INDYCAR News and Notes – Aug. 6, 2015

1. Mid-Ohio INDYCAR Broadcast Draws Largest NBCSN Audience Ever
2. With Two to Go, Verizon IndyCar Series Title Race Wide Open
3. Aleshin Making Indy Car Return at Sonoma Test, Race
4. Karam Proves You Can Go Home Again … in Style
5. Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 2016 Race Date Announced

1. Mid-Ohio INDYCAR Broadcast Draws Largest NBCSN Audience Ever: NBCSN’s same-day broadcast Aug. 2 of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio drew an average viewership of 666,000, making it the most-watched Verizon IndyCar Series race on the network since NBC Sports Group acquired INDYCAR cable exclusivity in 2008.

It also marked the first time that four consecutive Verizon IndyCar Series race telecasts on the network each surpassed 500,000 viewers, continuing the trend of growth in viewership and ratings compared to 2014. Viewership was also up dramatically over 2014 for the races at Iowa Speedway (22 percent growth), The Milwaukee Mile (66 percent growth) and Auto Club Speedway (83 percent growth).

Average viewership for all Verizon IndyCar Series telecasts this season are up nearly 10 percent and represent a continuation of the growth in 2014, when INDYCAR experienced significant gains in ratings and viewership over the previous year.

Viewership of the NBCSN broadcast of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio eclipsed coverage of the Edmonton race in 2011 (642,000) and was the most-watched Verizon IndyCar Series telecast on cable TV since the 2008 race at Sonoma Raceway (685,000; ESPN2).

The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, won by Ohio native Graham Rahal 30 years after his father, Bobby, won an Indy car race on the same Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, was broadcast live earlier in the day on CNBC.

In total, the Aug. 2 telecasts on CNBC and NBCSN drew 838,000 viewers. This provided the largest single-day viewership for INDYCAR since the broadcast of the second race of the Dual in Detroit on May 31, 2015. That ABC broadcast of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix delivered 1.2 million viewers and a Nielsen rating of .78.

Ten drivers remain mathematically eligible for the Astor Cup – the Verizon IndyCar Series championship trophy – with two races remaining in the season. Both the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 23 and the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Aug. 30 will be telecast on NBCSN.

Rahal, driving for the team co-owned by his Indy car championship-winning father, TV icon David Letterman and business magnate Mike Lanigan, pulled to within nine points of championship front-runner and reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya of Team Penske with his second victory of the season. Three-time series champion Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing is 34 points out of first place.

2. With Two to Go, Verizon IndyCar Series Title Race Wide Open: Ten drivers representing six teams. Five drivers with two victories apiece. Nine points separating first and second; 59 points separating the top five. Two races remaining with 158 points up for grabs.

Those are essential numbers to note as the Verizon IndyCar Series charges into the homestretch of the season with the driver and entrant championships on the line. The ABC Supply 500 on the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway tri-oval Aug. 23 will be critical for every driver to score maximum points and remain in contention heading into the Aug. 30 finale at Sonoma Raceway.

It’s guaranteed that the championship will be decided in the last race of the season for the 10th consecutive year. A caveat this year is that the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma carries double race points, plus the usual potential four bonus points. The winner is bolstered by 100 base points, second is worth 80, third place carries 70 and so on. Drivers within 104 points of the leader exiting Pocono remain eligible.

Juan Pablo Montoya of Team Penske has led the driver standings since winning the March 29 season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., and takes a nine-point advantage over the surging Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to the “Tricky Triangle” in eastern Pennsylvania. Three-time series champion Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing is 34 points out of first.

Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, who scored a season-best third-place finish at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Aug. 2, is 10th in the standings. Last year, there were six drivers in contention with two races left.

“Our strength at Team Penske is the superspeedways,” Pagenaud said. “Going into Pocono, obviously Montoya won last year. That should be a pretty similar setup to Indy. We feel pretty confident going into Pocono that our cars should be hopefully in domination mode again so we can have a shot at it.”

Rahal’s victory at Mid-Ohio, coupled with Montoya’s 11th-place showing, sliced the deficit from 42 points to nine.

“To be nine points back, I feel pretty good because I do think we can be better than Montoya at Sonoma,” said Rahal, who has six podium finishes this season. “Pocono, he won last year, so we’re going to have to make sure we do a good job. Then again, the last big oval (Auto Club Speedway on June 27) we won.”

3. Aleshin Making Indy Car Return at Sonoma Test, Race: Mikhail Aleshin, who sustained serious injuries in a practice crash for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale, will get behind the wheel of a Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car again Aug. 13 at Sonoma Raceway in preparation to race in this year’s finale.

The refresher test will be in advance of the Aug. 30 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at the 2.385-mile, 12-turn road course. The test will also feature seven current Verizon IndyCar Series drivers sharing their cars and track time with Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers.

“I am incredibly happy to make my return to this entertaining championship and my team, with which I raced last year and achieved considerable success,” said Aleshin, who posted a best start and finish of second last season at the second race of the Houston doubleheader. “It’s not always easy to take part in the last race of such a strong championship year, and the car is different from last year, but it was never easy during my career so I guarantee that I will do my best.

“This year, my priority is my (European Le Mans Series) campaign and the continuous development of the BR01 (Nissan for SMP Racing in the LMP2 category). As for next year, we’re doing all we can to continue in INDYCAR and I hope this race can be a significant step towards that goal.”

Aleshin, who had qualified eighth for the 2014 finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., sustained a concussion, chest injuries, fractured ribs and a broken shoulder in the Aug. 29 practice crash. Team co-owner Sam Schmidt said Aleshin “feels like he has some unfinished business” in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“He was very quick last year and didn’t want things to end the way Fontana did,” Schmidt said. “Sonoma, being the last race, is obviously an important one. If he does well, maybe we’ll see him back here next year.”

Aleshin, who qualified 12th and finished seventh at Sonoma in 2014, will be a third Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda-powered entry for the 2015 Sonoma race alongside Ryan Briscoe and James Jakes.

4. Karam Proves You Can Go Home Again … in Style: Verizon IndyCar Series rookie driver Sage Karam returned to his hometown of Nazareth, Pa., Aug. 5 to visit some old hangouts and promote the upcoming ABC Supply 500 at nearby Pocono Raceway.

Karam visited his alma mater, Nazareth Area High School, where he graduated a week after finishing ninth in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. He stopped by the school’s wrestling workout room, the cafeteria where he and friends could “check out the girls as they walked by” and autographed the chalkboard in his old homeroom classroom.

Standing in the steamy wrestling room where he sweated off pounds to reach his weight class, Karam said he learned lessons there that have carried over to the blossoming racing career that has him driving the No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Teams Chevrolet.

“When the going gets tough, just don’t put your head down,” Karam said. “You never want to put your head down on the mat, you’re always in the match until the buzzer goes in the third period. And also that what you’re doing – racing or wrestling – it’s not always all about you, it’s about your team.”

Dave Crowell was Karam’s high school wrestling coach, years after he coached Karam’s father and uncle. Crowell said Sage, who had a 22-6 record as a senior in the 145-pound class, set the tone for the team.

“Sage was key to our team’s energy level, I would say,” said Crowell. “A lot of personality, a lot of really great leadership skills. Usually the way Sage is going is the way the room is going. If he’s not going good, then nobody’s going good, which is a really great quality.”

Karam also stopped by Lehigh Valley Health Network’s One City Center, a state-of-the-art fitness center in Allentown, Pa., open to athletes of all skill levels and ages. There, he ran through a battery of physical drills similar to those he went through when visiting the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in February – including a broad jump, vertical jump and 40-yard dash.

Later, he dined at his favorite Nazareth establishment, Sicily’s Restaurant and Pizza, which is adorned with photos of past drivers from when Indy cars raced at Nazareth Speedway.

5. Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 2016 Race Date Announced: The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be held March 11-13, 2016, with the Verizon IndyCar Series headlining the weekend on the 1.8-mile temporary circuit overlooking Tampa Bay and utilizing downtown city streets and portions of runways at Albert Whitted Airport.

The event is scheduled two weeks earlier than the late March weekend it typically occupies due to Easter falling on the last weekend in March in 2016. The first Indy car race in St. Pete took place in 2003 and the Verizon IndyCar Series has raced there every spring since 2005. Juan Pablo Montoya won the 2015 St. Pete race.

“We are pleased to confirm our 2016 event dates,” said Kim Green, owner, chairman and CEO of Green Savoree Racing Promotions, organizer of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. “While our place on the calendar is a little bit different, we look forward to bringing another great weekend of racing to St. Petersburg.”