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.