Random Thoughts on Laguna Seca

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There is something in the genetic makeup within the Herta family that makes them untouchable at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Half of Bryan Herta’s career IndyCar wins came at the famous track near Monterey, California. Now his son, Colton, is undefeated in an Indy car at the track in two attempts. Not only did Colton win both of the IndyCar races he has participated in at Laguna Seca – he has dominated them. He won the pole both times and led almost all of the laps in both races, except for stop shuffles.

One could look at the box score from yesterday and see that Colton Herta won by only 1.9747 seconds over Alex Palou, and wonder how that could be called domination. Believe me, it was another dominating performance by Herta at Laguna Seca; just like it was two years ago – the last time the NTT IndyCar Series ran there. Herta led ninety-one of ninety-five laps, with Romain Grosjean leading the other four. That’s domination.

Speaking of Romain Grosjean, his run was about the only thing that kept yesterday’s race from being a total snoozer. The TV guys did their best to make you think that Grosjean was actually going to run Herta down at the end and win the race. You can’t blame them, but I don’t think anyone was really buying it.

None of the championship contenders did their part to gain ground on points-leader Alex Palou. Marcus Ericsson and Scott Dixon got themselves mathematically eliminated from contention. Josef Newgarden overcame his second consecutive poor qualifying performance and finished seventh, but that was good enough to keep his championship hopes barely alive. Next weekend at Long Beach,Newgarden will need to win the pole, win the race and have Palou and Pato O’Ward take each other out on the opening lap in order to win the championship. It’s possible, but highly unlikely.

Pato O’Ward had a good day finishing fifth and staying second in points behind Palou, but he left Laguna Seca ten points further behind Palou than when the weekend started, since Palou finished second.

But when the race was over, not that many people were talking about the race winner. Colton Herta was expected to win. All he did was meet expectations. Everyone was gushing about the third-place driver, Romain Grosjean, and the show he put on in the final stint of the race. After starting thirteenth, Grosjean made more on-track passes than anyone else in the field (27). For the last fifteen as or so, Grosjean was two seconds per lap quicker than Palou and Herta.

Probably the signature moment of the race was when Grosjean was trying to chase down Alex Palou with less than ten laps to go. The only car between Grosjean and Palou was the car of Jimmie Johnson, who drove his best IndyCar race yesterday. Johnson was told to make Grosjean earn it, because Grosjean was going after Johnson’s teammate Palou. Johnson followed orders and Grosjean definitely earned the pass. Johnson went wide and neither driver was going to give an inch. As the two cars collided, Grosjean went slightly airborne, but the Frenchman somehow managed to keep the car under control. Grosjean finally got past Johnson and both cars managed to keep going. Race Control made the correct non-call and chalked it up to good racing.

That was the most exciting part of the race. Aside from the Johnson/Grosjean action in The Corkscrew, the only real drama was when Alexander Rossi made a move for the lead against Herta on Lap Two. Rossi caught the worst of it and ended up into the wall in Turn Five. Rossi was able to get back out, but finished two laps down in twenty-fifth.

In all honesty, it was clear early on that Herta would likely win and Palou would end up in second. The only real question was who would finish on the bottom strep of the podium. Grosjean provided a very interesting answer to the question.

TV Coverage: I’ll start this segment with something that happened in Friday’s practice. Did Paul Tracy really break out in song with I believe I can Fly? I don’t even remember what the conversation was in the booth, but suddenly he started singing it and he didn’t just stop after a couple of bars. He kept going. It was very awkward, and I don’t think anyone is going to confuse PT with R. Kelly.

Here locally, WSMV Channel 4 is our local NBC affiliate. Right at 2:00 pm CDT, I left the Rams-Colts game on FOX and switched over to Channel 4. The “info” description said that it was the IndyCar Pre-Race, but what was on the screen was not IndyCar. Instead, it was a nature show based on tree monkeys in Africa. While I’m sure that is a fascinating topic, it was not what I was wanting to watch at 2:00 yesterday afternoon. Fortunately, I remembered that Peacock was also showing the race, so I dialed up Peacock and it was on. I had Channel 4 on in the other room and during the commercial I went and checked. By that time, someone had realized the mistake and made the switch.

While I realize that being on Big NBC is potentially great exposure for the series, we IndyCar fans are sometimes dependent on decisions made by local affiliates. In 1993, while living in my hometown of Jackson, TN, three races were booted off of our local ABC affiliate; Long Beach, Milwaukee and Toronto. I remember Long Beach being lost to the Easter Seals Telethon, while Milwaukee and Toronto were deemed inferior to whichever ten-year old movie they chose to show instead. For Long Beach and Milwaukee, my (then) wife and I drove to a sports bar in Memphis, which was about ninety minutes away. For Toronto, we had a friend that had one of those giant satellite dishes in their yard, record it off of satellite. My wife went by and picked up the VHS tape the next day and we watched it that Monday night.

These decisions always made me dread the ABC races in those days, because I knew for certain we would get the ESPN races. I wouldn’t find out until seeing the Sunday morning paper, whether or not we would actually get the ABC race locally. Yesterday, I had flashbacks to those days almost thirty years ago.

Overall, I thought the NBC crew did a good job this weekend, aside from Paul’s singing. However, Kevin Lee had a moment I’m sure he wanted back as soon as it left his mouth. After the race he was interviewing Alfonso Ribeiro, who was in Herta’s pity box during the race and also sang a somewhat regrettable version of the National Anthem. The only problem was that Kevin called him André by accident. It was an understandable gaffe, getting his name confused with former Tasman Racing and Team Penske driver André Ribeiro. What made it slightly awkward was that André Ribeiro passed away with cancer this past May, at the age of fifty-three. Fortunately, at the end of the interview – Kevin called him Alfonso. I felt bad for him, because that sounded like something I would do.

Where Was Helio? About two-thirds of the way through yesterday’s race, one of the leaders passed Helio Castroneves and the commentary booth made mention of it. It was a reminder to me that Helio was, in fact, in the race. It was easy to forget, because he went from winning the Indianapolis 500 back in May, to the Music City Grand Prix without driving an IndyCar race while also missing Gateway. In all honesty, he could have missed the last two races and no one would have noticed. Is this what next year is going to look like, or is Helio using these races at the end of the season to reacclimate himself to the nuances of IndyCar so that he can be competitive next season. I guess we’ll know next February at St. Petersburg.

Sato’s Incident: I don’t always agree with Townsend Bell, but I thought he was spot-on in his criticism of Takuma Sato after he spun in the corkscrew. He allowed his car to coast backwards in a lazy fashion and straight into Scott Dixon. There is such a thing as situational awareness and Sato seemed to not be in possession of it.

I know several of you will say that unless I’ve driven in an IndyCar race, I have no right to criticize what a driver does. Well, I’m not chef – but I sure know a good meal from a bad one. And the fact that Bell criticized him already – I’m just agreeing with him.

There have been several times over the years, when Sato has done something seemingly boneheaded and we watch the replay and think to ourselves: “what was he thinking?” Yesterday was one of those times for me.

Drive of the Day: While I was watching the final lap of yesterday’s race, I was already thinking how obvious it was that Romain Grosjean had the Drive of the Day. Then Leigh Diffey pretty much proclaimed the same thing on the air. My first thought was that I had to change mine, since Diffey had already said it publicly. But then I decided that Diffey and I were both just thinking the obvious and there was no need to change my idea just to be different.

Other drivers like Josef Newgarden made up more places in the race, but done did it with such flair and determination, while having a direct result on the race finish. So, in earning his third podium of the season – Romain Grosjean also earned the Drive of the Day.

All in All: This was a typical race at Laguna Seca; entertaining without tons of action. I love the track and hope to visit it one day, but it has always tended to be a bit processional.

Now the championship moves on to a track that can be processional at times, but also offers up the unexpected fairly regularly. For the first time ever, the NTT IndyCar Series will crown their champion at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday. While it will be billed as a three-driver race, in reality it is between Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward. So much for my insistence that experience would make the difference in the championship and that youthful exuberance would be a hindrance down the stretch. My championship picks are about as reliable as my race winner picks.

For what it’s worth – even if the points were closer than they are, I would still pick Alex Palou. He has shown me enough in the last couple of weeks to finally become a believer. Next weekend should be interesting.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Laguna Seca”

  1. I am happy that we are almost assured to have a non Dixon or Newgarden champion. Indycar needs new blood! We need this new championship battle! Glad to see it pan out that way.

    The booth came off unprofessional honestly in the Dixon and Sato dustup. I’ve never driven an Indycar but even I know that spinning in the corkscrew would be unnerving, knowing someone could spear you at any time would be awful. I think it’s unfair to pretend Sato should have been looking out for Dixon, no, he was trying to get out of the way!

    Glad to see Helio back to earth as well, people pretending he was going to be a title threat next year are delusional. He now has finishes of 1-9-21-23-24 to come right back down to earth.

    • I was very surprised Shank hired Helio full time. I’m presuming it is to have team input based on his many years experience at Penske. Better to hire a first class engineer or two I feel but sponsors no doubt like him. 2022 will be his last year presumably. Harvey has fallen off too often this year. Each race somebody picks him to do well and is disappointed. If it is Simon Pagenaud replacing him then I’m not holding my breath for them next year as a team. Same if it is RHR. All these guys are fantastic but past their prime so you need one max per team to guide a youngster like Kirkwood or Logan Sargent.
      For me too many old guys or second rate ride buyers like Kellett or Devlin if he joins AA.
      Otherwise we are enjoying a golden age which is fantastic. Palou, O’Ward, Herta, Newgarden, Askew, Grosjean.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I very much agree on the Sato-Dixon incident. Bell’s point that Sato would have seen Dixon coming as he spun to face oncoming traffic is not quite as strong when watching the on-baord camera footage from Sato’s car and seeing Dixon appear VERY briefly before disappearing behind the track horizon in the corkscrew. Dixon’s car does not become visible again over the horizon until Sato is facing the inside turn. And that’s from the camera sitting at the top of the roll hoop, not Sato’s eyes sitting a foot lower and behind two layers of windscreen. I’m Sato thought that by drifting backwards, he was clearing the typical racing line through the corkscrew. Just an unfortunate racing incident that fortunately did not wind up being any worse than it was (see Nelson Phillippe’s career ending wreck at Sears Point).

  2. Enjoyed the race and Grosjean was just awsome….

  3. Steven Kilsdonk Says:

    Here in Indy, there was a soccer game on before Indycar and it ran a few minutes long. I wonder if the Nashville station was showing the game? If they weren’t, maybe they threw some random show on screen for a few minutes rather than awkwardly airing the end of a game they hadn’t shown the first several hours of.

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