Joe Skibinski / IndyCar

Bourdais recalls wild 2018 race at Portland

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Portland International Raceway is a track that favors champions. With 25 previous NTT IndyCar Series events at the facility, the list of winners at P.I.R. is a “who’s who” of American open-wheel racing. Al Unser Jr, won the first race at Portland in 1984, and would win again in ‘94 and ‘95. Michael Andretti won three straight from 1990-93, and his father Mario won twice in 1985 and 1986. 

All-in-all, 20 of the previous 25 races at Portland were won by drivers who had previously won, or would go on to win an IndyCar championship in their career.

Over the years, Pacific Northwest race fans have been blessed with the opportunity to witness some incredibly talented drivers win at their home track, and Sebastien Bourdais is no exception.

When he first competed at P.I.R. in Champ Car from 2003 through 2007, Bourdais was a serious threat to win every year. In fact, Bourdais finished on the podium in all but one of his first five starts at Portland, with victories in 2004 and 2007.

Obviously, open-wheel racing has changed quite a lot since 2007. Drivers, teams and tracks have all come and gone. But Bourdais still remains a serious contender to chase victories whenever the series visits a natural-terrain road course, and if last year’s return to Portland after an 11-year hiatus is any indication, Bourdais might be in for another great race this weekend. Naturally, he enters the penultimate round of the 2019 season with a lot of enthusiasm.

“The big surprise last year was that we qualified very well,” Bourdais told NBC Sports. “It had been kind of a trend in ‘18 for us that we were very comfortable and competitive with our road course package, and we did it again at Portland, and that was not the most straight forward or easy qualifying session either.”

Indeed, Bourdais’ Saturday in Portland last year was anything but easy. After leading practice 1 on Friday morning, Bourdais took the top spot on the scoring pylon from Graham Rahal with minutes remaining in P3. But then he lost control of his car entering Turn 10 and spun before backing into the tire barrier, causing significant damage to his No. 18 Honda. 

Bourdais pilots “Frankenstein” during qualifying for last year’s Grand Prix of Portland. (Photo: Steve King/IndyCar)

With qualifying just over three hours away, Bourdais’ crew had to quickly scramble to put his car back together. Though Bourdais was intentionally scheduled to run a special purple and white livery that weekend, all of the replacement parts still sported the traditional black and yellow SealMaster colors.

The result was a multi-colored machine which fans referred to as “Frankenstein”, and though not the most visually pleasing machine, Bourdais brought Frankenstein to life in qualifying by making the Firestone Fast Six en route to a fifth place qualifying run. Not too shabby for a car and driver who made contact with a tire barrier a few hours earlier.

“Obviously qualifying fifth after rebuilding the car and still displaying some good speed was very encouraging,” Bourdais said. “I didn’t go into the race with any bad feelings at all. I was actually quite excited.”

But if Bourdais thought his wild weekend was over following qualifying, he would be quickly proven wrong. His No. 18 machine was caught up in the infamous first lap incident in Turn 3 of last year’s race, and suffered front wing damage which resulted in a necessary pit stop.

“I thought we had a legit shot of finishing on the podium,” Bourdais said. “Then the start didn’t go really well and it seemed like all was lost.”

But it wouldn’t be. After exiting the pits, Bourdais returned to the track in the 21st position. However, the team changed their pit strategy and with the help of a few timely cautions, Bourdais slowly made his way back to the front. When the checkered flag flew, Bourdais finished third and found himself in a familiar position: back on the podium at P.I.R.

Bourdais celebrates after finishing third in last year’s Grand Prix of Portland. (Photo: Joe Sibinski/IndyCar)

“It kind of came back to us at the end,” Bourdais said. “It’s just the typical IndyCar attitude you have to have, which is to never give up, because you never know what waits for you around the corner.”

But if the wild weekend on-track was not enough to leave an impression on Bourdais, Portland’s loyal fan base that returned to the track years later certainly did. Bourdais stated that Portland has always been a race he’s looked forward to because of the passion displayed by local fans.

“You’d be surprised by the number of people who would see me at other events and ask ‘when are you guys coming back to Portland?’,” Bourdais said. “When it finally happened, they all showed up, and they showed up in big numbers. It was great. It was like we were never gone.

“It’s just a great area and if it was not that far from Europe I would definitely have no problem with living there.”

Live coverage of the Grand Prix of Portland begins Sunday, September 1 at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

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

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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.”