LA CAR

LA CAR

Car Culture Ground Zero

Author: Brian Kennedy

What Might Have Been

Underdog day. That’s what Sunday at the NTT IndyCar series finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca might have been. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but the story lines…

Underdog day. That’s what Sunday at the NTT IndyCar series finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca might have been. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but the story lines were rich nonetheless.

Put this into perspective: the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup after being dead last in the NHL in early  January, so the unlikely can happen, and who doesn’t like that?

In IndyCar, this would have taken the form of Alexander Rossi winning the season’s championship. He entered the day in second place, forty-one points behind the leader, Josef Newgarden, who has won it before (2017). Newgarden drives for Penske. They’ve got all the money and engineering talent in the world. Rossi drives for Andretti Autosport. They’re a close second, but Michael Andretti, for all his success on track and off, is not Penske.

Could Rossi do it? He would have to do as well as possible from his third starting position and hope Newgarden, who went off fourth, fell back through some disaster. That was unlikely to happen from the start, since Newgarden had his strategy set: not to win the race, but to win the championship. Here’s how he said it after the race: “I thought at one point, I don’t like this. I don’t like the way I’m running this race, but today’s a championship day. . . . It was an odd race. . . . I was doing one thing, and that was to shadow Rossi. I had to stick to the plan.”

His boss, Roger Penske, also commented that the strategy was not to rush to the win, but to pace Rossi. “We knew that Simon and Will were going to go for the win, and Tim [Cindric] had set it up so that we would run behind Rossi all day, three, four, five seconds at the most. It was just a matter of staying out of trouble. It worked out fine. You never know if you’ll have a lot of yellows, but .  . . execution and great reliability, and certainly we had a world-class guy behind the wheel today.” But that’s getting a bit ahead, isn’t it?

The race began with Rossi behind fellow championship challenger (but longshot) Scott Dixon and pole winner rookie Colton Herta. Herta pulled out front with Dixon on his rear wing. Behind them, Rossi and Newgarden paced along. Around lap ten, Newgarden got up to Rossi’s rear wing. Rossi kept pace, but he felt the pressure. He went wide on turn three around lap 12, and Newgarden pressed.

They shortly pitted together, and after emerging, Rossi went off track briefly and Newgarden got by him. The race was about a third finished, with 90 laps being the total distance.

While that was going on, another underdog story started to emerge. Felix Rosenqvist, who had qualified high but received a penalty and ended up starting 14th, was charging. He was first tenth, then eighth, then by lap 63, he was in fifth.

At one point, the running order was Herta, Dixon, Pagenaud, Rossi, and Rosenqvist. Newgarden sat seventh, which more than put him in the champion’s seat. A few laps later, Rossi found himself seventh. Then sixth, with Will Power having played pit strategy to break into the top group, lodging himself second, where he would eventually finish the race.

Power did so by sitting close to the rear wing of Herta, making the kid earn his win, the second one of his career and season (the earlier one being Circuit of the Americas in Texas in March). With about ten laps left, Power faded back into Dixon’s clutches, but he surged again, putting almost five seconds between them. The podium would eventually be Herta, Power, and Scott Dixon.

Rossi, meanwhile, lazed back to sixth. He was about 10 seconds behind the leader, and had nine seconds on Newgarden, who had adopted a failsafe strategy in the late going. The championship was going to be his. In securing it, he did not lead a lap. In trying to wrest it from him, neither did Rossi. The only three out front of the field were Herta (83 laps led), Power (6), and Pagenaud (1).

The finishing order, then, was Herta, Power, Dixon, Pagenaud, Rosenqvist, and Rosenqvist. Rossi was sixth. Sebastian Bourdais quietly moved into seventh, putting Newgarden back to eighth. The latter was good enough for the championship, with 25 points to spare. It was Newgarden’s second in three years, having previously won in 2017. (Dixon won last year.)

Underdog Rosenqvist had to be happy with his improvement of nine spots, especially at a track notorious for not allowing a lot of passing, something which was not so much in evidence on this day. He accomplished something even Herta did not—he won Rookie of the Year honors. This on consistency. His outstanding moment of the season was one pole. Herta, by contrast, had three to go along with his two victories.

This caps a year in which Newgarden won the most races, four. Pagenaud can’t be unhappy with his year, either. He won three races including sweeping the month of May (Indy Grand Prix and the big prize, the Indy 500). He was second in the season’s championship, bringing home the 1-2 for his owner, Roger Penske. He entered the final race a point behind Rossi and thus 42 behind his teammate, Rossi, in the championship.

The championship order ended like this: Newgarden, Pagenaud, Rossi, Dixon, and Power. Newgarden, as was said, won four races, Pagenaud the aforementioned three. The other three in the top five of the championship won two races apiece. The outliers on the season, winning without being amongst the top five, were Herta, as was said, and Takuma Sato, who pulled off two victories as well. No driver won just one race this season. Herta wins at this track in the shadow of his father, Bryan, who took two victories of his career total of four at Laguna Seca.

To Herta, this isn’t the finish of anything, but the start. He’s just 19, and has perhaps two decades in front of him to take the championship his father never won. He’s with a good young team to do it. His team, Harding-Steinbrenner Racing, just announced a partnership for next year with Michael Andretti’s Andretti Autosport. Herta’s team will be Harding Steinbrenner Andretti Racing.

He talked about his team, saying, “It was a perfect race. To win an IndyCar race, it has to be a perfect race. You can’t really make mistakes and get away with it. There’s always two or three other guys on a day that could win. There were a few other guys who could win today, and we outdid them. We had pace on them, and we were definitely the best today.”

Roger Penske, the owner of the championship-winning team, commented on Herta’s team, which has George Steinbrenner’s grandson involved and is a new investment: “To see what they’ve put together, a small team, and the quality of the people building it, Colton Herta, it’s amazing. . . . I think that they’ve got great momentum, and you’re going to hear a lot about them in the future. We need more owners, ones who understand how to win and want to win.”

To return to the Astor Cup, emblematic of this series’ title driver, Newgarden was in tears in the last lap of his championship race. He commented on the feeling after: “I don’t ever cry. Actually it infuriates my fiancé, because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbs her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry. I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.’”

He explained the feeling, “It was like a big weight, I mean, I still feel it when I think about it now. It’s just a big weight. Especially when I saw the guys.” It’s a team sport, remember.

His team owner, Roger Penske, perhaps put the cap on the day, and the year: “The season was great. Josef a great champion. You can see it in his eyes. I could see it the first time he won with us. Will [Power], Simon [Pagenaud] outstanding season, three wins, the Indy 500, the crown jewel of all, every year. The season as a whole was great, the competition. Certainly a lot of young drivers coming up. Colton Herta, outstanding. And the Dixons and the others we race every day. . . . The competition has never been better.”

He summed it up perfectly: “It’s important to go racing in IndyCar, which I think is key. Keep the rules the way they are. We need to come back to these same tracks at the same times every year to grow this fan base.”

Penske has won in sportscars this year, won the IndyCar championship, and could well win the NASCAR Cup as well, so if there’s anyone who should and can speak to this series’ viability, he’s the one. They don’t call him “The Captain” for nothing, after all.

Notes:
Herta plays in a band that will be touring the West Coast in November. He was pretty direct about it in comments after, naming all the tour cities in order! They’re apparently called the Zibs.

Pagenaud was adamant about how Laguna Seca raced, saying after the contest that he would absolutely tell them not to repave. Colton Herta wasn’t so definite. He said qualifying would be faster for sure if they repaved. But the cost might be the way the track raced.

Here’s a glimpse of what it would be to work for Penske, a look into his head: “We start to get ready for next year’s Indy 500 Monday or Tuesday of next week.” Yikes! That’s eight months away!

 

Follow me @growinguphockey. I’ve written books about everything from Facing Wayne Gretzky to Mixing Memory and Desire: Why Literature Can’t Forget the Great War. Read one!

 

 

No Comments on What Might Have Been

Nervously Anticipating the Race

The fog rolled off the water in Monterey Sunday morning, but at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, all was clear as fans arrived for the final IndyCar race of the season….

The fog rolled off the water in Monterey Sunday morning, but at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, all was clear as fans arrived for the final IndyCar race of the season. It would decide the championship, contested between four drivers: leader Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, and Scott Dixon.

Pagenaud was spotted taking pictures with fans and talking with friends (speaking French) in the driveway next to the building where the drivers’ meeting was to be held at 10am. Cool? Maybe. Or maybe he was churning inside, his potential second IndyCar championship within sight, if not grasp. He sat third in the championship, behind Rossi by a point and behind Newgarden by 42. Of the four contenders, only Rossi has not won the season’s title previously. Pagenaud won it in 2016. Newgarden got it in 2017, and Dixon won last year, but has five titles in all.

They would line up in this order, behind Pole Sitter Colton Herta, a rookie: Dixon, Rossi, Newgarden, and Pagenaud, but he was sixth, one behind non-contender James Hinchcliffe.

The numbers crunch out to say that Newgarden has to finish only fourth or better to take the title, no matter what anyone else does. Starting in that very spot, he would pencil out to succeed at becoming two-time champ, because this is the type of track where not a ton of passing happens. But who knows? There was “the Pass” by Alex Zanardi in 1996 to take down Colton’s dad, Bryan Herta, and win the race. (Herta got revenge with two victories in later years). And sometimes, stuff happens.

Things break. Transmissions get balky. Batteries quit. Mostly, mechanical issues can be controlled by preparation, and Newgarden’s team seemed cool in making their final tweaks to the car in the garage around 9:45 am, thus minimizing the risk of a mechanical snafu. They certainly had a lot of observers—guests from sponsor Hitachi were abundant. Outside, their pit space was ready to go, tires laid out and pressures checked. It was go time. Or it would be ‘round about 12:15. In the meantime, there were support series races to be run on the 11-turn 2.238-mile natural road course.

The temperature Sunday aimed for 76 degrees. It had been 86 on Saturday, unusual heat according to local people. Grip is at a premium in racing, obviously, so one question was whether teams had made adjustments for a potentially cooler track.

The race would start with all but three teams on the so-called “alternate” tire, the red sidewall tire which is more grippy but less durable. The three who would be on “blacks,” which are less sticky but give a greater number of laps, were Will Power, in seventh, Takuma Sato in 16th, and Charlie Kimball in 20th. Why does this matter? If the reds fall off early in the race, those three would logically stand to have a better chance at getting to the lead on their better rubber. Then, pit stop strategy being what it is, they could jump the queue and stay up front-all are drivers capable of leading, even winning. Pushing the four title contenders out of the top three spots would change the picture for the title. Still, Newgarden has one primary job—keep the other three in the rearview mirrors.

Fans wandered to their favorite corner, found shade under a tree, watched while Indy Lights and USF 2000 ran, and waited. They would soon know who was to be the champ.

 

No Comments on Nervously Anticipating the Race

Pole Decided

NTT IndyCar qualifying proceeded with some drama, some strategy, and a second-generation pole winner on Saturday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Sunday, four drivers amongst a field of 24 compete…

NTT IndyCar qualifying proceeded with some drama, some strategy, and a second-generation pole winner on Saturday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Sunday, four drivers amongst a field of 24 compete for the season’s title.

No Comments on Pole Decided

Where Are You From?

Laguna Seca Raceway – now properly called the WeatherTech Raceway – in Monterey, California sees visitors – both entusiasts, racers, and “others” – from all over the world. Where are…

Laguna Seca Raceway – now properly called the WeatherTech Raceway – in Monterey, California sees visitors – both entusiasts, racers, and “others” – from all over the world. Where are you from?

No Comments on Where Are You From?

New Generation Taking Over

The 50thanniversary of the Mustang Mach I got due recognition at the 23rdAnnual Ponies At The Pike Show hosted by the Beach Cities Mustang Club on Sunday in Long Beach….

The 50thanniversary of the Mustang Mach I got due recognition at the 23rdAnnual Ponies At The Pike Show hosted by the Beach Cities Mustang Club on Sunday in Long Beach. More than 300 cars showed up to compete for trophies and eyeballs.

No Comments on New Generation Taking Over

Bergen VeteranVogn-Klubb Takes Off

Who would have thought – a classic car show with American and European cars in the middle of Bergen, Norway on a weeknight?

Who would have thought – a classic car show with American and European cars in the middle of Bergen, Norway on a weeknight?

No Comments on Bergen VeteranVogn-Klubb Takes Off

Say It Right: “Jag-U-Ah” – Jaguar Gathering in Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace is the birthplace of Churchill and the gardens his place of choice to get engaged. But in much more recent time this palace hosts an epic Jag gathering.

Blenheim Palace is the birthplace of Churchill and the gardens his place of choice to get engaged. But in much more recent time this palace hosts an epic Jag gathering.

No Comments on Say It Right: “Jag-U-Ah” – Jaguar Gathering in Blenheim Palace

GM Oshawa Going Extinct

It might not feel like a big deal to many, but the closing of GM Oshawa after a century of manufacturing cars in the town is a significant psychological blow…

It might not feel like a big deal to many, but the closing of GM Oshawa after a century of manufacturing cars in the town is a significant psychological blow to the community.

No Comments on GM Oshawa Going Extinct

Lingering Autoshow Impressions

Autoshow Impressions Brian Kennedy   You’ve probably forgotten all about the LA Auto Show by now. Well, it’s such a key moment in the LA and automotive world’s landscape that…

Autoshow Impressions

Brian Kennedy

 

You’ve probably forgotten all about the LA Auto Show by now. Well, it’s such a key moment in the LA and automotive world’s landscape that I thought it was worth revisiting. Here are some memories I had, just as a reminder of what you might have seen, or perhaps as a help if you missed it altogether.

No Comments on Lingering Autoshow Impressions

Type on the field below and hit Enter/Return to search