Random Thoughts on COTA

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Yesterday’s NTT IndyCar Series race at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) featured a lot of firsts. It was IndyCar’s first race at the massive track just outside of Austin, Texas. It was the first-ever IndyCar win for an eighteen year-old. It was the first win for Colton Herta, a second-generation driver who was driving in only his third IndyCar race. It was also the first win for Harding Steinbrenner Racing, the team formerly known as Harding Racing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not watch every second of this race. My Tennessee Volunteers were in the fight of their lives against Iowa in the NCAA Tournament over on CBS. I watched the first half, before switching over to the IndyCar pre-race show. The Vols had led by as many as twenty-five before leading comfortably by twenty-one at the half. I figured I’d watch the race and keep one eye on the score on my phone throughout the second half. But as I noticed Tennessee’s lead quickly evaporating in the second half, I found myself flipping back and forth.

The game went into overtime and I watched every bit of it, only checking on the race during commercials. The Vols finally won 83-77 and will now face Purdue in the next round. That should be interesting to all of my Indiana-based friends.

By the time I settled back into the race for good, it was almost half over. I had missed about ten of the sixty scheduled laps, but I got the feeling I had not really missed anything. The race seemed to be a battle between pole-sitter Will Power, Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta – but the first two were starting to pull away from Herta. All indications were that Power and Rossi were just setting themselves up for the final stint when they would both be on red sticker tires.

But just when you think you’ve gotten a race figured out, things change – and in a big way. On Lap 44, James Hinchcliffe ran into the back of Felix Rosenqvist and put the rookie Swede into the Turn 20 wall – bringing out the only caution period of the day. Josef Newgarden and Colton Herta had just made their last pit stop of the day, but the first and second place cars of Will Power and Alexander Rossi had yet to pit when the caution came out – effectively ending any chance for a victory for either of them.

To make matters worse, Power had an issue while trying to leave the pits. His Chevy engine kept running, but he could not move. After climbing out of the car, a dejected Power said that the issue was most likely an input shaft had broken. The pole-sitter would end up finishing dead-last in twenty-fourth, which was not a good follow-up to his third-place finish at St. Petersburg. Rossi rejoined the field in thirteenth.

When the green flag flew, there were fifteen laps remaining and the eighteen year-old Herta was leading, with former champion Josef Newgarden right behind him. Most, myself included, thought that the moment was too big for the kid and that the far-more experienced Newgarden would make short order of the teenager in only his third race. It was a logical conclusion. But logic doesn’t always figure into the ending of a race.

Instead, Herta got a great jump at the start. He pulled away from Newgarden and never looked back. By the time Colton Herta crossed the line, he had more than a 2.7 second lead over Newgarden, who was doing well to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay in third. Graham Rahal and Sébastien Bourdais rounded out the Top-Five.

To be totally honest, I was not in love with this race – not at first, anyway. In fact, while watching all three practice sessions and qualifying – I had about decided that I didn’t much care for this track. Although it is shorter than Road America, it seemed absolutely huge. It just seemed like a whole lot of zig-zagging back and forth between a couple of long straightaways and a couple of hairpin turns, all for a greater distance than seemed necessary. I’m a little biased, but the bigger Road America seems a lot more intimate – at least on television.

For the first two-thirds of the race, I was convinced I was right. Much like Saturday’s Indy Lights race, the two leaders seemed to be having their own race, while there were some great individual battles going on deeper into the field. But aside from some interesting exchanges for position further back – there was not a whole lot of drama up front. Of course, my opinion could have been altered by paying more attention to a basketball game than the first half of the race.

But when it became obvious that Herta would inherit the lead from Power and Rossi and their misfortune on the yellow – things suddenly became very interesting. This was no fluke. Herta was fastest during Spring Training at COTA in February. He performed well at St. Petersburg, and despite blowing an engine on Friday, made the Fast Six in qualifying. He was already on-track for a podium finish, before Power and Rossi pitted under the yellow. This win gets no asterisk. It was a hard-fought and well-deserved win.

So Herta’s win gave this race a feel-good ending, and one that will be discussed for the next couple of weeks before everyone reconvenes at Barber. But had Power gone on to win wire-to-wire, except for picking up a $100,000 bonus for winning from the pole – I suspect that today we would all be talking about the snoozer at COTA.

TV Coverage: Since we were at the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, this was my first race of the season to experience from my TV chair at home. I didn’t think this was the best effort I’ve seen from NBCSN, but it wasn’t bad. In qualifying, Paul Tracy seemed to have trouble keeping up with who was sitting in the pits and who was still on another hot lap. All he had to do was look at the graphic to see who was sitting in the pits. There was a similar situation in the race when Townsend Bell had to point out the obvious to Tracy. It was certainly not Tracy’s best weekend in the booth.

But Townsend Bell is not immune from criticism from yesterday. If there had been a drinking game for every time Bell used the word “super” to describe something, no one would have been awake by the end of the race. Drivers were super fast, super motivated and super experienced. Some of the corners were super fast as well. I know it’s a tough job wearing a headset with producers yelling in your ear with action going on in front of you. But Townsend Bell needs to invest in a Thesaurus so that he can find and use other words similar to “super”.

Kevin Lee and Marty Snider did excellent jobs and were both in mid-season form for just the second race of the season. Kelli Stavast is an upgrade from Katie Hargitt, who is getting some needed seasoning doing Indy Lights races for now. Robin Miller held his own as he is still recovering from some serious offseason health issues.

The production truck made one serious gaffe early in the race. As Colton Herta was trying to overtake Alexander Rossi in a daring move for second-place as they headed into Turn One, the shot inexplicably changed to Scott Dixon finishing a routine pit stop. By the time the shot returned to racing action, you could see that Herta had successfully made the pass. They had to go back and show us the pass via replay.

One change for this year is the scoring graphic. For years, NBCSN had used a scroll bar at the top of the screen. While I thought it hung down too low and needed to be raised, it was not too obstructive. This year, they have put a very wide column to the left side of the screen, with the Top-Fifteen stationary as it scrolls through the lower-position cars near the bottom. It’s way too wide and obstructive, and takes up too much of the screen. When Rossi’s car got squirrelly trying to pass Power in the first few laps of the race, it was blocked out by the scoring graphic. That should never happen and it happened more than once. My preference would be to put the scroll at the very bottom of the screen, almost like the task bar of your computer. If you want to see something, you can glance down and see it – otherwise, it’s mostly invisible.

NBC Sports Gold: This is also the first weekend I’ve gotten to fully use my subscription to NBC Sports Gold. I’m now an even bigger fan of the concept. In the past, we could watch practice with minimal camera angles with commentary provided by the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Network. I work during the day, but I could usually find time to watch some of both practices. This past Friday, I was very busy with the day job and never even got a chance to think about practice. No worries – I just went home that night and pulled up both practices through my Apple TV and watched them both in their entirety on Friday night.

Not to disparage the fine folks on the radio network, who do an excellent job in qualifying and race broadcasts – but the NBCSN crew put together a masterful broadcast on the same production level as the races. When the Honda engine of Colton Herta let go during Practice One, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy did a superb (not super) job of explaining in great detail exactly what happens when an engine blows like that.

With no commercials on the NBC Sports Gold, when there is down time like what they had during the track cleanup – we were lucky enough to learn about a three year-old Paul Tracy’s first visit to a dentist. If you have the Gold package and you don’t know what I’m talking about, go back and watch it – it’s worth it. If you don’t have the Gold package, you should.

I liked the commercial-free format so much, I chose to watch qualifying through NBC Sports Gold on Saturday. While those of you who watched qualifying on cable were getting to see commercials for Marco’s Pizza and Xarelto, we were getting extra interviews with Felix Rosenqvist, James Hinchcliffe and Scott Dixon, as well as different viewpoints of the track from Kevin Lee. From now going forward, I will only be watching qualifying commercial-free on NBC Sports Gold. It’s not too late to get it. It is well worth the $55 it will now cost you for the rest of the season.

Shot in the Arm: Since Carlin announced they would be joining the NTT IndyCar Series, most have said that Trevor Carlin and his group will get IndyCar figured out. I have maintained for a while that they already have it figured out, at least more than their results show. I felt like their lineup of drivers Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball was their weakest link. I think this weekend proved me right.

Patricio (Pato) O’Ward made his debut with Carlin this weekend and showed flashes of brilliance, much like he did in his IndyCar debut at Sonoma when he made the Fast Six. On paper, his results look solid – qualified eighth, finished eighth – but he was mixing it up all day with many established veterans.

While many say that Pato O’Ward will help Chilton’s career, I think that O’Ward is showing that it’s not the team that has been lagging – it’s their lineup of forgettable drivers. Pato O’Ward may not help Max Chilton, but I think he is going to give a huge boost to Carlin. Watch for them snatch him up full time for next year before one of the “big three” go after him.

My Apologies: Felix Rosenqvist is going to have a good career in the NTT IndyCar Series. He has out-qualified his teammate, Scott Dixon, in both races this year. At St. Petersburg he finished fourth and seemed to be headed to another Top-Ten finish yesterday, before being punted on Lap 44 by James Hinchcliffe.

Put the blame on me. I picked Rosenqvist to win Sunday and that is usually the kiss of death – as it proved to be again yesterday. There was only one caution period all-day yesterday – for Rosenqvist. Had I not picked him to win, I feel quite certain that Rosenqvist would have competed for a spot on the podium. My apologies to Rosenqvist and Chip Ganassi Racing, for assuring a disastrous weekend for their Swedish driver by picking him to win.

Closing the Pits: In his interview after climbing out of his disabled car, Will Power blasted IndyCar for their stance on closing the pits during a yellow and keeping them closed until the pace car has bunched up the field. Power claims that this is the only racing series in the world that does this. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, because I know NASCAR has the field under control before pit stops begin.

But I did like it better when cars could duck in as soon as the yellow light flashed. Is it luck when a driver improves his or her position in that scenario? Yes, but so what? It’s also bad luck when the leader has his or her day ruined by an unfortunate yellow, especially if it’s a questionable yellow.

There are lots of chance happenings in racing. The unpredictability is what makes racing so enticing. Quite honestly, I don’t necessarily see it as a terrible thing that Honda has had three engines let go in two race weekends. That was always a wildcard variable, wondering if the leader that had the fifteen-second lead was going to have an engine failure. It provided hope in races that were dominated by a driver.

IndyCar officials will probably have a word with Power behind the scenes this week, and chastise him for speaking out – but I tend to agree with him.

Success, Now What? After struggling as Harding Racing through their first fulltime campaign in 2018, Harding Steinbrenner Racing (HSR) has found success after an offseason filled with uncertainty and drama. It’s not often that you see a car in Victory Lane celebrating a win, with blank sidepods. Much of their offseason drama was based on lack of sponsorship.

Mike Harding wasn’t able to find primary sponsorship for his fledgling team. The prevailing thought when he merged with George Michael Steinbrenner IV was that with all of those New York Yankee connections, their sponsorship woes were behind them. That has not been the case, as they have run the first two races of this season with noticeably blank sidepods.

Will all of the positive exposure for Colton Herta and HSR earning their first IndyCar wins, you would have to think there is some company that is going to capitalize and ride this bandwagon. How about it corporate America? Which company is going to step up and hitch their identity to this rising star?

Bad Day for Veach: One of the most pleasant surprises of the 2018 IndyCar season was Zach Veach. Not only was he getting results on the track, he was gaining fans off the track with his pleasant demeanor. I’m not one for just going up and striking up conversations with drivers, but on late Friday afternoon at St. Petersburg, I found myself talking to Veach. In a profession that has the potential to create a lot of prima donnas that take themselves a little too seriously, Zach Veach is about as unassuming a race driver that I’ve ever come across. You can’t help but root for the guy.

That’s why it pains me to write about what a bad day he had yesterday. Actually his weekend started off bad, before improving slightly. In Practice One, he was way off the pace compared to his three Andretti teammates. In Practice Two, his speed improved and he actually qualified ninth on Saturday.

But it all went wrong very quickly on Sunday. On Lap One, he bounded off of Graham Rahal and quickly found the gravel traps. He damaged his suspension, but made it back around into the pits for repairs. He went back out and managed to get in a lot of drivers way, even though he was a lap down. Near the end of the race, he bounced off of the rear of Scott Dixon’s car and fell further back. Veach finished the race in twenty-second place.

After two races, Veach finds himself ranked twenty-first in points – behind Pato O’Ward, who didn’t even start at St. Petersburg.

Another First: While everyone is taking note of Colton Herta being the youngest IndyCar winner in history, George Michael Steinbrenner IV being the youngest winning owner in IndyCar history and HSR’s first win as a team – many have overlooked another first that took place yesterday. It was the first win for a car with a matte black finish.

Most regular readers here know of my disdain for the matte black cars. Charlie Kimball’s matte black car set a new standard for ugly, in my opinion. His used to be the only one in the paddock. This year, we still have to contend with that car for a few more races, but the cars of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports are now embracing the matte finish look. In one year, they have gone from some of the best looking cars on the grid to some of the ugliest. At St. Petersburg, I noticed that Herta’s HSR car had joined this trend. I will begrudgingly say that I like it best of all the matte finish cars, but that’s not saying much.

Race cars are meant to be shiny and sleek. Nothing looks as good as a shiny race car under the lights of a night race. At Gateway, Kimball’s car practically becomes invisible at night. I will be glad when this fad goes away for good. End of rant.

Drive of the Day: There were many good drives by several drivers yesterday that are worthy of the title Drive of the Day. The RLLR cars of Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato both improved significantly from their starting positions. Rahal started tenth and finished fourth, while Sato started fourteenth and finished seventh. Tony Kanaan started dead last in twenty-fourth, and finished twelfth. Jack Harvey started twenty-third and finished tenth. Spencer Pigot qualified nineteenth, and finished eleventh. All of those drivers probably left Austin with a smile on their face, as their day was probably better than they were expecting. I almost picked Sébastien Bourdais for saving his early season swoon. He qualified seventeenth and finished fifth.

But in my opinion, the driver that probably got the biggest boost to their confidence was Marco Andretti. He had another disastrous qualifying session and rolled off the grid in the twentieth starting spot. But he earned his way up into the Top-Ten the old fashioned way – by passing cars on the track (and had a little bit of help being on the right side of the yellow). Marco finished sixth and was the second-highest performer among the Andretti Autosport team, and gets the nod here for Drive of the Day.

All in All: While there were some very spirited isolated battles at various parts of the track, I thought that IndyCar’s first race at COTA was going to be a snoozer. Again, that could have been me being detached and focusing more on a game in the NCAA Tournament than the first part of the race.

But that yellow salvaged the day at the expense of Will Power and Alexander Rossi. Fate stepped in and decided the day should belong to Colton Herta. Quite honestly, Herta’s victory saved this race for me.

But it was a decent show on television and I enjoyed watching IndyCar at a completely new and different venue. Now there is a new storyline as we head into Barber…can Herta and HSR keep the momentum going, or will this end up being a novelty. My bet is that we’ll be hearing a lot from Colton Herta this season.

George Phillips

20 Responses to “Random Thoughts on COTA”

  1. About Will bitching about the pits…did he not notice the accident was at Pit In, and the entrance was blocked by debris and Safety Trucks?

  2. I’m neutral about whether the pits close or stay open during a caution. Someone is disadvantaged either way. If the leader is just past pit in when the yellow comes out, isn’t that the same as if the pits were closed?

    • Shyam R Cherupalla Says:

      No if Virtual safety car is employed, and the cars are not allowed to bunch up (in other words maintain the gap they had between cars with all cars slowing down at the same time to a preset yellow flag speed) and the pits open, the leaders will always reach the pits ahead of everyone. Even if the back marker pitted as an accident happend, they will not gain any advantage as the leaders would already be 1/2 or whatever amount of distance away from that backmarker and as the leaders came around pits and was allowed to pit the time difference would have been the same as the backmarkers pit time and the leaders would still be coming out in the same order that they were in. But it all starts with cars not being able to bunch up, and pits needing to be open. Maybe they can bunch up the cars after everyone pits so it creates a good show for the racing and passing. Look at F1, leaders never lose their position, there may be a little shuffle in the order but not where the leader gets relegated to back of the grid because they didn’t pit firts.

  3. SkipinSC Says:

    George;
    As a distinguished alumnus of your next rival in the NCAA, you should know that we are NOT the chicken concern (Perdue,) but rather the “cradle of quarterbacks” (as well as astronauts,) PURDUE.

    I mean, after all, each May you get to look at that big-ass drum that says PURDUE right on it.

    For this misdemeanor, you should be sentenced to another 40 point, 3 raining performance by Carsen Edwards.

  4. I did not think the race was a snoozer at all. There may not have been a ton of action up front but there was action. Same with the Indy Lights races, on Saturday first place was off and away from the beginning but the battle for P2 was some of the most exciting racing I’ve seen in some time. Sunday was similar, especially in the turns 12-15 section there were outbraking and over/under maneuvers galore.

    Regarding closing the pits, I’m not sure where I stand on that. It obviously can hose a driver in the lead but it also can result in some unexpected finishes. People always say anyone on the grid in IndyCar can win, and part of that is because they may benefit from closed pits.

    NBC Gold continues to be money well spent if you’re a fan who can’t get enough of IndyCar. Having the NBC team for practices is worth the money alone. PT was entertaining all weekend, often not very accurate, but entertaining.

    What I hated was hearing/reading everyone complaining about the drivers going wide at turn 19. So much complaining about that. And why? It added a little spice to things and if the officials say it’s legal then why should we care? You may gain a little, but you may damage (or destroy) your car in the process, leave it up to the drivers to decide if the risk is worth the reward I say.

    #teammatteblack

  5. Both Rossi and Power were well within their last pit window when the yellow came out. Townsend Bell had commented for a couple of laps that Power and Rossi were in the danger zone by staying out and not pitting when the window opened. Their race strategists know the rules and chose to try to go a couple more laps before pitting and got burned as a result. My point is that the rule doesn’t need to change. If a race strategist is going to try and roll the dice and go a couple more laps, then it is on them if the yellow comes out. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t and that is what makes it fun to watch. After Power complained about the rule catching him out, he then mentioned that he wished they had pitted earlier. You can’t have it both ways in my opinion.

    • LurkingKiwi Says:

      I don’t know about “well within”, I thought I’d read that Power/Rossi/Dixon were just about at the point of being able to run full rich to the end, and that everybody who pitted before them would need a yellow or some slow running to get to the finish. They were due the next time by I think. From the TV coverage it looked like Scott was really gaining on RHR at that point, and I thought they would jump him in the pits.

  6. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Actually I think you can have it both ways. Yes Power was rightly upset that the pits were closed but he actually was complaining that his strategist didn’t bring him in earlier. It was a bad call by both the race caller for Power and Rossi and Dixon. Personally I hate the pits closed rule.

    George…you watched too much basketball yesterday. I thought the race was very entertaining and exciting and if there hadn’t of been a yellow and if Power hadn’t of broken I think everyone would have been talking about the great Rossi/Power duel for the last 15 laps. I think Rossi had a slightly faster car (Power could never pull away) and it would have been very enjoyable to see that battle for the win.

    George…I live in Indiana and I am not a Purdue fan at all. (Butler and IU are my teams but I think the Tennessee/Purdue game could be like the Colts/Titans games this year…in other words not good for the Vols. Actually I would like Tennessee to win but I’m telling you, Purdue is very good.

    Congratulations to Colton Herta!

  7. Bruce Waine Says:

    And where were Dixon & Pagenuad………. ? ?

    With maturity Dixon’s response to his car being slow in qualifying…. Scott replied …. Maybe the car needs a new driver ! !

    • As Mr. theskink mentions below, Dixon struggled with the same tire consumption issues that Rosenqvist also struggled with, until his last set came alive and he was finally able to do some racing in the last stint. Meanwhile, Pagenaud was compromised by his team’s dodgy qualifying strategy for the second straight race, wherein a badly timed red flag left him without a representative lap and left him at the back of the grid. I believe on race day, his team elected to roll the dice with an unconventional four stop strategy that didn’t wind up working at all (the lack of yellows meant that he had to make up the 25 or so extra seconds on pit lane all on track…no easy feat). Simon’s had essentially zero luck so far this season, although he’s shown to be nearly as quick as his two teammates.

  8. I’m not too particular about the pitting rules, but if they really care:

    Why not just close the pits altogether then and have all pit stops be made under green conditions? Cars pitting under yellow go to the back. Any car that actually NEEDS to stop during a yellow probably has crash damage/cut tire etc, they would be going to the back anyway. Now if someone had been playing the fuel game tightly and ran out of gas during the caution period that would be interesting, but again you could just send them to the back. (The luck element remains in part) Or if you really wanted to eliminate that, give each car a 10 gallon auxiliary tank that can only be used when the track is under yellow. Then no one runs out of fuel on caution laps, and all pit stops are made under green, and no one gets hosed.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    As someone in attendance who does not like to walk through mud, I was very happy to see that the rains held off. The cloud cover cooling the track off a bit was nice too. March is a good time to race at COTA, with grass green, the bluebonnets and indian paintbrushes in bloom, and the sticker burrs in the general admission lawns not mature enough to stick to your skin. The track has a few policies that I would like see changed, and its trademark high prices were in full effect this weekend, but it is a great place to watch a race and was largely well-prepared for the cars and crowd over the weekend.

    I thought the race itself was standard solid IndyCar road course action with an interesting twist toward the end. Aggressive racing was rewarded (and much passing did occur), but so was tire management. Both Ganassi drivers struggled for much of the race because they couldn’t keep their tires under them, only for Dixon to figure it out and carve up the field. Newgarden having more laps on his tires at the final restart likely contributed to Herta’s ability to run as far away as he did.

    The best action of the weekend was Robert Megennis and Toby Sowery swapping 2nd about 20 times during the Saturday Lights race, though I won’t quibble with anyone who advocate for the 5 car battles at the front of the MX-5 Cup races or Rossi furious charge after the final restart.

    On historic matte black Indycars, I was thinking that Nelson Philippe’s CTE-HVM car was matte black in 2006 when he won at Surfer’s, but I suppose that was more of a gunmetal grey and did have a gloss finish. Wow, Cedric The Entertainer’s acronym has aged poorly…

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      While at COTA, did you overhear any mention of attendance figures?

      Good , bad, mediocre ?

      • billytheskink Says:

        Well, they don’t exactly announce them mid-race like they do at baseball games. Sunday’s crowd was thick enough to have to fight through to exit the track and the parking lot, Saturday’s crowd was not. I was not able to attend on Friday. On Sunday, I felt like I was in a good size crowd.

  10. Shyam R Cherupalla Says:

    George you were picking on Will Power’s statement about none of the other major racing series bunch cars up and close the pits during yellow” and you pointed NASCAR as a another series that does it. I think he meant to say none of the other Road racing major series does it this way and to be honest NASCAR didn’t even come to mind when he said that and until you pointed it out. This is because I don’t consider NASCAR to be a road racing series. This closing the pits and bunching up of the cars during yellow is probably the worst thing to happen to a driver and mainly in a road/street race

  11. Tony Dinelli Says:

    My buddy and I talked about the pace that Herta and Rosenqvist have had so far and we are very excited to watch these two rookies this season. For that sake, PLEASE do not pick Rosenqvist to win again! lol

  12. I enjoyed the race from my living room and was so sorry not to be able to attend. COTA received 4 whole paragraphs in the “Day in Sports” column today’s LA Times. I was hoping having an All-American podium might garner more press. Guess that will only be for the LBGP next month.

    I too had a great experience with NBC Gold Friday and Saturday. I think watching Qualifying on Gold will also be my choice going forward. Kevin Lee had many good points and interview during commercials. I sure missed Jon B. and hope Robin is more involved during race weekends as the season progresses.

    Cheers for our rookies!!!

  13. This was the first racing action I’ve seen on a screen from COTA. It was pretty good, just as it should be.

    Not policing track limits gave a Cleveland feel to this race which I liked a lot.

    Here’s hoping this track remains on the schedule for however long it takes to make its name “IndyCar Classic” ring true.

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