Random Thoughts on Portland

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On one hand, you really don’t want the season championship to come down to random chaos in one sequence of turns so late in the season. On the other hand, you don’t want the penultimate race to be a boring parade of cars that can’t pass each other for 110 laps. Yesterday we almost had both, but ultimately had neither.

Portland International Raceway is notorious for the tricky chicane that makes up the sequence of turns following a very long main straightaway. Throughout the weekend, drivers struggled with the turns, with most of the problems self-inflicted. IndyCar officials tried solving the long-standing problem with a confusing set of layers of cardboard signs weighted down by water bags, set up in the runoff area. When you looked at this setup head-on, all you saw was a series of arrows pointing at each other. Maybe it was more straightforward in person, but on television it almost looked comical.

Then series officials made a crucial decision that probably did more than anything to avoid the first-lap mayhem we have grown accustomed to at Portland. They allowed the pole-sitter to accelerate coming off of the final turn, as the rest of the field followed suit. With Team Penske teammates Scott McLaughlin and Will Power making up the front row, they were probably able to come up with a plan to protect each other and not let anyone else throw a wrench in Power’s championship plans.

The idea worked as the entire field got through the unpredictable series of turns clearly. But if Power and McLaughlin had a plan, no one told Christian Lundgaard about it. The Danish rookie shot up from his third-place starting position and overtook Power before they even got to Turn One.

If the worst thing that happened to points leader Will Power was losing one spot at the start yesterday, I’d say that was a pretty good day. As it turned out, IndyCar’s strategy to prevent chaos at the start almost backfired. Once it became obvious that the field made it cleanly through the start, there were no cautions for the first eighty-four laps – and the series had something of a snoozer on their hands. Yes, there were a few early passes on Josef Newgarden and the occasional Conor Daly fire in the pits to keep things interesting; but you had to really search for something to get overly excited about. Tire strategies can hold your interest for just so long.

But just as everyone had resigned themselves that yesterday’s race was going to run caution-free, Rinus VeeKay stirred things up as he inexplicably punted Jimmie Johnson into the outside wall, just before Turn One as VeeKay was lapping him. While that move infuriated Johnson and did Josef Newgarden no favors, fans and NBC execs were happy to have some action to pay attention to.

The restart brought the bulk of the excitement of the race, as Pato O’ Ward made contact with Power in Turn Two and Scott Dixon went to the inside and made his way past the struggling Newgarden and Alexander Rossi. Dixon tried to get around O’Ward, but he was blocked – until IndyCar ordered O’Ward to relinquish the position to Dixon.

Ultimately, pole-sitter Scott McLaughlin was in a class of his own yesterday. He led 104 of the 110 laps, only giving up the lead for pit stops. The second-year IndyCar driver has lived up to all of the hype this season, that the media placed on him last year as a rookie. He now has three race wins and three poles. By winning, he also kept himself alive for the championship heading into the season finale this coming weekend at Laguna Seca.

TV Coverage: I had no issues with any of the guys in the booth or the pit reporters. It’s amazing how much more cohesive two pit reporters can be, when one of them isn’t named Marty Snider. Kevin Lee and Dillon Welch do an excellent job, mainly because they focus on bringing facts and information to the viewers, rather than promoting themselves.

I liked that during qualifying and the start of the race, they put James Hinchcliffe just inches inside Turn One, where the cars went flying by as they cut the curbing or sometimes hopped over it. As Leigh Diffey pointed out, the speed of an Indy car usually does not translate very well over television. The view that Hinch and his cameraman gave us from that perspective, drove that point home.

My only issue was a technical issue. During the Friday evening practice, that was extended to almost three hours due to a giant video board that was threatening to lean out onto the racing surface – the audio was fine. But NBC was admittedly having audio problems, when the Saturday morning practice started. When they finally came on, the audio for the announcers was way too quiet – and it was hard to hear them saying anything over the roar of the engines. While I enjoy the sound of a racing engine at full song as much as anyone, I also like to hear what the announcers are saying. It was very difficult to hear the announcers Saturday morning, during qualifying on Saturday afternoon or in the final practice on Saturday evening. The issue seemed to be fixed on Sunday, but for about a three-lap stretch about two-thirds of the wat through the race – the problem resurfaced, but three laps later they fixed it.

National Anthem: Some of you think I’m harsh when I criticize certain renditions of our National Anthem. I’m told that if I’m so free to criticize, then I should get up there and do it. First of all, I’ve never been asked. Second of all, I am aware of my limitations. Apparently Jessie Leigh, who attempted to sing yesterday, is not aware of hers. To put it bluntly, she was awful. She sounded like an asthmatic moose. It is quite possible that she was suffering from laryngitis. If that was the case, she should have yielded the spotlight to someone else. If what she belted out was intentional…well, I don’t know what to say.

No Sympathy: While I’m being heartless, I did take issue with one thing that Leigh Diffey said in yesterday’s telecast. He was praising Alex Palou’s ability to block out all of the distractions caused by his legal issues over the last couple of months. He almost portrayed Palou as a sympathetic figure or even a victim in all of this mess. My take on the situation is that most of the legal issues Palou is dealing with are self-inflicted. Now we can argue that he was underpaid or that the system is currently rigged in favor of the owners. Regardless of all that, Palou was under what sounds like a fairly iron-clad contract and he chose to violate the terms of the contract. No offense, but I don’t want to hear anyone make a martyr out of Alex Palou. I admire the fact that he has been able to compartmentalize things, but he is the reason for the distraction in the first place.

Avoidable Confusion: Throughout the weekend, many of us struggled to tell the difference between the cars of Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson. I’m not sure why we all struggled so. For years, there were at least two Target cars on the grid each week – sometimes three. We didn’t have a whole lot of trouble telling them apart. For almost twenty years, there were at least two Marlboro cars each week – yet they didn’t seem to confuse us like this weekend did with Dixon and Ericsson each driving PNC Bank liveries.

There were differences. Ericsson carried blue endplates on his rear wing and a white stripe bearing Huskie Chocolate on the front wings. By Saturday, a bright day-glo stripe had been added to the top of Ericsson’s roll-hoop.

One big difference between the Target & Marlboro days is the aero screen. If we saw a Marlboro car spin, we immediately knew whether it was Emerson Fittipaldi or Al Unser, Jr because of the recognizable helmet design, much more than a different colored roll-hoop.

I remember one year at Iowa, when there were two PNC Bank liveries, but they reversed the schemes. Dixon carried the usual orange nose with blue sidepods, while the No. 10 carried a blue nose with orange sidepods. It’s probably a lot more expensive to do it that way, but it was much easier to tell who was who.

PNC

Drive of the Day: Several drivers had good drives and improved significantly on their starting position. One of the usual winners of this award was Graham Rahal, who had a good day by starting eleventh and finishing fifth. But undoubtedly, the Drive of the Day belonged to Scott Dixon – who was third in points coming into the weekend and fourteen points behind. When he had a poor qualifying effort and started sixteenth, the chances of a seventh championship suddenly looked bleak on Saturday afternoon.

But as Sunday wore on, every time I glanced at the scoring on the left of my screen, Dixon was slowly but surely moving up – in typical Scott Dixon fashion. He turned a very bad starting position into a podium finish and kept his title hopes alive. Heading into Laguna Seca next weekend, Dixon is tied with Josef Newgarden for second, as they both trail Will Power by twenty points.

All in All: Yesterday’s race at Portland was not the most scintillating of races, but things got interested near the end. Best of all, it was a clean race – which isn’t always the case in Portland. I don’t think you want the championship decided by a fluke incident late in the season. That was certainly possibly heading into yesterday, but fortunately it didn’t happen.

Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward have been officially eliminated heading into next weekend’s showdown. But Scott McLaughlin is still very much alive as he now trails Marcus Ericsson by only two points. Neither of them are likely to win the championship, but if you are still alive and kicking going into the final weekend, I’d say you’ve had a successful season. Things should be very interesting next weekend.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Portland”

  1. I have maintained for several years that for the national anthem, all sporting events and other venues should simply play an instrumental recording of the song by the US Army band. Would eliminate a lot of suffering.

  2. The National Anthem was god awful.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Another race, another strong Penske pit decision, though apparently Newgarden wanted the black tires on that final stint. Even without the caution, I’m not sure how that was going to prove advantageous in any way.

    The title is Power’s to lose in Monterrey.

  4. Nestor Reyes Says:

    As always on point for the rendition of our National Anthem. It used to be the Anthem now its all about who! Anyway, thanks for your opinion. As far as the topic for the race, I believe it was a good race not exciting but yet, interesting. Being a newbie to this race forum, I love learning, having conversations of people, memories, and exciting moments; I can be sure of in the next 2 races. Keep up the good work. “writing is an exercise, but communicating is a gift!” Keep writing my friend…..

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