think everyone is going to run a lot because around the time we’re qualifying, the temperatures are going to be the same – and hopefully the wind is. We’ll get more of an idea then.”

As it was the 22 IndyCar drivers turned only 328 during the first practice of the same duration. It started slowly and didn’t get much busier. In fact, A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato was the most prolific driver of the first session, with 23 laps under his belt in position 8. Pagenaud’s five laps placed him 10th and Power held the 17th spot. Neither appeared fazed by their morning standings.

“I’m excited to be here, excited to be in this fight, excited that we’re able to, with Will and our teammates, bring another championship for Team Penske in the 50th year anniversary of the team. I think it’s very important to Roger [Penske] and the entire organization,” Pagenaud said. “Now it’s about racing – we’re just saving our tires, waiting for the conditions to be more similar to what’s going to happen over the weekend. We know the temperatures are going to rise.”

There’s nothing awkward about this battle, as these drivers competed as teammates with Walker Racing in the 2006-7 Champ Car World Series. They know each other; know each other’s styles and know each other’s flaws. And now it’s time to see who can handle the pressure of the 11th consecutive season where the Verizon IndyCar Series goes into the last of 16 contests with a new champion to be crowned at the close of the race.

Of course, in the afternoon everything changed with Castroneves, Power and Pagenaud leading the time sheets, but none of them under Power’s 2015 lap record of 1:16.2597 (112.589mph). Castroneves was close but not quite there at 1:16.6678 (111.990mph).

With “everyone else out of the equation, that makes it different,” Power admitted. “It’s a little different from last year. I was definitely further away last year when I had a shot at it, but we have a realistic shot this weekend,” he said. “Everything’s got to fall into place, but yeah, they’re all different,” these INDYCAR titles he’s battled to achieve, gaining the 2014 championship yet finishing oh so close, so many times before then.

In 2014 Power simply went about his season not expecting to win the title. “I’m not going to win a championship, so who cares,” he remembered thinking. “I just went and raced, and I won one. That’s actually how I approached the beginning of that season, then it started coming together. Okay,” he said, “I get it. Racing gods just want to play with you a little.”

And then there was last year, when Target Chip Ganassi Racing took the title in this very race, with Scott Dixon tying Juan Pablo Montoya on points, but emerging with the title due to his greater number of wins. “After what happened last year, just no way we could let that happen again. It was just such a pity, that we allowed Ganassi to get that title. It didn’t need to happen; we were very determined to make sure it didn’t happen this year,” Power said.

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A pensive Simon Pagenaud ponders the weekend at Sonoma Raceway

Still, Power has to chase his teammate Pagenaud, whose 43-point lead – under normal circumstances – would be nearly insurmountable. Letting his teammate do much of the talking about their upcoming battle this Sunday in the Wine Country, the Frenchman was circumspect. “I’m in a different position to Will. Will needs to win the race to have a legit chance, really. We don’t have a big issue,” he said.

“But I think you just race like you usually do. Everybody is going to race like you usually do. Why change right now? There’s no reason to do that. But you do need to know where you’re running around, that’s for sure. Obviously, there will be aggressive guys out there – like every year. The fact that it’s double points gets everybody pretty excited – sometimes too much. We’re going to have to be heads-up,” Pagenaud stated.

Tomorrow it becomes a bit more tense for this duo, as they prepare for qualifying with a morning practice about the same time as Friday’s, then qualify in mid-afternoon (similar to today’s time, as well). Which “P” guy will emerge on top once it’s all said and done? Qualifying may tell us more about

this duo.

Words and Photos by Anne Proffit

McCulloch adds to John Force’s NHRA Funny Car manpower

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John Force in action at the 62nd Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals

John Force Racing (JFR)went from having among the oldest tuning crew when 16-time NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car champion John Force earned his 14th title (Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly) to having among the youngest tuners in the business. Since 2015 Jon Shaffer, now 29, has been in charge of Force’s effort to take home a 17th Wally champion’s trophy.

To further strengthen his 2016 chances, John Force announced the addition of Jason McCulloch to share tuning duties with Shaffer for the six-race playoffs that begin this weekend at zMax Dragway outside Charlotte, N.C. McCulloch, son of Ed “Ace” McCulloch, grew up in the Funny Car ranks where his father both drove and tuned, but found his professional expertise suited, before now, on the Top Fuel side. Now he returns to the “family” business, albeit with a different family.

Heading into the ninth annual Carolina Nationals, Shaffer and McCulloch will share tuning duties while Nick Casertano continues crew management and Funny Car operations on John Force’s Peak Chevrolet Camaro team.

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John Force seeks his 17th NHRA Funny Car championship as the eighth-place seed

“Growing up in California I always felt like my heroes Don ‘Snake’ Prudhomme, Tom ‘Mongoose’ McEwen and Ed ‘The Ace’ McCulloch were the boys of Southern California,” John Force recalled. “I used to see Jason sitting on truck tailgates learning from all these legends just like me.

“The McCullochs are Funny Car people just like the Forces. It just seemed like a natural fit to bring Jason over with me and team him up with Jon Schaffer.  I have always worked to build the next generation of drivers and crew chiefs. This move is part of that plan and one that I think will make all my teams stronger,” he said.

This year alone, Shaffer led the JFR Peak team to two victories during the very difficult three-race Western Swing. Californian Shaffer worked with Top Fuel’s David Baca, JR Todd and Doug Herbert before returning to JFR, where he’d been a mechanic with Eric Medlen. Connecting with tuner/driver Mike Neff at the close of the 2009 season, Shaffer admits that, while he learned a lot in all of his jobs, “I learned a lot more since I started working with Mike. He has taught me everything from how to tune a race car to how to live a good life.”

Now, paired with McCulloch, 45, raised to understand the business of Funny Car, this trio of Force, Shaffer and McCulloch have impetus to succeed in the tough six-race playoffs, NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship.

McCulloch, who worked in Top Fuel over the past decade, winning championships along the way is ready for the challenge. “I learned a lot growing up in this sport. One of the best lessons I picked up was to work as hard as you can and do whatever job needs to be done,” McCulloch said as his new position became public knowledge. “This team has a lot of talent and I am ready to do my part to win John Force another Funny Car championship.”

Words and Photos By Anne Proffit