Long Beach Preview

The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season will come to a close on Sunday afternoon. It will happen at one of the most iconic sites that the series visits – The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. We all know that this race normally runs in April. We also know that it did not run at all last year due to the pandemic. Just to be on the safe side, race organizers made the decision to run the race in September – just to get it way past COVID. Hindsight is 20/20, but California was still under a fairly heavy lockdown in mid-April.

Although things have heated back up again, I still think it was probably wise to move it to September as a one-time season-finale. This event will run again in seven months, but it’s been seventeen months since racing took place om the streets of Long Beach. It’s better to see it late, than never.

As most of you know, Long Beach is the second longest continually running event on the schedule, after the Indianapolis 500. I don’t consider 2020 a break in that streak, since it was originally scheduled to run. COVID ended a lot of streaks, so we just ignored that they happened.

Long Beach has been staging a Grand Prix since 1975, when they hosted a Formula 5000 race, won by Brian Redman. From 1976 through 1983, it was part of the Formula One schedule. Winners of the F1 races at Long Beach included legendary names like Clay Regazzoni, Mario Andretti, Carlos Reutemann, Gilles Villeneuve, Nelson Piquet and Niki Lauda.

Beginning in 1984, the event switched over to a CART race. The streets of Long Beach have hosted IndyCar races ever since. It was also the site of the final Champ Car race in 2008, after the open-wheel reunification. Famous IndyCar winners at Long Beach include Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, Danny Sullivan, Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Montoya, Sébastien Bourdais, Will Power, Dario Franchitti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud. Of course, the “King of the Beach” is Al Unser, Jr., who has won at Long Beach six times. What’s the common denominator of all of those drivers? Each of them has won an IndyCar championship at least once.

Only Mike Conway, Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe and Alexander Rossi have won at Long Beach without ever winning an IndyCar championship. There aren’t a whole lot of “fluky” race winners at Long Beach. Rossi has won the past two races at Long Beach – completely dominating the race in 2019, leading eighty of the eighty-five laps.

Long Beach rookies don’t usually fare well. Just ask Josef Newgarden, who started on the front row as a rookie alongside pole sitter Dario Franchitti in 2012. Newgarden didn’t make it past the first turn. Curiously enough, this is one of the tracks where Newgarden has never won in an Indy car.

For the first (and hopefully only) time ever, IndyCar will crown its champion at Long Beach. Alex Palou has a commanding thirty-five point lead over Pato O’Ward. It is NBC’s job to create suspense and drama surrounding this championship, but in reality – there shouldn’t be a whole lot of drama. O’Ward has to win the pole, win the race and lead the most laps in order to have a shot. Even then, if Palou finishes somewhere mid-pack (I’ve heard anywhere from fifteenth to eleventh), he wins the championship. Most likely, O’Ward would need for Palou to crash out early in order to have a shot to win – even when winning the race. I will be shocked if Palou is not hoisting the Astor Challenge Trophy on Sunday afternoon.

Not only will a champion be crowned, but the IndyCar Rookie of the Year will be decided. Fulltime driver Scott McLaughlin has a twenty-point lead over Romain Grosjean, who missed three of the ovals – including the double-points paying Indianapolis 500, which is essentially the same as missing four races. I think one of the most overlooked accomplishments of the 2021 season is how close Grosjean is in the Rookie of the Year battle, even after missing so many opportunities to score points. If the Grosjean wins it, does it speak to his ability or McLaughlin’s lackluster season?

Like Laguna Seca, this will be a three-day show. Practice One begins at 6:00 pm EDT (3:00 pm local time) on Friday, and will be shown live and archived on Peacock.Practice Two begins at Noon EDT on Saturday on Peacock, with Qualifying being shown live on NBCSN at 3:00 PM EDT. The morning warmup will take place at Noon EDT on Sunday on Peacock. The race coverage on NBCSN begins at 3:00 EDT. With NBCSN going away in December, this will be the final IndyCar event shown on the channel that was once known as Versus. It’s been a good run.

There is also a race winner to celebrate. Unless Palou wins the race on Sunday, the race winner will be lost in obscurity. Susan and I have been to two IndyCar season-finales – Fontana in 2013 and Sonoma in 2018. Both times, the race winners (Will Power at Fontana and Ryan Hunter-Reay at Sonoma) were completely overshadowed by that season’s champions (Scott Dixon both times).

I don’t expect Palou to win the race on Sunday. Although he says he will be going for the win, he would be foolish to be overly aggressive when he just needs to finish mid-pack to clinch the championship. I have an idea that team officials will convince him to be just a little careful on Sunday. That means that someone with nothing to lose will most likely win at Long Beach on Sunday. Who do I think will win? Alexander Rossi will win his third consecutive race at Long Beach and end almost two and a half years of winless frustration. This would be Rossi’s first win since Road America in June of 2019. We’ll see.

George Phillips

2 Responses to “Long Beach Preview”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Could be a lot of action from drivers still trying to prove they belong in a seat next year, but I expect Ganassi and AMSP’s non-contending drivers to play nice and help their contending teammates. Penske’s guys not so much, I think, as Newgarden is such a long shot (that may change if an early incident eliminates Palou).

  2. “For the first (and hopefully only) time ever”

    Sorry, I disagree on this. I was very pleased to hear Long Beach would be the finale. Long Beach is a street course but very often is unpredictable. Both Laguna Seca and Sonoma, the previous finale venues for many years, are both typically Formula 1 style races–the driver to get to Turn 1 first dominates and wins. I prefer ending the year on a race where I can’t confidently predict the winner as soon as I see the qualifying order.

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