The first third of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach had the makings of a snoozer, but then the opening round of pit stops shuffled the other and brought some drama that continued as pit lane struggles and crashes brought drama that didn’t end until Josef Newgarden captured his first Long Beach race.
It was boiling hot on Thursday and Friday, cooler on Saturday and Sunday, and across the entire event, the grounds were loaded with passionate fans. The grandstands weren’t exactly a sellout for the 85-lap race, but it was a vibrant day, nonetheless. Throw in the jumpy trucks, new and old IMSA cars, drifting, the Road Racing Drivers Club dinner celebrating Rick Mears, and a demolition derby to close the weekend with the Porsche Carrera Cup series, and Long Beach was a blur of awesomeness.
We covered plenty of topics in standalone stories after the race, so before we jump into more new topics, here’s the rest of the post-event content from Sunday to digest:
Never underestimate the power of weaponized anger within elite racecar drivers. Starting Saturday at Long Beach in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race and closing with Sunday’s NTT IndyCar Series event, both victories were underwritten by drivers who were fuming for entirely different reasons.
First, it was Cadillac Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais who was leading for his Chip Ganassi Racing team from pole and managed to find himself stopped against the wall on exit of Turn 11 with his Cadillac DPi-V.R idling as his rivals swept past. A fumbled exchange while trying to pass a GT left the Frenchman in the odd position of going from first to last in the six-car DPi class, and by the time he was done fixing his ****-up, teammate Renger van der Zande was handed a car that was back in the lead.
During a quick 100-minute race, vast corrections like the one Bourdais authored are all but impossible, but with an inner rage fueling his comeback drive, the No. 01 Cadillac was being hurled around the streets of Long Beach nearly a half-second faster than the next-fastest driver.
Where Bourdais used a situation of his making to go nuclear and set his team on the path for a first-to-last-to-first victory, Josef Newgarden was propelled by a jarring encounter with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times after qualifying. Having sat through the press conference where 2021 Long Beach race winner Colton Herta was lauded for earning pole, Newgarden — starting alongside the Californian on the front row — was stopped by the reporter while leaving the media center and asked a wildly dismissive question.
“The funniest bit about this whole weekend was when I left this press conference yesterday after qualifying, there was some dude from the LA Times and he came up to me like right before I hit the stairs and he goes, ‘Hey, Josef, Josef, one question: At what point does Colton Herta check out tomorrow? Like, when is that?’” Newgarden said.
The reporter, who was in the audience as Newgarden recounted the exchange, raised his hand to acknowledge his role in lighting the fire beneath the new championship leader on Sunday.
“And I thought it was just such a bizarre question,” he continued. “And I went to bed last night, and I go, ‘You know what? That kid is not checking out tomorrow. There’s no way. He’s just not going to do it after I heard this from this person.’ And he didn’t.”
Was Colton Herta’s race-ending crash a sign of pushing too hard and refusing to accept a third-place finish instead of a first? Or was the Andretti Autosport driver the victim of a simple error made in the super bumpy braking zone for Turn 9 that caught tons of drivers out during the weekend?
Depending on the answer, one would signal a bigger issue to resolve withing the front-running driver that could stifle his odds of winning a championship, and the other makes Sunday’s outcome a non-issue.
“It was a weird one, to be honest,” Herta told RACER. “You know, I haven’t seen the data yet, but I didn’t really brake any later than I had been. The problem was I moved over a little bit more to the left than I had been, maybe like a foot, but it was enough to bottom for the car to bottom and then I just locked the right front tire. Once that happens, I was a bit of a passenger at that point.”
According to Herta, it was nothing more than a frustrating mistake.
“It’s annoying, especially because I wasn’t pushing at that point, I was saving fuel, and Alex Palou was pitting that lap so then we were going to start going hard,” he said. “But up until that point, I was just sitting there behind Newgarden about a second back, trying to save the front tires. I guess it was just a lapse of judgment and just being over that little bit in the braking zone is enough to ruin your race.”
TO PAVE OR NOT TO PAVE?
On a related note, I’m conflicted on this one: Should the Long Beach race promoters press the city to repave that increasingly bumpy stretch of road at the end of the back straight that leads into Turn 9? To the amazement of one driver I spoke with, that section appears to have gotten significantly worse in the short period since IndyCar was at Long Beach in September, all without a harsh winter to cause the degradation. Herta, teammate Devlin DeFrancesco, and others who clouted the wall after the rough ride through Turn 9 might be open for its repaving but given its ability to add some spice to the races, maybe it should be left alone.