Photo: IndyCar

High speed, high grip: Watkins Glen poses unique test for IndyCar

Leave a comment

Last year’s return of the Verizon IndyCar Series to Watkins Glen International showcased ridiculous speed for the Chevrolet and Honda-powered cars. Trying to translate that beyond the cockpit is a tough task.

But consider on the repave of the 3.37-mile permanent road course in upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes region, average lap speeds – again, on a road course – were well north of 140 mph, and the slowest point around the track was just under 100 mph.

Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN) may only be 60 laps but it’s incredibly high on commitment and sheer speed.

“I thought about that leaving the test. How do we translate that to fans?” Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport, told NBC Sports.

“The workload is insane. The amount of commitment that you do going into a corner, Turn 5, we’re pulling over 3.5 G’s on a road course – which is freaking huge! You’re going in thinking it’s not right, and it’s still not right when you reach the Bus Stop.

“I won there in ’08 and it was an actual Bus Stop, it was a proper chicane. Now you barely break, you can barely see, you hit the curbs, your hair is on fire, and you’re swatting flies in the cockpit. By time you react you’re into the fifth gear right hander. It’s a lot of fun, with absolutely huge commitment. It’s probably the most commitment you have on a road course.”

Other drivers have extolled the speed and commitment required to this track, as well.

“The Glen to me is the best road course in North America, and I cannot wait to return to its flowing, high-speed and undulating bends this weekend,” said Max Chilton, driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, who’s an unabashed fan of the track.

“I think no one has ever said that Watkins Glen is an un-favorite track,” added Takuma Sato, driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda. “We all love it! This awesome track has a beautiful series of flowing, high-speed corners with great elevation changes, and overtaking is very possible. It’s just a fantastic road course.”

Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya. Photo: IndyCar

“Watkins Glen is a beautiful track. It has great history in Indy car (racing). It has lots of grip which makes it very interesting and very fast,” summarized Simon Pagenaud, driver of the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, the defending series champion.

This year’s weekend will see IndyCar run alongside all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires for the final time, with the Pro Mazda and USF2000 making their returns to the track after extended absences. The Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires is also present, as is Robby Gordon’s Stadium SUPER Trucks series. That’ll mean four different types of rubber go down, same as a couple other circuits this year, with Firestone joined by the Cooper, BFGoodrich and Toyo rubber. How cars react following each previous session will be interesting to watch.

Watkins Glen is the fifth of six permanent road course races on the schedule this year, and figures to race similarly to Road America earlier this year. All three MRTI series, plus MX-5 and Pirelli World Challenge all raced there.

Team Penske’s quartet dominated the weekend in practice and qualifying but got usurped by Scott Dixon in the race itself. Another such performance by Dixon here, at a track where he’s won four times before, would ensure he’ll keep the championship fight within a 30-point gap heading to Sonoma in two weeks.

Photo: IndyCar

Dixon’s Watkins Glen weekend a year ago was something to behold as he led every single practice session before qualifying, won the pole, led morning warmup, and won the race after leading 50 of the 60 laps. The only thing he missed was fastest race lap, pipped by Tony Kanaan.

He reflected on it in the immediate aftermath.

“These are the weekends that you definitely don’t forget, just in the sheer fact of we had such a smooth one, which made it hard also going into the race,” he said. “We had been fast in practice, fast in qualifying, obviously got the pole. You just think of the problems and maybe strategy not going your way or maybe having a mechanical and taking you out of it.

“It was definitely a very dominant weekend, but I think when you’re in those weekends, too, your mind is just running crazy with possibilities and things that could go wrong, especially in the race. Yeah, I don’t know. As I said, I think we should race here more.”

What will be interesting to see for him this year is if the baseline car setup stays as on point with a Honda package this year as it was with a Chevrolet package last year. Dixon hailed the Chevrolet fuel economy – saying it seemed like a “Chevy Volt” engine was in the car – in addition to his nailing the pace from the off.

“There’s places that we know that we have a good baseline setup and a place that we can run strong at, and this is definitely one. We didn’t really change the car too much all weekend,” he said.

And what did he think of the physicality of the race itself?

“I like to think a lot of the tracks that we go to, the most physical ones are the bumpy ones, just because you’re correcting so much,” he explained. “The street courses have a lot of grip, but places like Mid-Ohio or Road America have a lot of character to them, so the braking zones are a little bumpy, the apexes, but the speeds and loads are high. Here it’s still very smooth and you’re not doing a whole lot of correcting.

“We had a 16- or 18-lap final stint while saving fuel, you know, the pace comes down a couple of seconds and the loading comes down a lot.

“Had this been a flat-out race, I think, throughout, which they may change I think the distance of the race next year just so it’s not so much of a — kind of a — you’re right in the middle of making it on fuel and making it pretty easy to be achievable but not being that slow. So next year they may change it by five or ten laps and see how that plays out.”

The race distance has not changed so that might mean a similar amount of fuel saving, but still a similar amount of commitment throughout the weekend.

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

Leave a comment

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.”