Random Thoughts on Road America

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Another successful trip to Road America is in the books. If you’ve never been here before, you’re probably a little tired of the way Susan and I rave about it. If you’ve been here – you get it. Much like post-Indianapolis 500 blues is a real thing, so is the depression we feel as we pack up and head back home today, after being up here since Thursday.

As for the race itself, the first half was not the most scintillating I’ve seen. Then again, it’s hard to know exactly what is going on – especially when we jumped from vantage point to vantage point for photos and just good viewing angles.

We began the race inside Turn One. As the cars cross the starting line two-abreast at the crest of the hill, they race downhill toward the 90° right hander at Turn One. Remarkably, they all made it through. After about three laps, we ran down to Turn Five, which is one of the most popular and, consequently, most crowded area on the track.

Television does no justice to that turn. It does not show the long downhill stretch leading down to Turn Five, nor are viewers able to tell how steep the climb is toward the Corvette Bridge and the blind Turn Six. It was too crowded for Susan to get to where she could get any pictures. We sat in the stands there, but after a few laps – we were on the move again. We went outside the track over to Turn Fourteen. From there, we could watch the cars climbing up the hill from Canada Corner and setting up to make the final turn on the circuit before heading up the steep hill of the front straightaway to the start-finish line.

A few laps there and we went to the top of the hill beside the Corvette Bridge There is a very busy concession stand up there and a large hillside, where many park themselves and sit throughout the whole race. We sat there for a while, before moving on again to other locations.

With about ten laps to go, I left Susan by Victory Lane while I went to the media center to start writing my race wrap-up post. Susan is very good at getting positioned for Victory Lane photos and she excelled again yesterday. I was actually in the media center watching the NBC coverage when Josef Newgarden lost his gearbox with two laps to go.

Of course, I won’t really know what I witnessed until we get home and watch the replay. I know we will get a lot of questions answered. I don’t know how Jack Harvey went from starting second to finishing seventeenth. Nor do I know how Scott Dixon started thirteenth and finished fourth – except that he’s, well…Scott Dixon.

I’m not one to go to a race, plugged into a scanner and staring at my phone to follow timing and scoring. I can do that at home. When at the track, I want to enjoy the whole experience. This is the place to do that. So, we will probably watch the relay tonight when we get home.

TV Coverage: Obviously I don’t have much to say, since I only saw the last few laps – but I do know that Kevin Lee was in the booth, and I see that as a good thing, I don’t dislike Leigh Diffey like several do, but I think Kevin Lee does a good enough job that he could be handed the keys to the big chair full-time. I have read on Twitter where there were about a million promos for the Nashville NASCAR race that immediately followed the IndyCar race. I’m hopeful that NASCAR returns the favor when IndyCar arrives in my hometown for the Music City Grand Prix in August.

Still Impressed: I continue to be impressed with “rookie” Romain Grosjean. He was strong through practice and then qualifying, but unlike some – that translated over to the race as well. But it’s his demeanor outside of the car that has gotten my attention.

On Friday, we were eating lunch at Honda Hospitality, who always puts on a big spread for the media, IndyCar officials, Honda teams and drivers and various guests. We are lucky that they have gotten to know Susan over the years, so they put up with me.

Anyway, while we were eating lunch on Friday, Grosjean came in by himself for lunch. He sat down at the table next to us and was very affable with everyone at the table. We didn’t go up and strike up a conversation with him, but he seemed like a genuinely nice guy with no visible sign of any ego. That’s rare for any driver, much less one that spent the last several years in Formula One.

After he got out of the car yesterday, he was all smiles. He said (paraphrasing) that he had never had so much fun in a race car. He seems to love it here in IndyCar and the fans seem to gravitate towards him.

His on-track performance has been impressive too. Although he missed the three oval races so far, he is still eighteenth in points – ahead of fulltime regulars James Hinchcliffe, Ed Jones and Dalton Kellett.

Not All Perfect: For the last several days, I’ve written a lot of superlatives about Road America – but there were a few changes I didn’t care for. There were a lot more restrictions than we’ve seen in the past – and I don’t think those were directed by the track. Barber had a lot more restrictions back in April, but that was blamed on COVID protocol. Talking to a couple of security guards, these changes came from IndyCar. Golf cart access was curtailed in a few spots that once had free access, namely in the hospitality area where Honda was set up. That has always been open until this year.

One security guard we spoke to said that many local fans buy golf cart season passes. With that comes automatic golf cart access to the paddock at all races. Many local fans were irate to learn that this did not apply to the IndyCar weekend.

There were a few other places at Road America we went to that used to always have fan access, but not this year. From what I’m hearing, IndyCar has taken some of the fun out of the fan experience at Road America. I’m sure this makes life easier on the teams and the drivers, but I’m hoping IndyCar is not losing sight of what actually drivers this series – the fans. Fans should feel welcome at tracks, and not be treated as a necessary evil.

I’m hopeful that the series will rethink some of their new ideas at tracks for next year.

Spread Too Thin: I keep looking at what is happening at Team Penske and wonder if they may be spread too thin. They have gone from being the team that won the Indianapolis 500 and championships and appeared unbeatable, to a team that show it was mortal. Now they seem to be nothing more than an average team.

They did show improvement this weekend, by leading practices and showing well in qualifying – but for the third race in a row, they saw certain wins evaporate in the closing laps. Granted each has been different. Will Power was the victim of an ECU in need of a reboot. Josef Newgarden was told to execute a flawed tire strategy, which he almost pulled off. Then yesterday, he suffered a gearbox issue on a restart with two laps to go.

There have also been bungled pit stops and things that usually don’t happen to Team Penske. These are things that prevent good teams from winning championships.

Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud are still technically within striking distance of points leader Alex Palou, but the bad luck and self-inflicted team mistakes have to stop.

It makes me wonder if they might scale back to three cars for next year. In the past, they have not liked running four full-time cars in the seasons they’ve done it. Newgarden isn’t going anywhere, neither is rookie Scott McLaughlin – who is having a typical rookie season. It’s just that Penske doesn’t normally run rookies. It would not surprise me if Power or Pagenaud are elsewhere next season and Team Penske scales back to a more manageable three-car team.

All in All: For the second race in a row, it was heartbreak for Josef Newgarden. He has dominated the last two races. He had a second place to show for it a week ago, but a twenty-first place finish to show for yesterday’s dominating performance. He handled it a lot better than I would have. All he can do is try (again) to re-group and move on the Mid-Ohio in two weeks.

I’ve said it a million times over the last five years, but if you are already an IndyCar fan and you can only go to one race – make it Road America. The Indianapolis 500 will make you a racing fan if you are not one already, but the full weekend experience at Road America will make you want to come back year after year. The Month of May can wear you out, but we find Road America restful and relaxing. Try to make it next year. You’ll see what we’ve been raving about.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Road America”

  1. Brandon Wright Says:

    You’ll enjoy the tv broadcast, pretty much every lap was thrilling and it’s one of the best races I’ve seen, from green to checkers. Kevin Lee was great, as always.

    I don’t think Will Power is going anywhere, he recently signed a three year contract and says he plans to finish out his career at Penske.

    Thanks for the coverage! I can’t wait to get back up there sometime.

  2. The view from home- it was an outstanding race from start to finish. Lots of action and banging in Turn 5. great battles throughout the field. You will like it when you see the broadcast. Luckily you will be able to fast forward through the 32 or so nascar Nashville commercials.

  3. Kevin is too beta for me to take him seriously as a lead broadcaster. He’s fine as a pit reporter and for Indy Lights, but he doesn’t carry enough of a presence to be the voice of IndyCar on NBC.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Fortunately, I found the comfort of the TV mute button helpfull numerous times when Kevin become too loud to endure.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Shades of 1996 at Road America with Newgarden playing the Al Unser Jr. role minus the space shuttle launch cloud of smoke. Palou will be tough for anyone to catch in the championship, but I wouldn’t count out Newgarden just yet. He was down by more to Dixon last year with fewer races remaining and very nearly overhauled him for the championship.

    Jack Harvey has excellent speed but regularly seems to fade in races. I’ve seen peculation that his driving style and/or his setups eats tires, which would certainly explain his frequent freefalling late in stints.

    A guy who doesn’t seem to eat tires is Romain Grosjean, who was able to attack all over the track with losing any grip or speed, it seemed. Much as I don’t like watching Rahal get passed, Romain is a joy to watch passing anyone.

  5. regarding the broadcast: we watched at our neighbor’s house who had Sky Sports. it was wonderful. we will have to get that.

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