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 G7C2493The long-running saga surrounding the future of the Italian Grand Prix in Formula 1 appears poised to draw to a close.

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The race's place on the F1 calendar has long been in doubt, with the final grand prix of its current contract due to be staged this weekend at Monza.

Negotiations have previously stalled as the political situation behind the scenes has complicated matters. However, with hurdles seemingly removed last month, there is the suggestion the Automobile Club d'Italia [ACI] will sit down with F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone this weekend to finalise a new deal.

"I'd be surprised if we didn't reach an agreement," Ecclestone (pictured) told Autosport.

The 85-year-old agreed a deal with Imola to return to the F1 stage 10 years after it last hosted the San Marino GP should Monza fall by the wayside.

The ACI, however, has the final say, with president Angelo Sticchi Damiani a staunch supporter of Monza that has held the race every year since F1's inception in 1950, bar one race in 1980 when Imola played host.

Damiani confirmed last month the problems involving the territorial entities involved with Monza  the region [of Lombardy], the cities of Milan and Monza, and the Park Authority  had finally been solved.

"We have found an agreement between ACI Milan and SIAS [which owns Monza through the ACI]. At this point there are no more political problems," Damiani said at the time.

Shortly afterward, it is understood a binding contractual offer was sent to Ecclestone, since when the details of the deal have apparently been fine tuned ahead of it being signed off.

 

Originally on Autosport.com

Power Pagenaud LATThe hunt for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship has come down to the pursuit of 158 points across two races.

This weekend's penultimate round at Watkins Glen offers the standard 50 points to win, one for pole, one to lead a lap and two for whoever leads the most laps, and the September 18 finale at Sonoma Raceway will serve as the last bastion of hope for title contenders with its double-points structure.

Despite Simon Pagenaud's 150-day lead atop the standings, Sonoma's 100 points to win and the other four bonus points will ensure the title is decided in the wine country rather than upstate New York. And by the time the checkered flag waves on the season, there is no guarantee the Frenchman will be crowd surfing over throngs of Northern California IndyCar fans like Scott Dixon did in 2015.

Behind Pagenaud (529 points), Team Penske teammate Will Power (501, -28 points), Chip Ganassi Racing's Tony Kanaan (416, -113), Penske's Helio Castroneves (415, -114), Ed Carpenter Racing's Josef Newgarden (406, -123) and Dixon (397, -132) are among the most realistic title contenders.

Kanaan HelioThere are more who still hold a mathematical chance of claiming the championship, but even among the top six, those from Kanaan on down are in need of minor miracles to bridge the gap to Power and Pagenaud. Kanaan, Castroneves, Newgarden and Dixon have absolutely nothing to lose in their pursuit of the title; anything less than maximum attack and complete aggression will ensure they don't win. And playing it safe is a surefire way to earn the points equivalent of pennies when they're in dire need of $100 bills.

There's a pack of hungry dogs behind the Penske duo, and that alone should add a sizable dose of intensity to the championship closers.

The situation is different for the top two. Pagenaud can't afford to relax with Power on an almighty tear since Detroit, and with Pagenaud's special blend of intelligence and speed, Power can't exactly count on his teammate to make silly mistakes or buckle under pressure.

Power needs to gain 29 points to take the lead after Watkins Glen, and with IndyCar's point structure, he'd need to win and have Pagenaud finish 10th or worse on Sunday. Adding bonus points for pole and more would make it easier on the Australian, but with Pagenaud's remarkable consistency in mind, a lot would have to go wrong to see Power hold high ground entering Sonoma.

A win by Pagenaud would add at least 10 points to his lead if Power finishes second, and with a few bonus points included, Pagenaud could have an advantage of 40 or more points entering the finale. It's obvious to state, but in every scenario, Pagenaud wants to finish ahead of Power this weekend, and while Power doesn't need to win thanks to the double-points on the horizon, it would also help in every possible way.

Sonoma is a slightly different animal. Just as the points on offer have doubled in every position, so too has the gap between those positions.

A standard pre-Sonoma win is worth 50 points, 40 points for second, 35 for third, 32 for fourth and 30 for fifth place. With the double points, that win is worth 100, but second is 80 — 20 back instead of the usual 10. Third is 70—30 back, fourth is 64—36 back, and fifth is 60 — a full 40 off the winner's tally. If Pagenaud departs Watkins Glen with a similar lead of 30ish points (at minimum), Power's mission is simple: create as much distance to his rival as possible by the final lap at Sonoma.

Pagenaud dukes up

Playing to their respective strengths, Power seems better suited to chasing, and on the flip side, Pagenaud's mental fortitude is tailor-made for being chased. It's hard to picture either driver taking it easy at either round, and barring one or the other dropping out at Watkins Glen, IndyCar should have a whopper of an internecine fight on its hands at Sonoma.

Both have four wins. Pagenaud has six poles to Power's two, nine top five finishes to Power's eight. At the four permanent road courses run so far, Pagenaud's won three and has an average finishing position of 4.0. Power has one win and an average of 6.5.

You couldn't ask for a better match with the title on the line.

With two road courses ready to decide the championship, the two best road course drivers of 2016 have the perfect stage to settle their score. That is, of course, unless things go sideways at either track. Penske's championship aspirations unraveled at Sonoma in 2015; could it happen again while three of its drivers are in the top four?

Hey, this is IndyCar; there are no guarantees until the last engine falls silent on Sept. 18.

Daniel Ricciardo believes Red Bull's Renault Formula 1 engine is now on a par with Ferrari.

Red Bull started the year trailing Mercedes and Ferrari, and Ricciardo feels the Renault power unit  rebadged as TAG Heuer over the winter  has made considerable strides to enable the team's already strong chassis to thrive.

"At the start of the year we went into Melbourne not really expecting much compared to the end of last year," said Ricciardo. "But we came in with more horsepower, and then the update helped, and we've found a little bit more and a little bit more since then.

"It's been a nice refreshing improvement on both sides  the chassis is working well with the power unit.

"We're now pretty much on par with the '16 Ferrari [engine], and that's positive. They made a really big step last year.

BELGIAN GP QUALIFYING SPEED TRAP
Top speed by each engine manufacturer:

Mercedes 198.7 mph
Ferrari 197.5 mph
Renault 196.6 mph
Ferrari (2015) 194.4 mph
Honda 192.4 mph

"We've overtaken the '15 Ferrari that Toro Rosso have, so it's good, it's going in the right direction and that's all we can ask for now. As long as we keep seeing improvements then we are going to take what we can."

In the last four races, Red Bull has turned a 25-point deficit to Ferrari into a 22-point advantage in the constructors' championship, but Ricciardo expects the Prancing Horse to perform well on home soil at Monza this weekend.

"They should be the favorite to beat us at Monza," added Ricciardo. "But if we can beat them at Monza then that would be quite a good one for us ahead of going to Singapore and Suzuka which, on paper, should favor us more.

"But I'm not going to count them out. Seb [Vettel] can turn it on pretty well, as can Kimi [Raikkonen] on his day. We're prepared to be in a fight with Mercedes, but we're also prepared that Ferrari might join in on the action as well."

PosConstructorPoints
1 Mercedes 455
2 Red Bull/Renault 274
3 Ferrari 252
4 Force India/Mercedes 103
5 Williams/Mercedes 101

 

Originally on Autosport.com

 Y2Z6747The battle for control over Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca read like a poorly-written high school play when it came to light last year. Old grudges, new backstabbing, and general hostilities pierced the illusion of serenity and stability at the famed coastal circuit, and while the situation has steadily improved over the last 12 months, one truth remains unchanged: Laguna Seca, as we know it, is flirting with extinction.

Faced with pulling the plug or preventing its closure, Monterey County – owners of the 59-year-old road course that lives within a public park – and its board of supervisors have rallied and made a number of smart decisions aimed at revitalizing the weathered property. That's the good part. It has also taken a better approach to finding a new or improved external management team to run Laguna Seca, and that's another positive.

Now the real work to keep the facility from becoming a fading memory begins.

Friday, Aug. 26 marked the final day of jockeying for the groups that want to become the long-term stewards of Laguna Seca. The "Request For Service Proposals" (RFSP) documents containing their respective plans to lead the circuit out of its dilapidated physical and financial state and into the light were due by the end of the day, and based on the timeline set forth by the county, a winner (or winners) of the Laguna Seca Lottery will be chosen at some point in September.

Like most of the ongoing saga with the property, history plays a significant role in its present and future, and for that reason alone, it's worth rewinding the clock to run through the messy situation from 2015 because it continues to have an immense influence on where the track is heading, and whether it will survive.

scramp 0ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS...

Last year, Monterey County and its board (a mixed panel of elected and appointed officials) reached its breaking point with the non-profit Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) organization.

Citing numerous issues with SCRAMP--the circuit's one and only management firm since the facility opened in 1957, the board craved a return to the days when Laguna Seca produced meaningful income for the county. Frustrated by the situation, the board embarked on a secret mission to find a new management solution, SCRAMP eventually found out, a war of words ensued, and the relationship started an ugly march toward divorce court.

iscOnce the details began to emerge, we learned that Monterey asked International Speedway Corporation (ISC) – part of NASCAR's for-profit empire – to consider replacing SCRAMP. There's no question SCRAMP was delivering well below the county's expectations, but locally, the covert efforts to ditch its deeply-entrenched track managers for a monolith like ISC gave the impression the board skipped past negotiating a cease fire and went straight for the nuclear option. It also revealed the massive divide that stood between the board and SCRAMP. In the court of public opinion, the take-no-prisoners tactic left the county looking small and petty.

In its defense, the county's interest in ISC wasn't misguided or ill-considered. With more than a dozen major circuits under its ownership umbrella, ISC's name stands above all others in the track management business. Asked by the board to determine whether it could increase the limited profits SCRAMP was generating from the track, make wholesale facility upgrades to the aged property, and restore Laguna Seca's diminished presence in the industry, ISC obliged and went through its due diligence process to assess whether those needs could be met.

With full recognition of the board's ham-fisted efforts to engage NASCAR, SCRAMP wasted no time in pointing out the county's version of trying to run a 59-year-old mom'n'pop store out of town to make way for Walmart. It followed that up with a "Keep Laguna Seca Local" PR campaign to call attention to the county's wandering eye.

Whether it was based on its findings while reviewing the track's financials, SCRAMP's embarrassing anti-NASCAR PR initiative, or a combination of the two, ISC stepped away from the warring Monterey natives and booked a one-way ticket back home to Daytona Beach.


05LSRD1126The news of ISC's rapid entry and exit was seen as a victory for SCRAMP. It also ensured, albeit temporarily, that smaller track management firms steered clear of Laguna Seca. The reasoning was clear: If a giant like ISC couldn't find a way to turn a profit for its shareholders while giving the county what it wanted, what chance did the minnows stand?

Monterey's board, caught in a domestic spat that went public, was forced to reconcile with SCRAMP in order to complete the 2015 season and begin planning for (and through) 2016.

Knives were sheathed, the nuclear codes were locked away, and a new, short-term agreement was drafted between the county and SCRAMP to ensure the doors remained open and business went ahead without interruption.

FAST FORWARD

That brings us to today, and Laguna Seca's new reality. Changes are coming, but will those changes return the circuit to its former state of prominence and prosperity?

Monterey is pinning its hopes on whoever wins the next concession contract to transform the facility on its behalf. It means the board's continued practice of sub-contracting the management of Laguna Seca leaves no room for mistakes when a selection is made in September.

Plenty has been written over the last month about the three groups that have emerged as the primary candidates to gain control of Laguna Seca, and it's believed two main contenders have been identified. To start, in the mother of all plot twists, SCRAMP has joined forces with ISC in a bid to hold onto the circuit for its 60th year and beyond.

Even if it's chosen by the county to continue as its service provider, SCRAMP, as a standalone management entity with hundreds of volunteers, will lose sole control of the circuit with ISC in the frame. One way or the other, decades of SCRAMP's steady presence will change when the 2017 racing season arrives, and in an old-timey region like Monterey, it might not be easy for some to accept.

2016Reunion MarshallPruett 19 198 11598 640 360 80 cThe next group is comprised of Monterey (and motor racing) heavyweights under the Friends of Laguna Seca (FLS) banner. Among its senior brass, major automotive event promoter Gordon McCall, automobile restorer and vintage racing maven Bruce Canepa, financier and one-time Laguna Seca savior Ned Spieker, and former Charlotte Motor Speedway VP Lauri Eberhart provide the board with a united front of local interest. Add in Canepa's sizable role in facilitating the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion (pictured, Marshall Pruett photo) on behalf of SCRAMP, and it's hard to understate the degree of influence FLS wields.

And finally, famed Long Beach Grand Prix founder and renowned race promoter Chris Pook has joined forces with Monterey restauranteur Landon Hoffman to present a third known group to vie for the circuit's control. Sources suggest that Pook's team could be a distant third in the race.

All three have met with the county, made formal presentations, and some have even held friendly private meetings to gauge their respective interests in wanting to run Laguna Seca. The trio possesses distinct strengths and weaknesses, and opening with SCRAMP/ISC, one immediate concern involves lingering bad blood and resentment between the board and its current track managers.

The wounds went deep in 2015, and it would be easy to imagine that grudges still exist. With the board holding all the power in the relationship in light of the RFSP process, would the county would want to see changes to SCRAMP's leadership group before continuing with ISC added to the mix?

It's just a hunch, but with SCRAMP's top-heavy organizational structure in mind, it's a struggle to see how it receives a new management contract without some personnel changes attached to the deal.

The inclusion of ISC, however, could also be the cone of silence SCRAMP has needed since Laguna Seca began running at an annual loss. With ISC's well-honed team of business managers and support staff ready to descend on the circuit, this combo has two things the others cannot offer: A massive army of non-profit volunteers with decades of Laguna Seca-driven experience, and a matching army of for-profit business hawks sharpened through years of feeding NASCAR's bottom line.

ISC brings immediate legitimacy to SCRAMP; SCRAMP brings subject matter expertise and throngs of loyal supporters to the relationship, and as a unit, the board has a best-of-both-worlds proposition to consider.

Using the full benefit of hindsight, it also prompts the question of why SCRAMP fought to drive ISC out of Monterey last year instead of trying to form its current alliance. It's just a guess, but with a SCRAMP/ISC package offered to the county in 2015, I'm not sure the recent RFSP process would have been deemed necessary.

The pressing issues today are whether the board and SCRAMP can work together in a cohesive manner, and if bringing ISC in to shoulder the business side of running Laguna Seca is enough to hold onto the property. There's also one more question associated with SCRAMP/ISC that could torpedo its proposal, but we'll save that for the next section.


Dole Laguna 201487Across the divide, the non-profit FLS group has gone about its efforts to take control of Laguna Seca in a polite and proactive manner. They've courted the media with great consistency; quotes from most of its team have been easy to find in newspapers and websites and continue to appear on a regular basis.

Amusingly, one motorsports-related site went as far to select FLS as the best choice to run Laguna Seca without bothering to interview the other parties, and maybe that speaks to the charm FLS have spread during the campaign portion of the lobbying process.

As the home team, the FLS doesn't carry any of SCRAMP's baggage or suffer from any of the anti-ISC rhetoric that arose in the area. Positive, engaged, clean and familiar, most of its members could run for mayor of Monterey and stand a decent chance of getting elected.

The majority of the FLS group has amassed considerable wealth and wants to inject a large volume of cash to provide an immediate makeover for the throwback track. With most of the circuit stuck in the rustic 1970s, and the county in dire need of taking Laguna Seca out of the red and into the black, the value and importance of the financial success achieved by the FLS leadership (and the high-powered connections they have with other business leaders) cannot be overemphasized.

An assembly of Fortune 500 types who want to save Laguna Seca by pumping millions into the facility is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, and the county needs to recognize the opportunity – and extreme benevolence – that FLS is willing to provide cannot be matched by the other parties.

FLS gives Monterey a powerful option to counter whatever it might find attractive with SCRAMP/ISC, but the group also has a few issues that could temper the county's enthusiasm.

Although FLS is comprised of business mavericks, it's missing a deep pool of staffers with circuit management experience and, minus the hundreds of volunteers, FLS is light on infrastructure. On motivation, strength of its hierarchy, and willingness to spend Laguna Seca into the 2010s, FLS is without peer, but below its proverbial boardroom, the rest of the building is rather empty.

So, is SCRAMP/ISC, with its deep infrastructure and broad for-profit and non-profit racetrack management experience the best choice for Monterey, or is FLS the clear No. 1 pick for all the reasons above? To borrow a line from Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, "it doesn't matter."

BEGGAR'S BANQUET

Spend a few minutes perusing the county's RFSP document, which provides firm guidelines on what it's looking for in the next concession agreement, and one thing stands out: Monterey doesn't want to fix Laguna Seca's broken business model; it wants a giant hand-out from Laguna Seca's next track managers to solve the facility's problems with pallets of cash.

Presented with an opportunity to perform a top-down review of how it landed in the current mess, and then intelligently address the issues that got SCRAMP in hot water, the county has taken the easy way out by searching for racing's equivalent of the golden goose.

With a limit of five major events per year that can be run without its world-famous (and asphyxiating) decibel limitations, the track has become a ghost town between those "Big 5" as other Californian road courses – places where sound restrictions are less of an issue – continue to benefit from Laguna Seca's lost business opportunities.

lat 20060312 8060The board has also shot down requests to hold major non-racing events such as concerts and festivals to build new revenue streams. The only tenants Laguna Seca ever had – driving schools – left years ago and, depending on the day you stop by, it can look like an abandoned property.

Decidedly underused and underperforming, the county had a chance to reboot Laguna Seca through an RFSP process that asked for long-term business solutions. But as the document's authors state over and over again, Monterey just wants the next management team to make it rain.

On the financing and construction needed to perform facility-wide improvements, the board wrote: "It is not envisioned for the County to finance the extensive capital improvements that will be desired for [Laguna Seca] to prosper and justify the capital investment."

On the track's ridiculously overdue need to repave the worn 2.2-mile road course, the board wrote: "As mentioned previously, County's desire is to have the new Concessionaire be responsible for funding and executing."

And what about the business-killing sound levels? "County has no plans to process a change to the sound restrictions."

And on the general need for a top-to-bottom facelift, the county passes the buck yet again: "Within the next few years there is a need for substantial capital investment in [Laguna Seca]; existing funds remaining in the [Track Maintenance Fund] will not be available. It is expected that a new Concessionaire will be capable of providing additional resources to address capital needs and will propose a sufficiently long term for the Concession Agreement such that Concessionaire will obtain a return on investment that covers its expenditures for capital expenses."



SE5K0946WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Monterey's RFSP only needed a single sheet of paper with one sentence that reads: "We'll give you the contract if you pay for all of our mistakes and problems, and we'll give you a long noose to reduce the likelihood of being hanged." In the county's eyes, the management team selected for its next concession agreement will have the honor of putting up all the money and being tied to a lengthy contract to try and recoup its loan. And that's considered winning?

At its core, this RFSP process is little more than a vastly overreaching Kickstarter page.

The RFSP also takes us back to the gigantic limitation SCRAMP/ISC faces in any comparison made to the FLS. Monterey doesn't want an actual business entity to save Laguna Seca; it wants a sugar daddy. SCRAMP, as we've known since 2015, is short on cash. As we wrote last week, SCRAMP should have all of its debts to the county repaid by the end of the month, which is fantastic, but that's old money. Monterey wants new money, and lots of it which, as far as anyone knows, is not part of SCRAMP's current reality. So what about its partners at ISC? Could it reach into NASCAR's overflowing cash reserves?

Highly unlikely. ISC, as a publically traded, for-profit entity with shareholders to appease, would never be allowed to invest large sums for capital investments in a property it doesn't own. From the estimates I've heard, something in the range of $50-75 million is needed to take Laguna Seca into the new millennium. Even if ISC was allowed to spend $5 million, which would be unfathomable, it would be a drop in the bucket.

Without any wholesale changes to how Laguna Seca can be used and developed by a company like ISC through more major race dates and softer sound restrictions, the county appears to have steered the RFSP process towards the most prosperous outcome.

Thankfully, the FLS team is said to have made decent progress in raising its initial goal of $50 million to spend on Laguna Seca, and the men and women that form the group are fully aware of the county's frothing attraction to the cash it can visit upon the facility

THE MAGIC NUMBER?

SCRAMP wants to save Laguna Seca, has a large and willing staff ready to act, but lacks the funding to remodel and grow the property. FLS wants to save Laguna Seca, lacks the people (below upper management), but has a war chest that can solve just about every problem by the end of the decade. ISC wants to run Laguna Seca, would benefit from controlling a Northern California road course (in opposition to Sonoma Raceway which is owned by its archrival Speedway Motorsports, Inc.) has the hardened staff to step right in and make it happen, but can't bring meaningful sums of money to the equation.

Parsing through the positives and negatives presented by the three parties/two teams, it seems fortunate that the county chose to amend the RFSP to reserve its right to select more than one winner. Given the chance to place an outside vote, I'd nominate SCRAMP, ISC, and FLS to steer Laguna Seca forward.

It wouldn't be easy; finding the proper balance of control between the trio would involve bumps and bruises, and at least in regard to SCRAMP and FLS, there's no doubt both groups have the track's best interests at heart. Would ISC, as the only for-profit entity in the proposed relationship, continue to find value if the FLS controlled the purse strings? And what would it gain if SCRAMP remained in place and the FLS held the thing the county wants most?

As the strong business partner to SCRAMP, ISC has leverage in any contract with the board. Add FLS to the conversation, and that might not be the case, but the county would be smart to find ways to appease ISC and benefit from its experience.

If it can see past the staggering eight-figure investment FLS says it can bring, Monterey might realize its RFSP process has not produced a perfect answer with any individual team, but it has yielded an amazing ensemble to consider.

UNHEALTHY CHANGE

The need for a vastly improved oversight structure is another takeaway from the problems the county and SCRAMP have created in recent years. Monterey, with its aforementioned elected and appointed board members, has used an independent vendor to run the Laguna Seca circuit and the park that surrounds it, for decades.

During that span, board members served their terms, come and gone, and with every change, new people are asked to govern a highly unique property without being required to have any specific knowledge or expertise on the topic.

A local agricultural leader, stay-at-home mom or dad, or surf shop owner could find themselves in charge of dictating Laguna Seca's business affairs, and while that doesn't mean the people on the board aren't capable of making the right decisions, there's also no reason to assume the massive complexities that have impacted the circuit's health are best handled by whoever earns a seat on the board.

In light of the board's built-in turnover, and the lack of hardcore business requirements for the county's board members, Monterey might consider hiring a track expert – a dedicated Laguna Seca business manager and liaison – to act on its behalf.

Just as it expects the next on-site management team to fix the track's financials and make wholesale facility upgrades, I would expect the county to realize it needs to upgrade its abilities to effectively oversee the property from its end. 

Monterey can certainly vilify SCRAMP for its shortcomings, but in light of the embarrassing "gimme-a-handout" RFSP document it produced, the county's shortcomings are just as obvious. What has it done to ensure the next track managers won't end up in a similar position? Has the board altered its structure to fortify its member's weaknesses? Has it made any demands or provided education for members who possess a complete lack of business experience? Board members might be able to vote on where to place a new stop sign, but would any have the aptitidue to manage the racetrack for a day? 

It's far too convenient to think that hiring a SCRAMP/ISC or FLS is all that's required to trigger a new gold rush. Monterey has great options to consider, but without fortifying its board with some form of track/business expertise, the same weaknesses will leave the new managers prone to failure. Hiring a board-affiliated track expert to fill that knowledge void seems like a no-brainer.

16SON1jh 02512AN IDEA

Sonoma Raceway (pictured) is, in almost every practical sense, a for-profit version of Laguna Seca. The rolling road course, like its Monterey counterpart, faces the same challenges with noise restrictions, declining interest in motor racing, and it's also packaged in a somewhat remote location.

Despite the shared obstacles, Sonoma Raceway is healthy, has more than 100 tenants delivering steady monthly income, and hosts marquee events with NASCAR, IndyCar, and the NHRA. It's a busy facility that, while far from perfect, is an excellent example of what Laguna Seca once was and could become with some changes.

And that's where we'll close. Monterey will announce its choice(s) to run Laguna Seca in September, and at that point, it will be up to the board and the management group(s) to create a new concession agreement. This is perhaps the only chance for the circuit to break free from the heavy sound and usage limitations that have turned it into a dying star.

Yes, the RFSP said no sound restriction changes are likely, and as a whole, the document seemingly asked the contenders to submit their proposals on how they would run the property under the same shackles applied to SCRAMP. If the locals, and the contract winner(s) are wise, they'll demand changes to how the county uses Laguna Seca.

Does it mean unlimited sound restrictions? No. Does it mean adding condos to the infield? No. But if the best the board can come up with is to ask a new or improved management team to take Laguna Seca into the future while being tied to the same old limitations, the circuit's doomed.

Decent, passionate people want to take on the responsibility of running the facility, and having spoken with all three teams, and at length with the two key contenders, they've acknowledged success or failure is hinged upon creating a healthier contract.

The fight for control over Laguna Seca has nothing to do with the parties engaged in the RFSP process. It's going to take place at the negotiating table between the county and those trying to save the beloved circuit.

Years from now, will you and I be able to take our children to Laguna Seca for their first racetrack visit just as my father did with me in 1975? The answer to that question rests squarely on the shoulders of Monterey and its board of supervisors.

Xfinity RA finishThis is what the NASCAR Xfinity Series should always look like.

Over the past five races, the second-tier stock car tour has visited short tracks, road courses and stand-alone venues resulting in must-see television. While the entire industry will celebrate its heritage this weekend at Darlington Raceway, Xfinity has gone throwback for the entire month of August.

The races at Iowa Speedway, Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Bristol and Road America have been closely contested, full of excitement and largely free of the elements that have made the tour hard to watch during the spring and summer.

Kyle Busch is the most vilified face of the modern Xfinity Series thanks to his 20 wins over his past 56 starts. But that's really not the problem. The most glaring issue is an abundance of Sprint Cup engineering and a schedule that has largely become a carbon copy of its highest-level counterpart.

But this wasn't always the case.

This season, 28 of the 33 races on the Xfinity calendar are directly tied to a Sprint Cup event. That's 85 percent of the campaign. That's up from 26 of 35 in 2006 (74 percent) and 23 of 32 (71 percent) back in 1999 – the final season of the true Grand National Series.

Justin MarksFor a division that claims "names are made here," the slogan really doesn't apply when only three championship-eligible drivers have won this season: Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Elliott Sadler. That's what made the past month so unique, special and captivating.

With an exception to The Glen and Bristol, August allowed the series to showcase both rising talents and the veterans who have made the Xfinity Series their home (including Justin Marks, pictured, who won his first career Xfinity Series race at Mid-Ohio). Busch has led 1,361 of his 2,068 laps completed, and that number was drastically higher before he crashed out of his two most recent appearances.

With all due respect to Busch and his No. 18 team, this is all the more reason to feature more short tracks and road courses. There's no way for him to qualify a half-second ahead of his nearest competitor or get away to a seven-second lead on tracks that are more engineering-focused.

That is, if he and his Sprint Cup contemporaries are even able to make the trip at all.

McDowellInstead, the likes of Justin Marks and Michael McDowell (pictured) have been able to win races. Corey LaJoie earned a top-10 at Bristol for JGL Racing. Jeremy Clements has made a late-season charge toward the playoffs due in part to races that minimized the effects of a Sprint Cup budget.

But most importantly, these races have been fun, and that's far and few between in the Xfinity Series lately.

It's been written before, but it's worth repeating: The series needs to return to Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis and/or convert the Indiana 250 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to a road course showdown. Literally no one was clamoring for an Xfinity race at Pocono Raceway while recently departed venues like Memphis, Gateway and Montreal are still fresh in our memories.

Of course, these are all pipe dreams that cost a lot of money and NASCAR has been forced to consolidate the three national tours due to the status quo. But this change (not to be confused for evolution) has sacrificed much of the personality and entertainment from what used to be weekly destination television.

At the height of NASCAR's rise in the late '90s, the old Busch Series was an exciting alternative to Sprint Cup. It spent months at a time separated from the premier division, visiting tracks like Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, Myrtle Beach Speedway and Pikes Peak International. It toured alongside Cup just enough to be considered a useful training ground but had the diversity of schedule to provide the tour a distinct personality.

That's what the past month looked like.

It makes all the logistical sense in the world for the Xfinity playoffs to run alongside the highest level, but NASCAR should explore opportunities to allow it to stand alone during the spring and summer months. This is especially important given the need for championship contenders to win their way into the playoffs.

Give road course specialists in underfunded equipment incentive to compete for the championship. Ditto short track aces. As it stands, those drivers are mired well outside of the top 10 during races at Charlotte, Kansas and Pocono.

Names aren't made here right now, but a few changes to the schedule would certainly go a long way.

Enerson IMS

RC Enerson will return to the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda for the final two rounds of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

The Indy Lights graduate impressed on his debut with DCR at Mid-Ohio on July 31, and hopes to build from the experience this weekend at Watkins Glen and during the season finale at Sonoma Raceway on September 18.

“It felt good to be right there on pace at Mid-Ohio, and we had a way better result – a top 10, we think – but we got caught out on the fuel,” Enerson told RACER of finishing 19th on his debut. “We ran out with a corner to go, had to clutch and coast in, the engine shut off, then it took forever to fire it up and we lost some laps, but we showed we had the pace.”

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Eager to land a full-time seat in 2017, Enerson says he’ll use the The Glen and Sonoma to show prospective teams owners what he can do while adding to his knowledge base with the Dallara DW12-Honda package.

“Of course I want to impress, but I’m also trying learn all I can in this car; it requires a different driving style, but we got a good base at Mid-Ohio and picked up a lot at the Watkins Test that we can put together this weekend,” he added.

“It was my first time at Watkins Glen with the new surface, and it’s insane. There’s so much grip, and the hardest thing will be qualifying for my second time in [Firestone] Reds and it will be crazy. We were actually getting chattering from the tires after the Bus Stop chicane because it feels like we’ve reached the grip threshold. So there’s a lot more for me to pick up and that’s a big aspect of what I want to accomplish in these next two races.”

Enerson has defined two goals that could accelerate his return to the grid next year.

“We of course want to find as much sponsorship as we can; that would be the first goal, and then it’s putting together the best two races we can,” he said. “It’s getting to the checkered flag, showing our pace, and I’d say before we can look at 2017, we need to put together two impressive races.”

Coyne has used four drivers this season in the 19 car: Luca Filippi, Pippa Mann and Gabby Chaves, who returned to finish the Texas race and brought home a 14th-place finish.

Texas scenic LATMichigan made for mayhem, Fontana featured frantic moments and Texas is usually best watched between your fingers. Those tracks have always made IndyCar "can't look away" entertainment because it's daring, breathtaking, close-quarter oval racing that often leaves the fans as frazzled as the drivers.

But let's not kid each other. It's the danger element that makes people watch and dancing with the devil that makes drivers take chances like they did Saturday night at Texas.

"It's not about money, that's for sure; it's that feeling you can only get from driving a racecar very fast on the edge," said Simon Pagenaud, the Verizon IndyCar series points leader who was in the middle of the four-car, 215mph scrum at the end of the Firestone 600. "It was exciting and it was a little scary at times, but it was fun."

Pagenaud copyPagenaud is a resplendent road racer still searching for his initial oval win – not somebody you picture running four wide into a corner at Texas. But he did an excellent job Saturday night, and his reaction after finishing fourth gave some insight into what he does and why he does it.

Just like James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan, who sliced and diced with Graham Rahal and Pagenaud over the closing eight laps. They raced each other fair and fierce, lost their first victory of 2016 by a few feet and then hugged it out afterwards.

"I can't thank Graham, Tony and Simon enough because we put ourselves in some pretty precarious situations and everybody came out OK," said Hinchclife, a year removed from almost losing his life in an accident at Indy. "Nobody did anything stupid and everyone was respectful. I had a blast."

A guy who almost bled to death because his suspension failed and sent him into the wall and out of racing for five months had a blast? Copy. He's wired a little differently than you are, but chose to keep racing IndyCars because it's his sustenance.

What almost killed him is also what makes him feel the most alive.

The expression on Kanaan's face when he took off his helmet is all anyone needed to see. He was grinning like a madman, and after kissing his pregnant wife Lauren, he turned and said: "What a show. It's always fun to race with guys who you can trust. I just feel bad for all the people that didn't come back."

Rahal, who only led from the middle of Turns 3-4 to the checkered flag, has now triumphed in two of the most insane oval races on record (Fontana last year being the other one).

"Hinch, TK and I were all winless and pushing as hard as possible, and it got a little crazy at times but we all came out in one piece," said the second-generation racer who has been Honda's go-to-guy the past two seasons with three victories against Chevrolet's dominance.

Texas pack LATNow, I never liked those old IRL races at Texas that featured eight or 10 cars lined up two-by-two, stuck together running wide open lap after lap. That was more like Russian Roulette than racing. But don't confuse what you watched Saturday night with IRL pack racing.

"It's not just flat-out, easy pack racing like what it used to be," said Rahal, who went high, low, in the middle before finally shooting to the bottom to win. "You were lifting a heck of a lot in traffic and the way these cars draft just makes the racing awesome."

The Mayor of Hinchtown, who raced Rahal as fair as possible to the checkered flag, agreed.

"You've got to pedal the car, it's not just wide-open racing the whole stint like it was in days past," he said. "This is why I wish we had more mile-and-a-half tracks on the schedule because it's a lot of fun for us."

No doubt it's always more fun when your car is working, but that's beside the point. Oval track racing is IndyCar's heritage, and while it's not nearly as popular with the paying customers as it was 20 years ago, it's still a valuable part of what makes IndyCar the toughest championship on four wheels.

Texas once a year takes its toll on budgets and hearts. With Phoenix, Iowa, Indy, Pocono and now Gateway on the 2017 schedule, it's a nice mix of ovals but, other than IMS, they all need some support shows to try and improve the fan experience.

The only downside to what we saw at Texas was the risk-versus-reward factor. It's a crime that IndyCar drivers put on a performance like that and race their guts out to get paid peanuts while their NASCAR brethren all get rich "riding around" half the time.

But that's racing reality these days, and nobody makes anybody drive an IndyCar – it's their passion and their choice.

And if you didn't like what you saw Saturday night and your heart wasn't pounding, then it's probably time to start working on that living will.

Max Verstappen believes he was the victim in the first corner collision with Ferrari's Formula 1 drivers that sparked controversy later in Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix.

The teenager lost part of his front wing and damaged the floor of his Red Bull as he, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen tangled at the La Source hairpin, and his driving later in the race came in for criticism from the Finn.

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"I was a victim in the first corner, you could see clearly I was on the inside, almost 90%," he insisted. "I didn't lock a tire, so it didn't show I was diving up the inside, I was just trying to make my corner.

"First of all Kimi started to squeeze me but we are not touching each other but then Sebastian decided to turn in on both of us. He turned into Kimi and Kimi hit me, so from there on, the front wing was destroyed and my floor."

Raikkonen was particularly unhappy with a late move to defend position from Verstappen on the Kemmel Straight, calling the teenager's driving "f**ing ridiculous" on the radio.

Verstappen, who finished 11th, admitted he robustly defended his position as he was disappointed with the way he was treated by his rivals at the first corner.

"They should understand that first of all they destroyed my race in Turn 1 so why should I say, 'OK here you can go,'" he said.

"Of course it was quite aggressive, but they destroyed my race so it's not like I say you can take my position that easy as well."

Red Bull boss Christian Horner (pictured, with Verstappen and Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko) conceded Verstappen "pushed the limit" with his driving but pointed out the stewards chose not to penalize him.

"Drivers tend to sort these things on the circuit," he said. "Max has pushed the limit today but the referees were happy so there are no more comments really from our side.

"It was firm, it was on the edge and he got away with it today and the stewards were happy with it.

"If there was an issue, or it contravened any rules, [steward] Danny Sullivan is a pretty experienced guy and he would have called them up or [race director] Charlie Whiting would have reported it to the stewards.

"When he [Verstappen] looks back at it, it was on the edge. Maybe he will take another look at it and learn from it for future races."

 

Originally on Autosport.com

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