Random Thoughts on Long Beach

The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach started off like so many of them finish – as a single-file parade. For all of of its history and prestige, Long Beach has the tendency to lay an egg sometimes, when the NTT IndyCar Series takes the track. I was afraid that yesterday was going to be one of those times. I ended up being very wrong; as Josef Newgarden, Romain Grosjean and Alex Palou battled it out for the final twenty or so laps – with Newgarden winning his second straight race.

Based on what we saw early on, however, I was afraid we were in for a snoozer. By the time Dalton Kellett found the Turn One barrier on Lap Six – I’m not sure a single pass had taken place throughout the entire field, besides Marcus Ericsson, who moved up two spots to sixth. Just before NBC went to break, I scanned the running order to the left and except for Ericsson, it seemed to be identical to the starting line-up.

When the green flag flew on the Lap Ten restart, the running order remained status quo, except for a few in the back who pitted under yellow. The first real move of the race came on Lap 21 – almost a quarter of the way through the race, when Alexander Rossi was finally able to get around Felix Rosenqvist heading into Turn One. The two banged together, as it looked to me like Rosenqvist turned into Rossi – but that’s just my opinion. From that point on, the action picked up quite a bit.

Of course, throughout all of this – pole-sitter Colton Herta had flexed his muscle early on and pretty well checked out on the field. He maintained about a 1.5 second lead over Newgarden, but you always had the feeling he was cruising and could run away and hide anytime he wanted to. Herta was leading when he made his first pit stop. His stop went longer than it should have, and Herta came out in third – behind Palou and Newgarden.

I watched the 1992 Indianapolis 500 on Saturday afternoon, and was reminded of how Michael Andretti had the entire field covered from the very beginning. By Lap 188, he had a 28-second lead over second-place – with only four cars on the lead lap. On Lap 189, Michael slowed and coasted to a stop, after leading 160 of 189 laps to that point, on that frigid afternoon. With Herta having the fastest car in the race, but now stuck behind two other cars – my mind kept flashing back to 1992.

Sure enough, it happened. The young Herta showed his age, got impatient and made a rookie mistake – despite the fact that he is in his fourth full IndyCar season. Like the 1992 Indianapolis 500, suddenly the fastest car was out of the race. Unlike that race thirty years ago, this time the blame fell squarely on the driver. Now it was anyone’s race for the taking – or so it seemed. As it turned out, Newgarden led the rest of the way, but he certainly wasn’t cruising. Alex Palou threatened to pass him a couple of times, then Romain Grosjean passed Palou for second.

Grosjean was on the red alternate tires, while Newgarden and Palou were on the black primaries. Grosjean made a couple of moves on Newgarden, but the two-time series champion held him off. On the last lap, when there may have been one last chance for Grosjean; Takuma Sato found the tire barrier and brought out a last-lap caution – effectively sealing the win for Newgarden, with about two-thirds of a lap remaining.

Regardless of the last-lap caution, fans were treated to one of the better Long Beach races in the last six or seven years. There were five lead changes. Newgarden’s thirty-two laps led, were the most led by any driver. Herta led rwenty-eight, while Palou led twenty-two. It was an entertaining race, with four cautions – enough to keep it interesting, but none that caused any injuries. It was a good race, and it has set the stage for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham later this month. The race will actually run on Sunday May 1 – a great way to open the Month of May.

TV Coverage: I thought that the NBC crew did an excellent job all through the weekend. From the Friday practice session through Qualifying and the Morning Warm-up – the NBC crew seemed to be on top of their game.

As they did at Texas, they brought in Nate Ryan for the two morning practice sessions. Ryan is first a reporter for NBC Sports and digs into news stories for a living, and also serves on their NASCAR telecast. But he is very underrated as a reporter. No one can ever replace the late Robin Miller, but Ryan does a good job during the practices. I wish he could become a more permanent fixture on their IndyCar coverage.

The only gaffe came from the production trailer, when there was almost a full minute after the Presentation of Colors during pre-race ceremonies, with nothing but crowd noise. Then in the distance, you could hear the PA introducing the National Anthem. Unfortunately, the audio was just fine for that performance.

National Anthem: My age will come through in these comments, but I really don’t care. The National Anthem was sung by someone I think I’m supposed to know, but I don’t. Her name was Malae Emma. She is an Indonesian-American, who is only ten years old. Apparently, she sang the National Anthem at an LA Galaxy game that went viral. Yesterday’s rendition might also, but for the wrong reasons.

I feel like a bully, criticizing the performance of a ten-year old. I don’t fault her, I fault those that chose her to sing before yesterday’s race. For a ten-year old, most of it wasn’t bad. But three separate times during her performance, she let out this inexplicable guttural growl on certain notes. The look on her face made me think she was severely constipated, as she let out this odd sound that did not belong in any song, much less our National Anthem. Perhaps this is the latest trend in singing, to mimic a moose giving birth. If so, leave it on the stage of American Idol. Don’t do it while honoring our nation.

RLLR Woes: After Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing were completely out to lunch three weeks ago at Texas, I assumed they were going to get their act together at Long Beach. I was wrong.

After all three cars struggled through two practice sessions at Long Beach, things didn’t improve much in qualifying. Graham Rahal led the way, by qualifying thirteenth – just missing Round Two. Rookie Christian Lundgaard qualified nineteenth and Jack Harvey qualified twentieth in his return to the cockpit after a concussion at Texas.

Rahal actually raced well on Sunday, improving to seventh by the time the checkered flag waved. I can’t say the same for his two new teammates. Lundgaard finished two laps down in eighteenth-place, while Harvey finished fifteenth. Rahal did manage to move into the Top-Ten in points, but Lundgaard is seventeenth and after missing Texas – Harvey is twenty-second.

I’ve always admired those drivers that were better racers than qualifiers. Little Al was always a better racer, but he could still put a car on the pole every now and then. To be successful, you at least need to qualify in the Top-Ten in most races. Graham Rahal is always one of the biggest movers in a race. Just imagine what his career would be like if his team gave him a car that could qualify consistently in the Top-Ten.

Flower Power: I’ve watched a lot of races in my day, but I saw something yesterday that I had never seen before, when Simon Pagenaud drove his car through the flower garden surrounding the fountain at Long Beach on Lap 60. I don’t really know my flowers, but they were a well-manicured bed of purple and white flowers, put together to loosely resemble a checkered flag.

Pagenaud went in too hot and drove through the flowers, sending dirt and flower petals everywhere. When he exited the flower bed, he almost hit Rinus VeeKay, who stopped to avoid Pagenaud, but then got punted by Scott McLaughlin. Somehow in all of this, Pagenaud got turned around and for some reason – drove back into the flowers headed the wrong direction. This time he got stuck there. His pink and black car was a nice contrast to the purple and white flowers surrounding it.

Rough Weekend: Jimmie Johnson had perhaps his roughest weekend since joining the NTT IndyCar Series a year ago. While seeing Johnson spin off course was nothing new on a street course, he usually didn’t take others out with him. That is still up for debate regarding his crash during the race on Lap 76. Some speculate he may have been hit from behind by David Malukas, while others maintain Malukas simply got caught up in Johnson’s crash. I’m still not sure.

But there is no denying that Johnson was at fault in the two practice crashes on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning – both finding Johnson hard into the tire barrier. In the Friday crash, he made the dreaded mistake of not completely turning loose of the wheel, fracturing a small bone in his right hand. I’m guessing Johnson cannot wait until May.

How Quickly Things Change: A year ago, Romain Grosjean was the toast of IndyCar. Still just a few months removed from the horrifying fiery crash at Bahrain that brought his Formula One career to a premature end; all of IndyCar was in awe and admiration of the courage and attitude shown by Grosjean as he assimilated to a new car, new team and new series. He quickly became a fan favorite.

One year later, Grosjean has moved to a much better team – taking over the long-time Ryan Hunter-Reay No 28 DHL car. He made a few enemies among drivers as he banged wheels with a few drivers in St. Petersburg, along with rear-ending Takuma Sato. He didn’t make many friends at Texas as he navigated only his second career oval. We learned in the Sunday morning warm-up that Alexander Rossi has not warmed to Grosjean as a teammate yet.

The odd thing is, Grosjean still has that infectious smile that we rarely saw in F1. I really don’t think he cares if he is a hero, like in 2021 – or a villain like some are trying to make him now. I think he is still very popular with the fans, and that may be all he cares about. He comes from a place where drivers don’t get too chummy with one another. The villain role in the paddock probably suits him just fine.

Outstanding Rookie: Every practice session, I find myself being more impressed with Kyle Kirkwood, driving for AJ Foyt. In the previous two races he had strong weekends, but you’d never know it by looking at the box scores. This weekend, he finally got a good result. He qualified twelfth, once again advancing to Round Two, then kept his nose clean and finished tenth. A Top-Ten finish at Long Beach as a rookie driving for a very small budget team, is a major accomplishment. I can’t wait to watch his progress in the Month of May.

Drive of the Day: Graham Rahal seems to get my Drive of the Day a lot – mainly because he always has to hustle his car to make up for a poor qualifying effort. Such was the case yesterday, as he qualified thirteenth and finished seventh. While that was a good run, that was not the best drive yesterday.

That honor goes to Scott Dixon, who made up for qualifying sixteenth and finishing sixth, getting hit by his teammate, Marcus Ericsson, in the process. Dixon has been very quiet and under the radar this season. Don’t look now, but Dixon is currently fifth in points.

All in All: What started out looking like a Colton Herta beatdown and a boring race, suddenly turned into a very interesting race that had major implications in the championship. Josef Newgarden has taken control of this very young season. He is now the new points leader, supplanting Scott McLaughlin, who is now five points behind in second. Colton Herta has dropped to eleventh, following his unforced DNF yesterday. Scott Dixon, Romain Grosjean, Pato O’Ward and Graham Rahal all helped themselves in the championship standings.

As has been the pattern during the early part of the season, we now have another three week break before the series reconvenes at Barber on Friday April 29. But after Barber, put on your seat belts. The next weekend (Mothers Day), is the only off-weekend until after Road America in late June. I imagine the championship will look a lot different by then.

So, congratulations to Josef Newgarden, the soon-to-be new father. He has won his second consecutive race for the first time in five years. Team Penske has also won their third race in a row, going three for three to start the season. That’s a far cry from them not winning a race at all last year, until July at Mid-Ohio. That also means Honda is winless so far this season. I would think they would really like to break that streak at Barber, a race where they are the title sponsor.

Also congratulations to reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou. His third place finish yesterday has put him just fifteen points out of first, heading to the track where he earned his first career IndyCar win. This championship has been very interesting, so far.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Long Beach”

  1. David , Fort Wayne Says:

    I agree with most of your assessment of the race. It was a snoozer for most of the day but the last 1/3 did make it worth watching.

    I hate having to listen children sing the anthem so I try to mute the sound when ever possible . I wasn’t quick enough yesterday but what I did hear just reaffirmed my position children shouldn’t sing the anthem nor should a lot of adults, it’s a tough song to get right . Just play Whitney Huston at the Super Bowl and it would work for me.

    I know it’s a subject that has been beaten to death but I cannot help it .ENOUGH OF JIMMY JOHNSON ! Christ almighty he is not the only driver in the field. How much air time is enough for this guy? I get it NASCAR 7 time champion trying something new and different and NBC tit in to NASCAR broadcasts. He ran into the wall every day with nairy a hint of criticism, if any other backmarker had done that I bet ya their competence would have come up.

    I didn’t catch who the pit reporter was who interviewed Herta after he crashed out but his probing how Herta felt at the moment was painful. I applaud Herta for his professionalism in responding to the moronic questions. Asking if crashing out at Long Beach is a flashback to Nashville , Herta should have told him to F. Off and get away from me .

    Anyway enough of my rant

  2. Watching Herta being interviewed after the race I was thinking thank goodness it isn’t me as I might have decked the reporter.

    I think Pagenaud flower picking exercise had a lot to do with Sato…..

    For me KK is a real standout and I would like to see odds on which team he is going to in 2023. Makes his team mates look pretty rubbish.

    I’m very impressed by JJ putting himself on the line in INDYCAR but please let’s lose so much coverage.

    RRL are in crisis. Harvey is not living up to his pre season expectations. We will never know but I think Santino would be up nearer Rahal in the points.

    Expect Ericsson, Herta and McLaughlin all to bounce back at Barber.

    Those reds sure gave the drivers some marbles like never before.

    I found it rather processional and then suddenly it wasn’t! Motor racing. Bring on Barber.

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    Glad that NBC was able to find time to broadcast bits of the race when commercials appeared to be the main program being broadcast.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Certainly compelling street course racing. Newgarden benefits a lot from good pit work and good strategy calls… but he also pretty much never throws those opportunities away. The gap between him and his teammates since he joined Penske is remarkable (19 wins and 2 championships vs. 17 wins and no championships for everyone else).

    Grosjean has been a much better addition to the paddock than I ever could have imagined, he’s fast and aggressive and exciting and seems genuinely thrilled to be racing Indycars. Dixon, Rahal, and O’Ward with good drives from mid-pack… but none of them have yet looked like they have championship-contending speed. Conor Daly beat Veekay straight-up, that’s been a rare sight.

    Marty Snider was the reporter who interviewed Colton Herta. Like so many things that involve Marty Snider talking, it was a bit much.

  5. Bruce Waine is correct.
    Sky Sports is commercial-free.

  6. A severely constipated, growling, moose giving birth! That’s hilarious!!!

  7. Did any one else notice during Friday and Saturday on Peacock that the picture would go out of focus? Even the stat column would blur and I couldn’t make out the names. I contacted Peacock tech support and he asked me to uninstall the app and reinstall it. Didn’t help. I stream quite a lot and have never had this problem. I wondered if it was local transmission problems.

    I was pleased with having a real post race show on big NBC. And yes, Marty Snyder going to NASCAR cannot come soon enough.

  8. I am a Scott Dixon fan. I have long feared the day when Newgarden figures it out. I am sure I am in the minority here when I say despite having two championships, he really had some work to do to become the best of the best. I would go further and even use the word “luck” to compliment his phenomenal talent. But I do believe things are clicking and the age of Josef is upon us. No one will win more races than him the next ten years. The only positive a Dixon fan will take from this weekend is Josef won’t get much sleep during the month of May thanks to his new bundle of joy. Hell of a drive.

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