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

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

MORE: McLaren considering Kyle Busch for Indy 500

“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”