Castroneves wins third straight Long Beach pole with track record

LONG BEACH, California (Saturday, April 8, 2017) – He may be one of the elder statesmen of the Verizon IndyCar Series, but Helio Castroneves isn’t slowing down anytime soon. The Team Penske driver broke his own track record today in winning a third straight Verizon P1 Award to start on pole position in Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

In the Firestone Fast Six, the third and final round of knockout qualifying, Castroneves pushed his No. 3 Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet around the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street course in a sizzling 1 minute, 6.2254 seconds (106.980 mph). It earned the 41-year-old Brazilian his third straight Long Beach pole and the 48th of his 20-year career, leaving Castroneves one behind fellow legend Bobby Unser for third on the all-time list.

“This competition in the Verizon IndyCar Series, it’s so incredible,” Castroneves said. “It’s ridiculous, plus every time you go into a session, it’s something different. The track changes, the tires change, traffic. It is absolutely very difficult. The crucial time when it comes, you see everybody hundredths of a second separated from each other.

“My car felt pretty good. Especially with the reds (Firestone alternate tires), my car came alive from this morning, so the AAA Chevy is working really hard.”

Castroneves is one of seven previous Long Beach winners entered this year, but his victory at the premier North American street-course race came 16 years ago. He aims to change that in Sunday’s 85-lap race (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network), the 34th straight year for Indy cars in the Southern California city.

“Today is extra special because Long Beach is a great place,” the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said. “I remember winning here from the pole in 2001 and, the last two years, we were right there. We’re not going to let this escape again.”

Scott Dixon, the four-time series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing, qualified second with a lap of 1:06.4123 (106.679 mph). The driver of the No. 9 NTT Data Honda was the first to break the track standard in Segment 2 of qualifying with a lap of 1:06.2285 as 11 of the 12 competing in the round ran laps better than Castroneves’ 2015 record of 1:06.6294.

“Qualifying second is a great spot to start,” said Dixon, who won at Long Beach in 2015 but has never captured the pole in 11 tries. “I think our cars are typically good on the long run. I think we have a great shot at competing for the race win tomorrow.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2010 Long Beach winner, qualified third in the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport (1:06.4401, 106.634 mph), ahead of James Hinchcliffe in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda (1:06.5291, 106.492 mph), Alexander Rossi in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian (1:06.5595, 106.443 mph) and Graham Rahal in the No. 15 PennGrade Motor Oil Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1:06.7562, 106.129 mph).

Simon Pagenaud, the reigning Long Beach race winner and Verizon IndyCar Series champion, had what would have been a track record erased in Segment 1 when he was penalized for qualifying interference on teammate Castroneves. Pagenaud will start last in the 21-car field in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.

“It was just one of those unfortunate things,” Pagenaud said. “I understand the penalty because I interfered with Castroneves’ lap. I backed up a little to set up a second lap on the (Firestone alternate tires) and Helio was right there. I was boxed in; there was nothing I could do.

“The Menards Chevy was fantastic. We’ll start from the back. St. Petersburg was won from the back (by Sebastien Bourdais on March 12) and we’ll try to do that, too.”

Schmidt, Andretti to race on IMS road course in semi-autonomous cars

Sam Schmidt never had the chance to race Mario Andretti in his Indy car driving career. On May 13, he’ll finally get his chance, albeit under “unfair circumstances,” according to Andretti.

Schmidt, the Verizon IndyCar Series team co-owner, announced today at Long Beach that he will go head to head with the racing legend next month on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They will race similar semi-autonomous cars prepared by Arrow Electronics ahead of the INDYCAR Grand Prix.

“Everyone looks up to Mario on and off the track,” Schmidt said. “I can’t think of anyplace better to do this than Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s nice to not be a team owner for this. I just show up and drive the car. I’m honored to be part of the program and excited.”

Schmidt, paralyzed from the neck down from a crash testing an Indy car in 2000, will drive a Corvette Z06 SAM car, a semi-autonomous vehicle that global technology company Arrow Electronics modified for him. Sensors mounted on a high-tech headset the Las Vegas resident wears connect to infrared cameras mounted on the dashboard and detect his head-tilt motions to steer. A sip-and-puff device that Schmidt breathes into enables him to accelerate and brake. Voice commands enable Schmidt to change gears and turn the SAM car on and off.

“This is awesome,” said Andretti, the 77-year-old who won the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and four Indy car season championships. “It’s a great opportunity to see what (the project) is all about. I feel like I’m really, really going to be struggling.

“It’s going to be interesting on the road course. There will be a lot more work to do and a lot more braking. Hopefully, that will work in my favor. We’re going to have it out, big time.”

The race is another example of the partnership between Schmidt, Arrow and IMS, which has let Schmidt test SAM cars at the track during its development over the last three years.

“Indianapolis has long been considered a test ground for automotive technologies, and Sam and the Arrow Chevy Corvette have continued to prove that, including a 150-mph run last year at IMS,” said Doug Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Adding a match race between Mario Andretti, one of the most popular and talented drivers to ever compete at Indy, and Sam this May just takes the technology to the next level.”

Drag racer Capps gets bucket list thrill ride from Andretti

Going from 0 to 300-plus mph is the norm for Ron Capps, but speeding at 180 mph just inches from the concrete wall as Mario Andretti’s passenger gave the drag racer an experience he’ll never forget.

The 2016 NHRA Funny Car champion and native Californian is a longtime fan of the Verizon IndyCar Series, but was never able to make it to the historic Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach until this weekend. As part of his experience as a guest of Alexander Rossi – with whom he shares NAPA Auto Parts sponsorship – Capps was the passenger this morning for an INDYCAR Experience two-seater ride with legendary Andretti at the wheel.

“My God!” Capps exclaimed. “You know, I get to drive a lot of cool stuff. I’ve driven Midgets at the Chili Bowl, the Prelude to the Dream dirt race with Tony Stewart for all those years, but that was a bucket list thing with Mario.

“I got to meet Mario when I drove for Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme for nine years and they were tight. We got to go to his house and stuff in Pennsylvania. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and this morning when I found out I was going to ride with him, it was amazing.”

Since both hail from California, Capps and Rossi have developed a friendship that predates the Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian driver’s scintillating win in last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The shared NAPA backing has brought them closer.

Capps was delighted to see Rossi win last year’s Indy 500, but his connection to Indy car racing goes much farther back.

“I was always a Mario fan and I was a huge fan of Paul Tracy,” said Capps. “I love when Paul came into the series because he was so brash and didn’t really care about what other people thought. So I was a big fan of his and then when I got to know (Jimmy) Vasser and (Bryan) Herta, I cheered for those guys, too.

“Bryan last year was on the pit box for Rossi, it was a double-cool thing for me to see. My NAPA teammate and then Bryan Herta calling the shots on the car – he’s always been one of those nice guys who has always been the same.”