IndyCar Preview: Grand Prix of Portland

Getty Images
0 Comments

The penultimate round of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season brings a return to the Pacific Northwest.

Portland International Raceway was a stalwart on the IndyCar schedule from 1984 to 2007 and was the scene of a number of famous IndyCar moments, including Mario Andretti beating son Michael to the line in 1986 after Michael ran out of fuel, and a three-wide shootout to the finish between Mark Blundell, Gil de Ferran, and Raul Boesel in 1997 – Blundell edged them at the line to take the first of three IndyCar wins.

The series returns to Portland for the first time since 2007. And while there are many changes with the series (the last race there was run under Champ Car World Series sanctioning) and the cars (the 2007 race featured the Panoz DP01), the track itself remains very similar.

It’s still 1.967 miles in length. It still consists of 12 turns – nine right-handers, and three left-handers. It still features the Festival Curves. And it still features a long front straight away that doubles as a drag strip.

In other words, the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same.

Talking points ahead of the Grand Prix of Portland are below.

A New, Old Circuit

For most of the 23 drivers entered in Sunday’s race, this week marks their first time at Portland. But, there are a handful of drivers who have been there before.

Sebastien Bourdais, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, and Graham Rahal all raced there in 2007, the last time an open wheel race was contested there. Scott Dixon (2001 and 2002) Ryan Hunter-Reay (2003-2005), and Tony Kanaan (1998-2002) have also raced in IndyCar/CART events at Portland.

Bourdais just so happens to be the last person to win at Portland, and has joked about being the longest tenured defending winner at a track.

“I’ve had some success there, and I guess I am the longest defending champion ever since I won the last time we raced there in 2007,” he quipped while talking about the 2007 race.

Rahal, too, has had success at the track, and in the surrounding area, going back to his days on the junior open wheel ladder.

PORTLAND, OR – JUNE 09: Graham Rahal drives his #2 Medizone Newman Haas Lanigan Racing Cosworth Panoz during practice for the Champ Car World Series Mazda Grand Prix of Portland on June 9, 2007 at Portland International Raceway in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“For me, that region has a lot of importance in my career,” Rahal revealed. “Getting my first (Pro) Mazda win comes to mind as does getting the pole in Formula Atlantic before getting hit in the first corner. I actually got my first national victory there in a go-kart race – which was big for me – at Pat’s Acres, which is just southeast of town. PIR and the Portland area, in general, hold a special place in my career. I have a lot of fond memories so I’m excited to go back to race.”

Several others, including James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti, previously raced at Portland in junior categories.

In other words, despite the 11-year gap in between races, Portland will be a familiar stomping ground for some.

Don’t Party Too Hard At the “Festival”

Turns 1, 2, and 3 at Portland are a right-left-right chicane known as the Festival Curves and come at the end of the long and wide front straight away.

Long-time IndyCar fans will remember the days when the Cleveland Grand Prix featured opening lap chaos as the field funneled down into a tight first corner off the wide front straight on the Burke Lakefront Airport.

Portland is similar in nature, in that its own wide front straight away is very inviting for aggressive moves entering the Festival Curves. However, this can lead to carnage.

Case and point: In 1998, Greg Moore mistimed his braking point entering Turn 1 from his 14th starting spot, and Moore ended diving up the inside of most of the field. The resulting pileup collected him, Michael Andretti, Christian Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, and more.

The Festival Curves can be very inviting, but without some discretion, they can also lead to some big problems.

Rossi Aims to Further Reduce the Points Gap to Dixon

There is a 26-point gap in between Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi in the championship standings.

For Rossi to control his own destiny entering the season-ending INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma, he’ll need to ensure the gap is below 20 points – an ideal scenario for Rossi would mean the gap is less than 16 points leaving Portland, as that would mean a Sonoma win gets him the championship regardless of what Dixon does.

For Dixon, he’ll want to build a gap big enough so that Rossi cannot control his own destiny at Sonoma.

For Dixon to do that, he’ll need to rebound from an unusual blunder in which he and the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing team misplayed the strategy in the final stint at Gateway Motorsports Park last week.

They tried saving fuel early in the final stint, only to abort later in the run. Meanwhile, saving fuel allowed Will Power to build up a lead that proved insurmountable for Dixon, while aborting the strategy allowed Rossi to leapfrog him at the checkered flag.

The results saw Rossi shave only three points off Dixon’s lead, but more crucially, it prevented Dixon from increasing the gap on a night when he appeared to have the faster car.

Rossi is the most recent winner on a natural terrain road course (the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio), but Dixon is of course a master of all trades at all tracks.

The duel between the two should be another fascinating one this weekend.

Misc.

  • Still alive in the title picture are Team Penske teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden, who rank third and fourth. However, they are 68 (Power) and 78 (Newgarden) points behind Dixon, respectively, meaning they’ll need a lot of help to overtake him in the next two races.
  • Carlos Munoz makes his debut in the No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this weekend, subbing for Robert Wickens. Munoz will also be in the car at Sonoma.
  • Gabby Chaves is once again back behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Harding Racing.
  • Santino Ferrucci returns to Dale Coyne Racing this weekend, piloting the No. 39 Cly-Del Honda.

The Final Word…

From points leader Scott Dixon, who has two finishes of seventh in a pair of starts at Portland:

“We have two races to go now and the points battle is tight, which is what you’ve come to expect in the Verizon IndyCar Series. I enjoy racing everybody in the field, and it’s always tough when it comes down to the wire. Everybody at this level is extremely competitive, and you do everything you can to try and get a race win. It’s no different week in, week out. It’s been quite a while, but I’m looking forward to Portland this weekend. The goal is to get the PNC Bank car up front and win. You still need as many points as possible with Sonoma being double points. Anything can happen in this series and it usually does.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule: 

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, Aug. 31
10:45 a.m. PT – 11:30 a.m. (1:45 – 2:30 ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:35 p.m. PT – 3:35 p.m. (5:35 p.m. ET – 6:35 p.m.) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, Sept. 1
11:10 a.m. PT – 11:55 a.m (2:10 p.m. ET – 2:55 p.m.) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:20 p.m. PT (6:20 p.m. ET) – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying **Airs on NBCSN at 4:30 p.m. PT (7:30 p.m. ET), same-day delay**

Sunday, Sept. 2

11:30 a.m. PT (2:30 p.m. ET) – NBSN on-air
12:00 p.m. PT (3:00 p.m. ET) – The Grand Prix of Portland (105 laps)

Here’s the top 10 from 2007 (the most recent Portland race)

1. Sebastien Bourdais
2. Justin Wilson (pole)
3. Robert Doornbos
4. Will Power
5. Alex Tagliani
6. Dan Clarke
7. Tristan Gommendy
8. Simon Pagenaud
9. Graham Rahal
10. Paul Tracy

Follow@KyleMLavigne

Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’

0 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”


Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”


Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).