Photo: IndyCar

Rookies’ strong weekends unravel on race day in St. Petersburg

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Rookies rose to the occasion on Friday and Saturday at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with three qualifying in the six – Robert Wickens, who started on the pole, Matheus Leist, who started third, and Jordan King, who started fourth.

However, all three came crashing back down to Earth on race day, suffering big problems that knocked them out of contention, or out of the race entirely.

Things got off to a promising start, as Wickens, King, and Leist ran 1-2-3 in the early laps, with King even briefly leading after passing Wickens on a Lap 6 restart.

However, before too long, things started to fall apart. Leist was the first victim, with a gearbox issue causing the A.J. Foyt Racing driver to get stuck in third gear. While he eventually rejoined, Leist’s day went from bad to worse, as he drifted wide in Turn 3 on Lap 28 and smacked the outside wall, ending his race on the spot. He finished 24th.

“Today it was unfortunate,” Leist lamented before subsequently going into more detail about his day.

“We had a shifting problem when I was running fourth, so I couldn’t change gears up or down. I stayed in pit lane for like 10 laps trying to solve the problem. Then we had another problem and came back to the pits. The third time I went back on the track, I had a mega understeer going into Turn 3 and I missed the corner and hit the wall.”

King was the next victim, as the Ed Carpenter Racing driver suffered a cut tire and then suspension damage that forced him to pit for repairs. He did rejoin the race, but was three laps down and languished in 21st at the end.

“After the first stop, we picked up a puncture and slid against the wall and had some damage. It was frustrating more than anything to be hindered by that,” King revealed.

King did express confidence after showing impressive form, but couldn’t help but be disappointed that circumstances didn’t let him and ECR cash in.

“Overall, I am happy from the sense that the speed is there, but disappointed to throw away a result,” King finished. “I know not every weekend is going to be like this, but it was great to be fast and challenging for the race win. It just hurts a bit when you throw away a good result like that.”

And, finally, Wickens’ day came undone in the final laps after dominating most of the race from the pole. The 28-year-old Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver needed to fend off Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi on a pair of late-race restarts as he looked to secure a win on his Verizon IndyCar Series debut.

The first restart, with four laps to go, went well for Wickens. The second restart, with two laps remaining, did not, as Rossi got loose under braking while trying to pass Wickens. The two made contact, sending Wickens into a spin and into the Turn 1 wall. Wickens, after leading the most laps, had to settle for 18th.

Robert Wickens had victory snatched away following contact with Alexander Rossi with two laps remaining in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo: IndyCar

“I gave him space around the outside. I broke late. I made the corner and then we had some contact, and obviously it put me into a spin into the wall. I ended my day with one lap left in the race. Not the way I imagined the day going for the No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda,” explained a gutted Wickens afterward.

Wickens added that confusion over the final restart – the pace car was not called in until a few corners before the green flag flew – made matters worse for him, and may have set up the chaos on the ensuing restart.

“It was all a little bit confusing because I was told on the radio we were going green, but they didn’t turn the lights off the pace car, so I didn’t get the best restart I could have done. Probably the worst one of the whole day,” he explained. “I want to kind of speak to the officials to see why they didn’t turn the lights off the pace car before we went green but I don’t know.”

Of note: Juncos Racing’s Rene Binder endured a tough day as well, nosing into the Turn 1o tire barriers with eight laps remaining, essentially setting the late-race chaos into motion in the process. He finished 22nd.

Of the other two rookies, Andretti Autosport’s Zach Veach Dale Coyne Racing’s Zachary Claman De Melo, finished 16th and 17th after relatively quiet days, while Michael Shank Racing and SPM driver Jack Harvey crashed out due to a cut tire on Lap 39.

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NHRA: Steve Torrence’s 2nd Top Fuel title was emotional roller coaster day

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There’s no question Steve Torrence is a proud Texan. When he’s not strapping on his racing helmet, the Kilgore, Texas resident proudly wears a black cowboy hat and shiny boots practically everywhere he goes.

It’s just part of who one of the Lone Star State’s favorite sons is.

Torrence also has a great deal to be proud of after winning his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in Sunday’s NHRA season-ending national event at Pomona, California.

In doing so, he joins seven of the biggest names in drag racing history to win back-to-back titles: Don Garlits, Joe Amato, the late Scott Kalitta, Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon and Antron Brown.

Torrence followed up last season’s 11 wins – including being the first driver to win all six Countdown to the Championship playoff races – with nine wins in 2019, giving him 36 career wins and 55 final round appearances in his career.

But as he was interviewed shortly after he clinched the championship — even though he lost in the semifinal round of eliminations — instead of being effusive and ecstatic, Torrence was also uncharacteristically somewhat solemn and melancholy at the same time.

After publicly thanking his team – “the best in the business,” as Torrence frequently says – he also quickly paid tribute to a young man from Texas by the name of Brandon Seegers, who was tragically killed in an ATV accident last week (the young man in glasses is pictured in the tweet below).

Torrence wanted the world to know who Brandon was, calling him one of Torrence Racing’s biggest fans. It wasn’t lip service. Brandon – a 15-year-old freshman football player at Carthage (Texas) High School – truly was one of Torrence’s biggest supporters. He’ll be buried Tuesday.

Torrence also paid tribute to Brandon’s parents. The young man’s father has worked 30 years for Capco Contractors Inc., an oil and gas company owned by Torrence’s family. In a sense, because of their close relationship, Brandon and his parents are extended members of the Torrence family.

“This is for the Seegers family, who lost their little boy the Wednesday of last week,” Torrence said. “He was the biggest Capco fan there was. We’re taking the championship trophy home to him. We’re going to give it to all the Capco guys and his family.”

Admit it, when was the last time you heard someone in sports win a championship and then dedicate that effort to a young fan who was tragically killed just a few days earlier in an accident.

But that’s the kind of guy Torrence is, one of the classiest individuals in motorsports. And if you don’t really know who he is, you should, because you might understand why Torrence is who he is.

At the age of 36, Torrence is not just a survivor of the 1,000-foot dragstrips wars from New Hampshire to Seattle to Phoenix to Gainesville and everywhere in-between.

He’s also a survivor of something much more important: Before he was Steve Torrence, two-time NHRA Top Fuel champ, he was Steve Torrence, cancer and heart attack survivor. That kind of thing gives someone a much different perspective than most other individuals.

Torrence knows how fortunate he is to not only be a two-time champion, but more importantly, to be alive to earn and enjoy both of those titles. He came close, really close, to not being here anymore. That’s why Brandon’s death hit Torrence so hard.

He even tried to keep from choking up when he told the crowd about who his young friend Brandon was.

Torrence spent much of the weekend at Pomona thinking about his young fan. It definitely affected Torrence’s mindset and demeanor, especially on Sunday, with the pressure packed championship on the line.

To illustrate how different Torrence acted, he was involved in an incident after the first round that was completely out of character. While he may be one of the most competitive drivers on the NHRA circuit, he’s also normally a very level-headed, calm and cool persona.

Torrence uncharacteristically slapped young opponent and part-time Top Fuel driver Cameron Ferre in the face at the end of the drag strip after they climbed from their race cars following their first round run and exchanged words.

Normally a fan favorite, Torrence was uncharacteristically criticized on social media and was met with a wave of fan boos after the race when he climbed on stage to accept his championship trophy and the big check that came with it. A contrite Torrence eventually issued a public apology to both Ferre and fans, admitting he was wrong. The NHRA is reviewing the incident and still could penalize Torrence.

“Tensions are high,” Torrence told NHRA.com. “There’s a lot of crap going on out there, but there’s still no excuse for me acting that way. I apologize to every fan, all my racing friends and racing rivals. It was a heat-of-the moment reaction on a day when emotions were high, especially in the Capco camp. I talked to Cameron and we’ll just put it behind us and move on.”

Given the championship pressure and what he was enduring emotionally, Sunday may not have been Torrence’s finest moment or best day professionally or personally. But at the same time, he further cemented why he’s on his way to becoming one of the best drivers in Top Fuel history, that he makes mistakes and was man enough to admit when he made one.

He also cares for others and what they go through perhaps more than most because he himself came so close to not being around to enjoy the success he has enjoyed to date – and all the additional success that he’s likely to continue to enjoy for many more years to come.

 

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