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Opinion – The addition of Mike Harding and George Steinbrenner IV brings much needed ownership diversity to the IndyCar paddock

By Steve Wittich

The addition of racing outsiders Mike Harding and George Steinbrenner IV can be nothing but a good thing for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Before the year 2000, Indy car teams came from a relatively equal mix of former participants and entrepreneurs with little to no ties with racing.

Let us use the 1989 CART PPG Indy Car World Series season as an example.

Former Formula 1 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi won the title while driving for wildcat oil man Pat Patrick, who would win three Indianapolis 500s and two Indy car championships.

Rick Mears (2nd) and Danny Sullivan (7th) drove for former racer Roger Penske.

Carl Haas, a lifelong racing parts importer, teamed up with nine-time Oscar-nominated actor Paul Newman to field current IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti (3th) and his father, Mario Andretti (6th).

Italian Teo Fabi finished fourth and won a race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course driving for a factory Porsche team.

In fifth place was third generation driver Al Unser, Jr., who was behind the wheel of a Chevrolet powered Lola entered by New Mexico auto dealer Rick Galles.

Scott Pruett finished eighth while driving for Red Roof Inn owner Jim Trueman and his Colombus, Ohio based Truesports.

Right behind Pruett was former Truesports pilot Bob Rahal, who was driving a car sponsored by automotive aftermarket specialist KRACO and owned by that company founder Maurice Kraines.

In tenth place was Arie Luyendyk who was in the employ of former journeyman driver Dick Simon.

Quite a diverse mix of team owners and a far cry from the top ten in the final 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series standings, who are all employed by former drivers.

Take a look at the full-time teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018. Team owners A.J. Foyt, Michael Andretti, Bryan Herta, Michael Shank, Chip Ganassi, Dale Coyne, Ed Carpenter, Bob Rahal, Sam Schmidt, Roger Penske, Ricardo Juncos, and Trevor Carlin all have one thing in common. They were racers, or have been in racing their entire lives.

Harding Racing, who is led by team owner Mike Harding is the one outlier. Harding is the CEO of Indianapolis based asphalt, and concrete contractor Harding Group does not have a background in racing.

From Ted Field, the heir to the Marshall Field fortune and his Interscope Racing, to lumber and hardware mogul John Menard and his turbo V6 engines, to Treadway Racing founded by asbestos abatement specialist Fred Treadway, to fitness mogul Ron Hemelgarn and the 1996 Indianapolis 500, to energy billionaire Gerald Forsythe and his 28 Indy car wins. The team owners in the various iterations of Indy car racing came from diverse backgrounds.

Lifelong racers and team owners like AJ Foyt, Vince Granatelli, Dale Coyne and Tony Bettenhausen were regularly joined by outsiders like Tom Kelly (car dealerships), Aat Groenvelt (Veal), Bruce McCaw (cellular communication) and Dave Billes (Canadian Tire Stores) to make a successful patchwork of owners that hired drivers.

Harding and Steinbrenner IV should bring a fresh perspective to a paddock that has been chasing the same shrinking pool of sponsors for the past decade.

Earlier this spring Steinbrenner Racing hired Daniel Wale, a dedicated salesperson from outside of racing. More recently, Harding Racing added former Indianapolis Motor Speedway Productions President and COO, who has an extensive sales background, to their payroll. This duo combined with the contacts that Harding and Steinbrenner IV bring to the table has the chance to force more teams to up their sponsorship game.

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TSO Feature by Bruce Martin – INDYCAR Trolley Tour of San Francisco with the four championship contenders

BY BRUCE MARTIN
 
SAN FRANCISCO – The four contenders for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship got to this position by racing fast, winning races and scoring points. But on Wednesday against the backdrop of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, these drivers traded in their high-speed race cars to ride a Trolley Car.
 
The INDYCAR “Trolley Tour of San Francisco” came on an open-air trolley that looked similar to the famed Cable Cars that start on Hyde Street near Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. The motorized trolley cars are able to provide much more flexibility in terms of giving tours while keeping the unique feel of the Cable Car.
 
Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing, second-place in the standings Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport, 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske and 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden took the tour along with a few members of the media.
 
For the media members that took part, the trolley cars picked up the group outside of McCormick & Kuleto on North Point Street and made the stunning and picturesque trip across the Golden Gate Bridge. With the trolley being open on the side, the force of the wind that comes from the Golden Gate area makes for quite an experience. 
 
From the side of the Trolley, one can get a brilliant view of the city of San Francisco and Alcatraz Island, home of one of the most infamous prisons in history. Alcatraz was a maximum-security federal penitentiary from August 11, 1934, until March 21, 1963, and housed some of the most infamous prisoners of all time.
 
The Trolley stopped on the Marin County side of San Francisco Bay, which is home to the North Vista Point. 

The quartet of Verizon IndyCar Series championship contenders pose with Astor Cup with San Francisco as the backdrop. (Photo Courtesy of Bruce Martin)

 
Shortly after arriving, the four championship contenders arrived. They posed with the Astor Cup that goes to the winning driver of the Verizon IndyCar Series with San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. After a variety of different shots, poses and combinations of championship contenders, the four drivers took the front of the trolley for the ride back into the city.
 
All four drivers faced East toward the city on the drive back home. A convertible driven by INDYCAR Chief Marketing Officer C.J. O’Donnell and members of the INDYCAR Photo Staff shot pictures from the convertible of the drivers, some taking part in the open-air experience.
 
From there, it was off to Pier 39, the famed tourist destination on the San Francisco Bay that features many shops, restaurants, arcades and candy stores. There is even a Carousel in the midway portion of Pier 39. 
 
While the Trolley drove down a narrow alleyway, Power took control of the public address microphone on the Trolley to give instructions to the pedestrians who were in the way.
 
“Please make way, you have some very important IndyCar drivers on this Trolley, so please step aside,” Power joked. 
 
He briefly played tour guide before the Trolley stopped so the drivers and media could see the many Seals and Sea Lions that lounge in the water on several rafts. The drivers were suddenly the tourists as they took Selfies and made movies and photos of the Seal and Sea Lion experience.
 
“Wow, those are really cool,” Power said to Dixon. 
 
“It’s amazing to see that many of them in one place in a city like this,” Dixon said.

Alexander Rossi poses for his caricature at Pier 39 in San Francisco (Photo Courtesy of Bruce Martin)

 
After that, each driver posed with an artist for a caricature. First up was Dixon, followed by Power, Newgarden and Rossi. Some of the drivers liked their caricature while others scratched their heads noticing the exaggerated feature that comes out in the artist’s cartoon.
 
Many visitors to Pier 39 were curious as to what was going on and some in the crowd recognized them as IndyCar Series drivers. They mingled with the fans and signed a few autographs.
 
The next stop was at one of the Crab Stands on Fisherman’s Wharf. It was time to teach the four drivers the proper way to crack steamed Dungeness Crabs at the Grotto. This is a long-time dining spot on Fisherman’s Wharf and each driver put on the rubber gloves, were given the mallets and were taught the art of cracking the crab.

Championship contender Scott Dixon and his new friend (Photo Courtesy of Bruce Martin)

 
The more crabs they cracked, the better they became. And the biggest reward of all was when all four drivers got a chance to eat what they cracked, feasting on the shellfish delicacy that is native to the San Francisco Bay Area.
 
Power, Newgarden, Dixon and Rossi liked the crab so much, they didn’t want to leave while there were still crabs available in the pile that they had cracked.
 
Once on board the bus, Newgarden lamented the fact that he didn’t get a chance to eat a hot dog at one of the hot dog stands at Pier 39. But a full-scale lunch awaited, and the Trolley headed up Bay Street and came to a stop in front of the famed Ghirardelli Square. That is when some friendly faces from Ghirardelli Chocolates met the drivers and gave each one special bags filled with the famed chocolate.

The four Astor Cup combatants hanging around (Photo Courtesy of Bruce Martin)

 
And, the media were given some bags of the tasty chocolate creations, too.
 
The group then made its way across Ghirardelli Square to McCormick and Kuleto, where they took part in a 5-10-minute program and were asked questions by INDYCAR’s Kate Guerra. The two Team Penske drivers realize their odds are very slim on winning the championship, so they will just try to win the race and see what happens from there.
 
As for Dixon and Rossi, if Dixon finishes third or higher, he wins the championship. But at a tough track like Sonoma Raceway, that’s not a guarantee.
 
As the four drivers and the media ate in one of the banquet rooms overlooking San Francisco Bay, out in the main dining area was Power’s wife, Liz, their young son, Beau, and Liz’s mother. Dixon left before dessert was served and when an extra plate of steaming hot Pecan Pie with Ice Cream was served, I decided to present it to Liz’s and Beau’s table.
 
Father Will approved of that move.
 
The long morning and afternoon of the “Trolley Tour” concluded.
 
It was a day of fun for the drivers, who greatly respect one another and are friendly off the track. Now, let’s see how fierce they race each other in Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Alexander Rossi and Scott Dixon enjoy a fun day before hitting the track to determine the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series champion (Photo Courtesy of Bruce Martin)

Special memories abound as Firestone’s Cara Adams returns to site of her first race

Cara Adams. (INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski)

Cara Adams’ return to Portland International Raceway this weekend brings back a mountain’s worth of memories.

It was here, in 2007, where a one-off volunteering effort served as the starting point of a career that has ultimately led her to become the Chief Engineer, Bridgestone Americas Motorsports.

Adams had family connections that provided a window of opportunity for her to make the voyage to Portland.

She was a Firestone engineer of tire and vehicle dynamics at the time, but hadn’t ventured yet into the world of motorsports. As is often the case in racing, the timing was right for this venue to serve as her debut race on pit road.

“So this was a fun one. I’d already talked to my manager at the time, and told him a couple years before I was interested in racing and wanted to work in it at some stage,” Adams told TrackSide Online.

“I worked on tire and vehicle dynamics, and I really liked what I did there. But let’s be honest – I felt INDYCAR was more my calling!

“I knew the series was coming to Portland, and my sister had just moved out to Seattle. She took a job as a development engineer for Boeing. So, I decided to invite myself to her race.”

Cara Adams recalls her 2007 debut. (Photo courtesy @Cara_Adams on Twitter)

And so, the journey began from Ohio to Oregon. Of course the key for Adams was justifying the need to take vacation that oh-so-perfectly-happened to correspond with the Portland Champ Car race, and then figure out a way to pay for it.

Adams pushed ahead with the vacation request and paid her own way to get to Portland. Her engineering mindset immediately kicked in from a preparation standpoint to get acclimated.

“I talked to the manager I was currently working with to see if I could take vacation, and to take off Thursday, Friday and Monday to mimic the travel,” she explained. “So I did; I took vacation and paid my own travel.

“I said, ‘Hey I’ll be at track, I’m in Portland, and if you need anyone on pit lane, I’d be more than happy to help.’”

Adams proved a quick study. Firestone’s two senior leaders of its motorsports program from the 1990s into the early 2000s were Al Speyer and Joe Barbieri. At the time, Bridgestone branding appeared for Champ Car races while Firestone branding appeared at IRL IndyCar Series races.

“The team at Portland said, ‘We’ll put you to work.’ So I did and borrowed someone’s firesuit! I quickly had learned a lot from the Firestone team and yes, both Al and Joe were key in that. I don’t think they were used to someone who invited themselves!”

A Firestone Firehawk tire. (INDYCAR Photo by Matt Fraver)

Adams worked with PKV Racing that weekend. PKV Racing grew out of the former PacWest Racing Group operation, and launched in 2003 as PK Racing before Jimmy Vasser joined the ownership group in 2004. The team was renamed as KV Racing Technology in 2008 once the merger of IndyCar and Champ Car occurred, and the team continued under several other names through the 2016 IndyCar season. The Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan names have returned to the grid in 2018 with Sebastien Bourdais’ Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan entry.

That PKV team that year featured a pair of rookie drivers in Neel Jani and Tristan Gommendy. It featured Tom Brown, now an engineer at Juncos Racing’s IndyCar program, as one of the team’s race engineers.

Adams worked with Craig Ross, a Firestone technician who helps train new people in the program.

“I wasn’t involved in the development of tires at the time but was here to learn and work,” Adams said. “It was very interesting to hear the driver comments, and I worked with Craig to talk to them. I listened to the engineers who designed (the tires). It was a more observational weekend.”

The practice and preparation of race weekend led to an exciting moment on Sunday. Adams’ first race on pit lane would witness Champ Car’s first standing start of that season with its new Panoz DP01 chassis. The anticipation built to ensure everyone got away safely.

“It was neat. I totally remember that! Everyone on pit lane was nervous. People stood on pit boxes to watch,” she recalled.

“From a tire perspective, there’s not much difference in that type of start. We tried it again a few years ago at Toronto. It’s not much different. You just have to make sure you get heat on your tires. There’s a lot of warming up beforehand.”

It was the first race in Champ Car’s ultimate final season. Firestone, was, of course, a constant that carried through the open-wheel merger into 2008. It’s been a stalwart of the championship for more than 25 years, and Adams is in her second year as the Chief Engineer after taking over the position from her predecessor, Dale Harrigle.

Cara Adams with Graham Rahal. (INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones)

But at Portland, 2007? Adams knew she wanted to make her dream of working with race tires a reality. She just had no idea how far it would go.

“I always have a game plan!” she said. “I knew this is where and what I wanted to be. Of course back then I didn’t think, ‘Sure, one day I’ll be leading the program.’

“But I hoped I could be paid for this and do a good job for the company.”

Part 1 of a conversation with Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations – more about the Wickens’ crash

By Steve Wittich

TSO (along with a few other media outlets) were given a chance to catch up with Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations on a rainy Friday morning. It was a wide-ranging conversation, so we are going to break it up into to parts. The first part will deal with the Lap 6, Turn 2, five car incident at Pocono Raceway during the 2018 ABC Supply 500. The second part will deal with fencing, the aero screen and the “racing” on superspeedways.

“Our biggest concern is with Rob and his family, and as we always do, we’ll do everything we can to support them, said Frye to start the conversation. “To help him with his recovery and everything that is going on.”

The incident was a big one, and the series is not done gathering all of the data.

Frye explained that they are just beginning to go through a multi-week process of investigation that began at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, moved to Indianapolis and that involves multiple departments.

On the first inspection though, Frye is encouraged by how the car did its job, and gave “huge kudos” to Dallara for “building a great race car,” saying:

“We are very encouraged by how the car held up. We’re certainly not satisfied. The reason we’re not satisfied is that a driver was injured. We’ll never be satisfied until we get to the point where that doesn’t happen.

“It’ll still be weeks, and we’re going to go through this thing (Wickens No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda) with a fine tooth comb. The initial review of all the parts and pieces that we could get, it did what it was supposed to do. This new for 2018 universal aero kit has the driver’s side impact piece that we think was an important element to how the car held up.

“The in-season updates we have done to the car, all seemed to do their job. We’re very encouraged by how it performed, but not satisfied. We’ll never be satisfied, and safety will always be our #1 concern.”

The improved side pod crash structure included adding a pair of bulkheads, moving the radiator forward and moving other internals to the bottom of the car.

Frye explained a few changes came because of a significant incident the No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda during a windy test on March 15, 2018, at Texas Motor Speedway.

After the No. 30’s crash, multiple holes were drilled in one of the beams on one of the bulkheads that make up the crush structure because the data obtained during that impact determined the crash structure was too rigid. That structural change was applied before any car took to the 2.5-mile oval for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations during a press conference at ISM Raceway (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

During the NBCSN broadcast audio between Sebastien Bourdais’ race engineer and his crew chief Todd Phillips that made it apparent, the Frenchman was concerned with the fence repair.

Frye told us that he had not heard complaints from any other drivers but that they took the Bourdais comments very seriously.

“The biggest determining factor (in how they determined if the fence was safe) are the guys who fixed it. Our staff was there working on it with the Pocono people. Kudos to them. Their people are phenomenal.

“Our safety guys, who do this for a living every week, which is very important. They follow us around. They said we were good to go, so we’re good to go.

“Our guys are very good, and they take the driver’s safety as seriously as anyone. We rely on them and they were all out there.”

There was some concern voiced from fans and media about how long it took for the first medical update to be delivered.

Frye explained that the first point of concern is the taking care of the drivers and the then taking care of the families. The magnitude of the incident with five injured drivers, including one driver who was injured enough to be transferred meant that took just under an hour.

Frye did admit that the process of informing the media of an injured drivers condition could be shortened by 10-15 minutes, saying they will do better next time.

Frye explained that the processes surrounding an incident like Wicken’s are always evolving, saying “I’ll never be satisfied.”

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Indianapolis 500 – 2018 – “TDZ’s” car-by-car preview

By Tony DiZinno

The last five years in my prior role with NBCSports.com, one of my favorite pieces all year to do was a car-by-car analysis going into the race (most recent examples from 2016 and 2017 linked here).

So, I’m happy to carry that streak into TrackSide Online’s extensive preview coverage before the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

After practice and qualifying, here’s my thoughts on each of the 33 entries that made the field.

1-20-Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 15th
Best Start: 1st (2013, 2014, 2018)
Best Finish: 5th (2008)
Strategist: Tim Broyles
Engineer: Allen McDonald

Carpenter’s qualifying time was electric and the team’s had solid race pace all week with all three cars. However neither ECR cars nor McDonald-engineer cars have stayed as strong in the race as they have been in qualifying over the years. The hope is that that changes this week, to where Carpenter can be a solid win threat.

2-22-Simon Pagenaud, Menards Team Penske Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 7th
Best Start: 2nd (2018)
Best Finish: 8th (2013)
Strategist: Kyle Moyer
Engineer: Ben Bretzman

Perhaps the luck is starting to turn Pagenaud’s way after he finished his qualifying run Saturday just before the rain hit, then was best of the four Penske cars on Sunday. Has run well here before – notably in 2015 – but hasn’t yet been in win contention in the final 20 laps. I think that changes this year, in what could be a mental test for him versus his teammates.

3-12-Will Power, Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 11th
Best Start: 2nd (2010, 2015)
Best Finish: 2nd (2015)
Strategist: Jon “Myron” Bouslog
Engineer: David Faustino

Power’s mental state seems stronger than ever this May. He’s been locked in in qualifying and has looked very good in race running practice. Castroneves may be Penske’s sentimental pick this year but Power’s perhaps the best bet of Penske’s three full-season drivers to score his first Indianapolis 500 win.

4-1-Josef Newgarden, Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 7th
Best Start: 3rd (2016)
Best Finish: 2nd (2016)
Strategist: Tim Cindric
Engineer: Brian Campe/Gavin Ward

For all Newgarden’s achieved already in his young Verizon IndyCar Series career, success in the Indianapolis 500 has generally eluded him in six prior starts, with only one real year in win contention. I think he’s a top-five finisher but not a race winner this year.

5-18-Sebastien Bourdais, Team SealMaster Honda
Indianapolis 500: 7th
Best Start: 5th (2018)
Best Finish: 7th (2014)
Strategist: Dale Coyne
Engineer: Craig Hampson

First of the Hondas on the grid, Bourdais’ dynamic engineering duo of Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson has clearly found something on the setup for this car that has eluded others in the Honda camp. The fact he’s racing Sunday is great enough news. I think he’ll score another top-10 in the race, but not win it.

6-21-Spencer Pigot, Preferred Freezer Service Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 3rd
Best Start: 6th (2018)
Best Finish: 18th (2017)
Strategist: Brent “Woody” Harvey
Engineer: Matt Barnes

As teammate Danica Patrick only partially joked, Pigot’s a “quiet boy” who rarely speaks. He hasn’t needed to talk much this week because his driving has done the talking. In what’s easily his best month of May so far, expect Pigot to contend for a solid lower top-10 finish. He’s not been thrust into race-contending situations yet so if he’s in the lead pack late, it will be interesting to see how he races.

7-13-Danica Patrick, GoDaddy Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 8th
Best Start: 4th (2005)
Best Finish: 3rd (2009)
Strategist: Tim Keene
Engineer: Don Halliday

Unlike Fernando Alonso last year, Danica Patrick’s presence has not overshadowed May to the point of overkill. Yet. Practice and qualifying week saw Patrick as a proper one of 35 drivers attempt to make the 33-car field rather than the only highlighted driver as Alonso often was. For all her detractors, few know how to race this event better, and it’d be a surprise if she isn’t in top-10 contention late once again. Strategist Tim Keene may throw a few curveballs too to net her track position.

8-3-Helio Castroneves (W), Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 18th
Best Start: 1st (2003, 2007, 2009, 2010)
Best Finish: 1st (2001, 2002, 2009)
Strategist: Roger Penske
Engineer: Jonathan Diuguid

This marks Castroneves’ ninth attempt to win his fourth Indianapolis 500. Was a bit disappointed with his qualifying run Sunday and not the happiest in traffic on Monday. Knowing there is a mix of IMSA and IndyCar crew for his pit stops, will be interesting to see if he maintains strong track position as a one-off entry. As always though, he’ll be a contender.

9-9-Scott Dixon (W), PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Indianapolis 500: 16th
Best Start: 1st (2008, 2015, 2017)
Best Finish: 1st (2008)
Strategist: Mike Hull/Scott Harner
Engineer: Chris Simmons

Dixon will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of his 2008 ‘500 victory this year but has endured a somewhat difficult month. Strategy calls have not come good so far this season for the No. 9 car. If the race becomes a fuel-saving derby though, well, then, we’re well aware of Dixon’s strengths here.

10-14-Tony Kanaan (W), ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 17th
Best Start: 1st (2005)
Best Finish: 1st (2013)
Strategist: George Klotz
Engineer: Eric Cowdin

This is the best Kanaan has looked at Indianapolis since his win in 2013 with KVSH Racing. Kanaan and new Foyt technical director Eric Cowdin are as dynamic a driver/engineer pairing at Indianapolis as there are in the field. After years in the wilderness, it’s nice to say A.J. Foyt’s No. 14 Chevrolet is a proper contender again.

11-4-Matheus Leist (R), ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: Debut
Best Start: 11th (2018)
Best Finish: Rookie
Strategist: Larry Foyt
Engineer: Mike Colliver

Leist’s bravado and childish enthusiasm are his pluses. His minuses are that he’s a rookie, and he’s lost nearly two full days of track time with electrical issues. He won twice on ovals in Indy Lights last year but this is an entirely new ballgame. It’s hard to project his race, because he could easily impress with a top-10 finish or be one of the first ones in the wall.

12-98-Marco Andretti, U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda
Indianapolis 500: 13th
Best Start: 3rd (2013)
Best Finish: 2nd (2006)
Strategist: Bryan Herta
Engineer: Nathan O’Rourke

Another potential popular first-time Indianapolis 500 winner, somehow Marco Andretti is now on the precipice of starting his 13th ‘500 – and is still only 31. Hasn’t been in win contention here since 2014 but is renowned for his ability to play the race into his hands and be close, if not quite there. The highest qualified of the six Andretti Autosport cars, along with Hunter-Reay, have the highest odds to extend the team’s run of wins here to four in five years.

13-19-Zachary Claman De Melo (R), Paysafe Honda
Indianapolis 500: Debut
Best Start: 13th (2018)
Best Finish: Rookie
Strategist: Terry Brown
Engineer: Michael Cannon

Every year the Indianapolis 500 seems to throw one surprise, out-of-left-field, they didn’t expect to be here story and in 2018, “ZCD” is that driver. What the Quebecois has in spades is confidence; what he doesn’t is perfect race craft. Like fellow rookie Leist, “ZCD’s” potential options for this race could be an Alex Lloyd-or-Ed Jones-like Coyne top-five, or an early exit into the wall. But what would be great for him is a quiet, solid top-15 finish that simply brings the car home. Maybe, a fitting 13th.

14-28-Ryan Hunter-Reay (W), DHL Honda
Indianapolis 500: 11th
Best Start: 3rd (2012, 2016)
Best Finish: 1st (2014)
Strategist: Ray Gosselin
Engineer: Ray Gosselin

It’s been four years since “RHR’s” famous win here and nearly three since he last won any Verizon IndyCar Series race. Has looked OK if not great in race running thus far and like other Hondas, has to hope he’ll be in the mix more on great pit work or strategy if not via out-and-out race pace.

15-23-Charlie Kimball, Fiasp Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 8th
Best Start: 14th (2012, 2015)
Best Finish: 3rd (2015)
Strategist: Davey Hamilton
Engineer: Matt Greasley

Want a good sleeper pick for the race? Here you go. It may be the Carlin team’s first Indianapolis 500 but in Kimball and teammate Max Chilton, they have two drivers who’ve figured out how to race it. Kimball has two Indianapolis 500 top-five finishes and was poised for another last year before his engine expired. A win is likely asking too much but if Kimball and/or Chilton can get a top-10 for Carlin in its first ‘500, it’d be an excellent result.

16-30-Takuma Sato (W), Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda
Indianapolis 500: 9th
Best Start: 4th (2017)
Best Finish: 1st (2017)
Strategist: Derek Davidson/Bob Rahal
Engineer: Eddie Jones

Sato made an impressive leap up the order in Sunday qualifying to get up to 16th on the grid. But the defending Indianapolis 500 champion – nor his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammates – has seemed to have that strong of pace thus far.

17-32-Kyle Kaiser (R), NFP/Juncos Racing Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: Debut
Best Start: 17th (2018)
Best Finish: Rookie
Strategist: Darren Crouser
Engineer: Tom Brown

Those who have followed Kaiser’s methodical improvement over the last few years won’t be surprised by how well he’s stayed calm and level headed all week. Making it in without drama on Bump Day was huge and parlayed itself into an even better qualifying run on Sunday. This Juncos Racing group has kept Kaiser in a great mindset and with a clean 500 miles, the Indy Lights champion could well be named this May’s rookie-of-the-year.

18-6-Robert Wickens (R), Lucas Oil SPM Honda
Indianapolis 500: Debut
Best Start: 17th (2018)
Best Finish: Rookie
Strategist: Piers Phillips
Engineer: Blair Perschbacher

One of the stars of the season so far, Wickens has endured something of a humbling first month of May ahead of his first Indianapolis 500. Between his frustration over the qualifying process to his accident on post-qualifying Monday, things have not gone as smoothly for the talented Canadian as he might have hoped. He’ll be looking for a significantly less eventful first race on Sunday.

19-33-James Davison, Jonathan Byrd’s 502 East Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 4th
Best Start: 19th (2018)
Best Finish: 16th (2014)
Strategist: Steve Moore
Engineer: Kyle Brannan

For better or worse, Davison carries bravado and swagger that’s hard to ignore. Quite what the Steve Moore-led crew for the combination Foyt, Byrd, Hollinger and Belardi entry has done has been beyond impressive, and “Davo” has converted that work in Gasoline Alley into pace on the Speedway itself. Usually Davison has spent his races coming from 33rd on the grid to the front. He’ll have fewer cars to pass this year, but the key is finishing – something he has not done since posting a solid 16th as a rookie four years ago.

20-59-Max Chilton, Gallagher Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 3rd
Best Start: 15th (2017)
Best Finish: 4th (2017)
Strategist: Geoff Fickling/Colin Hale
Engineer: Geoff Fickling

A track position and patience type of race could play to Chilton’s strengths. The Englishman is calm and easy on equipment. We learned how he could race at the front of the field last year, when he led a race-high 50 laps, before fading in the final stages down to fourth. Chilton is not a “sexy” pick to star here but like Kimball, don’t be surprised if he is in solid top-10 contention on Carlin’s Indianapolis 500 debut.

21-29-Carlos Munoz, Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda
Indianapolis 500: 6th
Best Start: 2nd (2013)
Best Finish: 2nd (2013, 2016)
Strategist: Michael Andretti
Engineer: Len Paskus

Munoz has a pretty impressive record at the Speedway with a pair of runner-up finishes and a fourth with Andretti Autosport, and a 10th for A.J. Foyt last year. And true to form, while Helio Castroneves and Danica Patrick are getting the majority of the headlines among the “one-off” drivers, it’s Munoz who you should expect to stealthily advance up the leaderboard with nothing to lose. Former strategist Rob Edwards said Munoz’s presence back in the team this year has been great for both parties. He’s looked really strong in traffic all month. He has top-five potential on merit and may be in with a sniff of that elusive victory if he catches the right break.

22-88-Gabby Chaves, Harding Group Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 4th
Best Start: 21st (2016)
Best Finish: 9th (2017)
Strategist: Brian Barnhart
Engineer: Matt Curry

If you picked Chaves to finish ninth in Harding Racing’s team debut last year… just kidding. You didn’t. No one did. And that tells you the quality of effort put together by this team out of the box, before they went through and made the personnel additions they have for 2018. Chaves, who is a smart racer, now has Brian Barnhart guiding his race back on the competition side of the sport, along with other experienced pros like Vince Kremer and Gerald Tyler on board. Was strong in pre-qualifying practice and will look to work his way forward from 22nd, where another top-12 to 15 run is more than possible.

23-25-Stefan Wilson, #Driven2SaveLives Honda
Indianapolis 500: 2nd
Best Start: 23rd (2018)
Best Finish: 28th (2016)
Strategist: Paul “Ziggy” Harcus
Engineer: Doug Zister

Tall, lanky Stefan Wilson has had a much smother May in 2018 than in 2016 as a rookie or 2017 when he sat out, as part of a six-car team at Andretti Autosport that has been well planned out in advance. For an extra car he has a lot going for him, both on the strategy box with last year’s winning strategist and on the timing stand with engineer Doug Zister, who is also engineering Colton Herta’s Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing car in Indy Lights. Has done just what he’s needed to this month, which is stay under the radar while working to promote the #Driven2SaveLives cause. He isn’t a win contender on outright pace but could crack the top-15 if his run progresses smoothly.

24-24-Sage Karam, WIX Filters DRR Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 5th
Best Start: 21st (2015, 2017)
Best Finish: 9th (2014)
Strategist: Dennis Reinbold
Engineer: Jeff Britton

Karam expects his fifth Indianapolis 500 to be his most challenging and one where he’ll need to “think outside the box” to advance. The 23-year-old always seems on the edge of adhesion and is always a driver to watch as he progresses through the field. He’s made a habit of that in three of his previous four starts. Together with his excellent pit crew, Karam is a potential big mover on Sunday.

25-26-Zach Veach, Relay Group 1001 Honda
Indianapolis 500: 2nd
Best Start: 25th (2018)
Best Finish: 26th (2017)
Strategist: Josh Freund
Engineer: Garrett Mothershead

Veach’s first Indianapolis 500 as a full-season driver and second overall has gone smoothly and quietly, as part of Andretti Autosport’s six-pack of cars. Expect the race to go the same. If he progresses into the top-15 it’ll be a good effort from P25 on the grid.

26-64-Oriol Servia, Scuderia Corsa/Manitowoc Honda
Indianapolis 500: 10th
Best Start: 3rd (2011)
Best Finish: 4th (2012)
Strategist: Jim Prescott
Engineer: Mike Talbott

Servia’s opened 2018 with three new elements of his life: being a father (first daughter Ona), a restaurateur (PoKing PoKe in Santa Monica, Calif.), and an INDYCAR Pace Car driver. But he’s back where he belongs in May, in an extra RLL Racing Indy car, as part of Scuderia Corsa’s first entry into the Indianapolis 500. Few have Servia’s depth and experience level and he always finds a way to make his forward to the front of the field. Surprisingly hasn’t had a top-10 finish here since 2012 when he was fourth, but three finishes of 11th or 12th since then should mean he’ll be close again.

27-66-JR Hildebrand, Salesforce DRR Chevrolet
Indianapolis 500: 8th
Best Start: 6th (2017)
Best Finish: 2nd (2011)
Strategist: Andy O’Gara
Engineer: Chase Kaufman

Hildebrand’s run of three consecutive top-10 finishes as a May-only entry came to an end last year, when he was back in a full-season seat. Now back in a May-only seat, he’ll look to start a new run this year. A lot of the Andy O’Gara-led crew here worked on the third Foyt car last year and it’ll be interesting to see how they can help propel the likable Californian-turned-Colorado resident towards the front, for a driver who generally is there or thereabouts 400 to 450 miles into the race.

28-7-Jay Howard, One Cure SPM Honda
Indianapolis 500: 3rd
Best Start: 20th (2011, 2017)
Best Finish: 30th (2011)
Strategist: John Cummiskey
Engineer: Bruno Couprie

Over 10 years, Howard’s been through more highs and lows at this place for any number of reasons, and found himself perhaps unnecessarily at the center of attention in this last week. Like several others in the field, the best thing for Howard this Sunday is that we aren’t talking about him at all until we see him pop up in a higher finishing position than you might expect, say in the top half of the field.

29-10-Ed Jones, NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Indianapolis 500: 2nd
Best Start: 11th (2017)
Best Finish: 3rd (2017)
Strategist: Chip Ganassi/Barry Wanser
Engineer: Julian Robertson

The 2016 Freedom 100 runner-up and 2017 unofficial Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year has endured a sophomore slump this May in what should, theoretically, have been a move up the grid. It’s not that Jones has lost the quiet swagger or confidence he carried last year. But with a car that’s sensitive and understeery in traffic, Jones has found himself mired further back. Seems weird to say but a top-10 would be a surprise result for him on Sunday, although knowing how quietly Jones has tended to move forward, you can’t rule it out.

30-15-Graham Rahal, United Rentals Honda
Indianapolis 500: 11th
Best Start: 4th (2009)
Best Finish: 3rd (2011)
Strategist: Ricardo Nault
Engineer: Tom German

Rahal’s long been bullish on race pace over qualifying pace, but he’s left himself a lot of work to do the last several Indianapolis 500-mile races. He narrowly avoided the last row this year and will start 30th, a career-worst. This is his fifth start of 20th or worse in 11 races here; however, his career-best finish here of third came from 29th in 2011. He’ll need a similar turnaround on Sunday, but has been adept at recovery drives so far this season – notably at St. Petersburg and Long Beach.

31-60-Jack Harvey, AutoNation/Sirius XM MSR with SPM Honda
Indianapolis 500: 2nd
Best Start: 27th (2017)
Best Finish: 31st (2017)
Strategist: Will Anderson
Engineer: Will Anderson

Harvey sweated through Bump Day with a slow morning run, but improved in the afternoon to avoid the bubble. Sunday saw the same issue as affected him on Saturday return, and leaves him on the back row. A simple finish will be a good achievement for Harvey in his second ‘500, anything in the top-15 or better a bonus.

32-27-Alexander Rossi (W), NAPA Auto Parts Honda
Indianapolis 500: 3rd
Best Start: 3rd (2017)
Best Finish: 1st (2016)
Strategist: Rob Edwards
Engineer: Jeremy Milless

After a deflating tire left Rossi unable to make a representative qualifying speed on Sunday, he fell from the fringes of the Fast Nine to second-to-last on the grid. However, he stands the best chance of becoming the first driver to start 32nd and win the race. It’ll take a lot of strategic and track position moves to advance, but Rossi has the wherewithal, experience and patience to do it given that’s how he won in 2016 when he fell down to 29th after fuel issues. Alas, a top-10 result is the more realistic pick here, and would be very important in the big picture of the overall championship.

33-17-Conor Daly, United States Air Force Honda
Indianapolis 500: 5th
Best Start: 22nd (2015)
Best Finish: 22nd (2013)
Strategist: Dan Hobbs
Engineer: Dan Hobbs

Daly will fly the red, white and blue “Thunderbird on wheels” for the United States Air Force and like his aviation brethren, he has nowhere to go but up on Sunday from shotgun on the field in 33rd place. A solid top-20 finish would be a good result.

TSO – “TDZ’s” View from the Stands – Phoenix and Long Beach

By Tony DiZinno

Let’s face facts: when you are fortunate enough to do what we get to do, essentially live out our dreams moving from the grandstands into the media center and bringing the coverage of the racing series we love to you, our loyal Trackside Online readers and subscribers, it’s easy to pinch yourself and reflect on how it all happened.

We wouldn’t be in the position of covering races if we weren’t fans first and then managed to convert that fandom into opportunity and determination to succeed to work within the sport.

This year’s schedule worked out perfectly, then, to “return to my roots” for a couple races where my Dad and I could do something we did over about a dozen-year span from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s: watch the two West Coast Verizon IndyCar Series races in Phoenix and Long Beach purely as fans, from the stands.

As TSO readers may know, my primary role in racing this year takes me into IMSA’s sports car paddock. That meant at Long Beach that unlike in previous years where I’d attempt to juggle covering all of IndyCar, IMSA and World Challenge in the same weekend, I would only be focusing on IMSA in 2018 and wouldn’t be on IndyCar duties for TSO that weekend. With both Steve and Patrick at Phoenix, the opportunity arose where I could be a fan again there – something I haven’t done exclusively at a racetrack since a sports car race weekend at Circuit of the Americas in Austin in September 2013.

To understand why this chance was extra special requires a bit of backtracking to a couple noteworthy moments at both Phoenix and Long Beach in my youth (in the 1990s, not last year, come on guys…)

The first time my Dad and I went to Phoenix together was in 1996, when Arie Luyendyk won the second race ever of what was then the fledgling Indy Racing League. But the first proper memory there occurred a year later at the “Test in the West” preseason open test. Between the combination of actually meeting Luyendyk there (below, shown in 2002), getting called “Hot Rod” by Tony Stewart when seven-year-old me thought it cool to tell him he and I had the same name, and losing a tooth while biting into a hot dog, it was a test that stood out for any reason beyond the switch to normally aspirated engines and the new cars…

A young “TDZ” talks to Arie Luyendyk, circa 2002 at then-Phoenix International Raceway. (TSO Photo Courtesy of Tony DiZinno)

He and I went to races together here through 2002, both in IndyCar and GRAND-AM. I missed the last three IndyCar races from 2003 through 2005 but was at the 2005 and 2006 GRAND-AM races on the infield road course. The latter event served as the first race I ever covered on site. Time flies.

Long Beach is special for different reasons, but I’ll get to that in that subsection.

ISM Raceway: New track name, same pre-race uncertainty

Anyway, for 2018, uncertainty lingered in the air about Phoenix – now ISM Raceway’s – future hosting IndyCar races. I hate to say I’ve been down this road before, but when you grow up in Phoenix, then move to Milwaukee, you’re rather familiar with the consternation over IndyCar’s future on one-mile ovals.

Milwaukee long faced a similar song-and-dance routine about its own future. It had an active promoter in Andretti Sports Marketing and a title sponsor in ABC Supply Co., but between changing dates and respectable but not spectacular crowds, Milwaukee has met its demise (for now) as of July 2015.

We flash forward to Phoenix, which entered the April 7 race in a somewhat similar, tenuous spot. While the race has a track president in Bryan Sperber who is an IndyCar fan and a team of dedicated staff, a title sponsor (local company Desert Diamond West Valley Casino) and a relatively stable date in April – albeit pushed back a couple weeks last year to accommodate the NCAA Final Four – it had lacked any semblance of good, classic, old-school style IndyCar short oval racing. Chevrolet’s dominant short oval aero package left Honda’s in its dust; and the general lack of passing throughout the field was attributed largely to the topside heavy downforce in the three-year manufacturer aero kit era.

Your ingredients heading into Saturday night then, were: a theoretically improved aero package, a Firestone tire rotator meant to rubber in a second line, and a track in its last race before its $178 million renovation project gets completed. Oh, and for good measure, you were in the last year of a three-year contract.

No pressure to succeed, right?

Phoenix’s pre-race fan plan

My dad and I left our house for the roughly 45-minute drive to ISM Raceway in Avondale about 3:15 p.m. and got to the track just around 4, during the USAC Silver Crown race. Heading further west to the free lot didn’t take much longer, nor did the walk inside the premises. When you’re just over two hours before the green flag, you want to get in quickly but you also want there to be a sense of buzz. That didn’t seem prevalent as we got checked in.

The reality check of being “purely” fans hits hard, but in a good way, if that makes sense.

What you generally take for granted covering the race – things such as catered food, media parking pass, credentials that are basically carte blanche for access, and most importantly ease of access – generally go away when you’re a fan. These things remain available, but at a price.

View from Turn 1 here, during the vintage IndyCar session. (TSO Photo Courtesy of Tony DiZinno)

The case in point: while our grandstand seats in Turn 1 weren’t much more than $50 apiece, and you could see almost the whole track, a single paddock pass ran you $50 exactly. With the redemption pickup point at Turn 4, prior to the infield tunnel, not outside of Turns 1 and 2, where most of the tens of thousands of fans would be sitting, you have a problem. That means you either need to budget the time to walk the length of the front straight or you can do what we opted to do, which was pass up an infield trip this race.

Not a bad thing, then, as this allowed us time to peruse the IndyCar store, grab an adult beverage and look at food options. Either we weren’t looking hard enough or the Allison grandstand’s primary offering isn’t much more than your standard track fare. The combination of two entrees (a cheeseburger and a hot dog, two bags of chips and two bottles of water) ran us $30.

This isn’t a culture shock or a bad thing, of course. It’s just something to take into account when you think about fans who are dedicated enough to attend a race and want to make the similar memories out of it. Dollars as a fan, like dollars as a participant, go quickly.

Phoenix, like some other ovals, remains a tough sell for fans with the quieter on-track schedule compared to the flat-out, nonstop schedules you get at most road and street courses. Over the 2.5 hours between our arrival and the IndyCar race green flag, the only on-track action were the last 30 laps of the 100-lap Silver Crown race, and a 10-minute exhibition of vintage IndyCars, before the current crop rolled to pit lane for pre-grid over the final 30 or 40 so minutes before the race began.

The race itself…

Of course, the primary reason for attending this one from the stands was to watch the race and hope that the changes made by all parties would make a much better show.

Other than the final restart, the race still left a bit to be desired. Several parties still tried valiantly to make it work. This year’s Phoenix show was better than the last two editions, for sure, but that’s not saying much.

Prior to the end, there was a somewhat chaotic 50-lap period just before halfway. Matheus Leist lost a wheel after a pit stop, while Robert Wickens passed James Hinchcliffe as Hinchcliffe couldn’t get past Gabby Chaves.

… was a nice nostalgic throwback

Following the race from the stands was a fascinating experience, in that like the race promotion that celebrated the 25-year anniversary of Mario Andretti’s final IndyCar race win in 1993, it was very much an analog experience in the digital world. That was by design.

Fans now have access to more digital ways to consume the action than ever, be it Racing Radio scanners, the Verizon IndyCar Series mobile app, your various social media networks and if you brought it, a tablet device.

By choice, I opted to largely ignore my phone this race and just watch the race in a weird way: by watching just the cars on track right in front of me with their LED lights, with the center pylon as my only guide. My only notes would be taken on a single piece of paper. This is a huge variance from inside the media center, with Twitter, IndyCar Race Control Timing & Scoring, and either or both of the NBCSN/ABC TV and Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network broadcasts all up.

And to be honest, it was refreshing. Given the technology at our fingertips and the importance of relaying that info out via our social media channels, it was so nice to have to follow the cars in-and-out of the pits, then find the car they were racing on track. Two cases in point here came when I caught that the SPM twins had cycled through to the net lead before the RLL cars stopped, relayed that to my Dad and new friends in front, and then there they were. The same moment occurred when I caught Ed Jones had leapfrogged the SPM cars later in the race, only to have had eventual winner Josef Newgarden do the same to Ganassi’s new recruit.

Watching an IndyCar race in the media center requires that your eyes are split in at least two, more likely three different directions at once. On this night, knowing that the technology was still there to be used, but knowing a race could be followed without it was a welcome flashback to days of a bygone era.

The crowd that maybe cracked over the 10,000-people mark at least stayed through the checkered flag, which alleviated a definite concern. The final restart and the tire gamble by several cars, including Newgarden, helped salvage the race. And the new car looks fantastic under the lights.

Only twice, on the initial start and on the final restart, did anyone in our section actually stand up and get out of their seats during the race to get excited. Otherwise, we were largely seated just watching 23 identical cars separated only by the drivers and engines powering them, in what was a largely processional affair.

Rossi’s comeback ride of brilliance

Perhaps the only saving grace beyond Newgarden and Wickens was Alexander Rossi, in a performance that was even more special to witness from the grandstands.

It is easy to forget Rossi has only 11 oval starts in two seasons, so this was his 12th start. Yes, he won that one certain oval race in May a couple years ago, but this was by far his best ever drive on an oval, if not overall in his IndyCar career.

Like polesitter Sebastien Bourdais, Rossi’s race came unglued on the first pit stop when he contacted a crewmember. Down a lap and still in 14th place on Lap 165, Rossi got past Wickens to get his lap back.

He’d been passing cars for the better part of 100 laps straight on a night no one else seemed to be able to, but few if any were for position. Every time I looked up, the No. 27 Military to Motorsports Honda was ahead of a car it had been behind the previous lap, often significantly.

I’d noted he was right behind teammate Zach Veach and thought, “Wow, somehow, this is for position…” and 14th became 13th, which became 10th, then sixth, then ultimately third. The immediate comparison I made was of Newgarden’s 2016 drive at Iowa Speedway, another short oval where he delivered a virtuoso performance driving for Ed Carpenter Racing that may have netted him his seat at Team Penske.

Race winner Newgarden flanked by Wickens in second and Rossi, able to come back to third. (INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens)

What is the common denominator between these two, you ask? Engineer Jeremy Milless was working with Newgarden back then and is in his second year with Rossi now. By summer last year the trio of Rossi as a driver, Milless as his lead engineer and Rob Edwards as his strategist really hit their stride as a collective unit, and like at Watkins Glen last year, it all came together in a big way.

The scary part of how good Rossi’s drive was indeed that he unlapped himself entirely under green flag conditions. Without the pit incident, not only was Rossi the likely winner, but he may have lapped the field in the process – as Newgarden nearly did while leading 282 of 300 laps at Iowa in July 2016.

If Rossi wins this year’s championship, mark this night at Phoenix down as the night the run properly began after the controversial, but now in the past, ending at St. Petersburg. It was cause for cheers.

Was that the end for Phoenix? Like some race seats, it’s TBD

Leaving the track after the race, my Dad and I both had weird feelings. Mine was immediate that this may have been it for Phoenix, while my Dad felt in the moment the wrong driver had won.

That’s not to take anything away from Newgarden whatsoever. He more or less admitted how important his Verizon Team Penske team was in delivering the win, and making the switch to new Firestone tires was the key.

Yet seeing Wickens on the short end of the stick again, albeit with a better ending than at St. Petersburg, was almost unfathomable to think about. In two races you had the Canadian rookie less than 10 combined laps away from being two-for-two in his first two IndyCar races. He’d fought valiantly against Newgarden as long as he did before Newgarden got past on the outside into Turn 1. Rossi’s drive merited a win, too, as noted above.

Being a fan for this night allowed the emotion of “who you want to see win” re-enter the picture, something you’re taught to suppress when you make it to the media center. When you’re covering a race you can’t root for specific drivers; you generally hope to root for good stories.

I hope if nothing else came out of Saturday night’s race that other fans in the stands found someone from the race they could root for going forward. It was interesting to note Tony Kanaan clearly got the loudest cheers, while most of the other 22 drivers barely registered above golf claps.

Most of IndyCar’s drivers have great stories and personalities, but they don’t yet have great followings. That was the more depressing takeaway from this race, along with the fact the race itself was far from the best product showcase for the sport.

But the fact my Dad and I got to see it together in person and could immediately bench race about it after the fact in the car on the drive home, and get home only an hour after the checkered flag, made this return to the grandstands a welcome one.

Long Beach memories burn eternally

Flash forward to Long Beach a week later, after a six-hour drive, and things are a bit different. While Phoenix has a history with IndyCar dating to the mid-1960s, Long Beach’s tenure with the series only runs since 1984. But as North America’s longest-running street race – the first Formula 5000 race there in 1975 began the transformation of the sleepy Oceanside town into the mecca it is today – Long Beach hosts arguably the most prestigious road or street course race on the calendar.

Another young “TDZ” shot with Michel Jourdain Jr., in Long Beach, 2003. (TSO Photo Courtesy of Tony DiZinno)

My dad and I started going to Long Beach races together in 1998, so this year marked the 20th anniversary of that and my 13th trip here overall. We went four times purely as fans – in 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2007 – and all of those created memories that made Long Beach my favorite event on the calendar every year.

Whether it was watching Alex Zanardi’s epic comeback in 1998 and donuts right in front of us, talking to the late Greg Moore in the Long Beach airport, bumping into Michel Jourdain Jr. on the Queen Mary, meeting then unheralded drivers named AJ Allmendinger and Danica Patrick when they were racing Atlantics, or then-rookies Saebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay the same year, then watching with disbelief when Jourdain’s gearbox seized up on his final pit stop in 2003 and Paul Tracy inherited the win, to seeing Bourdais crush the field in 2007 in the glorious Panoz DP01, there were countless examples of things that made Long Beach special.

My dad has been to north of 30 Long Beach races; between those four as fans and now the last nine in some level of working capacity since 2010, this year marked my lucky 13th trip. Fortunately, since then, my glasses have improved.

A lot you can pack in at “The Beach”

Long Beach’s 1.968-mile track length isn’t much different than St. Petersburg’s 1.8-miles, but they’re drastically different in terms of how they’re structured. Three unique paddocks for IndyCar (main paddock), IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (over the Firestone bridge in Turn 9) and Pirelli World Challenge (inside the Expo Center) offer three really disparate ways to look at how cars are set up for this race. The number of vendors inside the Expo Center would take hours to properly look at. There is a go-karting track on the back straight, on top of a parking garage. And there’s plenty more.

View of Long Beach’s iconic Queen Mary with food trucks behind the front straight. TSO (Photo Courtesy of Tony DiZinno)

But the best part of Long Beach is how easily you can walk most of the track, especially if you are staying downtown and can walk to the track. With the exception of the fountain section, Turns 2 through 5, you can easily get from Turn 1 to Turns 6, 7 and 8 and then walk back to the Turns 9, 10 and 11 section that completes the lap. I spent the majority of the two-hour IMSA practice session Friday morning doing that. Outside the official track walk, trackside walks during sessions are a rarity, incidentally, on most “traditional” race weekends because you’re largely confined to the media center, paddock and pit lane.

For Sunday’s IndyCar race, my Dad and I sat in Turn 10, the sweeping left-hander that is among the best corners on the IndyCar calendar. TV shows this a bit when you have on-boards, but from the stands you can really pinpoint the steering angles and precise ability of the drivers to turn, correct, and see how hard they can feather the throttle through the tricky left-hander before climbing on the binders and heading into the 35-mph hairpin, the slowest corner on the calendar.

On a street course, it’s rare to see too much, but here you can see the cars exit Turn 9, sweep through Turn 10, go through the hairpin and launch onto the front straight and/or head to pit lane. This came in handy frequently during the race. With a TV monitor right in front of us, we could see the action directly.

Long Beach does the pre-race ceremonies right. Between parachuters, the national anthem, a military jet flyover and on this occasion, a tribute to the late Dan Gurney with a Formula 5000 Eagle 755 driven by son Alex, and Scott Pruett as Grand Marshal (complete with a “hi to my family at home” line), they nailed the opening ceremonies. These are quintessentially Long Beach staples – the same as “Back Home Again in Indiana” is at the ‘500 every May.

It was Rossi’s race to win from the start

It was obvious early that this would be Alexander Rossi’s day. Within the opening laps, Rossi had the clear and definite measure of the field. Considering how wide a disparity last week’s race on Phoenix’s one-mile oval and Sunday’s Long Beach street race was, it again speaks volumes of the setups crafted by the Andretti Autosport team. We noted Milless earlier in a Phoenix subsection, but Andretti’s technical director Eric Bretzman must also receive quite a bit of credit for how well Andretti has turned its street course program around.

My dad, beyond being a fan, also occasionally assists me with astute observations. He’d spent a bit of time on Friday at the inside of Turn 8, a turn that is way more daunting to view in person than it appears on TV with how fast the turn-in is and from such a wide entry into such a narrow exit. He noticed Rossi was picking up the throttle earlier on corner exit than a majority of drivers, and as such was gaining at least a tenth – perhaps two or more – at that corner alone. A pole time more than four tenths quicker than the rest of the field fleshes that out nicely. Most IndyCar grids are separated by hundredths for places, not tenths.

What you could see versus what you couldn’t

Anyway, we’d caught a couple things from the stands that came later on the TV broadcast, when we watched the NBCSN show on DVR Monday night. The first was when Robert Wickens stalled out with apparent gearbox issues through Turn 10. I immediately relayed a text to Steve noting that his Canadian countryman was in trouble. A second pit stop a lap later proved the problem for the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver needed further repairs and took him out of win contention for the first time in his three-race IndyCar career.

The second came when we followed Bourdais’ charge on his second stint while running on the Firestone red alternates versus the Penske pair of Newgarden and Power and Ganassi’s Dixon on blacks. We saw Bourdais move past both Penske drivers to get up to third before a yellow came out for Kaiser stopped in the Turn 1 runoff; both these passes were overlooked during the TV broadcast. Bourdais’ passes of the Penske drivers set him up for his ultimate three-in-one sweep past Pigot, Dixon and Leist into Turn 1, before he got penalized for going over the double blue line (Steve touched on this in further detail in Sunday’s Long Beach Close). We watched that pass on the monitor, and I can tell you the Turn 10 stands erupted.

If those were observations we could pick up without TV or PA’s benefit, what wasn’t immediately clear to us in the stands was the fact Bourdais was under investigation itself, and the fact it took six laps to determine he had crossed those lines illegally and would need to give second place back to Dixon. A number of fans around us were befuddled at the call and the surprise of it coming so late after completing the pass.

Further public address announcing stumbles came later when Ed Jones and Jordan King were misidentified at least twice, Jones in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car and King in the NTT Data car. King was later called into the pits for a drive-through for contacting Bourdais, but over the PA, we heard “Well, Jordan King is getting called into the pit lane, and we’re not sure why.” He was in position for a potential podium finish before brake issues arose, and then later contacted Bourdais at the hairpin.

It’s worth noting that Long Beach PA announcer Bruce Flanders is an institution at this race, and his voice is as inextricably linked here as the late Tom Carnegie’s was at Indianapolis. When you think of Long Beach, you think of Flanders’ booming voice on the PA, and him setting up the “ugly Hawaiian T-shirt contest” that is on site. It just fits.

That being said, we’d heard a somewhat salient point during the weekend. The IndyCar race – the feature event of the Long Beach weekend – is the only race on the docket that does not have its own commentators providing the race broadcast over the PA. All of IMSA, PWC and Stadium Super Trucks do with their own season-long commentators. Meanwhile, Flanders calls the IndyCar race, as the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network is not utilized over the PA. Considering how much this race does right for the fans, it could help further increase the fan experience if the IndyCar Radio broadcast would go live on the PA for at least the qualifying and race sessions, with Flanders on in a hosting/emcee role to set up the coverage and toss to the booth.

Rossi controlled the finish of the race just as well after the flurry of mid-race cautions. He took a deserved win that backed up his podium in St. Petersburg and his fantastic recovery drive in Phoenix. After three races, he’s now the points leader.

Phoenix may be my first home, but Long Beach is my racing spiritual home. It’s where my passing interest of IndyCar racing grew into a full-blown passion, where so many memories were made as a kid that always come back into view whenever I’m there, and where there’s a “California cool” vibe that comes out of the weekend that is unlike any other event on the schedule.

Confirmation from race organizers that this Long Beach race weekend featured a crowd of more than 185,000 over three days only backed that up, with this the largest weekend crowd on record “since the CART days” of at least 2000.

These were two special weeks. I’ll be back on the ground in the media center properly at Barber this upcoming weekend, but these moments only add to the cherished chapter of my IndyCar fandom career.

INDYCAR’s past, present and future fuse on Andretti’s 1993 anniversary celebration in Phoenix

INDYCAR’s past, present and future fuse on Andretti’s 1993 anniversary celebration in Phoenix

By Tony DiZinno

The gap between the IndyCar of 1993, when Mario Andretti captured his 52nd and final checkered flag at Phoenix International Raceway, and the IndyCar of 2018 is as wide as the miles per hour gap between the fastest and slowest qualifiers that year at what was then PIR. Scott Goodyear at 172.804 mph (20.833 seconds) was almost 26 mph and 3.6 seconds quicker than Ross Bentley at 146.968 mph (24.495 seconds).

Such massive gaps don’t exist in the modern day Verizon IndyCar Series. It’s a sign of the sport’s evolution that the team Bentley drove for then – Dale Coyne Racing – enters this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix at the renamed ISM Raceway looking for its second straight victory to open the 2018 campaign. Sebastien Bourdais won the St. Petersburg opener in the newly rebranded Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda.  

Andretti didn’t win the pole for his final race victory – he missed it by just 0.062 of a second as Goodyear scored his first ever pole – but the memories of that day are the backdrop to set up the story of how IndyCar has evolved since. 

“I think in so many ways it’s better because you have a much more level playing field right now because of the rules and the way things have evolved over the years,” Andretti explained during a teleconference on Wednesday. “I think obviously technology has taken over, and we’re right up to date with everything. From that standpoint, you know, we’re where we need to be, where we’re expected to be.

“Again, I think the biggest thing that you see, in my opinion, is that plus the fact today the way the rules are, the way the engines are supposed to be, last at least a couple thousand miles, you don’t have that attrition that we used to have in those years. Almost every race you have 99 percent of the field finishing. You have a lot more action throughout the races any more right to the end.

“If anything, I think things are better today.”

Today, April 4, 2018, marks 25 years to the day of Andretti’s last IndyCar win. And boy, have times changed. 

Mario Andretti and long-time team owner Paul Newman (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Attrition very much told the story of Andretti’s final win, on a day he trailed the dominant Team Penske cars before they both crashed from the lead.

Paul Tracy took the lead from Andretti on Lap 11, and led until Lap 161 when he crashed in Turns 1 and 2 trying to lap Jimmy Vasser on the inside. It cost the Canadian, now an NBCSN IndyCar race analyst, his first career victory when he had nearly a two-lap lead on the field.

Vasser, who scored his first career IndyCar podium that day in third place driving for Jim Hayhoe, was quick to defend himself.

“I was involved in the Tracy crash. I recently watched a video as I know you can do with all the Twitter guys that put things up,” Vasser laughed. 

“I remember both Tracy and Roger kind of blaming me on national TV. I was a young buck just coming in. It wasn’t even my first full season. I had done a few races the year before as a rookie. I was kind of embarrassed they would call me out, that I caused the wreck.

“I look back at the video now. It was completely Tracy’s fault. He had a two-lap lead on just about everybody, had plenty of room down there, kind of lost it. Like Mario said, Emerson crashed out on the restart basically. I think he cut a tire in the debris from Tracy’s crash. He crashed upper turn three right after the restart.

“Like Mario said, the guys are okay, but it was a gift to me as well.”

As Vasser noted, after Tracy crashed, then Emerson Fittipaldi crashed after inheriting the lead. Andretti regained the top spot on Lap 172, and he wouldn’t relinquish it for the rest of the Valvoline 200.

“Jimmy and I felt bad for about a minute,” Andretti deadpanned.

Andretti won by one lap over Raul Boesel, with Vasser third, three laps down, ahead of Al Unser Jr. and Teo Fabi. 

Only 13 of the 25 starters finished the race, and the final classified finisher, Lyn St. James, was 21 laps down. 

A couple reports this week have noted the peculiar dilemma – or opportunity, depending on how you look at it – that IndyCar faces heading into this weekend’s race at Phoenix. 

Andretti’s 1993 win is getting its proper due in a celebration of one of the sport’s greatest ever drivers. The track and the series have both gone out of their way to promote it heavily. A special event in downtown Phoenix will honor Andretti on Thursday night, and further activities will follow throughout the weekend at the track. 

Grandson Marco Andretti will even race in a tribute livery, his No. 98 Oberto Honda for Andretti-Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian set to run in the same colors as Andretti’s iconic black-and-white Texaco colors on his No. 6 Newman/Haas Racing Lola-Ford from 1993. He’ll wear the traditional Andretti helmet colors, as well.

Yet the conundrum for IndyCar now is wondering who’s at that same level of “face of IndyCar” as the senior Andretti, now 78, still is some 24 years after his retirement.

For Andretti, who watched a similar evolution of talent take place after his retirement in 1994 – Vasser was the 1996 CART champion, for instance, while others such as Alex Zanardi, Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves and the late Greg Moore, among others, began to establish themselves – IndyCar’s opportunity to see its current generation of stars blossom before our eyes is right there for the taking. It’s made easier, of course, by the fact the series has been unified for 10 years since 2008, after the divisive split from 1996 through 2007.

“When you see the cycle of new talent coming on, it’s something extremely positive,” Andretti said. “But let’s remember that the so-called veterans in INDYCAR right now are still very young. That’s what I think makes the series so very rich, in my opinion. I always keep saying, when you have the product, then I think you can feel very positive for the future.

“I think INDYCAR is exactly at that point right now. I think the strength of the teams that you have in place, seeing that you have teams — I mean, there’s no weakness out there. Some are considered smaller teams, in the past, they didn’t seem like they had a chance of winning, but we’ve seen it different just starting with St. Pete. With the new car, all of a sudden, I mean, we’ve seen rookies showing the way.

“As far as the new talent that’s coming on, they’re already making their mark, they’re making their noise. It’s something that just has to happen and they have to earn it. When these guys are up front, their names are going to be mentioned over and over. That’s how you develop the personality. You can spin this thing until the cows come home, but at the same time, it’s all about being up there and getting some results.

“I think the series has really begun to do a really good job of exposing our guys. I’ve seen even after the championship with Josef Newgarden how much time he spent on the road, how much visibility he’s been getting in the off-season. All this needs to be done so the fans can start really gravitating to their favorite driver. That’s how you build a solid fan base.

“As you know, INDYCAR had to do a lot of reconstruction after the disaster of the mid-90s. It’s in a good path right now. I personally feel very positive that a lot of the good things that need to be done are being done right now.”

Vasser, who grew from the aforementioned “young buck” into a championship-winning driver and Indianapolis 500-winning car owner, said the social media savvy some of the younger drivers have now will help grow their popularity. Both he and Andretti also noted IndyCar’s new TV contract solely on NBC Sports, set to begin in 2019, should help.

“I would echo everything he says,” Vasser said. “In addition, I think the new television contract starting in ’19, on one network. These young drivers nowadays are so into social media, and they’re not shy. These guys are out there producing their own short films about themselves. I think that’s great. They’re very articulate, very talented, fast.

“You’ve got a good mix of foreign drivers with more Americans now I think that there has been in a long time, which was something that people would always kind of be a point of discussion, was the lack of Americans. That’s not the case.”

The gap between the past, present, and future will also reveal itself at ISM Raceway this weekend. The 2018 race is the last in INDYCAR’s initial three-year contract with the track, and it’s also the last where the start/finish line will be on the front straight before the continuation of the track’s construction project will see it moved to what is currently the exit of Turn 2.

What hasn’t changed? The challenge of racing on a one-mile oval itself, which Andretti and Vasser both outlined.

“Phoenix is a real tough place, so you just never know what you’re going to get,” Vasser said.

Andretti added, “Let’s face it, Phoenix is probably one of the toughest ovals because it’s so fast. We’ve seen with some of the changes they made to accommodate the stock cars, it made it even faster than what we experienced. That means the faster the corner in speed, the tougher it is to have any passing.

“These drivers today, obviously if they can master Phoenix, you’re going to master any of the other ovals. Quite honestly, I think Phoenix would be more difficult to drive than Indianapolis. Again, you can measure yourself your own way by how you feel, how comfortable you feel, if you have your arms around it right here in Phoenix.”

Andretti also made the important point of how critical Phoenix has been to his entire career.

“When I start looking back at how meaningful Phoenix was to my career, I said it a few times, but the team that I was fortunate to join as a rookie in 1964 was based right there in Phoenix, on 7th and Glendale. Clint Brawner, of course, was a Phoenix native, and Jim McGee. At that time we were part of the Firestone development group. We were the Firestone teams during the so-called Tire War with Goodyear. There was a tremendous amount of development going on. Because of the weather, of course, off-season, Phoenix, that was the theater for us to be at.

“I used to spend weeks and weeks at a time testing. Again, I was able to really put that to my most advantage as far as honing my skills on the ovals and so forth. Started with the roadster in ’64, of course moved on to the rear engine.

‘Again, you can see the span. I was there for 30 years as a driver, as an active driver. Phoenix as a track was probably one of the most important parts of my career, quite honestly.”

What comes next? Andretti, true to form, will appreciate and soak up the moments that Phoenix and IndyCar will provide for him this weekend. 

“I mean, I’m humbled and totally flattered, I assure you. It’s so incredible that the whole promotion for this race surrounds something that happened 25 years ago,” he said.

At the same time, ever the optimist, Andretti remains bullish about the series’ future as a whole and doesn’t want the past to dominate the discussion.

“It’s very simple. Come visit us and see what we’re all about, and I think you’re going to like it.”

There might be a big celebration for Mario Andretti this weekend, but that won’t stop him from doing what he loves most. Driving a race car. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

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