One of the more unexpected results in recent Verizon IndyCar Series history occurred in 2014 at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, when Will Power and Simon Pagenaud made contact, briefly hit a rough patch in their longtime friendship and Mike Conway won the race for Ed Carpenter Racing.
That surprise finish was the second win in the team’s history and first on a street course. This week at Long Beach (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the team will look to bounce back from a challenging season opener at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with its pair of talented young Americans, Spencer Pigot and JR Hildebrand.
Team owner/driver Ed Carpenter hailed the team’s test last week at Sebring International Raceway.
“I thought it was better than the last one we did there a month ago,” Carpenter told NBC Sports. “There’s still some things we need to improve on, to get to where we’re contending for wins. The most encouraging thing is that JR and Spencer are working well together. They’re on the same page. We’re working on things to make them better. That was one of the biggest unknowns we had. So far they’re off to a good start, helping one another.”
Carpenter also said Pigot’s performance at St. Petersburg in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet was the sign of his confidence continuing to develop in his second season, but first where he wasn’t interrupted mid-year.
“It was important for him to come out strong like that,” Carpenter explained. “But more so than what he did there, but now he’s at a different level all of our testing. Now that he has the experience of working with the team and being a little more comfortable in the environment and the cars, and working with the Chevy engineers. He just came in having a better idea of the offseason, versus what he needed to prepare for last year. He’s gotten better, and if St. Pete is any indication, it should be a very good year for him.”
The Long Beach win in 2014 was aided in part by strategy by the team, and as Carpenter explained, a case where his team came out the right side of the coin the way the cautions fell.
“With Conway’s win at Long Beach, we got him out front on strategy, and Mike being Mike, he didn’t give up the lead easily,” Carpenter reflected.
“Yellow (inversion) is part of it. It’s hard to not be mad when it happens! But a window like St. Pete happened. We knew people were pitting. If you do catch a yellow wrong, you take that risk.
“I don’t necessarily get mad about it when it happens. That’s the way the breaks fall. It’s not like INDYCAR throws a yellow with the intention of flipping the field. The debris warranted it; that gave people a chance. It’s a tough situation for them. If they don’t go yellow, someone hits the debris, we see what that could do – Hinch’s accident at the GP (in 2014). Race Control thinks about a lot more things than thinking about, ‘Hey, are we gonna affect this person’s race.’ Over the course of the season you hit some and miss some. Yeah if you miss it that’s the potential.”
Coming into Long Beach, the motivation for success is high. It’s a place Hildebrand, driver of the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet, has scored two top-fives before, fifth in both 2012 and 2013 with Panther Racing, and where Pigot finished third in his only Indy Lights start there in 2015.
“(With JR), we’re all expecting to be patient a little bit. It’d been a while since he’d been in that environment,” Carpenter said. “The important thing is to see progression, see him get comfortable with the flow of the weekend and with his engineer. From the testing we’ve done at St. Pete to the test yesterday, we’re seeing good progression. Hopefully it’s a quicker start at Long Beach. We’ll do better with better starting positions.
“On the whole, for our team, it’s been rewarding. It’s why we compete – trying to win races and championships, and do some things over five and six years. It’s something we’re all proud of as a team.
“We want to keep getting better. When you have won at places, it gives a bit of an edge to go back. We all have fond memories of winning Long Beach; that was our first street course win, big as a team. We’re looking to go back and add some history.