Random Thoughts on Laguna Seca

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Another NTT IndyCar Series season is in the books, but it didn’t go out with a whimper…or did it? Josef Newgarden did his best to keep things suspenseful, before clinching his second series championship in three seasons. We knew going in that if he finished fourth or better, the championship was his. He qualified fourth, but seldom ran fourth or better like he needed to.

In the meantime, the driver that many considered Newgarden’s biggest threat – Alexander Rossi – was having a so-so day as well. I suppose so-so was good compared to what Rossi experienced on Friday, when he finished last in Practice One and next to last in Practice Two. By the end of Practice Three on Saturday, Rossi was tenth quick and he qualified third on Saturday afternoon. But after an aggressive start, Rossi faded to hang around sixth for most of the day – which is where he finished – and was never a factor for the race win or the championship.

As it turned out, it was Newgarden’s own teammate that was giving the Newgarden camp fits. Simon Pagenaud was the one driving like he wanted to go out and take a championship, rather than hold onto it. He quickly made his way up from his sixth starting position to challenge Scott Dixon, who qualified second and stayed there for much of the day. But try as he might, Pagenaud could not get past Dixon. But due to efficient pit work, Will Power inserted himself between Dixon and race leader Colton Herta in the final stint. That’s how it ended; with Newgarden eighth, Rossi sixth, Pagenaud fourth, Dixon third, Power second and Colton Herta winning his second race of his outstanding rookie season – and Newgarden being crowned champion.

Although many, myself included, predicted that this would be a boring race where passing would be at a premium – practice and qualifying indicated that this could be a crash-fest and the winner might be last man standing. Cars were spinning all over the place – especially the car driven by Colton Herta. I said Saturday that he was either going to win with ease, or crash in spectacular fashion in trying to do so.

When the race started, I was afraid that everyone’s worse fears were being realized. The Top-Eight were all pretty much riding around in single-file, in the exact same order they qualified in. It seemed very processional and I feared that we were looking at two-plus hours of the same. But then the tire strategy began to come into play. This was not a fuel-mileage race – it was a tire-degradation race. The red-alternate tires were wearing out before the fuel load was depleted. So even though there was not a lot of on-track passing, it was interesting to try and keep up with the different strategies.

But it was also interesting watching Newgarden go backwards. Since he won at Iowa in dominating fashion just past mid-season, Newgarden has been consistently good, but not great. In fact, he had two late race gaffes – at Mid-Ohio and Gateway – that were head-scratchers, making one question his judgment. Newgarden’s last four races were finishes of fifth, seventh, fifth and eighth – not great, but enough to get the job done.

With Newgarden and Pagenaud going in different directions on the track Sunday, you wondered if the Team Penske celebration plans might need to be altered at the last minute. But once again, Josef Newgarden did what he needed to do in the last third of the season, to validate his brilliance in the first two-thirds. Newgarden finished the season with four wins and three other podium finishes, although his last win came in the twelfth race of a seventeen-race season.

So did Newgarden back into his second IndyCar championship, causing the IndyCar season to end in a whimper? Probably not, but I’ve always liked to see a driver drive hard to close the deal, rather than watch them drive not to screw things up. Just like in football, if you play not to lose – you usually lose. And the pressure sure seemed to get to the Nashville native in the last couple of weeks more than it did two years ago. In 2017, Newgarden seemed overjoyed. Yesterday, he seemed relieved…and somewhat exhausted.

But even though he seemed conservative down the stretch – Newgarden did what he had to do and he did win more races than anyone else this season. So congratulations to Josef Newgarden on his second NTT IndyCar Series championship. Something tells me this will not be his last.

TV Coverage: The obvious benefit to having an IndyCar race run on Big NBC (over-the-air, network television) is that more people have the opportunity to see the race – especially in this age of cord-cutting. The one disadvantage is that the local affiliates have control of the broadcasts. I’ve heard complaints from people in other markets, regarding the audio quality on the network broadcasts, and how it is due to local sound-engineers. Yesterday, it bit me here in Nashville.

As soon as the engines were fired I noticed that the engine sounds were turned way up, while I could barely hear any of the booth announcers or pit reporters. If Darrell Waltrip had been in the booth, I would have considered that merciful – but I actually wanted to hear what the NBC guys had to say. I texted a few friends of mine in other markets and they said their respective audio broadcasts were fine, so I guess my issues were limited to Channel 4 in Nashville.

While I strained to listen over the engine sounds, what I heard was good. There was obvious and well-deserved hype for the championship, but they didn’t over-do it. They acknowledged that there was not tons of drama and that the championship was Newgarden’s to lose, so they didn’t try to sell it as a toss-up. Throughout the weekend on NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold, I found the knowledge of Laguna Seca from Paul Tracy, Townsend Bell and Jon Beekhuis to be very valuable in understanding the nuances of the track – especially the corkscrew. I also thought all pit reporters had solid weekends.

Although I couldn’t hear them very well, I did hear the term Danger Zone make, not one, but two separate appearances on Lap 58. I think Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell need to retire that saying in the offseason.

This concluded NBC’s first season as the exclusive television partner for the NTT IndyCar Series. It wasn’t perfect, but I thought they did a very good job overall. They can take what they learned in Year One and build on it for Year Two. We fans will be the beneficiaries.

Rookie-of-the-Year: If you watched Qualifying on Saturday, you saw Felix Rosenqvist spin as he headed up the hill to the entrance of the corkscrew in the first round of qualifying. James Hinchcliffe was not immediately behind Rosenqvist, but he did have to back out of the throttle. It was early in the round when drivers were simply trying to bank a decent lap and no one was on a “hot” lap. But the rules don’t specify when in the session it is illegal to impeded a driver, and Hinchcliffe was impeded, so Race Control penalized Rosenqvist by taking away his two fastest times and prevented him from advancing to the next round. He was forced to roll off the grid from the fourteenth starting spot.

Rosenqvist was livid and went on a tirade for the TV cameras. He had me until he started talking about how the series has something against him and that Race Control was trying to make sure an American (Colton Herta or Santino Ferrucci) win Rookie-of-the-Year. Seriously?

On Sunday, Rosenqvist channeled that anger and moved from starting the race in fourteenth to finishing fifth. In the process, he ended up winning Rookie-of-the-Year (ROTY) by five points over race winner Colton Herta, who maxed out in points for the weekend by winning the pole, leading the most laps and winning the race. When Kevin Lee was interviewing him after clinching ROTY, I was hoping he would ask if he had rethought and of his harsh criticism from the day before. He didn’t and it’s probably just as well, but I like seeing drivers speak their mind like that. It’s what gives them a personality.

Astor Challenge Cup: I appreciated NBC and Leigh Diffey devoting a segment to the history of the Astor Challenge Cup. I also appreciate that this historic trophy still bears its original name. I believe it was 2011, when then-CEO Randy Bernard and Donald Davidson went searching through the IMS Museum for something worthy of presenting to the IndyCar champion at the end of each season, because what they presented to Dario Franchitti in 2010 was far from worthy. That was the year he was presented with the infamous “Naked Guy on a Unicycle” trophy. Fortunately, that monstrosity was one-and-done. They fitted the historic Astor Challenge Cup to a base with the name of every champion through the history of American open-wheel racing. This is a classic and traditional trophy. Best of all – it bears no name of any corporate sponsor.

First Mistake: Santino Ferrucci has had an outstanding rookie season (even though he drove in four races last season). He is the first driver I can think of that has consistently made the second Dale Coyne car one to watch each week. Until he dropped out of the Portland race with nine laps to go with mechanical issues, he had led all drivers in laps completed, failing to complete only two laps before Portland – which was almost unheard of from a rookie, especially one that provides excitement.

His laps-completed streak and hopes to clinch Rookie-of-the-Year all came to an end yesterday, following the re-start on Lap 47. He took full blame when he drove straight into the rear of Takuma Sato’s car going into Turn One, spinning both cars in the process.

Supposedly, Dale Coyne is close to striking a deal that will keep Ferrucci in that car for next season. When was the last time Dale Coyne was close to finalizing his driver for his second car in September? Personally, I hope he can keep Ferrucci. Both team and driver have seemed to benefit from each other, and they appear to work well together.

Misleading Championship: When they wheeled out the big stage for the championship presentations after the race, one of the first presentations they did was for the Manufacturer’s Championship. Honda’s Ted Klaus took great pride in pointing out that they had successfully defended their 2018 championship. Yeah, but…

That’s sort of a hollow victory and a little misleading because of the twenty-four cars that started yesterday’s race, fifteen were powered by Honda. Also add in the fact that aside from the three very strong cars from Team Penske, Chevy powers a lot of underperforming teams. The last time a non-Penske car won an IndyCar race was in 2016 at Watkins Glen, when Scott Dixon won in a Chevy before Ganassi switched back to Honda. The non-Penske Chevy teams are Foyt, Ed Carpenter and Carlin. Those are hardly what I would call juggernauts. The Honda teams are more competitive across the board, and I don’t think that has anything to do with what’s underneath the cowling.

I say that as a Honda fan and someone who drives a Honda for my personal car. But when the playing field is a little more equal, that’s when I’ll start paying more attention to the manufacturer championship.

Coming on Strong: When Team Penske came over from CART full-time for the 2002 season, it was assumed that they would win each IndyCar championship for the foreseeable future. They came close the first few seasons, but did not win a championship until the 2006 season, with Sam Hornish. It was another eight years before they won their second. In thirteen seasons since leaving CART, Team Penske had two IndyCar championships. That was hardly what I would call dominating.

But counting when Will Power won that 2014 championship, The Captain has won four of the past six championships and three of the past four. Only Scott Dixon’s two championships in 2015 and 2018 stand in the way of a six-year sweep by Team Penske.

Shameless Plug:  Over the weekend, I was a guest on Steve Zautke’s racing-based radio show out of Milwaukee on SportsRadio 105.7 The Fan. I was on for two segments talking IndyCar and Laguna Seca. You can hear my two segments here.

Drive of the Day: When a rookie driver wins the pole and leads eighty-three of ninety laps on his way to a dominating win, you would think that would be enough to get the nod for Drive of the Day. Normally that would be the case, but Colton Herta did not pass a single car all day. He successfully maintained his starting position and that was good for the win.

This was Laguna Seca, a track that is notorious for having very few passing zones and races with even fewer passes. But somehow, rookie driver Felix Rosenqvist managed to pass several cars on-track and moved up from his fourteenth starting spot to finish fifth and wrestle the Rookie-of-the-Year title away from Herta. He also claimed the Drive of the Day.

All in All: I went into yesterday’s race with fairly low expectations. I was prepared to be bored and I didn’t think there would be a whole lot of suspense in watching Josef Newgarden claim his second IndyCar championship in three years.

I was wrong. While I wasn’t overwhelmed with passing, there was some very good racing behind Colton Herta. Throw in the tire strategies, Simon Pagenaud’s aggressive racing and Newgarden’s conservative approach – and you had an entertaining and fairly suspenseful day of racing.

We now settle into the abyss known as the IndyCar offseason. Teams will try and finalize contracts with the drivers they want, while a few drivers may find themselves on the outside looking in. Crews will scatter and equipment will be put away for a few months until spring testing begins. But there will be enough going on with aero screen testing, the saga at McLaren and other developments we are not even aware of. For what it’s worth, I’ll still be here three days a week throughout the offseason, offering my unsolicited and generally worthless opinion on the goings-on in the IndyCar world.

Congratulations again, to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske. Alexander Rossi summed it up best in his post-race comments when he said “At the end of the day, you have to admit that the right person won”. I agree. For 2019, Newgarden and Team Penske were the best team and driver, week in and week out. They deserved it and they earned it.

George Phillips

16 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Laguna Seca”

  1. I noticed the same thing about the audio levels here in Nashville. The bigger crime is that I doubt any of the local news outlets will say anything more than a passing mention of a native son winning a 2nd championship at the pinnacle of Motorsport.

    • I did just hear 104.5 The Zone, mention it prominently in their hourly update. Maybe they’ll get a little more into it. Mark Howard keeps up with IndyCar a little bit. – GP

  2. Audio levels were fine on the Indy station, I think I’ve only encountered the loud engine volume problem once all year. Decent race, not a lot of on-track action, as predicted, but it was still entertaining and the cars looked fantastic on that track. The NBC crew knocked it out of the park during the practice sessions and seemed to have a lot of fun doing it, very enjoyable to watch. Now begins the dark period known as the IndyCar off-season, which when you spend the off-season watching old IndyCar races and films on YouTube it’s not so bad.

    Thanks again George and Susan for another entertaining season on Oil Pressure. The highlight of my season was definitely sharing a beer with you and dad in Wisconsin, hope to do it again next year and I look forward to your off-season thoughts and stories.

  3. Laguna was better but still it’s like going out like a lamb for Indycar. Only series who doesn’t need some BS playoffs and they pick a no passing track to make it happen. Still though, as I said, better than Sonoma. Herta winning on the 20th anniversary year of his dad’s 2nd win there was fitting to see. Shocked he couldn’t win ROTY with 2 wins on the year.

    So something I wouldn’t mind seeing you write about is the Harding Racing team, I don’t get it, I mean are they going away at this point? Are they just a sponsor to the unofficial 5th/6th Andretti car? Are they really a team going forward?

    Looking over the standings, interesting that Kanaan finished ahead of Marco this year, that is telling.

  4. I thought it was a good race and a good crowd.

  5. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I guess I’m going to be a person who disagrees…I thought there was a lot of passing and I thought the crowd looked great. It was so much more alive than Sonoma. Please read Robin Millers article about eating crow on Racer.com. He agrees with me.

    • And me. I thought the race had much more action than anticipated. And yes, Paul, it was a very good turnout. I hope to be in next year’s crowd.

      Congrats to Josef on his 2nd championship and to Colton for his win. Here’s to more success next season.

      Thanks George and Susan for your tremendous coverage of the series this season. I so appreciate all you do for all of us.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    George, the radio star!

    I didn’t think the track raced dramatically better than Sonoma, but the fact that it raced around that level was good given the (reasonable) expectations of many. It is, certainly, a more interesting track than Sonoma visually, and both the in-car and trackside camera views of the corkscrew looked fantastic.

    Newgarden scored 641 points winning this season’s championship, 1 point fewer than he scored when he won the 2017 title (a year where more qualifying points were offered at Indy).

  7. Small note: I noticed the exact same audio problem that you did, George. And I’m not in Nashville nor close to being anywhere near their “broadcast” (albeit cable broadcast) footprint. At the time I thought it may have been the mix from a stereo signal going into my old flat panel’s mono speakers (yeah, I need to upgrade my TV). I’m still thinking that it was on my end because it wasn’t that bad over the computer or iPad (Xfinity cable provider & NBCSN streaming app). So it may be a different issue… but bottom line is, I noticed it, and this wasn’t the first broadcast that I noticed it in.

    ——

    With that past: Good race. Not necessarily a classic, but it’s nice to see the young blood in the sport doing so well. And some of the old blood (Dixon! Power!) still challenging everyone. That aspect is good to see: It bodes for a healthy future with a good, challenging present to grow and condition that future talent properly.

  8. Good IndyCar races can still happen in September and into October. People will also watch even though football is on.

  9. This was only the second race for which I have had TV access since the 2018 Indy 500. I really enjoyed the race and the coverage. The audio was fine from the Seattle station, so I heard what the rider with Mario in the two seater screamed and brought an apology to the audience from Diffey. Druing commercials I listened to the radio team, and they also did a very good job, as they have every race for the past five seasons.

  10. Indycar needs to promote the Championship and the Astor Cup more throughout the year. The 500 takes care of itself (thanks to Boles) but no one cares about the summer-long championship.

    I think Indycar is headed in the right direction with cars, drivers, etc. but they need some promotion. Especially local promotion. (See St. Louis.) If Indycar would help local promoters to draw a crowd, it would look better on TV but also build the audience of the ground up. Lastly, what does a driver actually get for winning the championship–any cash involved or is it just a trophy?

    Good on Herta. Good for Josef.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      So what is out there that a sanctioning body would gladly donate towards advertising each event locally …

      …..Part with a portion of Sanctioning fee$ ….. Part with a portion of TV broadcast right$ …… Part with a portion of the contract fees with regards to the Brickyard event$ …… Part with a portion of fee$ derived from automobile company advertising…….. Part with a portion of fee$ derived from tire company advertising …. Part with ….. $ $

      Is there evidently not sufficient financial resource$ for said sanctioning body to invest in event sponsorship? Otherwise, we would already have observed for years how successful such investment in their own product would have positive result$.

      Is this a way of thinking ………. Historically it appears that we have our money from fee$, etc. . So the less we spend, the more we have……..

      Or

      Is this a way of thinking …….. Why do we need to be involved in local venue advertising?

    • billytheskink Says:

      Winning the Indycar championship in recent years has paid an announced $1 million bonus (how much of that the driver gets to keep is in his contract, no doubt) and a replica of the Astor Cup to keep. There are some additional money awards the champion has been able to win as well, one for most wins on the season and one for most poles.

  11. IndyCar coverage was outstanding this year on NBC

  12. So with Josef Newgarden now crowned champion on merit – I think it’s great he is that good – imagine there was a race at Kentucky Speedway in two weeks and another 500 mile race at Fontana in three weeks. Even without these, 2019 had the best combination of venues on the IndyCar calendar since before 1996.

    Never would I have guessed that Colton Herta could pull of another win this year, but he did. That’s quite an amazing feat against as strong a field as this one.

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