Random Thoughts on Barber

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Of all the IndyCar race weekends we have spent at Barber Motorsports Park, this weekend may have featured the best weather of them all. For once, it did not rain a single drop this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Normally in the south, a three-day weekend in April will generate some amount of precipitation, but not this weekend. It was cool and cloudy on Friday, and the same for Saturday morning. But by about 10:00 am on Saturday, the skies cleared and it warmed up to be a perfect afternoon. Sunday was pretty much a carbon-copy of Saturday afternoon. The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce did well with their weather machine.

As I had hoped, the azaleas and dogwoods appeared to be at their peak. They contrasted well with the lush green grass on the grounds, which was a far cry from the brown grass that greeted us two years ago in early April. The NTT IndyCar Series and the track should work together to try and have this race around this date each year. Early April in the south can be rather dicey.

Crowds were down for obvious reasons. They capped Sunday’s attendance at 20,000; which is about half of a normal Sunday crowd at Barber. While the track needs higher attendance for revenue, it made for a much more pleasant experience for the fans that were there.

The race weekend was also enjoyable from a racing standpoint. Qualifying had some new faces, mixed in with a few familiar ones. Pato O’Ward showed that the pre-season expectations for his second year with Arrow McLaren SP were not weighing heavy on him. He put his papaya orange and black McLaren on pole, shattering the track record. Alexander Rossi was successful in qualifying, by putting his Andretti Autosport Honda alongside O’Ward on the front row. Rossi is out to prove that his disastrous start to the 2020 season was a fluke. Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson showed the strength of Chip Ganassi Racing, by joining Scott Dixon in the Firestone Fast Six. Will Power was the only Team Penske car in the Fast Six, and started fourth.

There were other notable qualifying notes. Former Formula One driver, Romain Grosjean, surprised even himself by starting seventh. He credited his Dale Coyne Racing team with helping him understand the tire strategy. I am quickly learning to like Grosjean a lot. Spending the offseason watching the three seasons of Formula 1: Drive to Survive on Netflix probably has a lot to do with that. His Haas car was never really competitive. I’m anxious to see what the humble and likeable Frenchman can do on a more level playing field this year.

It wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last – but I ate some crow on Saturday afternoon. I had predicted Jimmie Johnson would surprise everyone in qualifying. It didn’t happen. He rolled of twenty-first, but only because of a very slow Dalton Kellett, and ill-timed mishaps by James Hinchcliffe and Felix Rosenqvist in qualifying.

As for the race, Alex Palou earned his first career IndyCar victory in his debut with Chip Ganassi Racing. I believe Palou is the first driver to win his first race with Ganassi since Michael Andretti in 1994. This was no fluke, as Palou qualified third and was strong the entire race. When Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi peeled off for the pits and committed towards three-stop fuel strategy, Palou had the advantage for the remainder of the race. Near the end Will Power got within one second of Palou, but could not make the pass.

Will Power finishing second was the only real bright spot for team Penske. Simon Pagenaud started fifteenth and finished twelfth and rookie Scott McLaughlin started twelfth and finished fourteenth. The team’s biggest hit came on the opening lap when Josef Newgarden made an unforced error claiming the hill towards Charlotte’s Web. He lost control, spun, and collected the cars of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist, and Max Chilton, effectively ending their day. Some got back out, but they were many laps down.

On Friday I mentioned that by picking Newgarden to win this race and the championship, I was putting a curse on him. Little did I know how prophetic those words would be. Newgarden finished twenty-third, just one spot in front of Hunter-Reay, who finished dead last. The two former IndyCar champions now find themselves in a deep hole early on into the season. Fortunately they can rectify the situation with a good outing in less than a week at St. Petersburg in a week.

Jimmie Johnson also proved me wrong by being the last car running throughout the race. He spun in Turn Fifteen on Lap Ten and went a lap down. He was bringing up the rear from that point on. Johnson seemingly spent the entire winter testing at Barber. If he was that far off the pace yesterday, how well will he perform on the Streets of St. Petersburg next weekend on a circuit he has never seen before?

One Rookie did shine, however – Romain Grosjean, who qualified seventh and finished tenth in his first-ever IndyCar race.

TV Coverage: As is normally the case when we attend races live, I have no comment on the TV coverage. I will watch the replay later this week. I did not see anything that indicated issues of Saturday’s coverage on Peacock, except for the usual grumbling about having to pay for it, and people that couldn’t figure out how to stream. That should go away as fans get used to it.

No Power: I’m not talking about Will Power, nor any particular driver or team being down on horsepower. Instead, I’m referring to the park-wide power outage that occurred just before Saturday afternoon’s US F2000 Race Two was to commence. At the time, we were sitting on the hill overlooking Turn Fourteen and Pit-In. The PA suddenly went silent and there was no track activity. I learned via Twitter that a tree had fallen on a transformer inside the park. Power was knocked out of the Media Center, but I guess timing and scoring was powered by a generator because Qualifying proceeded just five minutes delayed.

Were They Right? For years we have heard that AJ Foyt’s team has made a lot of offseason changes and that we will all see the results next season. When next season comes, we are all disappointed in the results. We heard it again this offseason and I was admittedly skeptical. Why wouldn’t I be? In Saturday’s qualifying it looked like the same old story. Sébastien Bourdais qualified sixteenth and Dalton Kellett was twenty-third. While Kellett was unspectacular in finishing eighteenth, Bourdais put on a clinic and finished fifth. Heading into St. Petersburg, where Bourdais won twice for Dale Coyne, I have to wonder if they were right about the Foyt team this season.

Andretti Woes: Aside from Alexander Rossi starting on the front row, this was a weekend to forget at Andretti Autosport. In Saturday’s qualifying James Hinchcliffe stuffed his car into the wall, forcing him to start from the back of the field, and he ultimately finished seventeenth. Ryan Hunter-Reay also had a miserable qualifying session and started seventeenth. Colton Herta missed the Firestone Fast Six and started ninth. Had he not been that far back, he could have avoided the opening lap melee, which cased him to finish twenty-second. Rossi appeared to be fast all day, but a botched foul strategy forced him to settle for ninth. The Andretti cars need to turn their luck around quickly, or this season will get away from them like last season did.

Sunday Turnaround: On Friday and Saturday the the Rahal Letterman Lanigan cars appeared to be out to lunch. Graham Rahal qualified eighteenth and his teammate, Takuma Sato, qualified nineteenth. After qualifying Graham Rahal seemed to be at a loss for words and could not explain their lack of speed. I don’t know what they found overnight, but Rahal led the Sunday morning warm-up session. In the race, Rahal claimed from eighteenth to finish seventh and Sato went from nineteenth to thirteenth. While that’s not the definition of an outstanding weekend for the team, they certainly improved their situation by the end of the race.

Disastrous Debut: In this past offseason Chip Ganassi had every intention of re-signing Felix Rosenqvist, but before he could act, Arrow McLaren SP beat Ganassi to the punch and signed Rosenqvist away to fill the No. 7 car. Ganassi scrambled and signed Alex Palou away from Dale Coyne. This weekend Rosenqvist inexplicably hit the wall while entering the pits in the Saturday morning practice session. In qualifying he appeared to transfer into Round Two, but near the end of the session he missed the turn and spun into the gravel trap and hit the wall, bringing out the yellow. He lost his fastest time and ultimately started twenty-second. In the race, Rosenqvist got caught up in Newgarden’s first lap mishap. His team made repairs and got him back out, albeit eleven laps down. Rosenqvist ended the race in twenty-first place; while his replacement, Alex Palou, was spraying champagne from the top step of the podium. One race does not tell the whole story, but from what we saw this weekend, it looks like Ganassi got the better end of that deal.

All In All: Personally, this was a great way for us to start the season. We were at a track that is one of our favorites and probably had the best weather since we’ve been going to Barber. Except for the craziness on the opening lap, it was a pretty clean race, we got to see different strategies in action, and with Will Power closing the gap, it was somewhat exciting at the end.

With no access to the Media Center which kept me from posting at the track the whole weekend, our time at the track was very relaxing. Since we did not have access to the pits or paddock we did not take near as many photos as we normally do. Susan especially missed our normal trip to victory lane. I have included a few random photos below, including an elephant head in the Men’s restroom and a well-placed umbrella right in front of us. One, with Susan’s permission from Friday at the new Buc-ee’s that just opened up near the track, which shows how much of her hair has come back. The last photo was a picture made of the two of us, just before the race, while she was wearing her fake hair. It was a very good weekend for the both of us.

George Phillips

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Chair

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8 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Barber”

  1. Please dont pick Newgarden to win anymore! Lol

  2. Rick Weber Says:

    Dan Wheldon also won in his Ganassi debut (2006 at Homestead).

  3. The fact that Buc-ee’s isn’t once mentioned in this post is a gross oversight.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Quite a feather in the cap of Palou, that is only the 5th non-Dixon win at Ganassi since the debut of the DW-12.

    Good run for Rahal, who is now starting to look like this generation’s Wally Dallenbach.

    A good day to be a race car driver named Alex yesterday as well, at least Mr. Bowman and Mr. Palou agree.

  5. Congrats to Alex Palou! I had hoped that Pato would have been able to clinch a win, but once he and Rossi pitted and committed to a three stopper, I knew it wasn’t going to go Pato’s way.

    I too thought the track looked gorgeous and suggested to my racing pals that we make it our away race in 2022.

    Susan looks great!

  6. It’s great to see you both so happy together.

    Thanks for the in-depth coverage from trackside. Palou looks a very deserving race winner. Good to see the #10 team finally back at the top of the points standings again. This is going to be a very interesting season, mostly because the level of talent in the whole field is so deep.

  7. Very great to see Sebastian Bourdais finish strong with the A.J. Foyt team

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