Portland Preview

The NTT IndyCar Series begins a final flurry of action this weekend as the so-called “west coast swing” gets underway. The first of the three west coast races over three weekends will take place at Portland. Normally, the season would be wrapping up next weekend at Laguna Seca, but concerns over COVID forced promoters for Long Beach to move it from their traditional April date to the end of the season this year. In hindsight, it may have been better ton run it in April.

None of these races ran last season due to the pandemic, so some of the second-year drivers may have never raced at any of these tracks – most notably, championship contender Alex Palou.

Portland International Raceway was always a mainstay in the CART/Champ Car era. CART debuted there in 1984 with the Stroh’s 200 (if you remember that brand of Bohemian beer). In 1986, the event was re-branded the Budweiser/G.I. Joe’s 200 – a name it carried in some form or fashion until Budweiser dropped out in 2000. G.I. Joe’s sponsored the race until 2006. Mazda bought the naming rights for the 2007 race, before it became a casualty in the open-wheel reunification of 2008.

If I’m being honest, I always assumed that the G.I. Joe’s sponsorship was tied to the Hasbro action figure. Little did I know that it was actually a chain of stores in the Pacific Northwest that sold sporting goods and auto parts, which is sort of a strange combination. Living in the southeast in the days before the internet, I never came across the company. G.I. Joe’s filed for bankruptcy and was liquidated in 2009.

The race, no matter what it was called, was always run near or on Father’s Day in mid-June. I remember that, because I can remember watching several Portland IndyCar races with my father in the early nineties. He did not enjoy road races, but oddly enough – he humored me on the day I should have been doing what he wanted to do.

The Budweiser/G.I. Joe’s 200 was tied to the Portland Rose Festival that took place at the same time in mid-June. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guessing that June is the rainy season in Portland, because I can remember watching a lot of races on either cloudy days threatened by rain, or races run in virtual monsoons.

After more than a decade, Portland returned to the IndyCar schedule in 2018; this time with a new date – September. Based on what I have seen in the two races run thus far, it appears that September is not the rainy season. The two races run in September have both been run under sunny skies. What is most notably different with the new date is that the lush green grass of June has been replaced with dry brown grass of September.

If you recall the start of the 2018 race, there was a giant pile-up leading into the chicane at the end of the front-stretch that involved about five cars. Just after it happened, no one had any idea what had happened or which cars were involved. The whole scene was shrouded under a giant brown cloud of dust that seemed to take about thirty seconds to clear. That never would have happened in June.

Quite honestly, I worry about the future of this race. I’m not wild about the September date, but maybe it works out locally. I’m also not wild about moving dates around, so they need to make this one work. After more than a decade off of the schedule, I was hoping that the Northwest fans would come out in droves in 2018-19. From what I saw on television, they didn’t. Then just two races in after the reboot, the 2020 race was cancelled due to COVID. Something tells me that the stands may look a bit barren this weekend also.

I hope I’m wrong, because this has been a good race historically. Two of the closest finishes in IndyCar road course history have taken place at this track. There was the wild finish in 1986, when Mario Andretti caught and passed son Michael at the line when Michael suddenly lost fuel pressure coming off of the final turn. That prompted Michael to say “Happy Father’s Day, Dad” in the post-race interviews. Then in 1997, there was the famous three-way battle at the line when Mark Blundell of PacWest Racing beat Walker Racing’s Gil de Ferran by 0.027 seconds, and Patrick Racing’s Raul Boesel by 0.055 seconds.

Winners at Portland have read like a Who’s Who in Racing. Winning IndyCar drivers at Portland include Al Unser, Jr. (three times), Michael Andretti (three times), Mario Andretti (twice), Gil de Ferran (twice), Alex Zanardi (twice), Christiano da Matta (twice), Emerson Fittipaldi (twice), Sébastien Bourdais (twice), Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Takuma Sato and Will Power. Few fluke wins occur at Portland. In the twenty-six races run so far since 1984, only nine drivers have won at Portland that did not won the Indianapolis 500.

Those that choose to attend Sunday’s race will get a first-hand look at the championship that has tightened up in recent weeks. Only forty-three points separate the top-four drivers in the championship. That changed quite a bit over the past three races. It can just as much over the final three.

The two drivers in first and second place are both young and inexperienced drivers. Points leader Pato O’ Ward has never raced an Indy car at Portland, but he won twice there in an Indy Lights car in 2018. As far as I know Alex Palou, who is currently ten points back, has never even been to Portland.

Behind them are two veterans who each have multiple IndyCar championships. Josef Newgarden has a lot of momentum and is now only twenty-two points behind O’Ward. Scott Dixon is still only forty-three points back, despite being taken out with Palou at Gateway, by Rinus VeeKay.

I’ve been saying all season that Scott Dixon is going to win this championship. If it’s not Dixon, it’ll be Newgarden. At this stage of the game, my money goes on veteran experience over youth ten times out of ten.

What about the race itself? I don’t expect a whole lot out of O’Ward or Palou at Portland, based strictly on their lack of experience at this track, their lack of experience in pursuing an IndyCar championship and their age. In this case, I think their youth works against them and the championship tightens up even more, if it doesn’t get reshuffled altogether.

Sunday’s race on the 12-turn 1.964 mile natural terrain road course will be 110 laps and 216.04 miles.

This weekend will be a two-day show for the NTT IndyCar Series. The first practice will be Saturday afternoon at 12:00 to 1:15 EDT (9:00 am local time) and will be shown live on Peacock. Qualifying will begin at 3:15 pm EDT and will be shown live on Peacock and delayed on NBCSN at 11:30 pm EDT. The final practice will last thirty minutes and will take place at 6:15 pm EDT on Peacock. Sunday’s race broadcast begins on Big NBC (Over-the-air, network TV) at 3:00 pm EDT, with a 3:30 pm green flag.

I think Sunday’s race will feature a new first-time winner, who has also never raced at Portland. But he is not a young inexperienced driver. Portland International Raceway is a relatively flat circuit, maybe not as flat as the IMS road course, but it’s pretty flat. This driver has excelled at the IMS course, and I think he will put it all together on Sunday and gather a win for his current employer before moving on to next year’s team. Of course, I’m talking about Romain Grosjean. He’s been knocking on the door and I think he will earn an IndyCar win in his first season. He has three more chances to do it, why not this weekend?

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Portland Preview”

  1. Pato won two races at Portland in 18 to lift the title so whilst an Indycar rookie he knows the circuit. Palou is the real rookie in my mind. I want one of those two to win however Joseph is my championship pick. Hope I’m wrong and nothing against him but I like the idea of a new Champion and a new Championship winning team if it were to be SP McLaren.

  2. Mind you and without banging on too much I want Askew to win the race and drive full time for RLL in 22.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I’d be more convinced that Dixon could storm to the top of the standings had I seen championship-clinching speed from him this year. I suppose I could point to the Texas races, but those were run in odd circumstances. He’s certainly not out to lunch, but he seems to be hanging around the lead because the top 3 have had a few more bad days.

    Newgarden, Palou, and (obviously), O’Ward can win the championship regardless of what anyone else does if they win the final 3 races. If Dixon wins the final 3, O’Ward could still beat him by finishing 2nd in every race.

  4. Love your column George. You have the courage to make predictions lol.
    Palou aced the weekend.

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