Laguna Seca Preview

The second race in the so-called west-coast swing for the NTT IndyCar Series takes place this weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca near Monterey, California. After this weekend, there will be only one remaining race to decide the IndyCar championship – next weekend at Long Beach.

Normally, this would have been the season finale – before Long Beach was scheduled away from its traditional April date, in order to give COVID the chance to die down completely. Oops! Like Portland and Long Beach, Laguna Seca did not run in 2020 due to the pandemic.

From 1989 through 1996, Laguna Seca served as the location of the CART season finale. Once Fontana came on board the schedule in 1997, it became the site of the season finale and Laguna Seca was right before it. By 2000, there were four races scheduled after Laguna Seca. In 2002, the race was moved to early June – so much for date equity. By 2002, it was back to mid-September, but the great track was officially off of the Champ Car schedule for good by 2005.

I always liked the races at Laguna Seca. Indy cars don’t particularly race that well on the tight track, as passing zones are at a premium. But I always felt the elevation changes presented a unique challenge – especially The Corkscrew, the sharp “S”-turn at the top of the backstretch with a sudden drop in elevation.

If you are involved in a racing discussion, when someone mentions the term “corkscrew” – most people with any racing knowledge will know exactly what you are talking about. It’s one of the most famous turns in racing.

Few conversations mention The Corkscrew that don’t eventually get around to taking about The Pass. If you’ve been following IndyCar for very long, you know about The Pass. For the uninitiated, The Pass occurred in 1996. It was the last lap of the CART race. Bryan Herta had absolutely dominated the race, but Alex Zanardi was catching Herta in the closing laps. On the last lap of the race, Zanardi was right on the back of Herta’s gearbox. As they entered The Corkscrew, Herta took the traditional line, while Zanardi dove underneath to the left to pass him – then crossing straight over the curbing to keep the car somewhat under control.

While it was a career-defining move for Zanardi, I also think it unfortunately defined Herta’s career as well. Two years later in 1998, Herta was able to purge those demons as he finally earned his first career IndyCar win at Laguna Seca. He also won there for a second consecutive time the following year. Herta added two more career wins for Andretti-Green Racing in 2003 and 2005; but as a driver, he is most remembered for the race he didn’t win.

I always felt The Pass had a profound effect on Herta’s psyche as a driver. I could be wrong, but I got the feeling that he never fully got over that moment when his first career victory was snatched away in such dramatic fashion. I’ve always wondered how his career may have gone, had he been able to hold on and win that race in 1996.

The 2021 championship took a different turn last week at Portland. Alex Palou had lost all of his early summer momentum over the last few races, along with the points lead. Pato O’Ward was riding the momentum of two Top-Five finishes in the last two races, including a strong second-place finish in the previous race at Gateway. O’Ward was also the new points leader coming out of Gateway. All indications were that Palou was limping toward the finish.

So much for indications. Palou won the pole at Portland. Then after getting shuffled to the back of the field as a result of the chaotic start, Palou won the race. Meanwhile, it was O’Ward doing the limping, as he limped to a fourteenth-place finish at Portland. The result was Palou retaking the lead in the points, with a twenty-five point lead over O’Ward. Palou also put more distance between himself and his other main challengers.

Will Palou have another strong race and put himself into a position to close out this deal, or will the momentum shift again and help out either O’Ward, Josef Newgarden or Scott Dixon?

Of course Colton Herta, son of Bryan, could have a say in this matter on Sunday. There is something in the Herta family DNA that makes them run particularly well at Laguna Seca. Aside from Bryan’s two wins there, he also has a second (1996), a sixth (1997), the two wins in 1998 and 1999, and a fourth (2000). Son Colton has only raced an Indy car once at Laguna Seca, in 2019. The result was a dominating win.

Another side note from that 2019 race? On the grid just before the start of the race, is when Tony George approached Roger Penske about selling IMS and the series. Less than two months later, the deal was announced and it closed in early January – just a couple of months ahead of the pandemic. What a crazy two years that has been!

Unlike last week, this weekend will be a three-day show as far as the NTT IndyCar Series goes. Practice One will be Friday at 5:30 pm EDT (2:30 pm local time) and will be shown live on Peacock. There will be a Saturday morning practice that will run at 1:45 pm EDT, also on Peacock. IndyCar Qualifying will take place at 5:05 pm EDT and will be shown live on Peacock, and delayed on NBCSN at 11:30 pm Saturday night. Sunday’s morning warmup will last for thirty minutes beginning at Noon EDT and will be shown live on Peacock. Sunday’s race broadcast will air on Big NBC (Over-the-air network) beginning at 3:00 pm EDT, and will also be available live on Peacock – for all of you cord-cutters out there.

So who will win this weekend’s race at Laguna Seca? Will Jack Harvey score that elusive first win before moving on to greener pastures next season? Will Romain Grosjean do the same? Can Ryan Hunter-Reay muster up past glory as his career at Andretti Autosport comes to a close? Will Herta continue the family tradition at this track? Will one of the title contenders score another much-needed victory to help their case.

Almost anything can happen, but a lot depends on qualifying. Passing opportunities are hard to come by, and not too many surprises happen at Laguna Seca – other than the occasional Zanardi pass. My guess (and that’s all it is) is that Alex Palou can smell the championship from here. He knows a win this weekend can put it that much closer. I think Alex Palou wins his second consecutive race and fourth IndyCar race of the season on Sunday. Now all of his fans can blame me, if he crashes out on Sunday.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “Laguna Seca Preview”

  1. Matthew Lawrenson Says:

    That’s Palou’s day ruined then. I expect his main car will blow up while they unload it off the CGR trailer, and the backup will be found to be infested with termites.

    On a brighter note, I think Alexander Rossi will finally win a race this Sunday

  2. It’s tough to make predictions in this series. There are just too many potential winners.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Here’s rooting for the top two or three drivers leaving this race within 15-20 points of each other so as to set up a big championship showdown in Long Beach. That said, I vehemently agree with George that Palou (and Herta) will be tough to beat here.

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