Random Thoughts On The IndyCar Grand Prix

When I previewed the IndyCar Grand Prix last Friday, I said that there were no moments from the previous four Verizon IndyCar Series races on the IMS road courses that were memorable for the right reasons. I can no longer say that. Saturday’s race was actually a good race. Was it edge of your seat excitement? No, but if you appreciate road racing and strategy then this was a good race.

Road racing is not about who can make a blistering pass for the lead on every corner. It’s about devising a plan going into the race, following that plan and making adjustments when needed as the driver executes that plan and makes the necessary passes on the track. This is what we saw on Saturday.

If you look at the box score, you see that Will Power started on the pole and won the race. You might think it was somewhat of a ho-hum day – far from it.

There was the usual scrum going into Turn One at the start of the race. I was standing right there and from where I was standing, it looked like Simon Pagenaud got into Jordan King sending them both into the gravel trap. Later, someone told me that it was King that got into Pagenaud. whatever the case, Pagenaud was able to get out under his own power. King required assistance from the AMR Safety Team.

Just a couple of corners later, King’s ECR teammate Spencer Pigot hopped over some of the curbing, making contact with Takuma Sato before spinning into the grass. Five laps later, Pigot was penalized for avoidable contact.

Although seven different drivers led in Saturday’s race, make no mistake – this was an all-day battle between Will Power and Robert Wickens, with Scott Dixon jumping into second-place late in the race. Ultimately, this race came down to tire strategy. Power and Wickens both started on the Firestone red alternate tires. After the first set of pit stops, Power made the mandatory switch to blacks, giving the potential edge to Wickens. It didn’t take long for Wickens to get around Power on Lap 26. But the situation was reversed after the final pit stops. Power was on the reds, while Wickens had to run the blacks. Power took the lead away from Wickens for good on Lap 51 and never looked back.

But there was a lot of action going on behind him – much more so than in previous editions of this race. For the second half of the race, we sat in the Tower Terrace stands along the main straightaway. As the cars went by us, you could see when they were setting up for a pass going into Turn One. By the time the cars went out of sight, we could check the video board directly across the track from where we were sitting. More times than not, the pass was completed.

This speaks well for what we can expect in two weeks from this new car. In years past, the turbulence coming off of these cars on the main straightaway would have made passing much more difficult, even when a superior car was the one trying to make the pass. With the super speedway configuration they will be running starting in practice tomorrow morning, the turbulence should be even less of a factor. Let’s hope so.

After the race, Will Power said it was the hardest he had ever driven. Although it was mostly cloudy throughout the race, it was still a hot day. Power said he was not properly hydrated and he paid the price. Lack of hydration can not only affect a driver’s endurance, it can have an impact on their judgment and the ability to hit their marks. Power led fifty-six of the eighty-five laps. Just imagine how he would have driven had he been 100%.

TV Coverage: I am actually typing this from our Indianapolis hotel room on Sunday morning, so I’ve obviously not seen the broadcast yet. I am assuming that there were no flubs on ABC’s part, because had there been – I would have seen a rash of comments on social media. I saw none. In the case of a broadcast partner, no news is good news. If there were some gaffes that I’m not aware of, please feel free to comment below.

Points Race: Heading into this race, Will Power was sitting at tenth in points and was already seventy-seven points behind his Penske teammate and defending champion Josef Newgarden. Suffice it to say, his season was going nowhere. Power desperately needed a good finish on Saturday just to keep his season afloat. He came away with fifty-three total points for winning the pole, the race and leading the most laps. He currently sits in seventh place and only forty-three points behind Newgarden. Power got what he needed.

From Power’s standpoint and everyone else chasing Newgarden, it didn’t hurt that Newgarden spun on Lap 56, taking himself out of contention for another top finish. Newgarden rebounded to finish eleventh and is still the points leader, albeit by only two points over Alexander Rossi. Sébastien Bourdais sits in third, a manageable twenty-six points behind Newgarden. With his second-place finish on Saturday, Scott Dixon has stealthily moved into fourth and thirty-one points out of first in a tightening points battle.

James Hinchcliffe had the type of day he has had most of this season – nothing great, but nothing disastrous either. Hinchcliffe started fourth, finished seventh and is currently fifth in the standings; thirty-four points behind Newgarden.

One of the biggest hits in points was suffered by Graham Rahal. He finished ninth on Saturday, but everyone else ahead of him had good days. Rahal was tied for third entering the Grand Prix, but dropped to sixth in the standings. That’s not the kind of momentum you want heading into the Indianapolis 500.

The double-points awarded for winning the Indianapolis 500 can change everything about the championship battle. Don’t be confused by what I’m saying. I am very much against double-points given for any race, even the Indianapolis 500. But given that’s what we have to work with for now, it can change the complexion of the season – no matter how artificially and contrived it is. If Newgarden wins the “500” and his closest pursuers have a bad race – look out! Newgarden could be putting this thing away before the summer is out. Conversely, if Newgarden is an early out and Rossi, Bourdais and Dixon finish in the Top-Five – your current points leader is suddenly trying to dig himself out of a deep hole.

One thing is certain, with double-points for the “500” and a double-header the following weekend at Belle Isle, we’ll have a much clearer picture of the 2018 championship than we have right now.

This Event: The IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis is now five years old. That’s a long enough sample to look at and determine if this is a viable event. To be honest, I have mixed emotions on this topic. This is not and never will be an ideal road course. There are no elevation changes and you have two sections essentially put together. There is the long straightaway along the main grandstands, then the twisty part of the road course section. They have made some fairly major tweaks over the years, shortening up a section of the northern part of the road course, while adding a new part within the (oval) Turn One to reduce speeds and tire wear by avoiding the long sweeping turn heading onto the main stretch.

So the racing is not perfect. But you know what? It’s not perfect at Long Beach either and it’s promoted as a must-see event.

I think what hurts this event the most is the venue, being located on the hallowed grounds that has hosted the Indianapolis 500 since 1911. Fans still seem appalled that the cars are going the “wrong way”. Well you know what? They’ve been doing it for five years now and Formula One started doing it on that track in 2000, eighteen years ago. When will fans (and some media) get used to the idea that they go in that direction?

Friday, I heard fans complaining that they should run the Grand Prix in the same direction down the front stretch as they do in the “500”. Road courses predominantly, with few exceptions, race in a clockwise direction. If you are one of today’s school children who don’t know how to read a clock with a face, that means road courses have a lot more right-hand turns than left-hand turns. That would make about as much sense as running at Phoenix in the opposite direction.

I’ll admit, the first year of this event it took me a little bit to get used to it. With my disdain of change, if I can get used to it – anyone can, if they so choose.

If you look at this as a stand-alone event and not compare it to the Indianapolis 500, it’s a very fun race to attend. But if you are constantly reminding yourself that the “500” weekend is so much better for many reasons, you are not going to enjoy it. That’s a shame, because those who take that approach are short-changing themselves by refusing to enjoy this event for what it offers.

What is that, you might ask? Well, it offers something different to those in the area that only go to the Indianapolis 500 each year. It’s a chance to experience what road course racing has to offer, which is wandering around the track to different vantage points throughout the weekend. In this case, it also gives you a chance to experience what IMS has to offer, without the huge crowds that will be coming later this month.

It also gives a legitimate reason to extend the Month of May. With practice and qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 continuing to be shortened, this adds something back into the month. So, if you live within a few hours of IMS and have never been to the Grand Prix weekend – give it a try next year. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Drive of the Day: While Will Power won the race and Robert Wickens gave Power fits for most of the race, the drive of the day has to go to Scott Dixon. After another poor qualifying session that saw him start eighteenth, Dixon marched up through the field on sheer driving ability, and not pit stop strategy, to finish second. If he could figure out how to qualify better, Dixon would be having a much better season. But sitting in fourth this early in the season, Scott Dixon is in a very dangerous position for the other drivers.

All in All: For me, this was a fun weekend. This was undoubtedly the best of the five editions of the IndyCar Grand Prix. The crowd seemed good and it was a very spirited race. I had a very interesting dinner Friday night at Dawson’s with a real member of the media (not a fellow blogger) whom I’ve always had a lot of respect for. He told me a lot of fascinating IndyCar back stories I’ve never heard before. We had dinner and a couple of beers, before I picked up Susan at the airport later that night. Then Susan and I had dinner Saturday night after the race with Paul Dalbey and his wife Kelli. It’s always fun when the four of us get together.

It was a good kickoff for the Month of May. We re-enter the real world for a few days this week, then it’s back up to Indianapolis for Fast Friday and qualifying this Saturday and Sunday. It’s only going to get bigger and better from here.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Random Thoughts On The IndyCar Grand Prix”

  1. madtad1 Says:

    The race proved another one of your predictions about the month of May, George. Tony Kanaan tweeted after the race his team blew the last pit stop sending him out in 23rd place after he came in in something like 8th place. Of course ABC missed it, while the INDYCAR web app just showed him as in the pits forever.

    • I think that remains one of the enduring knocks on ABC’s coverage: they fixate so heavily on the top two or three cars, occasionally glimpse or mention a car further down the order (but then get right back to the leaders after a minute or so), and they frequently miss a dozen or more stories of people that happen outside of that top group (I’m still sore about JR Hildebrand running solidly in the top-10 all day in his first race with ECR a few years ago, the year after he’d been canned by Panther, only for the car to let him down at the last stop and dropping him a lap down; I remember that ABC mentioned him literally once before that last stop, and they never mentioned what happened to him afterward…this was a huge potential redemption story, and they basically completely missed it). I’m not saying that the NBCSN guys are perfect at this sort of thing, but they’re a long ways better than ABC has been at it for the last decade plus.

  2. Jack in Virginia Says:

    But did you find a proper midwestern Tenderloin sandwich?

    • Apparently you didn’t read my wrap-up on Saturday.

      • Read the articles – that’s a fine photo and a fine tenderloin. Although $10.. wow. But, it’s quite a sandwich. I’m glad you found one, George. Can you drop in any other locations where you can find them? You’re usually always on the hunt. That stand behind Tower Terrace is the one we always wind up at… but if there’s another I’m on it.

        • BrandonWright77 Says:

          Look for the Smoking Pig stand (I think that’s what it was called) under E stand on the SW corner of the track, I think it’s slightly different than what Geo found but it’s a solid tenderloin. Stay away from the Alley Cafe behind the pagoda, they’re trying to pass off frozen pork fritters as tenderloins.

        • This obviously doesn’t apply for the GP (because they don’t sell seats out there for the GP), but there are always a stand or two behind the NE and North Vistas that sell the “original style” tenderloins on Race Day. I think I’ve managed to find one every year out there, including the year (I think it was 2014 or so), when there were more concession stands closed than open behind the NE Vista, so I had to trek up and over the bridge above the North Tunnel to a stand behind the west side of the North Vista to get my traditional Race Day lunch (tenderloin with mustard and a few pickle slices only, if they’re available). I remember leaving a comment right here on this site about the poor availability of concessions on the North end of the track a day or so after the race, and if memory serves, Doug Boles himself left a comment here that they’d work on it (and I haven’t had a similar issue since, so it’s clear that The Honorable Mr. Boles is a man of his word).

  3. Paul Dalbey Says:

    The only part I disagree with you about (and disagree probably isn’t even the right word) is regarding connecting the GP to the 500. It’s often being said that you have to separate this event from the 500 and enjoy it for what it is – a completely different type of racing.

    But EVERYONE treats the race as and it gets fully promoted as a kickoff to the “Month of May,” implying it is something of an undercard race to the main event. I’m not exactly sure how to get around that or avoid it because it’s honestly the reality. But would this race be better off as a stand alone event or is it always destined to be simply the warmup act?

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    Would I watch this race if it were held at the Cleveland airport? No.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    More action than previous races here, it seemed. The crowd seemed up from last year too. I like the Indy GP as a “warm-up” of sorts for the 500, for being additional track time at the speedway that the teams don’t want or need on the oval. I do wish this event would draw a fair number of extra entries, though.

    This was one of ABC’s better performances in recent memory. They did well to capture the many passes Rahal and (to some extent) Dixon were making. Their only real flub was missing Wickens pass on Power for the lead. They still underutilize the long camera shot down the front straight for determining where a contending car will exit the pits in relation to the leaders.

  6. BrandonWright77 Says:

    I’ve been to all of the GPs and this was by far the best. Not a race for the ages or anything but it was entertaining and much better than the previous versions. It’s always hard to judge the crowd at this race but it looked pretty good to me, the north end was pretty packed, all the viewing mounds were packed, there were lots of people milling around in the plaza/infield, I’d say it was as good or maybe slightly better than the crowd the last couple years.

    I’m with George, this is a great weekend to experience The Speedway. Still a good sized crowd but not so huge that it’s difficult to get around, on Friday everything is general admission so you can take in multiple vantage points and see IMS from angles you haven’t seen before. And there’s literally action all day long with all the support series there. I understand why some people bristle up at the thought of anything but The 500 happening here, but as someone who lives nearby I love any chance I get to go to there and enjoy/explore. I took my bike this year and did a lap around the outside of The Track each morning, it was a wonderful way to start the day.

    Oh, and Sarah Fisher has brought her gokarts over for fans to drive around a small course in the infield midway and they are MEGA FUN! $5 a pop, I highly recommend it!

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