Random Thoughts on Gateway

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The Bommarito Auto Group 500 from World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway was something of a mixed bag, if you were looking for great racing. Both races were essentially won (or lost) in the pits on the last series of stops. In Race One on Saturday, the Chip Ganassi Racing crew of Scott Dixon outperformed Pato O’Ward’s crew by the narrowest of margins.

I’m not even sure they were outperformed. Dixon took on just the amount of fuel needed to finish the race, while the Arrow McLaren SP crew of O’Ward had a fast stop, but was just not quite as fast as Dixon’s.

It didn’t really matter, because Takuma Sato made a bold move on the outside of O’Ward in Turn One on Lap 180 – that was really the move of the weekend. Once Sato cleared O’ Ward, he was gone, setting his sights on Dixon. For a while, it looked as if the previous week’s Indianapolis 500 winner was going to catch the five-time champion and current points leader; but it was not to be. Scott Dixon won his fiftieth IndyCar race – putting him just two wins behind Mario Andretti’s fifty-two IndyCar wins.

Many contend that had Sato not had a bobble with the left-rear tire changer, he may have gotten out of his pit stall quick enough to put him in front of Dixon. I’m not so sure, but we’ll never know.

All of that end-of-race excitement capped off a race that had a very ugly start. Alex Palou pulled out of formation as the tight field headed for the green flag, to keep from running into the back of Alexander Rossi’s car. Palou slid up out of harm’s way, but a melee ensued behind him – causing a chain reaction when Oliver Askew plowed into the back of Simon Pagenaud, who in turn spun Rossi around. Altogether, there were six cars involved – including three Andretti Autosport cars. Palou escaped unscathed – at least, until he was penalized and had to move to the back of the field on the restart.

In between the sloppy start and the exciting late race battle involving Dixon, Sato and O’Ward – there wasn’t a ton of excitement. There were some fast and not-so-fast pit stops, but most of the passing occurred in the pits. Pole-sitter Will Power led until his first pit stop, then after pit stop shuffles – Pato O’Ward led from Lap 68 all the way to Lap 162. O’ Ward led the most laps of Race One, leading a total of ninety-four laps. After Will Power led the first sixty-one laps, he never led again on Saturday and was essentially never heard from again. He finished a very silent seventeenth.

The last twenty-five laps involving Dixon, Sato and O’Ward saved Race One from becoming a snoozer. By winning on Saturday, Scott Dixon widened his points lead over second-place Josef Newgarden (who finished twelfth) to 117 points.

Race Two supplied even less excitement. It might be argued that the biggest excitement of Sunday’s race was when the track sweeper leaked oil on the track, just before the start of the race.

After a lengthy delay, John Bommarito gave the command to start engines for the second day in a row. I was very pleased that both days, he used the word Gentleman, Start Your Engines. Once the race started, Santino Ferrucci repeated his heroics from Race One and passed a lot of cars at the start. He had good runs going in both races, but his undoing was what bit him last year – a botched final pit stop in each race. Last year after leading a ton of laps, Ferrucci had to settle for a fourth-place finish. He suffered worse this weekend. Saturday saw Ferrucci finish sixteenth. On Sunday, he finished tenth.

But Ferrucci’s exciting start notwithstanding, Sunday’s race settled into another battle of the pit crews. Again, it was Pato O’Ward battling for the win at the end of the race. Again, his crew had a flawless final pit stop, but this time it was Josef Newgarden who had a slightly better pit stop than O’Ward. The most exciting move of the day was when Newgarden and O’Ward fought for position while leaving pit road. Newgarden clearly crossed the pit-exit line, but O’Ward continued to race on the pit-out lane leading onto the backstretch. Newgarden prevailed and that ultimately led to his second win of the season.

In the remaining handful of laps, things suddenly became unnecessarily dicey between several back-markers. Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi appeared to touch in Turn One, while Marco Andretti was mixing it up with Will Power, while Power was running third and Marco was a lap down. This was about the time that Takuma Sato slapped the Turn Two wall with four laps remaining. For the second Sunday in a row, and IndyCar race finished under caution. It was a crazy last few laps after a race that produced little excitement.

But that’s OK. It happens sometimes. Not all races are nail-biters. Gateway has given us nail-biters and snoozers in the past. 2019 gave us a great race at Gateway, so did 2017. 2018 was a bit of a snoozer, so it is OK if 2020 was too. That means next year, we should be due for a barn-burner – right?

At least there were fans in the stands, albeit at a greatly reduced number. I’m hopeful that this race will go back to being a night race next year and not a double-header. I’m also hopeful that the large crowds we’ve come to expect at Gateway will return in 2021.

TV Coverage: Fans were not happy that Saturday’s qualifying was shown exclusively on NBC Gold, but I think that was out of necessity rather than a move to force people to purchase the Gold package. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that this was made a double-header weekend. The Saturday race was announced on July 27, barely a month before it took place. NBCSN already had their Saturday lineup already locked in place by then. Could they have moved it to CNBC? Maybe, but who knows what goes into those decisions. I’m grateful that there was an outlet where at least some of us could watch qualifying.

The booth crew of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy were on their game between Friday’s practice, Saturday’s qualifying and the two races. They didn’t do or say anything extraordinary, but they didn’t really have any real gaffes – unless you count Paul Tracy’s S-Bomb in Sunday’s pre-race show.

The highlight was from James Hinchcliffe’s insights. He was paired with Kevin Lee in the booth on Friday, then the two of them provided pit coverage for the rest of the weekend. Hinch can be a cut-up, but he played it straight for the most part this weekend. He meshed well with Kevin Lee and you would have thought they had been building chemistry together for years. This will be a good role for Hinchcliffe in the years to come, but I hope he can put his broadcasting career on hold starting next year. He still needs to be in a fulltime ride.

Since the aero screen was introduced, it has provided a new camera angle that seemed clever for about the first thirty seconds that I saw it during the open test at COTA back in February. It’s the shot looking straight back at the driver in the cockpit. After that initial thirty seconds, its use has become very old and overused. I get nothing from this shot. You can barely see the driver’s eyes. You can see nothing except the front of the driver’s helmet. I suppose it gives exposure to whatever sponsor is on the driver’s visor, but the producers need to really cut down on the uise of this shot that we’ve been seeing all season. It has grown tiresome.

NBC has nothing to do with this, but we may have seen a commercial dumber than the highly annoying LiMu Emu campaign of Liberty Mutual. Progressive Insurance unveiled a commercial we saw a few times this weekend involving a motorcycle centaur – you know, the creature from Greek Mythology that is half-human and half-horse. Instead, the computer-generated centaur in this commercial is half-human and half-motorcycle. Like many things, this falls under the category of “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. [sigh]

Overlooked: One driver has been greatly overlooked this season in my opinion, and he shouldn’t be. Jack Harvey is in his first full IndyCar season after Meyer Shank Racing has been adding races every year for the past few seasons. He had a very unimpressive debut at Texas this past June, but has been quietly building momentum all season, especially after Road America.

At Iowa, he had seventh-place finishes in both races. At the Indianapolis 500, he finished a very quiet ninth. This past weekend, he qualified seventh and fifth respectively. In Saturday’s Race One at Gateway, he was running a very strong fourth-place when he pitted just before the mysterious rain caution. That effectively ruined any chance he had for a strong finish and he silently climbed his way back up to finish eleventh. On Sunday, he started fifth. To be honest, I don’t know what happened to him, but he finished thirteenth. Why do I not know what happened to him? Because he rarely gets mentioned in the broadcast.

Jack Harvey may be the best driver in the paddock to be so anonymous. Keep your eye on him for the remaining races this season. You’ll probably be impressed and you’ll also realize how little he’s mentioned.

An Owed Apology: Just before last week’s Indianapolis 500, I picked Graham Rahal to win. He finished third. I figured he would carry that momentum into this weekend, so I picked him to win one of the two races of the double-header. Usually when I pick someone to win, they have a disastrous weekend. That’s why I picked Rahal for the second weekend in a row. I figured he must be immune to my curse. Unfortunately for him, he was not. He finished eighteenth on Saturday and twentieth on Sunday, after a terrible qualifying session Saturday morning. My apologies to Graham for picking him to win and cursing his entire weekend.

Sato’s Season: After finishing second on Saturday and leading the most laps on Sunday (66), Takuma Sato is solidly in fourth place in the points. Of course, a lot of that is due to the continued bad practice of awarding double-points for the Indianapolis 500 – but it is still impressive. It’s even more impressive when you remember that Sato didn’t even start the first race of the season at Texas. He crashed his car in qualifying, and the car was not repaired in time to make the race that evening. Had he had a decent showing at Texas, he and Pato O’Ward could be battling it out for third in points right now.

What about September? Prior to Sunday’s race, Leigh Diffey interviewed IndyCar President Jay Frye. Among many topics, Diffey asked Frye about the rumors we’ve all heard that Mid-Ohio will take place the weekend of Sep 12. Frye didn’t hesitate and said he is 80-90% confident that the race weekend will take place then. Let’s hope so. Even though that weekend is the opening weekend for the NFL, if Mid-Ohio doesn’t happen, the next scheduled race is the Harvest Classic at IMS the weekend of Oct 3-4. That means no September races and a five-weekend stretch with no racing. It also would mean two more races whittled off of an already shortened season. IndyCar doesn’t need any of those. Hopefully, the state of Ohio can work things out for the September race weekend at Mid-Ohio to proceed.

Farewell TK: Although many (myself included) don’t believe this was Tony Kanaan’s final IndyCar race, he has a very uncertain future – even more uncertain than he had going into this season. What was certain was that he has no ride scheduled beyond yesterday, and that has to be a scary feeling.

My fear is that IndyCar will feel the pinch of COVID next season much more than this current season, and that pinch will come in the form of reduced sponsorship opportunities. If I was a potential sponsor looking for exposure for my company, I would jump at the chance of having my product touted by one of the most popular drivers that was driving for a legend – regardless of the results that may or may not come. From what I can tell, AJ Foyt really likes Tony Kanaan and would love to keep him around. But it all comes down to finances.

My hope is that Kanaan will at the very least have a competitive ride for next year’s Indianapolis 500, or a handful of races. He is too important to the series to let him go out with no fans in the stands for this year’s 500 and only a few fans in the stands this past weekend. He deserves a better send-off than that.

All in All: This was not the most scintillating of race weekends, but anytime shiny race cars are whizzing by, especially on an oval – I’m happy. It was interesting to see how Chevy redeemed itself at Gateway, after being embarrassed at Indianapolis.

Scott Dixon is absolutely running away with this championship. It poses the question – is he driving that much better, or is everyone off of their game in this strange year. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

We’re seeing history happen before our very eyes. On social media Saturday night, I saw people congratulating Dixon for scoring his fiftieth win. Of course, that brought the predictable response of how he is not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti because he never had to race on dirt. Is it really necessary to compare eras? I am just savoring this era of watching Scott Dixon on a weekly basis. There will be a huge void in the NTT IndyCar Series when Dixon finally retires. Those of you who claim he’s boring, will suddenly realize just how exciting he was. Enjoy him while you can.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Gateway”

  1. I love going to Gateway but the cars just struggle to pass there and I’ve found all the recent races there to be pretty dull. Pato was a half second behind Josef for how many laps and never came close to attempting an overtake because he was in dirty air and they can never get the second lane to work. Sato only got by Pato on Saturday by forcing the issue.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I’ll cut Indycar a bit of slack this season on competition-related issues this season, as COVID has strained testing schedules and budgets right as the aeroscreen debuted. I appreciate that they do not make quick and rash mid-season competition-related decisions they way CART sometimes did and NASCAR also does. However, I would like to see them considering ideas going forward on improving the competition at tracks like Gateway (and, likely, Richmond). Perhaps they need to add downforce or perhaps they should bring push-to-pass back on oval tracks (or at least short ovals). While I have seen less eventful racing than occurred at Gateway this weekend, I did leave feeling that the competition could very much be improved.

    Aside from Jack Harvey, another driver who was quietly good this weekend was Colton Herta, who continues his quietly solid season. It’s been an odd one for him, I think. Last year he was often spectacular but not at all consistent. This year he has been consistently quite good, but really never spectacular.

  3. Mark Wick Says:

    George, you mentioned two drivers who are looking for rides for next year. You didn’t mention two who may not be back next year.
    Ed Carpenter has run well behind his other drivers in every race this year.
    Zach Veach had a worse than awful weekend in this weekend.
    Both Kanaan and Hinchcliffe have successful history at Andretti.
    And what will Connor do next year. He seems to do better at Carlin, but is doing well with both teams.
    If there is a silly season in this crazy season, it may be quite interesting.

  4. Shyam Cherupalla Says:

    One thing that annoyed me was the 6 laps it took to start the race, we already waited 40 minutes or so for a start and as if there is not enough parade laps they delay the start by two more laps. These are little things that annoy me with Indycar, when things were delayed no set time for start was mentioned and all I got for that was those annoying commercials every 5 minutes. And the last part of my vent is that Indycar has to learn to come back to green faster than they do it now. We all saw Sato hit the wall but everything was ok, they could have turned around and gone back to green right away, bit annoying for not going green, atleast we could have had a green flag end. If you guys think I am wrong, check out Formula E see how fast they come back to green

  5. Just wanted to make a broadcast observation.

    Last Friday’s NBC Gold broadcast with Kevin Lee and Hinch in the booth was outstanding. Much the same, practice week at the speedway with Kevin Lee and T. Bell was also fabulous in my opinion. Granted, I prefer a two-person team for any sports broadcast. Three always seems like a crowd to me.

    The common thread though is Kevin Lee. I know George has praised this guy many times on here, but I gotta add to it. Don’t get me wrong, I like Leigh Diffey, and appreciate his enthusiasm, but K. Lee is such a natural at play-by-play!

  6. The Sato caution didn’t need to happen. I saw people say “yeah but debris” and my response is “isn’t that why we have the windscreen now”? I just hope they don’t bow to pressure for the GWC BS.

    Dixon is better, the team is better but also, they are really lucky. Even occasionally I would like to see them battle some adversity, anything.

    I hope Kanaan gets a proper Indy 500 send off but otherwise, please be done, Tony. It’s time.

    Overall, glad to have racing back but it’s been a rough season of same old same old.

    • LurkingKiwi Says:

      Last year Scott got clobbered 3 times – Indy by Felix, Gateway by a low-flying bolt through the radiator and Portland by a broken wire in the battery – can’t call any of them lucky!

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