IndyCar 2014 Primer: The Tracks

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Rewind to Labor Day Weekend 2013. Simon Pagenaud had emerged victorious after a wild and wooly Baltimore Grand Prix that also saw Helio Castroneves increase his Verizon IndyCar Series points lead on Scott Dixon, who came out badly after being involved in a restart incident with Will Power.

We were left with questions: Had Castroneves effectively captured the series title that he’d been missing for so long? Could Pagenaud, now with momentum, mount a last-ditch charge in the remaining three races? And how would Dixon possibly be able to regroup from another disaster?

The answers didn’t come until five weeks later – yes, five weeks later – at the revived Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston on Oct. 5-6. Dixon exited the doubleheader with a points lead over Castroneves that he would not relinquish, while Pagenaud was eliminated from contention.

Such a long gap isn’t conducive to building championship buzz, so Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles has responded by condensing this year’s 18-race calendar into a five-month span, which begins this weekend at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The new calendar retains the same three doubleheader weekends as last year, with two-steps in Detroit, Houston, and Toronto. One new race, the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis at the reconfigured Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, now serves as a kick-off to the Month of May. Gone from the docket, sadly, are a pair of street course gems in Baltimore and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

March 30 – Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. (1.8 miles, 14 turns)
Blessed with waterfront scenery, this street circuit provides a picturesque backdrop to begin the IndyCar season. A critical part of the course is the left hand Turn 10/Dan Wheldon Way, which comes after a full-on blitz down the dog-legged Bayshore Drive.

April 13 – Streets of Long Beach, Calif. (1.968 miles, 12 turns)
North America’s most important street race celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and it’s a race that every driver wants to win. The land rush from Shoreline Drive into Turn 1 is always a highlight, and so’s the treacherous right-hand hairpin that sets it all up.

April 27 – Barber Motorsports Park (2.38 miles, 17 turns)
One of IndyCar’s most challenging circuits, this track features a narrow ribbon and multiple elevation changes to test the drivers. Surrounding the course is a beautifully maintained landscape dotted by whimsical sculptures. All you need to do to find the hot spot at Barber is to look for the spider near left hand Turn 5, aptly named ‘Charlotte’s Web.’

May 10 – Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (2.434 miles, 14 turns)
A new chapter in the legendary history of IMS will be written this May as the IndyCars attack the Speedway’s revamped road circuit. The course utilizes parts of Turns 1 and 2 of the hallowed Brickyard oval, but the infield section has seen several modifications leading up to what should be a fascinating watch.

May 25 – Indianapolis 500, Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2.5 miles, banking of 9 degrees, 12 minutes)
Relatively flat turns and a different profile for each corner ensure that drivers are constantly running on a knife’s edge during the ‘500.’ The long straightaways (5/8-mile) would appear to provide a momentary respite, but considering the amount of passing we’ve seen in the last couple of years with the Dallara DW12, that may no longer be true. In short, this track separates the good from the great and provides one of the greatest mental tests a driver can ever face.

May 31-June 1 – Belle Isle Park, Detroit (2.34-mile, 13 turns)
The battle for the championship truly begins with a punishing doubleheader on Belle Isle, where drivers have to deal with numerous surface changes and park roads that are even more narrow than what you usually find on a typical street course. But the 90-degree Turn 3 provides a great spot for passing opportunities, as it comes at the end of a half-mile straight.

June 7 – Texas Motor Speedway (1.5 miles, banking of 24 degrees)
Seeing the IndyCars battle under the lights on the Texas high banks remains a thrilling sight to see. And with an extra 50 kilometers being added to the distance this year, there will be more excitement to behold. But with lower downforce now the norm on big ovals such as TMS, tire management can be just as important as pure horsepower.

June 28-29 – Reliant Park, Houston, Texas (1.7 miles, 10 turns)
The compact and largely concrete Houston circuit takes drivers on a quick trip through several of the city’s most important sporting landmarks, including the fabled Astrodome. Getting the hairpin at Turn 4 right is critical for drivers to accelerate through Turn 5 (the same corner that proved disastrous last fall) around the ‘Dome and stage a passing attempt going into the lefty at Turn 6.

July 6 – Pocono Raceway (2.5 miles; banking of 14 (Turn 1), 9 (Turn 2), and 6 (Turn 3) degrees)
There’s a reason why this place is called the ‘Tricky Triangle.’ Pocono’s three distinct turns are modeled after some of open-wheel racing’s most important tracks, with Turn 1 mimicking the long-gone Trenton, Turn 2 being similar to Indy, and Turn 3 taking on the feel of Milwaukee.

July 12 – Iowa Speedway (.875 miles; banking of 12-14 degrees in turns, 10 degrees in frontstretch)
Scorching summers and brutal winters have given this bullring plenty of character over the years. The bumps are especially noticeable in Turns 1 and 2, and combined with the 18-second laps, Iowa makes for a long few hours of work in the cockpit.

July 19-20 – Streets of Toronto (1.75 miles, 11 turns)
The mayhem always seems to go up a notch every time the IndyCars take to this street course. There are multiple passing opportunities, but things can get very tight in a hurry and that often leads to chaos. The right-hand Turn 3, which comes after a long run down Lakeshore Boulevard, may very well be the ‘Calamity Corner’ of the series – although Turn 1 at the Princes Gate is also ripe for run-ins.

Aug. 3 – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (2.258 miles, 13 turns)
This venerable, natural-terrain circuit oozes a throwback vibe. Like Barber, it’s narrow, has elevation changes, and features a mix of high-speed and rhythm sections. The signature corner is the right-hand Keyhole at Turn 2, but watch for Turn 9, a blind corner that features an up-and-down elevation change. Qualifying up front and maintaining track position are very critical here.

Aug. 17 – Milwaukee Mile (one mile, banking of nine degrees)
The biggest part of success at Milwaukee is being able to navigate the flat, sweeping turns and accelerate out of them for good runs on the straights. The groove is a narrow one, making this matter all the more tricky to accomplish. But this is very much a driver’s track, which is much appreciated by those who wish to see great displays of talent.

Aug. 24 – Sonoma Raceway (2.385 miles, 12 turns)
Elevation changes abound on this highly technical Northern California road course, which can also prove slippery for drivers as the winds often throw sand and dirt in their path. Turn 7 represents a decent passing zone with a good run out of the track’s Carousel corner.

Aug. 30 – Auto Club Speedway (two miles, banking of 14 degrees in turns, 11 degrees on frontstretch)
Multiple grooves are present at this wide and fast Southern California oval, but a bumpy backstretch and treacherous seams in the racing surface can turn a good night into a bad one instantly.

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”