Random Thoughts on Gateway

I’m assuming most of you have read the race recap I posted late Saturday night after the race, where I get into the nitty-gritty of the race itself. I will cover the race a little more, but I want to spend more time today talking about the weekend in general. – GP

Now that I’ve had a little time to think about Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway (WWT Raceway – formerly known as Gateway Motorsports Park), I realize what a wild race it really was. Mostly, it was very entertaining – at least to witness in person. We’ve not yet watched the replay – in fact, we still have the IndyCar race at IMS from last week to watch – so, I can’t say how it looked on television; but it was probably the most entertaining race we’ve been to at Gateway.

That’s a bold statement considering all but four of the first twenty-five laps were run under caution. I don’t think some of the innocent victims that were taken out in the crashes would say they were entertained, but I don’t think it was considered the clown show that the Music City Grand Prix was.

What seemed like probably the most harmless incident, set up the most significant of the night. When Ed Carpenter backed his car into the Turn Four wall in a single car accident on Lap 56, the ensuing restart changed the face of the entire 2021 championship. As the bunched-up field took the green flag on Lap 64, Rinus VeeKay drove straight into the back of Scott Dixon before sliding up and taking points-leader Alex Palou into the wall.

Palou had a shrinking twenty-one point lead over Pato O’Ward coming into the race, with Josef Newgarden still alive for the championship in fourth place. Palou’s worst nightmare came true as Newgarden won the race and O’Ward finished second. Now, O’Ward leads Palou by ten points, and Newgarden is lurking just twenty-two points out of the lead.

There was a lot of carnage on Saturday night, both with equipment and driver’s state of mind. Teams will have plenty of time to repair crash damage to the cars, since the NTT IndyCar Series does not return to action until their west coast swing starting September 12 at Portland, before heading to Laguna Seca and the season finale at Long Beach in subsequent weeks.

For Alex Palou, that has to feel like an eternity. He probably wishes he could race again right now to get the bad taste out of his mouth from the past two weekends, when he finished twenty-seventh and twentieth respectively. Graham Rahal is another who would love to erase the memories of Gateway, after his slim championship hopes were dashed by Ed Jones on Lap Three.

Scott Dixon is still in the hunt, but once again – my pick to win a race ends up against the wall. Dixon is still only forty-three points down to O’Ward, but he is not carrying a lot of momentum. I’ve been saying all season that Dixon will win the championship, but I’ll admit that’s looking rather iffy.

I’ve seen a wide range of opinions on social media since Saturday night. Some say this race was “goofier than Nashville”, while others say Gateway was proof that we need more ovals. It wasn’t edge of your seat racing, but I enjoyed it more than probably any other race we’ve been to here since 2017, when IndyCar returned after a long absence. We didn’t go to Gateway last year for the double-header, but for the ones we’ve been to here – Saturday night’s was the best.

TV Coverage: I can’t comment too much since we haven’t watched the replay of the broadcast yet, but the bulk of the comments I’ve seen on social media don’t discuss the broadcast near as much as all the commercial breaks. While we would all love to see a race commercial-free, that won’t be happening for a few years. We all wanted to see IndyCar stay with a major network, whether it was NBC, CBS, FOX or whoever.

None of those entities are known for giving away air time. This is a business to them and they have to follow a model to make money. If that means more commercials than if the series ran on something like Motor Trend TV, I’m fine with that. I want NBC to make money from this property so that the series will stay there. The series needs major exposure and continuity to survive.

Big Bow-Tie Night: When Honda swept the first seven positions a couple of weeks ago in Nashville, people (myself included) were poking fun at Chevy and wondered how the could have gotten it so wrong. Well, no one is laughing after Saturday night because Chevy swept the first five positions at Gateway. Honda did get four of the next five spots and it went back and forth throughout the running order from Saturday night. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes one manufacturer the favorite over the other as the series goes from track to track.

Gateway appears to give a slight edge to Chevy, since IndyCar returned in 2017, with four of the six races run there being won by the bow-tie brigade.

Missed Opportunity: I am in the market for a new car. I will have had my 2012 Honda for ten years in March, and I’m probably about two months away from hitting the 200,000 mile mark. I bought the car new and it may be the best car I’ve ever owned. But like people, cars don’t last forever and it will die one day. When that day comes, I want to already know what I’m buying so I’m doing all of my research now.

Friday evening we went to dinner, but first stopped by a Honda dealership close to our hotel. As usual, a salesman came out to engage us even though they were about to close. But unlike most car salesmen, this guy actually knew what he was talking about. He told us he had been selling Hondas in the St. Louis area for twenty-one years straight.

As we talked, we told him we were from Nashville and in town for the race. He looked at me like a dog looks at a typewriter. He had no clue an IndyCar race was in town, and this guy said he was actually a racing fan. I don’t see this as an indictment against IndyCar or the promoter, although it certainly is not a ringing endorsement. Instead, it seems that Honda dropped the ball on a fairly big marketing opportunity. The basic philosophy among auto manufacturers involved in racing is “Win on Sunday (Saturday night), sell on Monday”. It’s hard to sell on Monday if you didn’t even know you were racing over the weekend.

Yes, I know Chevy had a big weekend – but that’s not the point. This guy was Honda through and through and was very knowledgeable. Yet he had no clue his brand for the past twenty-one years was racing in a series where they would power more than half the field the next night, just about fifteen miles down I-64. It seems to me Honda could utilize their dealers in each area to promote the local race, the series and ultimately their brand.

I’m sure I’m uninformed in the relationship between HPD and retail Honda dealerships, but to an outsider – it looks like Honda missed a golden marketing opportunity.

The One-Day Show: Just before the race, I had a couple of people ask me what I thought about the one-day show of all IndyCar on-track activity being in one day. If you recall, the only practice was a ninety-minute session that began at 12:15 pm on Saturday. Just a little more than two hours, the teams went out and qualified at 4:00 pm. The race itself started at 7:40 Saturday night.

If you were a fan in the St. Louis area; you got a lot of bang for your buck. One ticket bought you a whole lot of racing in one day from noon, on.

Personally, from someone who did nothing more than observe and write about it – I didn’t like it. Neither did the others I spoke to, some of which actually work for IndyCar. It was too much crammed into a short period of time. I have a friend who works for one of the Big-Three teams, and he just shook his head when I asked him about it.

The teams got lucky this weekend. No one crashed a car in practice or qualifying. Given the short time between sessions, repairs would have been very tough. That’s why I’m not big on double-headers at ovals. If someone crashes in the opening practice, their entire weekend is pretty well toast – for both races.

We arrived in St. Louis mid-afternoon on Friday. I would have liked to watch an IndyCar practice either Friday afternoon or Friday night. With only NASCAR Truck and Indy Lights on-track for Friday, we were at the track just long enough to pick up credentials and say hi to a few friends. We went back to our hotel, got situated, went to dinner and went to bed early – knowing we would have a very busy Saturday. While that was nice and leisurely, I would have preferred to see what we went there for on Friday night – IndyCar.

I know a few people that live in Indianapolis that normally go to Gateway, but they didn’t make the drive over this year. They said they needed more of a reason to make that drive, rather than on day of racing.

I understand that this is a cost savings to the teams, but I think they need to take the fan experience into account. If you lived in St. Louis, you probably loved it. If you drove four and a half hours like we did, you were probably not a fan of this format. I’m hoping they return to a two-day format next year.

The Crowd: The crowd appeared to be smaller than night races for the last few years. I won’t compare the 2020 double-header because it was affected by COVID restrictions.

Although there were no crowd restrictions this year, many may have opted to not attend due to the resurgence of COVID numbers for the last few weeks. Many may have felt uncomfortable in a large unmasked crowd. That is their right. I am fully vaccinated and I didn’t feel uncomfortable. That’s my right.

The Cardinals were also in town this weekend. St. Louis is a baseball town. Many if given the choice between the IndyCar race or the Cardinals, would have chosen the Cardinals – no matter how bad they may be this year. It seems that every year that IndyCar races at WWT Raceway for a night race – the Cardinals are playing at home that same weekend. The race schedule is set up long before the MLB schedule. I know teams can request to be out of towns on certain weekends where a local conflict may exist. That’s not always granted, but it is usually considered. I am hoping track management has contacted the Cardinals about trying to avoid the conflict.

I also know that there were some stands opened up this year, that were not open in the past. Did people move into those stands, making the place seem more empty than it really was?

Don’t get me wrong, they still had an excellent crowd – one that would make Texas Motor Speedway very envious. But it didn’t appear to be as packed as it was in years past.

Grosjean’s Oval Debut: For weeks, there has been a lot of speculation about former Formula One veteran Romain Grosjean making his oval debut in an Indy car. Grosjean tested at WWT Raceway a few weeks back and all indications were that things went well. But being on an oval by yourself is much different than with twenty-three other cars on track, many being driven by drivers desperate to make something happen late in the season.

I had hoped that Grosjean would be happy just staying out of the way enough to make it through the night without crashing. Apparently, he had other ideas.

I thought Romain Grosjean was absolutely brilliant on Saturday night. I had already become a big fan of the Swiss-born Frenchman, but Saturday night’s performance elevated my fandom for Grosjean. During his second stint, I was standing in my favorite spot at WWT Raceway – inside Turn Four, right at the pit entrance. I like it there because you get a great view of about one-third of the track, all the way through Turns Three & Four. It’s also not crowded at all.

I was watching Grosjean start setting up each car in front of front of him while in Turn Three. The way he was cutting through the field, you would have thought he cut his teeth on oval racing – not driving his first oval Saturday night.

He misjudged Turn Two on cold tires and got a bad break on a late yellow and ended up what appears to be an unimpressive fourteenth. I’m sure TV covered his moves, but I was watching him almost exclusively during that stint and I can tell you – finishing fourteenth does not do justice to the night that Grosjean had.

Driver Accessibility: I have no scientific data to back this up and it may just be my imagination; but it seemed that the drivers were interacting more with fans this year. Every time we walked through the garage area, we saw drivers signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans. We would always see that to some extent, but it seemed a lot more common this year. I would have thought it would be the opposite, given the compacted schedule of the one-day show.

Well-Trained Staff: The Music City Grand Prix could take a few lessons from WWT Raceway. If you’ll recall, one of by biggest complaints about the Nashville race a couple of weeks ago, was that the staff seemed to have no clue what was going on. There was no consistency in their message or which credentials to allow through the gate they were responsible for. And when you confronted them on their mistake, they got angry and defensive.

That was not the case this weekend. Every staff member there seemed to know exactly what was going on, and who was allowed where. Not only that, they were smiling and friendly. Not once were we turned away from an area where we were supposed to be, but we chatted it up with several of their security staff about random things. They were always pleasant and helpful. I’m hoping the Music City Grand Prix can improve their staff training for next year.

Drive of the Night: At one point Saturday night, I was prepared to give Alex Palou the Drive of the Night. He had erased his nine-spot grid penalty that saw him start twenty-first and was running tenth. But then the VeeKay incident happened and Palou finished twentieth.

I also considered Conor Daly, since he drove his Carlin car to an eleventh-place finish after starting twentieth. But Daly really drives well on this track and I realized this was not even his best run here, so it didn’t merit this coveted title.

Some might be shocked that I considered giving it to Dalton Kellett, who finished twelfth after starting dead last (twenty-fourth). I was close to doing it, not only by how much he moved up, but also by the fact that he survived getting punted and spun out by Ed Carpenter under the caution. Also keep in mind that this was, by far, Kellett’s best-ever finish in IndyCar. Prior to finishing twelfth on Saturday night, Kellett’s best finish was finishing eighteenth twice – at Barber and Texas earlier this season.

Instead I am giving it to Kellett’s Foyt teammate, Sébastien Bourdais, who finished fifth after starting eighteenth. Bourdais admits he got lucky catching a caution when he did, but you take those when you can get them in racing. It was a great night for both Foyt cars, finishing twelfth and fifth with no crash damage.

All in All: I’m still not sure how it looked on television, but this was the best race, from an entertainment standpoint, I have been to at Gateway – and I’ve been to all of them since IndyCar returned in 2017 (except for 2020). Not only was it a race that featured a lot of twists and turns, but WWT Raceway did a lot of things right. If you’ve never been to a race there, you owe it to yourself to try and go next year.

There was only one bittersweet note to the whole weekend – this was our last race to attend in person this season. It’s always sad to leave an IndyCar race, knowing you are at least seven months away from your next one. We made it to eight races this season (counting Indianapolis 500 Qualifying weekend).

That’s quite an accomplishment after making just one in 2020 (Road America). With the pandemic and Susan’s health issues, we had no idea what 2021 had in store. But she only missed Indianapolis Qualifying, and that was due to a radiation treatment she couldn’t miss. She hung in there and got stronger and stronger each race weekend to the point that she seemed full strength this past weekend. Who would’ve thought that a year ago?

IndyCar now takes a break for the next couple of weekends before picking back up on Sep 12 for their west coast swing over three straight weekends to close out the season. With the points battle being turned upside down this past weekend, those three races could prove fascinating.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Gateway”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    I’m not sure Honda dealers in the St. Louis area would be too keen on promoting the Gateway race unless they were owned by the Bommarito Group. If the dealership you were at was a Bommarito dealer, then the salesman and dealer really have no excuse.

    While I would agree that it would be better to spread the Indycar action over two days (especially since NASCAR doesn’t do practice and qualifying anymore at most tracks), there were 13 on-track sessions at Gateway this weekend and 5 of them were races. That’s a comparable amount of action to, say, Nashville (18 sessions and 6 races over 3 days) on a per-day basis. Sounds like a lot of bang-for-your-buck to me.

    The action on TV was probably as good as it has ever been since the return to Gateway. NBC wisely kept the camera on Grosjean for much of the night.

    Kudos to Kellett for his first finish “in the points” and his first race where he did not look completely overmatched in these cars. He may or may not become much better in these cars, but he was fine on Saturday night.

  2. Cary Leimbach Says:

    I was a ticket holder at Gateway 2017-2019 and I had fantastic seats that were $55 for top row near the start finish line. I have been to every CART and IRL/Indycar race, practice and qualifying session that ever took place at Gateway since it opened in 1997 and lived in the St Louis area during this time. I even pulled up in the parking lot on closed test session days just to hear the cars go around the track for a while. The track decided to increase the ticket price for my section to $100 for Saturday night to “premium-ize” the experience in those seats. I was asked to pay up or move to another section, but there were no top row options in those other sections. I could not help but notice those checkered flag sections were about half full on the website a week before the race and they were not packed for the race based on what I saw on tv. I love Gateway, am really excited that Bommarito is sponsoring the race and that WWT is sponsoring the track, but I think they lost some fans due to this change. Wish someone would listen and they’d re-consider that change. I’ve since moved to Naples FL and also don’t like the idea of a one day show if I’m going to make the trip.

  3. I do think that having all three sessions in one day is a bit much for the teams. On Saturday everything was on hold here, so we could watch practice and quali live on Peacock. I didn’t even watch football Saturday, but taped the game for Sunday viewing. The one glitch Peacock had was suddenly going to soccer in the middle of practice. It took a while to get back to racing, but someone at NBC finally realized they goofed.

    Glad you and Susan had a great time.

  4. That’s two races in a row Pagenaud has been hit by a teammate. I hope he gets to beat the Penske cars occasionally next year wherever he lands. The disrespect WP shows him by never even mentioning his name leaves me cold.

  5. Disciple of INDYCAR Says:

    But was it a Bommarito Honda dealership? 😉

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