Random Thoughts on The Harvest Grand Prix

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For years, I have been as skeptical as anyone about the IMS road course. Although we’ve been seeing cars run “backwards” down the front straightaway at IMS for twenty years now, it still seems like a crime against nature when I see cars going “the wrong way”. But that hasn’t been my complaint about the course. I just thought it wasn’t very racy. It didn’t seem that way in Formula One, nor did it with Indy cars – until this past weekend.

Some point to the cooler temperatures as to why the Harvest Grand Prix was suddenly producing better racing than the IndyCar races we’ve seen in May or July. If you were there for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May of 2016, you know how bitter cold that day was. It rivaled the 1992 Indianapolis 500 on the misery index. The only excitement that day came when a yellow came out during pit stops and Conor Daly was shuffled to the lead. But Simon Pagenaud had a quick final pit stop and went to the front, where he stayed until he took the checkered flag. The most excitement I had that day was when we got a table at Dawson’s after the race, and they had their heat on.

Friday’s race was run in cold and windy conditions, but unlike that frigid day in May of 2016 – there was excitement from the drop of the green flag. Rookie Rinus VeeKay earned his first pole on Thursday and led the field to the green flag. Colton Herta made a nifty move from the second row to take the lead going into Turn One, with VeeKay, Josef Newgarden and Will Power close behind.

Points leader Scott Dixon didn’t fare well from his twelfth starting position at the start and that set the stage for a not-so-great weekend for the driver that has led the championship this entire season. Dixon would finish ninth on Friday and eighth on Saturday. His pursuer in the championship, Josef Newgarden, had a much better weekend. He won Friday’s Race One and finished fourth in Race Two. Dixon entered the weekend with a seventy-two point bulge in the points. He left IMS with only a thirty-two point lead heading into the final race.

But back to VeeKay and Herta – the two of them put on quite a show and demonstrated to everyone that they are the future of this sport. Former champions Josef Newgarden and Will Power won the two races in the Harvest Grand Prix, but it was the two young guns dueling it out that had everyone talking.

On Friday’s broadcast, Paul Tracy declared Race One of the Harvest Grand Prix as the best road race he had ever seen. I’m not ready to go that far, but it had all you would want except for a photo finish at the end. Tracy was actually in the race that I recall having the greatest finish for IndyCar – the 1997 Budweiser/GI Joe’s 200 at Portland; which featured a virtual three-way tie for the lead at the line between Mark Blundell of PacWest, Gil de Ferran of Walker Racing and Raul Boesel with Patrick Racing. Blundell was the winner by .027 seconds over de Ferran, with Boesel just behind his Brazilian countryman.

The 1986 IndyCar race at Portland was also a thriller with Mario Andretti taking the race from son Michael just before the line, on Father’s Day. Still, PT can be forgiven with being caught up in the moment, because Race One was about as good as it gets – especially on the IMS road course.

Saturday’s Race Two had a tough act to follow. It was not near as thrilling, and if you look at the box score, with Will Power winning from the pole by almost a second over Colton Herta, who started second – you would think it was a yawner. It was actually a decent race, but if you are going to compare it to Race One – you’ll conclude that it was boring. It wasn’t. Although Will Power led the entire race from start to finish, there was a lot going on behind him.

Until this weekend, I thought the best IndyCar race I had seen on the IMS road course was the 2019 IndyCar Grand Prix won by Simon Pagenaud in the rain. He put on a clinic as he went from sixth place to first in the final eighteen laps. Once he moved into second place, he hunted down Scott Dixon with two laps to go and went on to win his third race in six tries on the IMS road course.

For an IndyCar event that was not even on the schedule when the season was supposed to start in March, this appeared to be a big success. Only ten thousand fans were allowed to attend the massive facility weekend, but those that sat out in the cool weather were rewarded with some of the best racing we’ve seen this season – especially on Friday. The many posts I saw from fans looked like they were having a blast. Longtime reader Brandon Wright even tweeted me a photo of the Jumbo Classic Tenderloin that I have terribly missed this season.

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The Harvest Grand Prix is not on the 2021 IndyCar schedule that was released last week (more on that Wednesday). The GMR Grand Prix slots back into its usual May slot next year, but the series does return for an encore appearance at the IMS road course in August – to share the weekend with the NASCAR Cup cars. Looking down the road, I’m wondering if the series might look at ending the season with the Harvest Grand Prix in early October. A single race in Indianapolis to determine the championship, run on a Saturday that would not conflict with the NFL, may be an excellent way to wrap up a season.

TV Coverage: Some were unhappy that the lone practice and both qualifying sessions were only available on NBC Sports Gold. I don’t see this as an intentional gouge by NBC. Instead, I see it as about the only way to squeeze in an event that was scheduled at the last minute, while having to schedule around other scheduled events – including The Preakness.

The complaining about NBC Sports Gold has become tiresome, after almost two seasons. Fifty-five dollars buys you half of an average seat for the Indianapolis 500, or it can buy you a whole year of outstanding IndyCar coverage. Quite honestly, I’m glad we had that choice this weekend, so that NBC had some place to put it. I guess I remember back in the early nineties, when we had to see the qualifying results in the paper the next morning, with no real explanation to any of the back-stories of the weekend. That puts a lot of things into perspective.

I enjoyed hearing Tony Kanaan’s analysis during Thursday’s practice and qualifying. He hasn’t driven on a road course in over a year, but he is still a wealth of fresh knowledge. I also enjoyed his stories about how Helio makes his bed.

I thought it was a good showing by all of the NBC crew, It was good to have Kevin Lee back in the pits, but I didn’t think this was the best outing for Dillon Welch. I like Welch, but he needs a bit more seasoning to get to his dad’s level. Personally, I don’t know why Jon Beekhuis was taken off of the IndyCar broadcasts this year. He was so insightful and had a unique approach to what he brought to viewers. I was glad to learn that there is an online petition going around to bring Beekhuis back. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one that misses him.

What did we do before the days of the DVR? I set our DVR to record Friday’s race. I stayed off of social media and avoided emails all Friday afternoon. When I got home from work; I did a few chores, made myself some dinner and put the race on for some Friday night viewing pleasure.

My Saturday started out with watching qualifying on NBC Gold at 9:20 am. When it was over just before 10:00, I had enough time to shower and do a few things before it was time to watch my Tennessee Vols beat up on Missouri. I set the DVR again for Saturday’s race, because it was set to start about forty-five minutes before the Vols ended.

When the football game was over, I flipped over to the DVR and started the race from the beginning. By zapping through the commercials, I had practically caught up the end of the race. I was exceptionally grateful to be missing the commercials every time I saw a LiMu Emu commercial zip by.

The Championship: I know it’s the job of NBC announcers to hype the championship battle and make it sound like it is still completely up in the air, but let’s pump the brakes a little here. Yes, Scott Dixon has faltered down the stretch. His seemingly insurmountable lead has dwindled from over a hundred points just a couple of months ago, to just thirty-two heading into the last race.

Josef Newgarden has momentum on his side, but Dixon has even more on his side – points in hand. He is still the leader by a pretty good amount of points. As Dixon pointed out in the telecast after Saturday’s race – Newgarden has to max out in points – meaning he has to win the pole and the race, and lead the most laps in doing so. Even if Newgarden does that, Dixon still has to finish only ninth in the race to win the championship over Newgarden. That’s a pretty tall order for Newgarden. But that’s why they run the races.

Admitting I’m wrong (probably): For months, I’ve been doubtful that the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would take place this fall. At first the race was cancelled just a couple of hours before the first practice of the season back in March. Then somewhere in the re-scheduling announcements, they said it would run in October, but they never set a date. When they finally did set a date a month or so later, things went silent.

Some of the infrastructure from the expensive race build on the city streets and nearby regional airport were left up, but others obviously had to be taken down or moved. I was hearing nothing about the track build for the event. Just last week, the city finally gave the promoters the green light to proceed with their plans for the race weekend of Oct 25. We are now only eighteen days from the first Friday practice, assuming they follow the schedule of a normal race weekend – in a season that has been anything but normal.

But it looks like the event will actually happen, and I’m glad. This is one of those times when I’m very happy to be wrong.

Overnight swap: I know sponsorships dictate it, but I have to imagine it is not easy to change a car’s sponsorship over the course of a double-header weekend. We’ve seen Graham Rahal do it a couple of times this season. While Rahal’s livery stayed the same this weekend, there were several crews that had to change the wrap of a car overnight. Alexander Rossi went from his blue and gold NAPA scheme on Friday, to the now very common pink livery of AutoNation on Saturday. There are now way too many pink cars out there.

Teammate Colton Herta went from sort of a teal, white and copper liveried Gleaner Food Bank of Indiana to the more familiar green and white of Capstone Turbines. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato ran ABeam on his sidepods on Friday, then switched to Keihim for Saturday.

I’ve seen teams strip wraps off of cars and I’ve seen part of putting a new warp on. It does not look like an easy process. It seems that teams would prefer to keep the same livery over a double-header weekend, and they probably would. But they also do whatever pays the bills. But I bet the crews silently moan when an overnight livery swap is added to their weekend duties.

Drive of the weekend: Rinus VeeKay, Colton Herta, Will Power and Josef Newgarden got all of the headlines this weekend. Once again, Jack Harvey silently had two strong races this weekend. He finished eighth on Friday and Sixth on Saturday. But the driver I thought had the drive of the weekend found himself on the podium both days, and may have cheated himself out of a win on Friday by earning himself a penalty when he may have had the fastest car on the track.

Alexander Rossi has finally overcome his horrible start to the season, albeit when he is completely out of the championship picture. On Friday, he exceeded track limits in a pass of Scott Dixon. He had to give the position back, but it destroyed all of his momentum in order to do it. He still finished second and he followed that up with a third on Saturday. He wasn’t flashy, but he was very consistent over both races. Look out for Rossi in 2021.

All in all: While many point to Race Two as the most exciting road race of the season going into this weekend, it was fairly dull until the final five or six laps. While I won’t go so far as Paul Tracy and say that Friday’s Race One on the IMS road course was the best road race I’ve ever seen, I might say that it was the best of the past decade. Long Beach produced some thrillers from 2010 through 2013 and Barber has had some decent races lately, but none of them had sustained side-by-side racing like Colton Herta and Rinus VeeKay gave us on Friday. Oddly enough, neither of them won the race.

That honor went to Josef Newgarden, who also finished fourth on Saturday – thereby staying alive for the final race weekend. It should make for an interesting final race at St. Petersburg.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Random Thoughts on The Harvest Grand Prix”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Where do I sign a petition to get Jon Beekhuis back for next season? He is greatly missed!

  2. George, George, George, I hate to take out two of your paragraphs, but Paul Tracy never said he thought it was the best road race he’d ever seen! He said it was the best road race he had seen IN A LONG TIME. That is very different, my man! Watch it again, you got his quote completely wrong. Sorry.

    Phil Kaiser
    Indianapolis

  3. If that event shows what Helio has left in the tank, I would much rather see whatever full time seat he is rumored to, go to someone else!

    I am glad to see cars on track but man, that second race was a snoozer for sure! Overall it’s been kind of a year to forget for Indycar, I hope next year is better, people are already criticizing the schedule though so I fear we might be in for a rough road.

  4. I attended race 1 of the Harvest Gp weekend and thought the Indy Car race was very entertaining and isn’t that the intent. It was really weird to see so few spectators in the facility.Sat in NW vista sec 1 which allowed for a great view of the front straight and turns 1-6, only complaint is you are so far from the cars on track my old eyesight doesn’t allow seeing details of the cars. The support series were a little boring as only one race and hours of open practice . I think Indy Car should have allowed for a pre race 30 minute practice session in the morning.. I appreciate IMS and IndyCar efforts to put this event on in the current climate , ticket prices were dirt cheap, parking and traffic not an issue . Weather was chilly but tolerable. It was a chance to see and Indy Car race at IMS in person this year.

    Having attended F1 races in October at WG for a number of years ,open wheel racing in late September or early October just feel right . I would like to see a Harvest GP return to the schedule in years to come

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Great to have info from your being an inside spectator.

      What access were spectators allowed?

      Or perhaps I should rephrase my question.

      What restrictions were placed on spectators that a pre-virus era INDY 500 event were normal access for spectators to be allowed … access to garage area…… meet drivers……., etc.

      Also what facility improvements did you notice?

      Thanks.

      • Spectators were only allowed in oval turn 1 and turn 2 . I would have preferred to sit on the infield mounds however access was prohibited . I did not effort to roam around as I assumed yellow shirts would have prohibited access to any closed stands . There were only a few concessionaires and lines were short. Three or four souvenir trailers open. You were checked for a fever at entry, given a mask and hand sanitizer. Facility was in great shape. I notice any great change in the facility but I think there were added permanent large video screens in turn 4 . I took a photo of the toilet but can not figure out how to post here, fresh paint and new lighting were noticeable. Frankly I was just happy to be there. I did pay $20.00 to park in lot 1a but right across the street from the track they were selling parking for $10.00 which was unimaginable.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Seems like the best races this year have been the ones fans have been able to attend. Coincidence? Yes it is.

  6. I too miss Jon Beekhuis and his insights into the technical realm. Is he covering racing at all this year? TK was excellent on Thursday in the booth and having Robin in the pits for the first time this season was also a plus.

  7. That was one of the most delicious tenderloins I’ve ever had, been far too long since I’d had a TrackLoin! 🙂

  8. bob franks Says:

    Interesting report. Hot much said. Most common word used often = I.

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