‘Unleashing the Dragon’ uncorks big emotions for Marcus Ericsson, team in reliving Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – During each IndyCar offseason, Marcus Ericsson and race engineer Brad Goldberg spend a week reliving every race weekend of the previous year.

Either in person or over videoconferencing, the Chip Ganassi Racing duo take a deep dive into all the setup and strategy decisions they made in practice, qualifying and the race. They dissect every minute detail that had a positive or negative impact on their No. 8 Dallara-Honda.

They naturally had been saving the 2022 Indianapolis 500 for last heading into this season, but they wound up reviewing the race separately this time.

NBC SPORTS AT THE INDY 500Full broadcast schedule for May

And this time, their debrief will be shared with the world in an hourlong documentary.

“Unleashing the Dragon” offers a behind-the-scenes retelling of how Ericsson won the biggest race of his career – relying heavily on commentary from Ericsson, Goldberg and support engineer Angela Ashmore to peel back the layers on the myriad twists of fate that landed them in the winner’s circle.

“Of course, I watched the ending, but I’d never actually sat down and walked through the race – stint by stint, pit stop by pit stop, lap by lap,” Goldberg told NBC Sports about his sitdown for the film. “To go through the whole day, even what time I got there in the morning, was pretty neat, because I hadn’t really processed that yet.

“And winning that race was a childhood dream of mine. When you’re in the moment, it seems like you’re making the right decisions, but the blinders are on. It made sense at the time, but then to see it unfold globally in the race this way.

“It was a good time just to sit and understand how it happened. It was a good day.”

Ericsson, of course, is the main character in “Unleashing The Dragon” (the title was derived from an Indianapolis Star story that nicknamed Ericsson’s snaking move down the backstretch to fend off runner-up Pato O’Ward), and the documentary takes a unique tack for his perspective.

Filmed at a Palm Springs cinema (just after preseason IndyCar testing wrapped in nearby Thermal), Ericsson rewatched the entire race with IndyCar on NBC analyst James Hinchcliffe (who helped coach the Swede on racing ovals as a teammate in his 2019 rookie season).

“It’s a pretty cool and clever way to tell the story, and I was sitting there with tears in my eyes watching the final cut of the documentary,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “Obviously, I’m biased, but I think they still did an amazing job with it, so I’m excited to share that with everyone.”

The documentary was released May 15 on NBC Sports’ digital platforms (click on the video above to watch or by clicking here or here) and will have its premiere in Sweden next week.

Made by the Stockholm-based Katagarma production company, “Unleashing the Dragon” also features interviews with several stars (O’Ward, Alex Palou, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Tony Kanaan and Scott McLaughlin among them) whose fortunes intersected with Ericsson’s over 500 miles on the 2.5-mile oval.

But the most powerful anecdotes come from Goldberg, who went to high school just 3 miles from Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the city’s west side.

Ericsson’s victory also was the first in the Indy 500 for Goldberg, who was working the race for a 20th time as an IndyCar team member.

When Goldberg told Ericsson on the cooldown lap to “think about your family,” it was because Goldberg was looking at Ericsson’s mother, father, brother and future wife while thinking about his late father.

Before David Goldberg died of lung cancer when Brad was 9, father and son created several years of memories together attending the Indy 500 and the “Thursday Night Thunder” sprint car races at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

“It’s just that sort of emotion,” Brad Goldberg said. “I lost my father when I was very young and just the sense of accomplishment and pride that he would have is very special to me.”

Ericsson said reliving the significance of the win for Goldberg and Ashmore (the first woman on a winning Indy 500 team) was as emotional as his own celebration.

“I know how much it means to me,” Ericsson said, “but also to see how much it means for them and other people, it’s very touching for me.”

Beyond its emotional elements (which also come from the stars explaining what the Brickyard means to them and its historical context), “Unleashing the Dragon” also has an analytical side with a rare window into how teams determine fuel strategy.

The movie uses some dramatic snippets from Ganassi’s team intercom as Ashmore and Goldberg discuss how to manage strategy. Every IndyCar team’s timing stand in the pits has a similar system in which engineers and strategists constantly discuss fuel calculations outside of the public eye.

Unlike the driver-team radio communications easily accessible to anyone with a smartphone or wifi, team communications on the intercom (which functions similarly to what pilots use) are private because the discussions are viewed as proprietary. But they are recorded, and Ganassi allowed the documentary’s producers access to some transmissions (after they were vetted).

INDY 500 INFO: Start times, schedules, TV, stats, historical details about the race

“You can have this open dialogue, and the privacy gives us a free ability to talk about things without having McLaren, Andretti or Penske, McLaren hear what we’re actually doing,” Goldberg said.

Ashmore’s primary duty is analyzing and managing the fuel windows, keeping Goldberg and the No. 8 strategist apprised of how various strategy options are changing. A collective decision is made on the mileage target and then relayed by to Ericsson by the strategist, a role filled by a Ganassi executive (last year was Mike O’Gara, this year it’s team manager Taylor Kiel).

“There’s a ton of conversations that’s just between us on the stand talking through the strategy,” Ashmore told NBC Sports. “I’ll give them a mileage target, and we have a back and forth as they’re watching how the race is progressing and where our gaps to other cars are moving. They kind of tell me, ‘OK, this is what we want to do with the strategy. We want to overcut, or we want to undercut. What do we have to do fuel-wise to make that happen?’ ”

Marcus Ericsson and race engineer Brad Goldberg share a light moment at the Toronto race last year (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment).

It’s a strategic dance that happens in virtually every IndyCar race, and Goldberg hopes “Unleashing the Dragon” could lead to more instances of content that goes behind the curtain.

“I wish there was more,” he said. “If it gets more people involved in the sport and more fans enticed to watch the sport, we need to be doing it. Because there’s a whole other race that goes on besides the race on the track. Literally, that’s where all the game of strategy happens. That’s where the chess players live.

“I had no idea as a kid that this is how it happened, and then you get ingrained in it, and this is really cool to be part of it.”

Said Ashmore: “I think there’s a lot of things that happen on the timing stand or during the race that most people don’t know or understand just because there’s not a lot of visibility. By design because you don’t necessarily want all that information out there for everyone to hear, but in this specific instance, I think it’s really cool that we can share it and give a little bit of insight into the decision-making process and how much is going on outside of Marcus just navigating traffic and driving the car. There’s a lot of decision-making on the stand that goes behind that.”

The team intercom chatter also includes a performance engineer (who monitors other teams and does timing models) and a Honda Performance Development engineer. Goldberg said the team is talking via the intercom for virtually every lap until the final pit stop.

“It’s always constant communication, but toward the end of that race, it was pretty quiet,” Goldberg said with a laugh. “You’re just watching gearshift by gearshift, lap by lap, corner by corner, steering trace by steering trace. Trying to get through the lap and then another lap.”

“Unleashing The Dragon” also touches on a few tense moments in which Ericsson’s win seemed in doubt, including two incidents that involved featured teammate Jimmie Johnson.

Ericsson was seething after getting blocked by Johnson on an early pit stop, and he was angry again when his comfortable lead was neutralized by Johnson’s crash with five laps remaining.

“Oh my gosh, there were some hotheads on the stand,” Ashmore said. “I think because we won, everything was cool. It was OK. I think after the race, some people were like, ‘Man, (Johnson is) lucky that things didn’t go another way, because that would have been a bad deal.’ ”

The documentary focuses on an exchange between Ericsson and Goldberg during the red flag for Johnson’s wreck that set up a restart for the final three laps.

“Marcus always knows if I get on the radio, it’s serious,” Goldberg said with a laugh. “If you listen in the documentary, he’s all spun up. I let him go and then when he wasn’t stopping, you heard me very sternly, calmly come on and say it’s not a problem. We have the best car. If (O’Ward) passes you, there’s no problem. We’ll just pass him back. We’re not going to lose this race. After that, he got real quiet, and it was time to go race again.”

The documentary triggered memories of a few heart-stopping moments for Ashmore, who also hadn’t rewatched the entire race before being involved with “Unleashing The Dragon.” She initially was unaware she had made history that she was the first winning female team member (which journalist Marshall Pruett confirmed with IMS historians a few weeks later).

Angela Ashmore is in her fourth season as a support engineer with Marcus Ericsson’s team (Chris Bucher/Chip Ganassi Racing).

“I feel it more now than I did a year ago right after we won,” she said. “It didn’t sink in until we’re coming back to the race this year, and you have a little more respect for how much work went into that whole year of preparation. I’m just a generally unemotional person, which I think is what makes me good at my job. I’m never too high, never too low.

“I don’t get too worked up usually, although there were a couple of moments in that race when I went back and watched the deal with Jimmie, it was like another flash of anger and a ‘Wow, we got really lucky.’ How many things had to go right for us to win this race? I think it was just the amazement of ‘Man, if that would have happened, we wouldn’t have won.’ Wow, we really saved a lot of fuel being back a few cars in the pack. That was a really good deal for us. If that hadn’t have happened, we wouldn’t have won.

“I think that was more of an eye-opener watching it back. Oh man, so many things went our way.”

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment

DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and two red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500