Column: Portland race fans, you’re about to see one heck of a race Sunday

At least 400 race fans turned out for driver autographs between Friday's two practice sessions. Photo: IndyCar
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Racing fans who bought tickets for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland could be considered prophets.

Portland International Raceway’s reserved seating has been sold out for nearly the last two months. Advance sales for the grandstands led to lots of talk Friday about a potential overall sellout on race day.

That would be a spectacular culmination to IndyCar’s return to the Pacific Northwest after an 11-year absence.

People in places like Portland, Vancouver (Washington), Seattle, Tacoma and other big cities within a three- or four-hour drive of Portland have clamored for IndyCar to return to the City of Roses (Portland’s official nickname) for almost the entire period since the last time Indy cars took to the nearly two-mile permanent road course in 2007 (Sebastien Bourdais is defending winner, possibly the longest wait ever in all sports for the opportunity to defend his win there).

After several attempts by a variety of potential suitors, Green Savoree Racing Promotions was the winner of the sweepstakes to return IndyCar racing to the PIR.

With a relatively short nine months to get the track in IndyCar condition, not to mention attracting local business partners to help carry the financial load, Green Savoree will hopefully see the fruits of their labor pay off big-time in Sunday’s race.

There were all kinds of fans who turned out for Friday’s two IndyCar practices. Photo: Chris Owens/IndyCar

But let’s go back to those race fans/prophets. They are about to see one of the most exciting races – with equally exciting storylines – that any track in IndyCar has seen in a long time. They already got a preview during Friday’s two practice sessions, not to mention a line that must have been 400 to 500 fans long that stood in line for autographs from their favorite drivers.

Now, back to Sunday’s race and the ramifications:

Four drivers remain in contention for the championship: Verizon IndyCar Series points leader Scott Dixon, 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, this year’s Indy 500 winner Will Power and defending series champion Josef Newgarden.

Racing at Portland takes on added notoriety because whichever of the quartet emerges with the best finish will set up an exciting season finale in two weeks at Sonoma Raceway.

Even more so, Sonoma will offer drivers double points to be earned, which means even if one of the four drivers still in title contention leaves Portland say, 70 points back, they still could earn enough points at Sonoma (a maximum of 108 points would be up for grabs) to rally for the championship.

It doesn’t get much better or more exciting than that.

But there’s yet another thing about those Portland race fans/prophets that has kind of gotten lost in all of the championship talk.

Fans attending Sunday’s race will see an outstanding display of cultural and national diversity that most any other sport would love to have.

Consider this: Power is from Australia, while Dixon is from nearby New Zealand. Sure, both are series veterans, but they also have a huge fan base back in their respective native lands that would love to see their favorite sons win this year’s title.

Then there’s Rossi and Newgarden, each being born in and carrying the flag for the U.S.

Even though born and raised about 2,000 miles apart – Rossi from the San Francisco Bay area and Newgarden from just north of Nashville – they are two of the brightest young American stars on the IndyCar landscape.

Rossi turns 27 on September 25, while Newgarden turns 28 on December 22.

That’s opposed to Dixon being 38 years old and Power 37.

What fans in Portland – and Sonoma, too – will be seeing isn’t just a championship battle. They’ll also be seeing not a complete changing of the guard just yet, but they will be seeing the future of IndyCar racing in guys like Newgarden and Rossi.

That doesn’t mean guys like Dixon and Power will be retiring any time soon, nor have they slipped any talent-wise, but they are likely very aware that the young lion cubs are coming after the old lions.

It’s kind of like Disney’s The Lion King, where Power and Dixon are Mufasa, the wise old tribe leader of IndyCar, trying to hold off Simba — in this case, Rossi and Newgarden — who just can’t wait to be king.

It’s going to be a very memorable race Sunday. And while there will be a race winner, obviously, the Portland race fans may ultimately be the biggest winners for what they’re about to see.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, 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 for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already 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.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably 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 principle 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.