IndyCar Notes: Ho-Pin Tung Tested

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, December 3 2010

Alex Tagliani may have a new teammate at FAZZT next season. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Like many first-time foreign visitors to Indianapolis, Ho-Pin Tung recently had the opportunity to ride around Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a tourist.

Tung hopes his next tour of the famed 2.5-mile oval is in an IZOD IndyCar single-seater as the series’ first Chinese driver – and perhaps “the Yao Ming of motorsports.”

Tung, who spent the 2010 season as the reserve driver for Renault F1 and competed in GP2 with the Renault-affiliated DAMS team, made an overture to compete in the IndyCar Series during a two-day outing in the No. 88 FAZZT Race Team Dallara/Honda at Sebring (Fla.) International Raceway in late November.

Tung completed 211 laps on the 1.67-mile circuit over the two days. Series regular Alex Tagliani, the team’s COO, general manager Rob Edwards and chief engineer Allen McDonald reportedly were impressed with the technical adaptation and feedback from Tung.

As the initial step of the team’s plans to expand into a multi-car program for its second IndyCar Series season, it also was positive. Luxembourg-based Gravity Sport Management has been secured to pursue commercial partnerships.

Tagliani, who recorded five top-10 finishes in 17 races in the No. 77 car with primary sponsorship from Bowers & Wilkins, said he would welcome a teammate who could expand the technical database and potentially improve on-track results.

“When you look at it from an organizational standpoint, we want to have a combination,” said Tagliani, who added that a third team entry also could materialize. “If commercially it makes sense and on the operation side it makes sense, then you’re in a win-win situation. You have a guy to work with you and improve the speed of the car, but at the same time commercially it helps strengthen the future of the team.

“Ho-Pin is a likeable guy and fast. I think he would add a lot to the IndyCar Series and our team.”

Starting in karting in the mid-1990s, Tung has represented China in A1GP, competed in Formula Ford, Formula BMW Asia (2003 champion), German Formula 3 (2006 champion), GP2 Asia and the Superleague Formula in addition to GP2. He finished 14th in the season-finale Nov. 14 at Abu Dhabi with the Racing Engineering team.

“It’s a very new thing for me and so many different things compared to Europe,” said Tung, 27, who was born in The Netherlands and carries a Chinese professional driver’s license. “The tracks in the (IndyCar Series) are all very different and it requires quite a bit of adaptation. The car is just a racing car. It has four wheels and a steering wheel and you have to try to be as quick as you can. But I was impressed with how it handled and it was pleasant to drive. I have to take it step-by-step, and the first step is good. It would be interesting to see what it would be like to be running with other cars, but just as a foundation it’s good.”

Tung could become the first Chinese competitor in the IndyCar Series and in the Indianapolis 500 – in its centennial race in May. Bowers & Wilkins chairman Joe Atkins, whose audio equipment company has global sales reach, said Tung could be “the Yao Ming of motorsports” to billions of Chinese. Ming, a center on the NBA’s Houston Rockets, is a sporting icon in a country that continues to embrace Western culture and economics.

“I can’t overstate how much I think this can be a game-changing association for the league and everybody involved, because China is the future in terms of the consumer market,” Atkins said. “It is where all Western brands are very much focused for their future growth opportunity. And from an exposure perspective, whether it’s for the league itself, the league’s sponsors, all of the people involved – if Ho-Pin can be successful in Indy racing the opportunity to build his profile in China is enormous.

“The ability to be associated with the first Chinese driver ever to compete in IndyCar and race in the Indy 500 is truly a unique and powerful opportunity.”

Tung has an extensive fan base and media following in China, and IndyCar has been exploring the possibility of racing there in the near future. The series already competes at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan.

“Motorsports is still relatively new in China, but it’s developing rapidly,” Tung said. “IndyCar is the highest single-seater series in the U.S., and with the Indy 500 being the biggest motorsports event in the world it’s all things that attract Chinese people. It would be important for me to do well. We Chinese are very focused on performance, and I’m confident I could do a good job in IndyCar.”

TEAM program modified for 2011: Seeking to increase competitive balance throughout the IZOD IndyCar field, series officials have modified the Team Enhancement and Allocation Matrix for the 2011 season.

Though the financial guarantee to fulltime IndyCar Series teams will remain the same as it was in 2010, the program will be limited to the top-22 entrants in the final entrant points from the 2010 season.

“Credibility is very important to us, and we consistently hear from fans that they want to see teams fielding the best-of-the-best on the track,” said Randy Bernard, IndyCar’s CEO. “Our

IndyCar Series boss Randy Bernard. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

fans want to see the very best teams and drivers, and in achieving that goal, it was very important for us to define our sport. We have the fastest, most versatile race car and race car drivers in the world and that differentiates the IZOD IndyCar Series from other forms of motorsports.

“We want to make sure we’re showcasing our sport by putting more emphasis on great drivers and teams coming together to ensure quality competition. We never want to have someone uncompetitive who can buy their way into a series.”

Entrants that finished outside the top-22 in 2010 or a new entrant still could qualify for the TEAM program if any entrants that qualify do not compete in 2011. Additional funds will be used to enhance the prize fund for IndyCar Series entrants that do not qualify for the TEAM program at each series event in 2011.

“These changes to the TEAM program ensure the competition in the series remains at a high level throughout the field and rewards entrants based on their drivers’ performance,” Bernard said. “It also creates a sense of urgency for our teams to finish in the top-22 at the end of the season. Even with these changes, we anticipate 25 to 28 cars per race, when factoring in fulltime non-Leaders Circle teams and one-off entries.”

Introduced in 2008, the TEAM program is designed to provide a financial foundation for entrants committed to running the entire IndyCar Series season. Each entrant is assured approximately $1.2- million through the program, which is an extension of the Leaders Circle program.

Established in 2002, the Leaders Circle program provides incentives to teams that participate in the series full-time. The program leverages relationships built by IndyCar with its partners, sponsors and suppliers to provide benefits directly to the teams.

In addition, the TEAM program guarantees at least $2.2-million to the Indianapolis 500 winner. The driver for the highest-placing Indianapolis 500 entrant not eligible for the TEAM program will receive a bonus of $25,000.

The IndyCar Series champion will continue to receive a $1 million bonus, with second through fifth-place in the final standings receiving bonuses of $250,000, $175,000, $125,000 and $75,000.

In addition to TEAM program money, teams compete for bonuses of $35,000 for first place, $25,000 for second, $20,000 for third, $15,000 for fourth and $10,000 for fifth at each IndyCar Series race aside from the Indianapolis 500. The driver for the highest-placing entrant not eligible for the TEAM program will receive a bonus of $15,000.

All contingency prizes will continue to be awarded to entrants for individual IndyCar Series events.

Clauson claims Firestone Indy Lights scholarship: Bryan Clauson finally is beginning to appreciate the accomplishments of his 2010 USAC season. On Thanksgiving night at Toyota Speedway in Irwindale, Calif., he was truly thankful for the bounty.

The 21-year-old from Noblesville, Ind., wrapped up the inaugural USAC National Drivers

Bryan Clauson wins Turkey Night. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Championship, which includes the $300,000 Firestone Indy Light scholarship to compete in the six oval races on the 2011 schedule.

Randy Bernard, IndyCar’s CEO, and Firestone Indy Lights team-owner Sam Schmidt were among the spectators at the one-third-mile racetrack as Clauson charged to the overall national championship and the Mopar National Midget title by winning the 70th Turkey Night Grand Prix. Clauson overtook Cole Whitt on Lap 9 of the 98-lap feature and went on to take the checkered flag in a national Midget race for the sixth time this season.

In the process, Clauson became the first back-to-back winner of the USAC Mopar National/Western Midget race since Billy Boat (1995-97). Clauson will now be associated with the likes of A.J Foyt Jr., Parnelli Jones, Stan Fox, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Mel Kenyon, Ron Shuman, Rich Vogler and Robby Flock.

“To be mentioned in the same sentence with a lot of great drivers who have won this race is pretty special,” said Clauson, who accepted the “Road to Indy” scholarship check from Bernard.

The Firestone Indy Lights program begins with the Firestone Freedom 100 on Carb Day (May 27) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I’m really excited about it,” Clauson said. “It’s been a long time since that door has been open for the short-track racer. A lot of us grew up at Indianapolis watching the Month of May and knowing how special a time that is and dreaming to be a part of it. Now to have that opportunity is pretty unbelievable, and I don’t think that will fully set in until I get to the track.

“Everyone at IndyCar has put me in a situation to go out and have some success. It will be a completely new venue for me with the rear-engine open-wheel car, but I tell people all the time when they ask how we’re going to adapt I don’t think there’s anything tougher than running USAC. You have to run a mile dirt track in Illinois on Friday with the Silver Crown car and come back on Saturday and run a quarter-mile paved track in a Midget. I think we’ll be able to adapt to the Firestone Indy Lights car pretty quickly.”

The National Drivers Championship is based on the best 25 races of each driver in one of three national divisions – Silver Crown, Sprints and Midgets. Clauson outpointed Levi Jones of Olney, Ill., 1,108-1,094 in the standings. Jerry Coons Jr. (1,044), Tracy Hines (1,030) and Damion Gardner (1,001) followed. Overall, Clauson posted 10 feature victories, two runnerup finishes and seven thirds.

“I’ve been chasing the national championship for a couple of years and it’s really something I wanted to accomplish as I moved up the racing ladder,” said Clauson, who is a first-time nominee for the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association’s All-America Team. “Growing up in USAC, it was the pinnacle of racing and it meant a lot to me and my family. To win it is special, and to do it with our Midget team that we kind of hand-built over the last couple of years is a lot of fun.

“To win the driver’s championship – being the best overall in all three series – was pretty cool, too.”

Clauson, who joined Tony Stewart Racing in the offseason, said being associated with the 1996-97 Indy Racing League and two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has been a big plus in his development.

“I’ve learned so much from him over the years – not only on the racing side of things but also off the track,” Clauson said. “He’s a huge guy to have in your corner when it comes to racing. To have somebody like that who is so well-versed in so many forms of motorsports is a big advantage to a young guy like myself.”

Meira on podium, Kanaan fifth in karting event: IndyCar Series drivers and native Brazilians Tony Kanaan and Vitor Meira came up short in their bid to win their country’s biggest karting race, the Granja Viana 500.

The Brasilia-based team of C & L Motorsports  – Luiz Rodriguez, Yann Cunha  and Lu Boesel  – won their first race by a lap over the team of Meira, Nelson Piquet Jr., Christian Fittipaldi

Vitor Meira on podium.

and former Firestone Indy Lights driver Felipe Guimaraes. Eight-time race-winner Kanaan _ teamed with longtime friend and Formula One driver Rubens Barrichello and former IndyCar Rookie of the Year Felipe Giaffone _ finished fifth, four laps behind the winning kart after numerous mechanical issues.

Mario Romancini and Ana Beatriz also competed in the endurance karting event.

Baguette shines at Race of Champions: IndyCar Series driver Bertrand Baguette wasn’t the biggest name in the galaxy of motorsports stars competing at the Race of Champions in Dusseldorf, Germany, last weekend. But he proved deserving of being voted “Belgium’s official driver.”

Baguette, who completed his first IndyCar season with Conquest Racing in 2010,and Dutchman Jeroen Bleekemolen earned the top seed in their pool with four wins in the preliminary phase – including Baguette’s win over Team Germany’s Michael Schumacher. However Baguette couldn’t repeat his success in the semifinals, losing to seven-time F1 champion Schumacher as Germany won the Nation’s Cup.

“I had a lot of fun and for me, racing against Michael Schumacher, Sébastien Loeb and Alain Prost is a dream,” said Baguette, who was eliminated by Andy Priaux in the quarterfinals after advancing from his group in the individual competition. “It went quite well but unfortunately we didn’t make it to the final. I have to say I am happy for the people who voted for me as part of Team Benelux. I am really proud and very happy and thanks to them.”

Drivers nominated for Auto Racing All-America team: The top six drivers in the IndyCar Series standings, and Firestone Indy Lights champion J.K. Vernay, are among nominees for the 2010 Auto Racing All-America team.

Dario Franchitti, Will Power, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan all have been nominated in the Open-Wheel category, while Vernay is an At-Large category nominee.

More than 250 members of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association vote to determine the top two drivers from each of eight categories named to the first team. They will be honored at the 41st annual AARWBA banquet Jan. 9 in Indianapolis.

Winner of the Jerry Titus Award also will be announced at the banquet. The Titus Award honors the driver earning the most votes in the balloting regardless of category.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, December 3 2010
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Terry says:

    He will have to run Honda or Renault or BMW or FORD….
    bcause he can’t say…CHEVROLET…
    …all kidding aside ,…the guy can drive…