A look back at a packed weekend of IndyCar, Mazda Road to Indy and Pirelli World Challenge racing at Barber Motorsports Park with our long-form Rewind column, starting with…
If you’re a fan of road racing but value for money is a necessary consideration in your world, there was no better place to be than Barber Motorsports Park last weekend. As well as the IndyCar main event, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, there were two races each for the three Mazda Road to Indy categories, while the Pirelli World Challenge laid on two GT and two GTS class races. So if my math skills haven’t dissolved again, that’s a grand total of 11 races, with all the attendant practice and qualifying sessions.
Now get this: a three-day general admission ticket was just $75 and with kids of 12 and under getting in free, the $50 upgrade for a garage pass (a bit steep unless you’re an avid autograph hunter) suddenly fell within reach. While it’s regrettable that IndyCar didn’t have a practice session on Friday – Pro Mazda and Indy Lights qualifying could surely have been delayed until Saturday? – there was no shortage of on-track action, and trying to make a phone call longer than 10 minutes became impossible because there seemed to be virtually no downtime. We like that and the fans like that, judging by a crowd apparently unaffected by changeable weather. Build the weekend schedule like this and they will come.
“Josef is a super nice guy – couldn’t meet a nicer person – and a huge talent,” said Scott Dixon after the race. “And that team pretty much dominated today… They had the field. They could turn it up when they needed to but also save fuel. He outclassed a lot of great teams and a lot of great drivers. It was good to see him do it.”
The third-place finisher and three-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon spoke for a lot of us as he reflected on Josef Newgarden’s first Verizon IndyCar Series win. Both Long Beach and Mid-Ohio last year were clear-cut cases of what might have been for Tennessee’s finest, but the 55-race wait made this victory even sweeter.
Since winning the Team USA Scholarship along with Conor Daly in 2008, Josef has had his troubled times, as is the case for all young racers, and his came in 2010. After winning nine races (more than the eventual champion) and finishing second in the tough UK Formula Ford Championship in ’09, it made sense for Newgarden to stay on in Europe but he chose GP3 which, personally, I’ve always thought was slightly too big a leap. He’d have been better served in F3, if only to develop the reduced track ethics necessary to excel in European junior open-wheel… But if nothing else, Newgarden gained great experience working with Carlin Racing, and when he returned to the U.S., the outwardly happy-go-lucky kid was also a mature racer.
Which is why his Indy Lights championship in 2011 showed a perfect blend of pace and prudence, and the faith shown in him by Sarah Fisher, her husband Andy O’Gara and team co-owner Wink Hartman over the last three years in IndyCar was not unfounded. While it’s tough to make developmental progress on a one-car team, especially if that driver is a rookie, it’s not unknown for a driver in that circumstance to feel less responsibility rather than more: if he’s slow, he can blame the team. But in his three years at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Josef avoided “Easy Excuse Syndrome,” and took his duties seriously; setups were his responsibility as much as the team’s. Additionally, he also became very aware he couldn’t rely on his abundant natural talent.
It’s easy to overhype an up-and-coming sports star, and until they reach the peak of their profession, it’s wise for us all to remain slightly cautious when assessing a guy or gal who we believe is the Next Big Thing. There are several examples of young prodigies who couldn’t make it at the top level. But few people’s faith has wavered over Newgarden. Some of us will regret that he wasn’t picked up by one of IndyCar’s big three teams last winter, as his contract ran out and Ed Carpenter Racing merged with Sarah Fisher Hartman. Yet the fact that Josef’s now won with Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing is a better story yet, and that fact wasn’t lost on Josef himself on Sunday.
“This is the way I wanted to do it!” he said at the end of the race. “I didn’t want to win on some crazy incident, or on luck. This team deserves it. They gave me an incredible car and let me get out there and rip with the thing and pass people on pure merit. And that’s due to CFH Racing – they were just incredible today. We’re going up against the giants, but I think this team can be a giant one day.”
So too, can Newgarden. Few racers would have the balls, talent, opportunism and aggression to drive around the outside of two Team Penske cars in Turns 15/16 at Barber and make it stick. But, just like winning an IndyCar race, Josef has proven he can do it, and his confidence could take him and CFH Racing to a whole new level.
There are bound to be some comments about blind squirrels finding acorns – Graham Rahal does not endear himself to the social media populace, however hard he tries – but what we saw from the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver on Sunday was proof that the talent we thought had maybe gone stale is still there. And it wasn’t just his speed that caught the eye (although he must have made many other Honda drivers wonder what they’d been complaining about…). It was his beautifully natural racing instinct and his ability to cut it to fit any given circumstance.
Take his final stint alone. There was the ‘arrive on the scene and immediately make a move’-type racing which got him past Will Power into Turn 8. There was the ‘read how he races, see if he’ll crack under pressure, and then make a move’ pass on Ryan Hunter-Reay, around the outside of Turn 5, an effort he repeated on Helio Castroneves two laps later. And then there was the ‘knife-between-the-teeth, exploit your advantage’ fight with Scott Dixon, where his looming presence forced the Ganassi driver to take defensive lines… and Graham got him anyway!
Rahal has been a different driver this year, as he vowed in no uncertain terms would be the case once he had Eddie Jones engineering him. But the Barber race saw him displaying this transformation at the front of the field, and that is hugely encouraging for RLLR, for Honda, and for Graham himself. More races like that, and his long wait for a second victory will be over.
HINCH HELD UP
Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti, who finished 1-2 for Andretti Autosport at Barber last year, each spent time in the top six yesterday, and RHR held on to finish there. But the second-best Honda driver (behind Rahal) for much of the race was in fact Schmidt Peterson Motorsport’s James Hinchcliffe.
As well as cringing at the embarrassing Grand Prix of NOLA, many of us felt some degree of happiness that Hinch had been the beneficiary on a day when Fate threw its deck of cards in the air. The solitary podium he’d earned in his final season at Andretti Autosport was far less than he’d deserved. But while a win’s a win, third or even fourth at Barber on Sunday would have meant so much more than that accidental hero routine in New Orleans, in terms of true competitiveness.
This time around, it wasn’t meant to be. While putting together a strong out-lap on lap 48, Hinchcliffe emerged ahead of Rahal who’d pitted a lap earlier, but Graham’s pass in Turn 5 on warm tires was decisive. James held on initially, but he simply couldn’t follow his adversary past backmarkers, and thus his natural pace was stymied while his tires were at their best.
“We lost a lot of time behind the Dale Coyne cars,” said Hinch’s engineer, Allen McDonald, “and then we got caught behind [sixth-placed] Carlos Munoz who was saving fuel in the final stint. James said the problem with [DCR’s] Francesco Dracone is that he brakes amazingly late in a straight line, and has no mid-corner speed, but that also kills it for the driver trying to lap him. You can’t really second guess these things, but on pace we should have been fourth or fifth today.”
DREAM TEAM DRAMAS
Remember when Team Penske locked out the first four places on the grid at St. Petersburg and everyone – even top fellow-Chevrolet runners like Ganassi – rolled their eyes to the heavens and wondered if Roger’s racers would dominate the season?
Hasn’t happened, has it? Four races into the season and Penske has won just once. And despite qualifying 1-2-3 at Barber, there wasn’t even a Penske representative on the podium. Simon Pagenaud had his excuses: he, along with Sebastien Bourdais, Luca Filippi and Charlie Kimball were screwed when the pits closed under yellow before they’d made their first pit stop, and Simon’s problems were exacerbated by getting caught behind Tony Kanaan on black tires as TK’s ultimate pace disappeared in the second half of the race.
Will Power’s race was compromised by his misidentification of a backmarker which led to a collision which led to a drive-through penalty. “I feel bad for what happened with Sato,” said Power, who is friends with Takuma. “Going down pit lane the team said, ‘You’re racing the 14’ and I looked in the mirror as I came out and I saw another car way back down the hill coming out of Turn 1. So I thought that maybe Sato had gone by or hadn’t come by yet. So I just turned right onto the racing line and I never expected that bang.”
The remainder of the champion’s race was spent trying to save fuel but gain places, and he edged past Hunter-Reay with just two laps to go. But fifth place, he must have reasoned, was as good as it was going to get. Wrong! Fourth-placed Castroneves pulled into the pits on the final lap, out of gas and out of luck, handing the position to his teammate.
“At the start of the race, Helio was saving fuel at the front, ahead of Newgarden,” said his engineer Jonathan Diuguid afterward, “but in that final stint, we didn’t do a good enough job at saving. We didn’t short-fuel him or anything like that, but at the rate we were using it, we really needed a yellow in that final stint and it didn’t come.”
Diuguid also offered an explanation as to why this year Barber offered such a good race, despite not having the wild card of rain, and despite Firestone not offering a different compound to what we’ve seen here in years past.
“I think for one thing, the tires – in particular, the used reds – didn’t stand up to being worked hard,” he says, “which caught a lot of people out. And then there was a full-course caution right at the start of the pit window, so that persuaded a lot of teams to switch strategy. So you had this combination of different drivers on different strategies and some of them with a lot more tire life than others, and to make their strategies work, they had to get past.”
Yep, nothing like a sense of urgency among the drivers to spark a race into life.
PIGOT CAN FLY
Ed Jones’ dominance for Carlin Racing in the Indy Lights rounds at St. Petersburg led many people to suspect that the series newcomers were about to deliver a season-long beatdown to the opposition, and when Jones prevailed in Long Beach, too, it seemed he could do no wrong. Yet he’s no longer leading the championship. Juncos Racing’s Spencer Pigot looked unbeatable in Barber (ABOVE, Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo), delivering two wins, and always appearing to have enough in hand to deal with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Jack Harvey. Jones meanwhile, came home just fourth and 11th, although it’s reasonable to assume he’d have been third in the Sunday race had Pigot’s teammate Kyle Kaiser not given him a flat tire at the start.
Carlin Racing will surely be major contenders to the end of the year, but there were good reasons why Trevor Carlin never underestimated his team’s task in 2015, and the Pigot/Juncos combo was one of those reasons.
After the embarrassment that was Long Beach, the Pirelli World Challenge field as a whole did a fine job at Barber Motorsports Park. The GTS race on the Friday was mesmerizing as the Kias of Ben Clucas and Mark Wilkins sandwiched Kris Wilson’s Aston Martin and Jack Baldwin’s pole-sitting Porsche Cayman for much of the race in a great thrust-and-parry battle. Clucas pulled off some maneuvers that involved him not accommodating his rivals at all, even when they were alongside, so there was little sympathy in the press room when his Optima fell to eighth following late-race contact with race veteran Baldwin.
World Challenge powers-that-be were similarly unimpressed, fining the Kinetic Motorsports driver $3,000 and docking him 40 points. Suitably chastened, Clucas was immaculate in defense on Saturday. Nothing he could do to prevent Wilson clocking up TRG Aston Martin’s second win of the weekend, but he held onto second and this time defended in a vigorous but fair manner, as first Andrew Aquilante’s and then Spencer Pumpelly’s Ford Mustang filled his mirrors.
The spectacular Mr. Pumpelly got through in the end (after a half-lap taster when he took the lead and then fell off at Turn 1!), but the American made it stick a lap later. Clucas, meanwhile, kept it clean throughout. So two podiums that consisted of an Aston Martin, Kia Optima and Ford Mustang. Yup, that’s the variety of the Pirelli World Challenge at its finest.
Less appetizing were the GT races, which not only contained more yellows, but also resulted in more fines. After enjoying his first PWC win in the No. 33 Always Evolving Nissan GT-R on Saturday, James Davison then lost all race points when his car flunked tech and he was forced to start the second race from the back. And he was not the only one punished…in fact, not even the only winner punished! GT Cup victor Colin Thompson (Kelly Moss Motorsports) lost 40 points, Michael Lewis (EFFORT Racing) was fined $2,000 and lost 30 points , and Christina Nielsen (TRG-AMR) was fined $1,000 and lost 30 points.
A McLaren 1-2 for Kevin Estre and Robert Thorne was a deserved result on Sunday, although EFFORT’s Porsche 911 driven by Ryan Dalziel kept in touch with them throughout. But it was alarming to watch Johnny O’Connell’s Cadillac ATS-V go up in flames at Turn 5, in one of those fires that kept looking suppressed, then re-igniting. Thankfully, 52-year-old Johnny O emerged from the car with the alacrity of a man half his age, having already opened the door before the car had halted, and then made himself useful to the safety crew when they arrived.
JUST A THOUGHT
For those drivers who try to intimidate Real Time Racing’s Peter Cunningham and Ryan Eversley by crowding them toward the grass on the edge of a road course, it’s time to think twice. Remember, those Acura TLX-GTs are all-wheel-drive and are going to find traction where others can’t. In other words, PD and Social Media Magnet will be hanging in there and will be back to get you at the next corner…
NO FAKE TAN, BUT TIME TO COOL IT
Pop quiz: How much did you know about Malaysia’s Weiron Tan before the season started? My guess would be not much, but Michael Andretti certainly did. Tan, who was born in Kuala Lumpur, was a bright, bright light in the Mazda Road to Indy Winterfest – he took a win and two second places in the Pro Mazda series at NOLA, followed by a win and a second at Barber Motorsports Park. Not surprisingly, Mikey made it a priority to sign up this promising new star to Andretti Autosport for the season proper, and the rookie’s starting to pay him back already.
Despite St. Petersburg’s double-header being a bust for the 21-year-old, he now lies third in the points standings following a pole and runner-up finish at NOLA, and a dominant win from pole at Barber last weekend. Andretti Autosport is clearly struggling to get up to speed with the new Dallara IL-15 Indy Lights car, but in Pro Mazda, it’s looking very strong.
But, Michael needs to force-feed Tan a chill pill. On Sunday, having forced fellow front-row starter Timothy Buret off-track at the final turn on the run to the green flag (ABOVE, Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo) Tan was sent to the back of the field. As he then started to carve through the field, he made an overambitious passing attempt on one of Buret’s Juncos Racing teammates, Jose Gutierrez, spinning the pair of them off-track. Tan is a clear candidate for Pro Mazda title glory this year, and has a strong car under him and a strong team behind him, but he needs to make wiser use of his tools. Neil Alberico didn’t have the fastest car on Sunday but he still won. That’s a real simple lesson to learn.
There’s a lesson, also, for Race Control. Create the acceleration zone for these rolling starts at Barber at least one third of the way down the pit straight, so that drivers aren’t hard on the gas exiting the final corner – a recipe for disaster when cars within the inside column start drifting wide. Anyone higher than second gear when the green flag waves should get sent to the back.
The USF2000 Championship is developing into a tasty three-way fight for the crown following the series’ Barber Motorsports Park double-header, as promising former Team USA Scholarship winner Aaron Telitz threw a win in to add to his apparently in-built consistency and then brought home fifth in rain-soaked track behind dominant winner Nico Jamin. Jake Eidson is currently leading with 152 points ahead of Jamin (141) and Telitz (131).