INDYCAR News and Notes – Feb. 12, 2016

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1. It’s going to be an All-Star weekend for trio of INDYCAR drivers: This weekend, Toronto isn’t the city that James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly are used to when they visit each summer for the Honda Indy Toronto.

For starters, it’s about 60 degrees warmer. That, and sports fans are abuzz with news of the popular 30-year-old Indy car race, erected through the streets of the city around Exhibition Place.

This week, downtown arteries are for everyone, not just Indy cars, and sports talk is focused on 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend, which starts today and runs through Feb. 14. The trio of Verizon IndyCar Series drivers is here for the celebration of most things NBA.

They’re making appearances at the “Indy 500: The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” exhibit at the Canadian International Auto Show, which opens today and runs through Feb. 21.

The rest of their packed weekend schedule includes tonight’s Celebrity Game, All-Star Saturday Night with its slam dunk contest sponsored by Verizon and the three-point and skills competitions on Feb. 13, and the climactic 65th NBA All-Star Game at Air Canada Centre on Feb. 14. They’ll also make red carpet appearances tonight and rub shoulders with NBA players at Maxim Magazine’s All-Star Party, hosted by Shaquille O’Neal. The event features 500 Maxim models and a performance from rapper Snoop Dogg.

“I don’t know what to expect,” said Daly, who has a full-season ride in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda in 2016. “I’m just glad we were invited and can’t wait to hang out.”

Hinchcliffe, a native of Toronto and driver of the No. 5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, and Newgarden, driver of the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, are veterans of driver appearances. But they’ve never been to an NBA All-Star Weekend or attended a Maxim party.

“Having all of these events, other than the race, to come home to and be a part of is really special,” said Hinchcliffe, adding he is hoping to run into comedian Kevin Hart, who is head coach of the U.S. team for the Celebrity Game, and Indiana Pacers forward Paul George, a starter in the All-Star Game.

2. Testing season ratchets up out West: Preparations for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season kicked up a notch this week with three manufacturer tests in the West.

On Feb. 8, reigning manufacturers champion Chevrolet conducted a test at Phoenix International Raceway with six drivers participating. Two days later, Chevrolet ran six drivers through the paces at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway while three Honda drivers were testing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

For some, the trip to PIR in Avondale, Ariz., was a welcome return. Indy cars christened the popular 1-mile oval in 1964, but haven’t raced there since 2005. The Phoenix Grand Prix is set to take place under the lights on April 2.

“I grew up coming to this racetrack on spring break. It just feels good to be back,” said Ed Carpenter, co-owner/driver of Ed Carpenter Racing. “A lot’s changed around here in the area, but at the same time, I remember a lot of the things, too, so I’m excited to be back.”

Carpenter tested at PIR along with teammate Josef Newgarden and Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. Castroneves, a winner at the track in 2002, couldn’t contain his joy about returning.

“Let me tell you, we are going around at the moment 20 seconds on the splits and, wow, it’s fast!” the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said. “And we’re just testing. I guarantee you when we start really putting the right things together, this is really going to be an amazing place.

“The new change (to the track configuration) probably helped a little bit to go even faster, because in the past Turn 1 used to be a little bit sharper and now the outside is open. So it’s kind of cool and, man, this is great.”

To watch Newgarden, Pagenaud and Montoya give their thoughts on PIR, click here.

All Verizon IndyCar Series teams will participate in a two-day open test at PIR on Feb. 26-27. The second day will be open to the public and include a driver autograph session.

The Sonoma test on Feb. 10 featured Castroneves and Pagenaud as well as the Chip Ganassi Racing Teams quartet of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and the newly signed Max Chilton, who took his first-ever laps in an Indy car. It marked Dixon’s first return to the track since he won the 2015 finale to clinch his fourth series championship.

“Any time we can get on the track is valuable,” said Dixon. “We get such limited days, so we have a long list of stuff to go through whether it’s the new 2016 brakes, some new aero pieces, some mapping for the engine and a lot of unanswered questions we have as a team. We could probably spend about a week out here and still have a list of stuff to go through. It’s great to be back in Sonoma.”

To watch Dixon and Chilton talk about the Sonoma test, click here.

The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma will bring down the curtain on the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season Sept. 18.

Testing on Auto Club Speedway’s 2-mile oval for Honda were Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz.

Hinchcliffe, eager to return to competition after missing most of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season recovering from injuries sustained in a crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, was uncharacteristically tight-lipped over the Honda test.

“Honestly, I can’t say much because of what we were doing,” Hinchcliffe said. “Definitely a productive day, it was nice to get back out on a big oval and start prepping for Indy. Obviously that’s everyone’s focus right now and I think we learned a lot.”

3. Bevy of activities planned for 100th Indy 500’s 100-day countdown: The 100-day countdown to the monumental 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil will kick off with a star-studded and action-packed 24-hour celebration Feb. 18-19. From Indianapolis to New York City, fans will celebrate the past, present and future of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and the entire Verizon IndyCar Series.

“The 100th Running of the Indy 500 marks a monumental milestone for our sport and our nation,” said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, the parent of INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Our 100-day countdown celebration will energize fans and build unprecedented anticipation for a truly historic race and a groundbreaking Verizon IndyCar Series season.”

The celebration begins at IMS in the late hours of Feb. 18, where Indy 500 ticket holders are invited to a community celebration beginning at 9:30 p.m. ET. Just before midnight, attendees will gather at the famous yard of bricks for a special countdown moment.

On Feb. 19, IMS president Doug Boles and Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden, Ed Carpenter and Matthew Brabham will join Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson for a proclamation ceremony at the Indiana Statehouse. That afternoon, a media event celebrating 50 years of Team Penske in racing will take place at the IMS Hall of Fame Museum. Four-time Indy 500 champion Rick Mears will be on hand with three-time winner Castroneves.

At 4 p.m. ET, attention will shift to the financial capital of the world, with a special countdown event at the New York Stock Exchange. Miles and BorgWarner CEO James Verrier will take part in closing bell ceremonies alongside the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy etched with sculptures of the face of every Indianapolis 500 winner. Celebrations come to a close that evening at the Crane Bay in downtown Indianapolis with a special gathering celebrating the “Pursuit of Progress,” hosted by ESPN SportsCenter anchor Lindsay Czarniak and featuring a full roster of guests from the sporting world and beyond.

“I can’t wait to celebrate the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 with our fans for the next 100 days,” Boles said. “Feb. 19 will be an exciting and fun beginning to a memorable countdown that will be talked about for years to come. The 100th Running of the Indy 500 will be an unrivaled event that showcases our iconic legacy and sets the stage for an extremely bright future.”

4. Gallagher & Co. to sponsor Chilton’s Ganassi ride: International insurance brokerage and risk management services firm Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. has partnered with Chip Ganassi Racing Teams to support Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Max Chilton.

Gallagher, headquartered in Itasca, Ill., has operations in 31 countries and offers client-service capabilities in more than 150 countries around the world through a network of correspondent brokers and consultants. This season with CGRT will be the company’s first foray into the world of motorsport partnerships.

“Racing has tremendous global appeal and millions of fans around the world,” said Richard C. Tallo, chief marketing and communications officer, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. “Numerous parallels exist between race car driving and managing risk. Both in business and on the racetrack, teams have to quickly assess, calculate and manage risk if success is to be achieved. … With this exciting sport and Ganassi’s racing leadership, Gallagher will have the ability to leverage a range of marketing activities to further expand our brand awareness.”

Chilton was named driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet after making 35 starts in Formula One from 2013-2014 and driving in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires for Carlin in 2015.

5. Parnelli Jones documentary to premiere at Sun Valley Film Festival: “Behind the Indianapolis 500 with Parnelli Jones,” a documentary that offers an inside look at the great race through the eyes of the 1963 “500” winner, will debut at the Sun Valley (Idaho) Film Festival that runs March 2-6.

Jones, 82, is the oldest living Indy 500 winner, but also has countless wins in all forms of motorsports including NASCAR, off-road and sports cars. The documentary was written, produced and directed by Car Barn Productions’ team of Annie Walker, Michael Walker and Travis Knox.