Random Thoughts on St. Petersburg

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While the 2021 version of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was not the most scintillating of races, there were some compelling elements to it. Colton Herta won the NTT IndyCar Series race in dominating fashion, pretty much leading it flag-to-flag except for pit stop shuffles. Herta led 97 of 100 laps from the pole; while Barber winner Alex Palou led two laps and Simon Pagenaud led one. There was very little change in the Top-Four from the start of the race, with the only difference being that Jack Harvey dropped from second to fourth. Josef Newgarden and Pagenaud each moved up one spot by the end of the race. So no, there was not a lot of drama among the Top-Four cars throughout the race.

The exciting parts of this race dealt with the cars behind those that qualified in the first two rows. Sébastien Bourdais tried valiantly to fit his car in between the two Penske cars of Newgarden and Pagenaud at the start. Unfortunately for Bourdais, his No. 14 ROKiT car caught the worst of it. His nosecone holding a camera broke off in the contact and had to hurt his speed down the main straightaway. To be honest, I don’t recall seeing whether or not his crew ever changed the front-wing assembly during the race. Bourdais started fifth and finished tenth. Still, the Foyt team has two Top-Ten finishes after two races.

It’s funny how different people see different incidents. When I saw Takuma Sato punt James Hinchcliffe in Turn One on Lap 22, when they were running thirteenth and twelfth respectively – I put the blame clearly on Sato. The TV crew gave Hinchcliffe more of the blame than Sato, saying Hinch came over on the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. I felt like Sato was putting his nose where it didn’t belong and shoved him to the side. Hinchcliffe suffered an immediate flat tire and had to limp all the way around to the pits, while Sato took the position.

On Lap 37, I initially thought Graham Rahal had done the same thing to Alexander Rossi in Turn Four, and I was surprised that the booth blamed Rossi. However, when I watched the replay a couple of times – I changed my mind and gave Rossi at least 51% of the blame. Rahal was able to back up and continue, but Rossi also suffered a flat tire and had to return to the pits for repairs. After starting eleventh, Rossi finished the race in twenty-first and was left to wonder what might have been. Rossi is now sixteenth in points, behind rookie drivers, Romain Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin.

Except for watching Will Power shove people out of the way in his march to eighth place from his twentieth starting position – there was not a ton of excitement, except for marveling at how Herta barely put a wheel wrong all weekend. Josef Newgarden led both practice sessions prior to qualifying, but qualified third and finished second in the race. Still, he’s got to be happy after what happened at Barber last week. Newgarden is now tenth in points, after entering the weekend twenty-third.

While it was not the most exciting of races, it was a relatively safe race and the teams don’t have a ton of torn up race cars heading into the double-header at Texas. Something tells me I won’t be able to make that statement a week from today, but at least they will have a weekend off before it will be time for the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course.

TV Coverage: I had read somewhere that Paul Tracy would not be in the booth this weekend, but lo and behold – there he was. I’m glad because I think he brings more intelligent and thought-provoking comments that we fans can relate to. Lately, Townsend Bell has been just a little too smug and comes off as the smartest guy in the room (booth). You’d think it would be the other way around, since Tracy has won an IndyCar title and has won thirty-one IndyCar races in his career. Townsend Bell has never driven a full season in IndyCar, has never won an IndyCar race and has never even stepped onto an IndyCar podium. Who’s really the smartest guy in the booth?

As much as I like PT in the booth, someone needs to hand him a pronunciation guide. For years, we heard him pronounce the silent “H” in Helio. To make it worse, he felt the need to hit the first syllable hard as in HEE-le-o. Castroneves is only doing six races this season, but Tracy has found a new name to butcher – Romain Grosjean. Repeatedly this weekend, I heard Tracy pronounce the former Formula One driver as RO-man GRO-shen. You would think a Canadian would be up on how to pronounce French names.

My complaints about Townsend Bell are mild, compared to the way I feel about Rutledge Wood on IndyCar broadcasts. I wish someone could tell me just what exactly he brings to the telecast. I’ve been told he had a funny segment with Pato O’Ward and some kids. When I saw an extended segment with Rutledge Wood was coming up, I went to the kitchen. I thought stabbing myself in the hand with a fork would be more enjoyable than watching him, so I don’t know if it was funny or not.

From what I can see, Wood is there to contribute fluff – and nothing else. His cringe-worthy fluff is on par with the beginning of a Super Bowl pre-game show, about five and a half hours before kickoff. If you’ve seen those forgettable segments, you know how much credibility I give his presence on the telecast. Next week, we’ll get to see him add similar nothingness to The Kentucky Derby broadcast. As was the case yesterday, that will be your cue to go empty the dishwasher. Trust me, you’ll thank me later. As a racing fan, I would much prefer that NBC put Jon Beekhuis back onto the telecast, so that I night actually learn something interesting.

While I’m at it, Beekhuis would also serve as a nice replacement for Dave Burns in the pits. I don’t think Kevin Lee is scheduled to be back on the broadcast until the month of May. It won’t be too soon. Dave Burns appears to be way out of his comfort zone on IndyCar broadcasts.

Now that I’ve gotten all of that out of my system, I think I’ll go eat some dirt.

Power Play: Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend was not that Colton Herta won, Josef Newgarden finished second or even that Jack Harvey qualified on the front row. It was that Will Power was given a contract extension at Team Penske that keeps the forty year-old Australian driver with The Captain through the 2023 season. It has long been speculated that Power and Simon Pagenaud were both in contract years. Further speculation had it that one of the two would not be returning to the team in 2022, since the team really doesn’t like running four fulltime cars.

If that conjecture is true, does this mean that Simon Pagenaud is now turning every race weekend into an audition?

Did they get a good deal? When Takuma Sato and James Hinchcliffe came together on Lapp 22, Paul Tracy commented that he could see the valve stem go flying off as the two touched wheels. Sure enough, Hinch’s tire deflated rapidly enough to indicate that Tracy may have been correct.

Fifteen laps later, Graham Rahal tangled with Alexander Rossi (ironically, both incidents featured the same two teams). Again, Tracy pointed out that the exact same thing happened to Rossi as he saw the valve stem go flying from Rossi’s right-front wheel.

I’ve been watching this sport for decades. Normally, a tire flattens in contact with another car by being pierced by a front-wing end-plate. In fact, I don’t recall ever having an immediate flat tire being blamed on the valve stem breaking off. Yesterday it happened twice within fifteen laps between teammates. Is this coincidence, or did Andretti Autosport get hold of a bunch of bad valve stems.

Their Achilles Heel: For years, we’ve been watching AJ Foyt Racing reward their driver’s good performance on the track with botched pit-stops. With all of the advances the team has made this year, slow pit stops are still their Achilles heel.

I always thought Vitor Meira was a very underrated driver. When he drove for Foyt from 2009 through 2011, it was common to see Meira work his way through the field, only to come into the pits in sixth place and end up fourteenth after the pit stops cycled through.

It bit the team yesterday. There was one time when NBC had the clock on three pit stops; one of which being Bourdais. The Foyt car came in fifth. The other cars completed their stops in the 7-second to 7.5-second range. Bourdais was finally released at the 10.5-second mark. Nothing looked unusual, as it appeared to be a routine stop. The trouble is, that was routine for the Foyt crew. I’m not sure if it was the damaged nose or the slow pit stop (s), but Bourdais finished tenth.

Learning Experience: Shortly after the race, I saw a Facebook post comparing Jimmie Johnson to the likes of Milka Duno and Marty Roth; saying that Johnson should be parked. Seriously? We are talking about a seven-time NASCAR Cup champion here, who is completely out of his element. Robin Miller wrote a column last week, scolding IndyCar fans for expecting too much right away from Johnson. I thought he had a shot at a decent finish last week at Barber, mainly because he had done so much testing there over the winter. I think we al knew that he would not do well at St. Petersburg, since he had never even seen the circuit until this weekend.

Johnson has so much he has to unlearn about stock cars, before he can be effective in IndyCar. But I think he will get there. Will he win a race this season? It’s highly doubtful. But I think by the end of this season, a Top-Ten may be in reach.

I am glad he’s here. First of all, it shows the world that IndyCar may not be as easy as the Lewis Hamiltons of the world has made it out to be. I think Johnson should be commended for putting himself out there and trying to conquer a new discipline, after all he has accomplished.

Drive of the Day: There are many candidates for this award. Takuma Sato made many brilliant passes, some even without contact, on his way to finishing sixth after starting fifteenth. Will Power drove like a man possessed from start to finish, on his way to finishing eighth after starting twentieth. Marcus Ericsson drove to seventh, after starting sixteenth.

But how do you not give it to Colton Herta? He was almost perfect in starting from the pole and completely dominating the entire race. Herta made it look almost effortless, to the point he was almost boring to watch. It was performances like yesterday, why many are saying the second-generation driver is ready to win a championship now.

On a personal note: As promised almost a month ago, I made a quick trip to IMS this past weekend. It was the first time I had been on the grounds since November of 2019. I did the trip in a one-day turnaround, to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Most of you know that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused for about ten days, before being cleared late Friday afternoon. I had already decided that if I couldn’t get the one-and-done single dose, that I would not make the trip. I know many of you are grimacing that I got the one that had been paused, and think I’m an idiot. Save your breath because there’s nothing I can do about it now.

I’m still not wild about the whole idea, but when it was announced that proof of vaccination will be required to enter the garage are in May, I figured that was just a sign of things to come. I don’t want to be knocked out of doing things I want to do.

It was a very slick operation they had set up. I entered through the main gate and was directed to the right and ended up behind the museum, where I registered. From there I was directed to the rear entrance of the Garage Area. There may have been four to five cars in front of me as I crept toward the entrance to Gasoline Alley.

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From there, they directed me to one of the Formula One garages, where they asked me a few legal and medical questions and then gave me the shot, while still sitting in my car – and just as importantly, my CDC certificate. The best part was that after they injected me, I got to drive my car through Gasoline Alley and onto Pit Road. I drove all the way down through the south end of pits, where I turned left and I was directed to a holding area inside Turn One, to make sure I didn’t have a reaction.

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Once I was done there, I went to the gift shop in the museum where I bought a few items I just couldn’t live without. I met a friend at Dawson’s where I finally had their tenderloin I had been dreaming about. It was as good as ever. Once we were done, I hopped in my car and drove back to Nashville. I left Nashville at 8:00 am and was back by 9:00 pm. It’s been a while since I’ve done the one-day turnaround. Aside from the fact that it rained on me the entire day, it wasn’t too bad.

Many probably think I’m crazy to have spent my day driving to get a shot I could have gotten down the street at Walgreen’s. But the forty-five minutes I got to spend at IMS, including driving my car down pit lane, made it all worthwhile to me.

All in All: I thought the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was pretty typical of this race and street courses in general – it was processional at the front, but had some good action mid-pack. But I’ll promise you this – those in attendance had a good time. While COVID has taken a lot of things from us, one of the benefits of smaller crowds is…smaller crowds. We noticed at Barber last week, how the smaller crowd size made it a lot more pleasant. Although it’s not a good look on television and it makes for an unhealthy bottom line, it makes it very enjoyable for the few who are onsite.

We attended the St. Petersburg race in 2019. It had a festival atmosphere and it was a good time. If I had to name one complaint, it was that it was too crowded. Hopefully, they will have that problem again next year.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Random Thoughts on St. Petersburg”

  1. Completely agree about Rutledge Wood. Bye bye, please! Jon Beekhuis knows his stuff. He’s an experienced engineering-minded former driver that knows racing and cars. Jon B. can explain most anything in an understandable way to a new fan as well as fans that have been around the block before. He gives an insight to the car and garage that no one else has been able to do, IMO. He’s the best man for the job. NBC, please “chop” Wood.

    Also agree with your perspective on Jimmy Johnson. Very talented driver, and from all appearances, a tremendous person to boot. He just needs to endure getting more seat time in the car and experience with the tracks.

    • I’m based in London and during the numerous commercials that you have in America we still see the race with no commentary (bliss) apart from in car radio. I am completely at a loss as to what Rutledge Wood is doing and I feel uncomfortable and embarrassed for him and NBC.

  2. I wish Marty Snider would go back to NASCAR and stay there. He tries way too hard to pass himself off as an insider and confidant to the drivers. You could play a drinking game with the number of times he repeats “He told me ….” during a broadcast. NBC has the best pit reporter in the business in Kevin Lee, yet he has to sit out to make room for Dave Burns and that bonehead Rutledge Wood.

  3. > Who’s really the smartest guy in the booth?

    Leigh Diffey is. Next question.

  4. Steven Kilsdonk Says:

    Most of the teams use OZ rims. Andretti uses a different front rim though. The OZ has an aerodynamic lip which shields the valve stem fairly well. On Andretti’s wheel though, the valve is exposed, so it is more vulnerable to being damaged on their cars, as happened to Hinchcliffe and Rossi when banging wheels.

    Photos for reference are on this Tweet: https://twitter.com/StevenKilsdonk/status/1386667249306677255

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Glad to hear you got your shot, George, and glad to watch yesterday’s competent street race.

    I would offer that it would not be surprising at all if next week’s Texas races were relatively clean, because with one exception (2017) they pretty much have been in the DW12 era. Since 2012, only 1 out of every 6 Texas starters DNFs due to contact and multicar incidents generally affect no more of the field than they do at a typical street race (though it is fair to point out that they may carry more damaging consequences).

  6. I’m curious as to how PT should know how to pronounce a French name?

  7. Andrew Turner Says:

    PT is no longer a Canadian, he’s a Republican.

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