It’s not a normal Tuesday. I woke up, took the phone off its charger and there, greeting me at 5:30AM was the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr has decided to hang up his helmet at the end of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) season in November.
We’ve all known this day would come, especially as Earnhardt missed the second half of last season, recovering from concussion-like symptoms. During that time, Junior continued to run his JR Xfinity team, got to know his wife Amy even better and considered his future. He knew he wanted to continue to race if his body permitted; his multitude of fans wanted the same thing.
The 2017 season hasn’t been kind to the third-gen driver. He’s got no race wins, no stage wins and has no points that would place him in the end-of-season playoffs. He’s 24th in points and has been a pin-ball on many occasions in the early season, scaring anyone that follows the sport and this particular driver. He crashed out of the most recent event, held Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
When Verizon IndyCar Series four-time champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti had his career-ending accident in Houston in 2013, there were many that sighed relief as the Scotsman stated his intent to retire, helped by the excellent advice of Dr. Stephen Olvey, a physician responsible, in part, for saving Alex Zanardi’s life. Franchitti was told the next hit, when there was one, might end his ability to think coherently – something that took him a long time to do after the career-ending shunt – and another bad concussion could cause even worse symptoms than those he was experiencing at the time.
No doubt, Dale Earnhardt Jr has consulted with many people prior to making his decision to retire known. Wife Amy, employer Rick Hendrick, manufacturer Chevrolet, his sister Kelley and others close to him. Earnhardt started his 600th NASCAR MENCS race in California earlier this year. He’s got 26 Cup victories, including wins at the most prestigious Daytona 500, ten years apart in 2004 and 2014.
Fourteen times voted Most Popular Driver, Earnhardt Jr will be lauded from this day forth as he sets foot to any racetrack. He should be. Not only for his driving prowess, which continues to be top-of-the-line, but also for his humanity. And humility. When Earnhardt Jr crashed out of Monday’s Bristol race, postponed due to weather, he was, as ever, circumspect as he spoke with the media. The car had an oil problem. The crew noticed spills during his pit stop. “Went into Turn 1 on the restart and the car just went straight into the wall with oil all over the tires.”
Some drivers might have whined about it; Junior just spoke of the incident in a matter-of-fact manner. “We weren’t running that great, but we were working on our car and trying to figure out how to get it to run better. And get something out of today,” he said, “but we are going to have another bad finish. We have had a lot of them this year. It’s going to be tough.”
Interviews with Dale Earnhardt Jr have always been to-the-point. He never goes off-subject and never treats the media like the idiots we can often be. He bounded into the 600th race press conference at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana a bit early, answered all questions with a big smile and seemed genuinely happy to be there. He stayed later than expected and just seemed to eat it all up.
The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr from the MENCS garage and racetrack will be even more dramatic than that of Jeff Gordon, who has, not unexpectedly, moved to the television booth. We’ve watched this son of a seven-time champion grow up and mature before our eyes. From the time he joined NASCAR’s elite drivers on-track, expectations have been huge.
Sure he didn’t win a championship – and it doesn’t look good for his final season thus far – but he’s been a meticulous racer who has given as much as he’s been able, excelling when the car and the fates cooperate, wringing the best possible result when the car bites back.
This is a stunning development for NASCAR and for Hendrick Motorsports. The team said its plans for the No. 88 will be made later, once the enormity of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s decision settles in. NASCAR chairman Brian France weighed in: “His passion for the sport will leave an impact on NASCAR that will be felt over its entire history. Over his 20-plus year career, Dale has proven himself a leader with a deep commitment to so many areas of the sport – all the way to its roots.”
As for this writer, I’ve got to agree with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s teammates and friends in NASCAR, all of whom are happy for the driver. Over the course of his NASCAR life, Dale Earnhardt Jr has earned respect for his driving capabilities but even more for his humanity. “In sports, athletes like @DaleJr come along once in a lifetime: talented, popular, humble, honest, real – you don’t get that combo often. Well done,” tweeted Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive VP and chief racing development officer. I’ve got to agree.
Words and Photos by Anne Proffit
Add another Verizon IndyCar Series driver to the wine-producer list. We’ve seen bottles from Mario Andretti, the Foyt family, Jimmy Vasser’s V12, former INDYCAR driver Scott Pruett’s winery and now, Takuma Sato’s release of a unique and limited bottle Cabernet Sauvignon to commemorate his 2013 victory in the 39th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Driving at the time for A.J. Foyt Racing, Sato’s victory in the seminal street race makes him the sole Japanese driver to earn a win in the Indy car series. It’s also his only visit to Winner’s Circle in the series, although the former Formula One racer did come close to victory in the 2012 Indianapolis 500, crashing on the last lap and handing Dario Franchitti his third and final Indy 500 win.
“Long Beach has been my greatest accomplishment to date in my racing career,” the driver of Andretti Autosport’s No. 26 Honda acknowledged. “I really wanted to commemorate that fantastic day with a great Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I feel like the wine does a great job of remembering how special that day was.”
A connoisseur of fine wines, Sato worked with winemaker Meadowcroft Wines to select grapes from the Mt Veeder area of Napa Valley, a growing region known for its excellent Cabernet varietals. That the grapes are from the 2013 vintage made the selection to produce an even easier one for the racer to make. The lush red, called TS Wine, will be available exclusively at the Foyt Wine Vault in Speedway, IN this May.
“I wanted to thank Chris Perry and Tom Meadowcroft to helping to make this great wine,” Sato said. “It was really a fun process that I quite enjoyed. I also wanted to thank Randy Owens for lending me his artwork for our table. Randy’s fantastic painting that also commemorates that great win.”
In an independent evaluation conducted March 26, 2017, the 2013 Takuma Sato “Long Beach Edition” Cabernet Sauvignon rated an overall score of 92 points by The Sommelier Company. Reaching “Sommelier grade”, the 14.5-percent alcohol-by-volume bottle just missed – by a single point – the designation of an “investment grade” wine by the evaluators.
In their judgment the tasters noted, “This is a juicy, velvety and intense Cabernet Sauvignon, with round, fresh fruit, lots of dried herbs and subtle oak. It opens up quickly and settles into its full character after an hour. The fruit is dark, underlined by piquant eucalyptus, mint and pine needles. Bitter, ashy minerals and beeswax make it highly typical as a Mount Veeder Cabernet.”
Evaluated in a blind tasting, Sato’s 2013 Cabernet was noted to have 7/10 complexity and balance, with 8/10 intensity. In non-blind tasting, its character was noted at 6/10 while typicity is rated at 9/10. Tasting notes reveal “clear, varied flavors from beginning to end, bringing complexity to the mouth.” Just like Sato, the intensity is high, especially “vigorous and persistent flavors on the palate,” the tasting notes continued. Tasters also noted the character as being satisfying, succulent, even complex.
The release price for each bottle of 2013 Takuma Sato “Long Beach Edition” Cabernet Sauvignon is $95. From the two barrels selected by Sato, there are only 600 bottles in this limited release.
Words and Photos By Anne Proffit
The news that Fernando Alonso will forego the most compelling Formula One race of the year at Monaco to compete in the 101st Indianapolis 500 this May 28th seemed like it arrived 11 days late. This has to be an April Fool’s joke, right, coming from McLaren-Honda at 3:10AM PDT on a Wednesday morning.
Fernando Alonso isn’t the kind of guy to hide his emotions, and it’s been easy, over the past year or so to see that he’s been thoroughly frustrated with the lack of technological advancement and racing pace at his chosen team.
The Honda power unit hasn’t come together with the chassis developed by McLaren; things just haven’t worked to his or the team’s advantage, nor for teammates past and present. Seeing this grand squad running mid-pack or lower has been a let-down for them as well as students and fans of the sport of motor racing. Seeing a two-time F1 champion languishing in the way-back, well, it’s not been fun for anyone involved.
So the news of this deal, which brings McLaren back to Indianapolis Motor Speedway after 38 years is compelling. Compelling. Discussions broached by Alonso began in Australia – as a joke – and the deal was sealed a short fortnight later in Shanghai. Things happen quickly when everyone involved thinks it’s the right thing to do.
As we all know by now, McLaren-Honda and Fernando Alonso intend to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The car will be a sixth (!) Andretti Autosport entry. Operations for the fifth car, announced this past weekend at the 43rd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for Jack Harvey – also an Indy 500 rookie – have now been directed to Honda’s top sports-car team Michael Shank Racing (MSR), which has been trying to get a foothold in Indy car racing since well before the advent of the DW12 chassis. Shank, a former driver had a chassis but no engine deal. This allows him to compete without having to purchase all the goods – again.
This arrangement with MSR allows Michael Andretti, who seemed a bit distracted during Harvey’s Saturday announcement in Long Beach, to assist fully in the running of the McLaren-Honda Alonso entry. He’ll have plenty of on-the-ground assistance from American Zak Brown, currently executive director of McLaren Technology Group.
Michael will take the direct line, by calling his race, to assist Alonso in the most important aspects of running Indy – respecting the track. CART’s 1991 champion, and a four-time Indy 500 winning owner knows this place well. After all, no one who’s raced at Indianapolis has had more success – without claiming victory – in the 500 than has Michael Andretti.
Many drivers have come to Indy with the idea of conquering these four turns 200 times. Many F1 drivers have arrived in the Circle City expecting to thrive and have had their lack of respect thrown back at them. Most recent ex-F1 entrants include Jacques Villeneuve, the 1995 Indy 500 winner, Jean Alesi and, of course Nigel Mansell, who lost an argument with Indy’s walls in his first attempt to claim a “Baby Borg” BorgWarner trophy.
Alonso will have benefit of Honda’s Brownsburg simulator and, no doubt, the McLaren team will get an enhanced program together for him at their Woking, UK headquarters’ simulators. At the same time, the Spaniard must keep his head together for his everyday job, which is racing his F1 car. As he works the simulators, he’ll have to remember that respect for this track is the number one subject on his agenda. A lack of respect for the track has claimed many bodies, some more renown than he and some less so.
This news makes me think of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ most recent winner in Long Beach. James Hinchcliffe completed his return to form last weekend with a true racer’s gritty ride to victory. This wasn’t handed to him; he earned it. The amount of work the Mayor of Hinchtown went through to gain his first victory since 2015 at New Orleans should be a lesson to Alonso.
Hinchcliffe knows the walls at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – they nearly took his life.
So while we’re all excited to welcome back McLaren to IMS and to welcome Fernando Alonso, we must make sure we don’t make them statistics in the darker side of Indy 500 lore. Monte Carlo is one of the most difficult and historic F1 tracks on the planet; Indianapolis Motor Speedway can claim the same directive for INDYCAR.
Here’s wishing a safe, fast and successful return for McLaren Honda and their driver Fernando Alonso. Even with all the attendant apparatus and personnel at their disposal, it’s not going to be all that easy for them.
By Anne Proffit
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
By Anne Proffit