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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

INDYCAR sets 2017 schedule

The Verizon IndyCar Series has announced its 2017 schedule and it looks a lot like this year’s, which is a good thing. After all, date equity is something fans everywhere appreciate.

The schedule consists of six ovals, six permanent road courses and five temporary street courses, running from March 12 through September 17, with the Streets of St. Petersburg starting the campaign and Sonoma Raceway again hosting a season finale. This coming year there will be 17 races, with Gateway Motorsports Park outside St. Louis, MO the addition, marking a return to the venue that hosted both CART and INDYCAR from 1997-2003. As Josef Newgarden aptly coined it, “This is 17 for ’17.”

Once again, the Raceway at Belle Isle features the sole doubleheader of the race year, coming one week after Indianapolis. Watkins Glen International, tabbed to replace the ill-fated Boston Grand Prix race on Labor Day returns to the schedule with the same date.

Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., parent firm of INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, among other holdings has confirmed all events on the current schedule are also set for 2018. There is the possibility of an international non-points-paying event, which could take place in February.

Beginning with the Streets of St. Petersburg on March 12, the INDYCAR series takes a few weeks off before venturing to Long Beach April 9, then heading to Barber Motorsports Park on April 23 and off to Phoenix International Raceway a week later, April 29. Where this year Phoenix was paired with Long Beach on consecutive weekends, Miles said he’s still talking with Bryan Sperber at that track to see if they can revert to that for 2018.

Indianapolis’ pair of races take over the month of May with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis set for May 13 and the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 scheduled May 28. June will, once again, be an exceptionally busy month with four events: the Duals in Detroit at Belle Isle are on June 3-4, Texas Motor Speedway’s night race, hopefully not rained out in 2017, is on June 10, and the series takes a week to recuperate before heading to Road America on June 25.

INDYCAR pauses for the Fourth of July, then heads for Iowa Speedway July 9, followed a week later by the annual trip to the Streets of Toronto July 16. Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course’s traditional date is a week earlier this coming year, closing out the month of July on the 30th, which gives the Verizon-sponsored series two races in August: Pocono Raceway on August 20 and Gateway just six days later on August 26. Again, it’s hoped that the weather cooperates for both.

The final two races are in September, as stated earlier. Watkins Glen takes place on Labor Day weekend, occurring September 3 and two weeks later, the West Coast beckons with Sonoma Raceway closing out the contests.

“As a series we are working diligently to create long-term relationships with our promoters to establish date equity and to provide them with the opportunity to initiate ticket renewals and event promotions earlier, which is pivotal to continuing the increase in attendance at our events,” said Miles.

He noted the series had a 38% growth in both television ratings and viewership from 2013 through 2015. The same numbers are up this year by a total of seven percent compared to this time last year. Six 2016 events have attracted crowds at or near record highs, Miles explained.

All events on the 2017 schedule have broadcasting rights allocated to Verizon IndyCar Series television partners of long standing, both ABC and NBCSN. The final broadcast schedule, together with start times, is expected to be released later in the year. Miles expects the St. Louis short-oval to run under the lights as Texas always has, but for  2017, Iowa remains a day race, occurring on a Sunday once again.

The hours allocated for each race is “the next level of difficulty – and it doesn’t escape our focus,” Miles stated. “We’re working with our partners to find the right balance for the shows and for our [on-site] fans. We’ll work with our broadcast partners to find the right balance, but it’s better for our fans to minimize overlaps with NASCAR.

“Being on NBCSN, having the second half of the season with same broadcasters for the IndyCar Series and NASCAR maximizes the window. We’re working toward a significant reduction in overlapping telecasts – it’s much, much less than even three years ago – and that helps all the race fans.

“NBCSN is working to minimize key conflicts. Their objective is to be the motorsports platform in this country – much as they’ve done in golf. They have grown as cable provider, grown their audience for motorsports and been helpful in the growth of our audience.”

By Anne Proffit

2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Schedule

Jim Oberhofer pays it forward

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When tragedy befalls us, we all hope we’re strong enough to get beyond the pain and move forward.

Such strength is found in Jim Oberhofer (Jim O), the vice president of Kalitta Motorsports. His four-car team holds the current NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car title with Del Worsham, who is mounting another late-season charge toward a repeat championship.

Jim O is the crew chief/tuner on Doug Kalitta’s Top Fuel car and minds the business of J.R. Todd’s dragster, Worsham’s and Alexis DeJoria’s Funny Car entries. The team adds a part-time Funny Car effort starting next week at Lucas Oil Raceway.

Heading into the end of NHRA’s “regular season” at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend, Kalitta lies second in Top Fuel points, Todd is sixth, while Worsham has third-place points and DeJoria is tenth in the Funny Car rankings. The series re-sets after the U.S. Nationals for a six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

With all that on his plate, Jim O is taking on more.

Last year he published “Top Fuel for Life,” which chronicles his missteps in life – and racing – and the life and death of his beloved wife and partner Tammy, who lost her battle with cancer on June 18, 2013. Now Jim O has established The Tammy O Foundation to further celebrate her life; this charitable fund will donate receipts from the book to organizations dear to her heart: BRAKES, Pandas International, Racers for Christ, DRAW and the Infinite Hero Foundation.

The book is available through the Team Kalitta website, trackside at the Patron merchandise trailer or on http://www.amazon.com.

While he considered starting a 501(c)(3) charitable fund to distribute receipts from the book, Oberhofer “wanted to do this the right way. This (foundation) allows me to be able to donate to things that I know Tammy would have wanted me to donate to.” Their daughter, “Ashley O and I have made a list and we are going to continue to support as many people as we can.”

The new logo for The Tammy O Foundation was designed by Kenny Youngblood, the legendary drag racing artist, and features one of Tammy O’s favorite things, a panda. The logo will run on all four Team Kalitta machines, starting at the U.S. Nationals outside Indianapolis. “Tammy was very close to Kenny’s wife, Terri, and thought the world of Kenny’s work. I knew he was the perfect person to design a logo for her foundation.”

Before and during their marriage, Tammy Oberhofer was a beloved member of the NHRA and Team Kalitta families. She worked with Kalitta Motorsports for more than two decades, beginning as the team’s public relations representative and later taking over as office manager for the team.

Jim Oberhofer’s generosity of spirit in designating the receipts of his wonderful book to his late wife’s favorite charities is not unexpected. Writing the book helped him understand the how’s and why’s of his actions before and during his wife’s illness and illustrates both the stress and the love that’s incorporated into every facet of motorsports.

By Anne Proffit

Larry Dixon plots NHRA Top Fuel return

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Larry Dixon at the 2015 Gatornationals, before he took his wild ride – Anne Proffit photo

Larry Dixon has never been one to let anything stand in his way of capturing an NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing winner’s trophy. That’s how he leads his life: 300mph all the way. Three times an NHRA Top Fuel titleholder, Dixon lost his ride with Bob Vandergriff Racing at the end of last year, a group that closed shop earlier this year after losing its sponsor in death.

As he was racing towards fourth place in the final championship standings during 2015 Mello Yello NHRA campaign, Dixon also battled throat cancer – unbeknown to most everyone around him. The winner of 62 Top Fuel Wally trophies, No. 2 on the all-time list, Dixon also survived an astounding crash at the 2015 Gainesville Gatornationals, where he broke his T-4 and t-5 vertebrae, yet still managed to return to the track a couple of hours after that qualifying crash.

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Dixon addressed the media shortly after breaking his back at the 2015 Gatornationals – no one knew he was also battling throat cancer – Anne Proffit photo

A man who appears to have more lives than any cat, Larry Dixon, now 49 years old, is working to get back on track; as we all know, while vertebrae may heal and cancer can be defeated, there really is no cure for racing. To satisfy his addiction, Dixon is in the midst of starting his own team, Larry Dixon Racing, with the aim of rejoining the NHRA Top Fuel wars as soon as he possibly can.

Gathering race cars, suitable equipment in Brownsburg, Ind. and keeping in shape by competing in Australia’s vibrant drag racing scene, Dixon raced to a Top Fuel victory in Australia this past June, driving a Rapisarda dragster to the win at Willowbank Raceway, competing in the City Ipswich Australian Winternationals near Brisbane. While he’d already taken the Australian national elapsed time record, this win gave the venerable competitor the country’s speed record as well.

“For the last year of my life, with cancer, a broken back and then losing my ride, everything that’s happened, winning races like we did in Australia makes all that pain go away,” Dixon said. “I’m finally 100 percent healthy now and I’m excited to go racing again. I’m so very anxious to get in a car and get after it!”

To that effect he’s put together proper equipment in his Brownsburg shop and is sure he can be competitive “out of the gate. There is a lot of excitement being generated in the drag racing world, especially in Top Fuel,” Dixon stated. “With the great TV package in place and sellout [NHRA] crowds, I don’t think the timing could be any better than now to show that right marketing partner what we can do on and off the track.”

Dixon fully understands marketing from his time working with Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. Their more recent sponsorship came from a smokeless tobacco company, which meant marketing to younger patrons at the drag races was difficult. He learned to dance around the prohibition on that type of advertising and learned how to market to different facets of the race-going public.

Growing up in the sport hasn’t hurt, either. The Southern California-bred son of s Top Fuel champion, Larry Dixon Sr, who cornered NHRA’s Division 7’s dragster category, the elder Dixon also gained fame when he won the 1970 NHRA Winternationals. Like many second generation racers, Dixon grew up at the track and assisted his father from an early age as they campaigned a family-owned dragster.

Later working as a mechanic for Larry Minor and Prudhomme before starting his Top Fuel driving career in 1995 with Snake, Dixon was “Rookie of the Year” and captured the first of his four Chevrolet Performance U. S. Nationals titles – quite a rookie feat.

“I’ve spent my entire life in this sport and I’m not ready to walk away just yet,” Dixon admitted. “I feel like I’m just getting started.”

In a form of racing where neither age, sex nor gender have any bearing in being successful, Dixon is ready to resume a truly successful career. With several key associates, Dixon has been collecting race cars, engines, blowers, integral parts, transporters and pit equipment as they formulate the plan to to begin Dixon’s Top Fuel operation. All that’s really left is to find an essential partner to make their latest dream a reality.

No doubt when Larry Dixon returns to the track, success will follow.

Words and Photos By Anne Proffit

Racing takes the hits

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Bryan Clauson at the 100th Indianapolis 500

This has been a tough week for racing, particularly in USAC open wheel and for NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing series participants.

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Alexis DeJoria in Sonoma qualifying

Sunday a week ago, Alexis DeJoria suffered a fractured pelvis when her NHRA Toyota Camry Funny Car slammed the wall during the first round of eliminations. This occurred during the 29th Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway in northern California. She gingerly lifted herself from the race car once it stopped but was in obvious pain. DeJoria did not compete in the final leg of NHRA’s Western Swing.

This past Friday night, USAC standout Bryan Clauson was in an accident at Belleville, Kansas while racing a USAC National midget and in preparation for the Belleville Nationals on Saturday night. He wasn’t injured when he came upon a stopped car and had no way to avoid it.

Unfortunately the same wasn’t true on Saturday night when defending race winner Clauson, having just completed a run from ninth starting position to the lead of those Belleville Nationals, came upon a slower car and was vaulted, end-over-end through the third and fourth turns of the racetrack. Once stopped he was then t-boned in the cockpit area with the car lifted into the air from a side position, landing on its tires.

This time there was no escape for the 27-year-old residing in Noblesville, Indiana, who died from his injuries a day later.

Most likely we won’t again see the likes of Bryan Clauson in the racing community. A man totally dedicated to his racing art, be it on dirt or pavement, in midgets, sprints, ARCA and NASCAR stock cars and in Indy Lights and Indy cars. If it had four external and one steering wheel, Bryan Clauson would drive it, with fiancee Lauren Stewart and their two dogs, Chevy and Stewart by his side.

Clauson’s 2016 quest was to race 200 times during the calendar year and he’d completed well more than half that number, securing 27 victories. His most recent win came in Kansas last Wednesday.

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Bryan Clauson practices at Indy

The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was Clauson’s third try at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and he was a prodigious practicer for the race (352 laps in practie), hoping to improve from his two previous tries. Clauson also raced in midgets and sprints leading up to this 200-lap contest and, after posting a 23rd place finish at Indy and leading three laps (from 28th on the grid) in a Dale Coyne Cancer Treatment Centers of America Honda (he renamed his dog Honda for the balance of the race meeting), Clauson won again that night in Kokomo, Indiana, driving a sprint car.

Just who he was – how we’ll remember him.

Clauson’s accident occurred Saturday night; on Sunday NHRA drag racing Funny Car star Courtney Force escaped serious injury when she had an accident so similar to Alexis DeJoria’s that it was eery. The youngest daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force, racing in her first round of eliminations, had an experience that paralleled her competitor’s as her Chevrolet Camaro veered right, she corrected and the car turned left.

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Courtney Force in Sonoma qualifying

Force escaped serious injury after being sent to hospital for examination. X-rays of her left elbow and shoulder, her right knee, together with a CT scan of her head and cervical spine came back clear. She’ll be sore for a few days, no doubt, but likely won’t have to miss the next race in Brainerd, Minnesota two weekends from now.

Racing is dangerous. It’s the Cruel Sport, after all. We have to accept that injuries and death can and will occur at any racetrack – to competitors, workers, officials, media and fans. That doesn’t mean we have to like it.

Prayers for quick recovery to the NHRA duo of Alexis DeJoria and Courtney Force. Heartfelt condolences and sympathy to the friends, family and community that surrounded Bryan Clauson with the love and support anyone needs to compete at such a high level. In any case, these injuries and this death are tearing me apart. You?

By Anne Proffit