At Long Beach, ECR looks to recapture glory of first street course win

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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.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
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Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.