PRUETT: 2019 loves and hates, part 1

Image by Levitt/LAT

PRUETT: 2019 loves and hates, part 1

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: 2019 loves and hates, part 1

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LOVE: Dragon Quest

NBC’s post-race show at Barber Motorsports Park introduced IndyCar fans to a wickedly fun new member of the paddock as Josef Newgarden’s race engineer Gavin Ward slid a dragon-themed cup into view over his driver’s shoulder. With the final season of Game of Thrones just weeks away, the goblet, dubbed the ‘Chalice of Excellence,’ made perfect sense, but why did the notoriously serious Team Penske have such a frivolous item on the timing stand?

With an Instagram account of its own to document its season inside the No. 2 Chevy program, Newgarden and the team would forge a new tradition as the chalice became a symbol of honor, given from one crew member to another as performances from race to race were deemed to be most excellent. The IG videos of Newgarden’s team, huddled on pre-grid or elsewhere, choosing the chalice’s next recipient and handing it over after giving a brief speech explaining the reasoning behind the decision, showed a different side of the Penske organization.

The brotherhood on display, along with plenty of laughs and lighthearted banter, revealed one of the best-kept secrets in IndyCar: Newgarden, crew chief Travis Law, and the rest of the No. 2 team were having more fun than anyone on the way to winning their second championship in three years.

LOVE: The Dude & Mr. It Is What It Is

Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya made for an unlikely pairing when the Acura Team Penske IMSA DPi program was assembled. The irascible Colombian and extra-chill Californian were nothing alike, had traveled completely different paths to driving Acura’s ARX-05 prototype, and looked a bit disjointed on their winless debut in 2018.

The cultural exchange continued into the offseason, where a lot of work to find common technical ground paid dividends as the Penske duo took charge in 2019, scoring all three of the team’s DPi wins on the road to delivering The Captain a championship. Along the way, the underrated American kept pace – and more – with his famous co-pilot, and JPM produced some fierce drives that belied his age.

Opposites attract in Penske’s No.6 Acura. Image by Levitt/LAT

For Cameron, it was his third IMSA championship in six years – taken in three different classes – and for Montoya, it was his first in sports cars, adding to his CART IndyCar title and two Indy 500 wins. Penske’s Odd Couple were something special last season, and if IMSA’s BoP settings don’t spoil the ARX-05’s title defense, the two could easily repeat as DPi champions.

HATE: Do My Eyes Deceive Me?

The aftermath of the pileup involving Takuma Sato, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and others played out like a week-long episode of CSI Pocono.

On the first flying lap of the 500-mile race, Sato shot the gap between RHR on his far left, Rossi to his immediate left, and the wall on the right, the three cars tangled and frightened the hell out of those who were still reeling from Robert Wickens’ 2018 Pocono crash.

“Obviously, I didn’t get a good start – so that’s on me,” Rossi said. “But we were three-wide; Ryan was on the inside, I was in the middle and Takuma was on the outside. I can’t even begin to understand how after last year, Takuma thinks that any sort of driving like that is acceptable. To turn across two cars, at that speed, in that corner at a 500-mile race is disgraceful, upsetting and may have cost us a championship. It’s upsetting. This team works too hard to have something like that happen.”

The video evidence, and all those who weren’t driving the No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, placed 100 percent of the blame on Sato. Feeling the wave of hate, Sato pushed back, using screen grabs of the overhead camera IndyCar installed on every car in 2019, to forge a narrative that he was innocent; Rossi turned into him, and RHR moved first, causing his Andretti Autosport teammate to react by steering right which led to clipping the RLL driver.

Pocono, 2019: One accident, multiple explanations. Image by Dziadosz/LAT

As this began to take on a life of its own on social media, bemused IndyCar race engineers started investigations of their own. With access to the basic TV telemetry information the series began feeding everyone during the race, key pieces of data like speed track position and steering position for each car could be parsed from the burst of 0s and 1s that came across to each timing stand.

Some interesting texts started to arrive once the data was processed, and the results didn’t match Sato’s version of the incident. Regardless of who owned the blame, the crash was another reminder of how often, even with Wickens’ recovery plight being followed by the entire field on a daily basis, we do not learn from history.

LOVE: The Rebellious One

At the rate she’s going, young Olivia—better known by her social media handle ‘The Retro Rebel’—will be racing’s top reporter by the time she’s in high school.

Her video interviews with drivers ranging from Graham Rahal to Dale Jr have been a joy to watch and, despite lacking media credentials to ease the process, she works harder than many of the professional reporters I’ve known to crank out fresh content on a regular basis.

Passion, talent, and work ethic. I wish more were like her.

HATE: In Memoriam

We said farewell to far too many rising stars, men and women in the trenches, and legends of the sport in 2019. It’s an incomplete list, but we will miss Niki Lauda, Anthoine Hubert, Jessi Combs, Jean-Paul Driot, Betty Rutherford, Robin Herd, Dr. Robert Hubbard, John Martin, Dean McNulty, Charly Lamm, Sonny Meyer, Ron Watson, Dr. Michael Olinger, John Della Penna, Glenn O’Connor, Bill Simpson, Jim Martyn, Mickey Nickos, Junior Johnson, and more who made us smile, made us think, or made us safer.

LOVE: Light My Fire

Trans Am made more leaps to restore its former glory in 2019. It was enough to make me want to write a separate column on the subject, so I’ll keep it short and simply say that of all the forms of sports car racing available in North America, the fire-spitting TA and TA2 Trans Am cars offer the best cost-to-fun value in the country. IMSA and the SRO World Challenge folks should be very concerned.

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