Random Thoughts on Portland

This year’s version of the Grand Prix of Portland was not very scintillating, but that happens. They can’t all be barn-burners. Granted, the race had its moments – but for the wrong reasons. Any excitement was not due to a driver demonstrating superb driver skills, instead the moments came from a couple of bone-headed moves that you might expect to see in US F2000 – not in what is supposed to be the premier open-wheel series in North America.

The start was the usual chaos that we’ve come to expect at Portland. This time the trouble came from mid-pack when Graham Rahal made a ridiculously over-ambitious move on the inside that had no chance of having a good outcome. In the process, he wiped out both of the Arrow SPM cars of Conor Daly and James Hinchcliffe. He also ended his own race as well as the race for Zach Veach. Takuma Sato, the reigning race champion and Rahal’s teammate, had to come in for repairs from the melee and was two laps down when he returned to the race.

The other head-scratcher of the day involved Ryan Hunter-Reay and Jack Harvey on Lap 14. I’ll discuss that one more a little bit later. The only other yellow flag came when Santino Ferrucci coasted to a stop on the main straightaway with eight laps remaining. The booth announcers spent those four laps of caution hyping up the coming re-start, but it amounted to nothing. Will Power got a great jump and pulled away from the single-file field to take his second win in the past three races.

Josef Newgarden finished fifth, which was fortunate for him because he almost got caught up in the first lap fracas. Credit Tim Cindric for opting for track position, rather than going for early fuel and tires and committing to a three-stop race – as all the guys in the booth were suggesting he do. Even solid Kevin Lee questioned the strategy, while admitting that Tim Cindric has called a lot more winning races than he had. Newgarden may not have won the race, but by finishing fifth and two spots behind Alexander Rossi – Newgarden expanded his points lead. That was the goal.

Aside from the two yellow-flags and the ensuing re-starts in the first sixteen laps of the race – I’d have to say that Sunday’s IndyCar race at Portland was a bit of a snoozer and was somewhat processional. There was the frustration of seeing race-leader Scott Dixon limping into the pits with a dead battery, pretty well ending his dreams of another championship for this season. Other than that, the last eighty laps or so were kind of boring.

Am I complaining? Not really. After a frightening crash at Pocono and a near-photo finish at Gateway, we were due to get a slight dud. The weather was good, no one was injured and there were shiny race cars on track. I felt a lot better after watching the NTT IndyCar Series at Portland, than I did watching my Tennessee Vols take it on the chin Saturday from mighty Georgia State. The worst thing about that game was it was no fluke. They beat Tennessee in every facet of the game, but I digress…

TV Coverage: On Race Day, I thought the NBC crew did a decent job. They weren’t perfect, but they weren’t bad either. They were OK. It was their performances for practice and qualifying that got my attention.

For Practice One, Paul Tracy dropped a bombshell that he had heard that fellow Canadians James Hinchcliffe and Ric Peterson were going to break away from the new alliance with McLaren and form their own team with backing from Honda. Tracy even went so far as to say that they were buying the old equipment from Gerald Forsythe, which has been sitting around since the 2007 Champ Car season. Tracy tried giving the story some credibility by saying he had read it in an article by Norris McDonald, who I’ve always called the Canadian Robin Miller. I read the article and it was written as a tongue-in-cheek wild dream that was not to be taken seriously. Tracy apparently didn’t get the memo.

During Practice Two, Peterson quipped that he’s not buying any trailers from Gerry Forsythe.

Also during the second practice session, Kevin Lee, Robin Miller and Jon Beekhuis were in the booth; while Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Tracy were on Pit Lane. I don’t remember where Dillon Welch was in this swap. It worked out well, except that Miller seemed a little out of his element there. He made some uncharacteristic gaffes that I caught and Kevin Lee had to correct him on. He did better Saturday and Sunday back on Pit Lane.

I thought the star of the broadcasting team was Jon Beekhuis. He was excellent in the booth on Friday, but he asked the tough questions of Rob Edwards and Michael Andretti about Ryan Hunter-Reay’s move on his teammate, Alexander Rossi. Edwards wouldn’t take the bait, but Michael said he was a little surprised by the move.

What Was RHR Thinking? If you watched the race, you know what I’m talking about. On Lap 14, Alexander Rossi – who is a championship contender and teammate to Ryan Hunter-Reay – made an attempt to pass Hunter-Reay on the main straightaway leading into Turn One. Hunter-Reay drifted wide to the right, attempting to pinch his teammate up against the inside wall. In the meantime, part-time driver Jack Harvey was taking a normal line into Turn One. Hunter-Reay had a bad angle and carried way too much speed into the turn. Hunter-Reay collected Harvey and sent his car airborne across the turn. Rossi was fortunate to be able to clear the carnage and continue on.

Hunter-Reay stayed in the car as his team made repairs. He returned to the race several laps down and was penalized with a thirty-second Stop-and Hold for avoidable contact. Harvey, who had qualified fourth and was having a strong run, was done for the day.

My question is what was Hunter-Reay thinking? He has been out of the championship hunt for a while and is currently seventh, more than two-hundred points behind Newgarden. So why would he be trying to put the squeeze on his teammate who is still in contention? Did he not realize it was Rossi? Did he not know they were that close to the turn? Is there some inner-team strife between these two that we don’t know about? Hunter-Reay won two races last season, but is winless this year. Is he tired of being shown up by a driver more than ten years his junior, that is now considered the lead driver – an unofficial role that Hunter-Reay has enjoyed since Tony Kanaan left the team after the 2010 season?

Some of this sounds like conspiracy theory talk, but I’m wracking my brain trying to figure out what he was doing. And where was he after the race? I feel quite certain the NBC pit-reporters were there as he got out of his car, yet he never made it on camera.

In my opinion, this was far worse than what Graham Rahal did at the start. Rahal made an over-ambitious move trying to gain as much track position as possible. It had disastrous results for himself and four other drivers. But you know what? Rahal stood in front of the cameras and took the entire responsibility for the accident. And that’s what it was – an accident. He owned up to it and took it like a man.

Ryan Hunter-Reay looked like he was deliberately trying to ruin the race of his teammate. Then when he and Jack Harvey were facing each other after their collision, Hunter-Reay made gestures making you think it was Harvey’s fault, then he went silent. The only thing I saw was about an hour after the race, Hunter-Reay issued a generic apology to Harvey and to his own team (but not to Rossi) on Twitter. Both Rahal and Hunter-Reay made major mistakes yesterday. I respect the way Rahal owned up to it. Hunter-Reay? Not so much.

The Championship: There are still three legitimate contenders for the championship, with one race remaining and it being a double-points race. Personally, I am against double-points at any race, including the Indianapolis 500. But to make the final race of the season double-points, absolutely reeks of gimmickry. Whether it is Indianapolis, Iowa or Barber – I always liked the idea that they all counted the same in the points. The Titans and Browns play this Sunday. Should the victor get awarded two wins because it is the opening game? It makes about as much sense as making the IndyCar finale count double.

It’s all about making sure a driver doesn’t clinch before the final race. Without looking, do you know when the last time that actually happened? It was 2004, when Tony Kanaan clinched at Fontana, with the second Texas race still remaining. Double-points act like a wild-card, keeping some people in the game. But double-points also penalizes harshly. As they pointed out in the broadcast yesterday; a driver can be thirty-something points ahead entering the finale, finish on the podium and still lose the championship. I haven’t really studied that scenario to know if it’s true or not, but I’ll take their word for it.

Josef Newgarden leads this championship on the strength of four wins and three other podium finishes. But since his dominating win at Iowa, Newgarden has been living a charmed life. He has been unspectacular and has made some rather questionable gaffes. But the gaffes have not really bitten him. When he fell from fourth to fourteenth at Mid-Ohio, Rossi finished sixth and got within sixteen points – but it could have been a lot worse. When Newgarden had only a decent car at Pocono, Rossi was caught up in the first lap crash. At Gateway, Newgarden spun at the end and lost three positions. But Rossi was a lap down and couldn’t capitalize. Yesterday, after qualifying poorly – Newgarden somehow avoided the problems at the start and came out of it in eleventh place, six spots higher than where he started. No matter how hard Newgarden tries, he can’t throw this championship away.

Scott Dixon on the other hand has done all he possibly could to crawl back into the championship, but his car has failed him two races in a row. While Newgarden has been flirting with mediocrity and still gaining points in the championship, Dixon went four straight races with one win and three second-place finishes. But at Gateway, his radiator was punctured and at Portland his battery died, resulting in consecutive finishes of twentieth and sixteenth.

But every championship is decided by some luck – either good or bad. It’s always been that way. The racing gods have been smiling on Newgarden this season, while Will Power has been feeling their wrath. The tide will turn. It always does. Newgarden needs to ride this wave as long as he can. It may be carrying someone else next season.

The Schedule: The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule was announced yesterday in the pre-race show. As expected, Pocono was dropped in favor of Richmond. A few dates were changed. COTA will be the fourth race next year at the end of April, after running at the end of March as the second race this season. That means Barber will again be in early April (April 5th). That’s a mistake in my opinion. As beautiful as Barber can be in late April, we saw this season that it can still be brown in early April. Those three to four weeks can make a big difference in scenery and temperature. Birmingham is not that far from Nashville, and I’ve seen snow in Nashville later than April 5th.

I plan to write more of my thoughts on the schedule this Wednesday, but I didn’t like the way Pocono being dropped was not even mentioned on the telecast. With IndyCar CEO Mark Miles unveiling the schedule on the telecast, it had the feeling of a bad infomercial. I thought it insulted the intelligence of IndyCar fans to rave about Richmond returning to the schedule, but to not even mention Pocono – but that’s just me.

Katherine Legge: It was good to see Katherine Legge driving the two-seater at the start of the race yesterday. During the Practice Two telecast on Friday, Legge was interviewed and she did say that she is hoping to be in a second Meyer Shank Racing car at Indianapolis next May. That’s very good news. I’ve always considered her to be a very underrated driver. She earned my respect when she endured that frightening crash at Road America in 2006, and seemed to downplay the whole thing in the TV interview immediately following the incident.

Drive of the Day: Although the race was somewhat processional, there were some decent drives. Of course, Will Power drove a superb race and won. Scott Dixon was having the drive of the day before he pitted unexpectedly to have his battery changed out, costing him three laps, the race win and a realistic shot at the championship. Charlie Kimball kept his nose clean and drove from his twenty-second starting position to finish tenth.

But my drive of the day goes to Josef Newgarden. He overcame a bad qualifying run and somehow avoided the trouble in Turn One at the start to finish fifth and increase his lead in the championship.

All in All: There have been some outstanding races at Portland in the past, but yesterday was not one of them. After the two yellows in the early laps, it was mostly a parade with little action. As I recall, Takuma Sato ran away with last year’s race and it had no real suspense to it either. Perhaps this car is not great at this track, or we just haven’t hit on the right set of circumstances. Gateway was boring for the first couple of years, but last week’s race was one to remember. Maybe a year from now we’ll be saying the same about Portland.

So now we enter into another three week period of no IndyCar racing. That’s not ideal for carrying momentum into the championship. I’ve noticed next year only has a two week gap between Portland and Laguna Seca. That’s much better. I think you would not want to go back to back between the penultimate race and the season finale, but three weeks is too long. But by the time championship weekend gets here, we’ll certainly be ready.

George Phillips

13 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Portland”

  1. Dave from Mukwonago Says:

    Is it possible RHR lost his ride with Andretti for next year and that’s why he pulled that move on Rossi?

  2. GR ‘s ill advised ,over aggressive attempt to gain spots on the start is a common racing accident. RHR’s conscience blocking maneuver on AR was not accidental. RHR did exactly what he was thinking to do however failed to get away with it

  3. Really disappointed to learn Pocono is off the schedule. I feel like Indy car is succumbing to political pressure from the younger generations having a difficult time handling a dangerous sport. Am I wrong?

    • billytheskink Says:

      On Pocono, the story is likely one of money more so than safety concerns or political pressure, though I am sure there are those in the series who are plenty fine not racing there.

  4. Bruce Waine Says:

    The Schedule:

    Official Statement Regarding INDYCAR’s 2020 Schedule Announcement:

    Long Pond, Pa (September 1, 2019) – The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule has been announced and it will not include a race at Pocono Raceway next summer. Below is an official statement from Pocono Raceway’s CEO, Nick Igdalsky. No further comment will be made by Pocono Raceway at this time.

    Official Statement from Pocono Raceway’s CEO, Nick Igdalsky:
    “It is with great disappointment for Pocono Raceway to confirm we will not be on the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

    Our partnership with the premier open wheel series in the United States has concluded for now. It has been a pleasure to work with INDYCAR representatives during this honest and candid negotiation.

    “On behalf of the entire Pocono Raceway family, it has been a joy getting to know the teams and partners, many of whom have become dear friends.

    Thank you to ABC Supply Co., Inc., who have supported our INDYCAR events since 2014.

    Thank you to all the fans that have supported Pocono over the years.

    We share in the disappointment of thousands who also dreamed of future open wheel races at ‘The Tricky Triangle.’

    A sincere thank you to Mario Andretti, for his years of passionate support.

    “And finally, we thank all the drivers who dazzled us with their talent and heroics, as well as those drivers who spoke in support of Pocono during their recent visit. We sincerely wish INDYCAR and their competitors best of luck with the remainder of the 2019 season and beyond.”

  5. Watkins Glen needs to make a return on the IndyCar calendar for 2021

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Sloppy race, sometimes those happen. Disappointed with Rahal, but that happens sometimes too. At least I didn’t have to stay up until 1:00AM to see the finish… (I mean, I did stay up for NASCAR, but yeesh!)

    On a local broadcasting note, Houston’s NBC affiliate is celebrating its 70th year of operation this year and is running a series of short ads where local people of note congratulate them on turning 70. AJ Foyt is one such person and they aired his ad during yesterday’s race. “Happy anniversary KPRC. Congratulations on 70 years… but I’m a little older than you.” smirks AJ.

  7. I have always been surprised that ABC Supply has continued for 15 years to support Foyt Racing , which hasn’t been able to deliver for quite a while. I wonder if ABC decided to end its ties with IndyCar (except for the 500 with Foyt) with the elimination of Pocono on next year’s schedule. Just a thought.

    I am still miffed with both RHR and Graham for their actions. Unbelievable!

    So, should I contemplate traveling to Richmond next year?

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Interesting parts of the puzzle re Pocono.

      Pocono had two NASCAR Weekends.

      For 2010 I believe that there will be two NASCAR races over just one weekend instead of two weekends.

      So one NASCAR weekend disappears.

      Add to this the loss of the INDYCAR weekend.

      Then sprinkle in the mix ABC Supply pulling the plug on being the race title sponsor of the INDYCAR event at Pocono.

      Three race weekends lost.

      As a race venue, what action (s) do you implement to preserve Pocono from losing its fan base?

      Tough times for Pocono is an understatement.

  8. Carburetor Says:

    I would have fit right in with the latest GMC truck tailgate commercial with my reaction to RHR blocking AR, then drop-kicking J Harvey through the turn–really unbelievable. I’m going to be surprised if M Andretti puts up with that kind of BS, especially with RHR’s underachieving performances the past two years. Right now, Rossi is all Andretti Autosport has worth talking about, sorry to say….

  9. I thought these were supposed to be the “best drivers in the world”? That was a ****show. Two veteran drivers wiping out the hopes of Daly who was effectively auditioning for a seat at McLaren, and Jack Harvey who was looking superb. I’m rarely angry after a race but I was very unhappy with what was on display in Portland.

    I concur about the broadcast team hyping the restart too. The way they do restarts with allowing the leader to decide when they go green means there’s rarely any excitement on restarts. As PT was hyping it up I said “You’re wrong, nothing will happen” and nothing happened.

    Overall I enjoyed the race but I walked away shaking my head and felt like my fondness of motorsports has dropped another notch.

  10. +1 for Brandon.

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