Gateway Preview

As most of you read this, Susan and I are on our way to the St. Louis area for this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta & Valvoline (try saying that three times). Susan had actually been working in Paducah, KY all week, so I drove up last night after work and stayed there since it’s right on the way between Nashville and St. Louis.

Please note that all times I mention here this weekend are Central time. Nashville and St. Louis are both on Central time. We didn’t need to get up at any ridiculous hour because it is a late schedule. The first practice session for the Verizon IndyCar Series does not get underway until 12:15 CDT and lasts for one hour. Qualifying starts at 4:15 CDT and will also last for approximately an hour, although the NBCSN broadcast window for qualifying is 4:00-5:30 CDT. The final practice session will take place on Friday night and will run from 8:00 CDT until 9:00 CDT. Please note that the race on Saturday night will start one hour earlier than last year. The NBCSN broadcast starts at 7:00 CDT with the green flag dropping at around 7:35 CDT.

That was one of the few negatives for last year’s race – the late starting time. Last year, the race started at around 8:35 pm and was not over until after 11:00. By the time the post-race celebrations were completed, it was around midnight by the time we got back to the Media Center. Then it was time for all of the post-race interviews. Sometimes I pay no attention to them or listen to them in the background as I type. But I sat there front and center to hear what Simon Pagenaud said about Josef Newgarden’s move against him in the race. After all that and writing up a post, it was about 2:45 am when we left the track and well after 3:00 am when we got back to our hotel. The early start time will help.

I’m normally super-excited to be headed to an IndyCar race weekend. That excitement has been tempered with all of the concern for Robert Wickens, who is still recovering in an Allentown, PA hospital after his horrifying crash at Pocono Raceway last weekend. It has now become obvious that IndyCar is not guilty of purposely withholding information about the condition of Wickens – there are just very few known facts to report. After the thoracic spinal surgery on Monday night, doctors are in a holding pattern before they will know any prognosis. It’s simply too early to tell. IndyCar has been catching heat this week for seemingly going into “bunker mode”. But until the doctors know more, there is simply nothing to report – so give IndyCar officials a pass on their silence.

But I imagine the paddock and the Media Center will be more subdued this weekend than usual, and rightfully so. Fans in the stands and watching on television will probably be a little more nervous this weekend. Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports announced on Tuesday that they have withdrawn the No.6 Lucas Oil entry, normally piloted by Wickens. It is undecided if they will hire another driver for the final two races of the season. I wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t. Please continue to keep Robert Wickens, his family and friends in your prayers.

With all of that being said, I am still looking forward to this weekend. This was a very fun event last year. The crowd that showed up for qualifying and the Friday night practice last year, looked bigger than what showed up for race night at Phoenix for the past three seasons. When Saturday came, the place began filling up early in the day and the excitement continued to build. By the time the command was given to fire engines, the stands were packed. Everything I’ve heard regarding ticket sales for this year indicates that tomorrow night will be no different.

It’s a unique track. It’s egg-shaped, much like Darlington and Twin-Ring Motegi. Turns One and Two have a much tighter radius than Turns Three and Four. The 1.25 oval also features different banking at the two ends. Turns One and Two has 11° banking while the wider Turns Three and Four is 9°. The race is 248 laps for 310 miles or 498.48 kilometers – hence the “500” in the name.

The race itself was decent last year, but it was mostly a battle among the Penske cars. The first two rows were all occupied by Team Penske. Will Power won the pole with an average speed of 189.642 mph. Josef Newgarden started alongside Power, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud starting third and fourth respectively. Ed Carpenter started fifth, telling you that this would most likely be a track to favor the Chevys over the Hondas. Scott Dixon started seventh in a Honda, but did what he always does and finished second – breaking up the Chevy party in the race.

Will Power’s night didn’t last long, however. After the start of the race was delayed for five laps after Tony Kanaan spun on the pace lap, Ed Carpenter and Will Power made contact in Turn Two on the first lap at speed. Both cars were out of the race. It was not a clean race after that either. Takuma Sato, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Max Chilton and JR Hildebrand all made contact with the wall – some harder than others.

But the signature moment of the race came on Lap 217 as the lead cars of Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden were entering Turn One. Newgarden dove inside of Pagenaud entering the turn. Pagenaud was expecting his teammate to back out of the throttle. He didn’t. They made slight contact as Newgarden kept his foot in it. Pagenaud ended up backing out of it and he dropped from first to fourth, as Newgarden took the lead Pagenaud was able to finish third, but Newgarden never looked back and led the rest of the way. Some say that move is what cemented the championship for Newgarden as Newgarden finished just thirteen points ahead of Pagenaud in the final standings. Had Pagenaud won at Gateway and Newgarden finished second, Pagenaud would have celebrated his second consecutive championship at Sonoma a few weeks later.

This year’s race features different body kits from last year. While the new common body kit has been an overwhelming success on road and street courses, it still needs some tweaking on the ovals. Will we see a parade or lots of passing? I have no idea. But one thing is for certain. The cars looked great under the lights last year. With this new body kit, they’ll look even better this year. Let’s just hope they are racy for all of those fans that will be showing up at Gateway.

On a side note, after being out of the car since Toronto – Gabby Chaves returns to the cockpit of the No.88 entry for Harding Racing. My personal hope is that he stays there for the remainder of the season. With all of the speculation swirling around regarding what this team will look like next season, I hope he can remain there for the final three races of the season – if for nothing else, to audition for some team for next season.

The forecast is not great for today. Friday’s forecast calls for possible thunderstorms during the day and a high of 76°. Friday night looks better with a much smaller chance of rain and a low of 70°, so don’t be surprised if there is a change in today’s schedule. Things look much better for Saturday, when the forecast calls for sunshine and a high of 91° during the day and a low of 74° at night.

Last year, this track favored the Chevys. Was that due to the engine or the aero kit. If it was the aero kit, the playing field has been leveled this year. If it was the engine, well – it might be the same story as last year. To be honest, I don’t know which it was last year. We’ll probably have a good idea by this afternoon, assuming things run on schedule.

It would be nice to know before I make my dreaded pick for the win. Usually when I pick a driver, it ensures an early exit for that driver. Most likely, the winner will come from either Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Scott Dixon or Alexander Rossi since they are the ones with any real shot at the championship. I also would not be surprised if Simon Pagenaud sought redemption for a race he felt was robbed from him a year ago.

But this weekend, I’m going to go out on a limb a little bit. I’m going to pick a driver who had a rough night at Gateway a year ago. His current team did very well there last year. If Chevy proves to be the preferred engine, it will help this driver’s cause even further. Who am I picking? I’m picking the grizzled veteran who still has something left in the tank. I’m going with Tony Kanaan. We’ll see.

As usual when we attend races in person, Susan and I will both be posting here throughout the weekend – so check back often. And as usual, you can follow us on Twitter for photos, videos and comments. You can follow me at @Oilpressureblog and Susan at @MrsOilpressure. Please check back later.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Gateway Preview”

  1. Have fun.
    Thanks for blogging.

    Everyone remember Justin Wilson today.

  2. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Very happy for the earlier start time, that was brutal last year. Being from Indy my internal clock is an hour ahead of St. Louis and after sitting in traffic for an hour it was after 2am my time when I got back to the hotel and my old bones aren’t used to being up that late. It was a wonderful event and a wonderful crowd though, race wasn’t that exciting (except for “the pass”) but the whole day was a lot of fun and I’ll be attending as long as they continue to race there.

    Heading down tomorrow morning with my dad, probably get there a bit after noon. IndyCar gave me pit/paddock credentials again this year so I’ll be roaming the infield with my Nikon D5 shooting pictures. Hope to bump into you George!

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    From Sam Schmidt interview………….“For the last two races, I don’t know yet, I honestly don’t know,” said Schmidt. “As we discovered at Indy [when Hinchcliffe failed to qualify], we have incredible partners and we called all of them to discuss the situation.

    All of them said, ‘We need to focus on Robbie, focus on his needs, focus on his family, focus on Hinch having a successful finish to the season, and you don’t have to do anything for us.’ It was great to have that unity.

    “As I alluded to, we’re racers and we want to race, but the minds of everyone within the team are inevitably distracted right now as we keep Robbie in our thoughts.

    Trying to introduce a new driver this weekend, so soon, would be another distraction. For Portland and Sonoma, I don’t know yet.”

    Although Schmidt wouldn’t outright state that he wants a driver with money, the fact that the team has, as he said, nothing salvageable on the #6 car and heavy damage on Hinchcliffe’s #5 car, would suggest that he and co-owner Ric Peterson would ideally seek a funded driver to substitute for Wickens.

    “The phone’s been ringing off the hook with potential replacements,” said Schmidt, “but first I want to get the team in a huddle this weekend to discuss the best way forward.

    Having three races on back-to-back-to-back weekends is difficult enough, and logistically it’s not helpful when they’re a superspeedway followed by a short oval and then a road course. It’s prohibitive from a timing standpoint.”

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Last year’s Gateway race is a strange memory for me, I watched it as Hurricane Harvey’s rains poured down on my abode. I had planned to drive up and attend in person, actually, but those plans fell through a few weeks beforehand. Good thing too, otherwise I would not have been able to prepare for the rains or even get back to town for some time.

    I enjoyed the race last year, and I think I enjoyed watching the Monday mid-day replay of it just as much, it eased my worried mind for a few hours.

    Have a safe trip, George, and enjoy the races.

  5. I am out on the limb with you, George. TK needs a very good weekend and I think he can do it!! I look forward to yours and Susan’s reports. Have fun!!

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