Random Thoughts On Long Beach

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Unless someone grew up an avid Mario Andretti fan in the sixties and still carries a grudge against AJ Foyt from those days – you’ll be hard pressed to find many people that didn’t come away from yesterday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach with a very happy feeling. To see Takuma Sato win the race in dominating fashion was justification for Larry Foyt and all of the hard work he has put into rebuilding his famous father’s team. The only thing that would’ve made it better was to have seen AJ himself on hand to witness the victory. Unfortunately, the elder Foyt is getting ready for surgery on Wednesday to repair his sciatic nerve. Having had a few bouts with that myself over the years, I can relate. He wants to be mobile for the month of May.

Once again, this was a very entertaining race. It wasn’t edge-of-your-seat excitement – few races at Long Beach are – but it was a nice blend of unpredictability with the re-starts and good racing with some textbook passes pulled off. In the end, it was Takuma Sato pulling away easily from Graham Rahal, who had a much needed good run to finish second. Justin Wilson from Dale Coyne Racing came from near the back of the field to finish third and fill out the unlikely podium. Supposedly, this is the first time since the merger in 2008 that a Penske, Ganassi or Andretti car did not end up on the podium.

This was also a day for the downtrodden to get back in it. Many of the usual front-runners had one sort of problem or another. Points leader Helio Castroneves had front-wing damage early, but was able to claw his way back to ninth and hold on to his points lead. Scott Dixon tangled with Tristan Vautier in the opening laps and came back out last, yet managed to work his way back to finish tenth and is third in the points battle. One-time points leader, James Hinchcliffe, had his second straight DNF and has now slid back to tenth in points. Ryan Hunter-Reay crashed while making a way too optimistic move on Ana Beatriz. Will Power had a mishap with Vautier in the pits, but his day was seemingly going nowhere before then. Charlie Kimball was sixth in points heading into yesterday’s race, but found the tire barriers twice.

With all of the carnage by all the points leaders, Tony Kanaan looked poised to make a big move in the standings. He was seventh in points heading into the weekend. TK was running fifth and having a decent day. However, Oriol Servia ducked inside of Kanaan going into Turn One on Lap 79. Kanaan ended up in the tire barriers. His certain fifth place finish was gone – he finished twentieth. Gone too was a chance to move up, as he dropped from seventh to thirteenth in points. For his actions, Servia was given a thirty-second post-race penalty and was credited with finishing eighteenth; but later in the evening, the penalty was rescinded and Servia was credited with sixth.

By finishing fourth, Dario Franchitti moved from dead-last in points up to nineteenth. That’s not great, but it’s a start. I may be wrong, but I have a feeling that it is enough of a momentum kick and that a sleeping bear has been wakened.

Sato moved from twelfth in points heading into Sunday’s race, to second. Another driver that took advantage of other driver’s misfortunes was Marco Andretti. He too had his problems, but he fought back to a well-earned seventh place finish. His efforts however, kept him to fourth in points – which was a little surprising to me.

Sato’s victory was no fluke. He has been in the Fast Six in qualifying for every race so far this season (although he was removed from the Fast Six due to a penalty at Barber). For the past several years, we had been told before each season to be on the lookout for improvements at Foyt and each year they disappointed. With the combination of Larry Foyt’s management, Takuma Sato as the driver and Don Halliday as the engineer – they look like they’ve finally hit on something. Many a race a couple of years ago, saw Vitor Meira enter the pits with good track position only to see it evaporate due to a slow pit stop from an over-weight and over-aged crew. Now those guys have been replaced by a fit and quick team. The results showed on Sunday.

With Sato’s near miss at Indianapolis last year and the addition of Conor Daly to the team in the month of May, all eyes may be on the team of AJ Foyt for the first time in quite a while. As an unabashed fan of AJ Foyt, I’m very happy to see it.

TV Coverage: What I’m about to say will be considered blasphemous to most, but it’s what I think. I actually preferred Brian Till in the booth to Leigh Diffey who was off doing Formula One duties. I know I’m in the minority, but I haven’t adjusted to Diffey’s exuberance (read: screaming) just yet. I found Till to be just a little more refreshing to listen to. That contrasts to my thoughts of Till when he was subbing for Marty Snider at St. Petersburg. There, I found Till a little on the dry side. Of course, his rating went down after the race when he called Snider “Marty Reid” (ugh!).

I really liked the point in the pre-race when they showed a clip from the 1984 Long Beach race. Paul Page had a comb-over that rivaled that of former Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum. Michael Andretti looked like a little kid, but I guess he was younger at that time than Marco is now.

The NBC Sports Network produced many trivial tidbits, which I always like. For instance, with Dario Franchitti leading at the first of the race, they announced that it was the first time since Toronto last July that Franchitti had led a lap on a non-oval. They also told us that Sato’s victory was the first for a Japanese driver (I knew that one) and that it was the first victory for Foyt’s team since Airton Daré won at Kansas in 2002 (I knew that one too). One that I did not know is that it was the first victory for Foyt’s team on a road/street course since Foyt won at Silverstone in 1978.

There were a few times when they cut away from great battles on the track to show routine pit stops, but other than that – I’ve got to give NBCSN another good grade. Wally Dallenbach and Townsend Bell are really starting to gel nicely. I also like the move of Jon Beekhuis to the pits, but I’m not so sure how he likes it.

Wither the “Big Three”: While most fans loved the different look of the podium yesterday, it was the first time since the merger that a Penske, Ganassi or Andretti driver was not on the podium. Franchiti’s fourth-place finish was the highest among the big-three. Marco Andretti finished seventh. The highest finish for a Penske driver was Helio Castroneves, who finished ninth.

It was a very un-Penske-like day for Team Penske. Things looked promising from qualifying where they had two of their three drivers in the Fast-Six, but things sort of unraveled from the start of yesterday’s race. AJ Allmendinger was never a factor and he finished twenty-third after experiencing mechanical problems on Lap 51. Will Power was the most perplexing. Although he had a pit stop ruined by Tristan Vautier waving him out as Power was pulling in – Power seemed off the pace all day and finished a very unimpressive fifteenth and currently sits ninth in points. Hmmmm….

Good day for Hildebrand: Dario Franchitti is not the only driver that entered the weekend in need of a good result. After everyone (myself included) piled onto JR Hildebrand for his brain-fade at St. Petersburg, he followed that with a forgettable seventeenth place finish at Barber. While he was unspectacular again on Sunday, he hung in there and salvaged a much-needed fifth-place finish. He still is fourteenth in points, but at least he’s moving in the right direction. Good for him.

What if?: Scott Dixon has had two magnificent drives in two of the past three races. The one that wasn’t considered magnificent was at Barber when he finished second. But at St. Petersburg and at Long Beach he started way back in the back, yet was able to manage top-ten finishes. At St. Petersburg, Dixon started twentieth and finished fifth. Yesterday, he started twenty-sixth and finished tenth. Although he currently sits third in points, you wonder where he might be had he started near the front in those races.

All in all: I’ve watched a lot of races at Long Beach over the years. I think that this one may have been the most enjoyable. Perhaps that’s because I’m such a Foyt fan, and there’s been so little to cheer for from their camp recently. But to see Sato and Foyt come away with the win and Graham Rahal finish second with Justin Wilson giving Dale Coyne a podium finish – it continued the unique look of this season. As someone astutely mentioned on Twitter last night; AJ Foyt Racing has more wins this season than Penske and Ganassi combined. That probably won’t last long, but who knows?

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Long Beach”

  1. Carburetor Says:

    I think it would also be appropriate to give a shout-out to Honda for a podium sweep. It was great to see the Foyt team on the podium-not to mention being the winner! I have been a big critic of Sato’s–and admit I lost a bet with my friend that Sato would find a way into the wall/tire barrier somehow during the last 10 laps, but this time he kept his exuberance under control and made it home. He has always been fast (which you cannot say about many of the drivers in the field), but if he is able to keep himself under control–and the team is able to continue its steady improvement–do we dare say that the Foyt team could be force in the future? Let’s hope so!

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I think the only people happier than you yesterday, George, were Sato, AJ, Larry, and the guy at Dallara who sells front wings (an necessarily in that order).

    Not only is this the first time since the merger that no Andretti, Ganassi, or Penske cars have been on the podium, it’s only the second time this has happened since all 3 of those teams began competing against each other in 2003. That’s a gap of 162 races.
    The only previous occurence was at Motegi in 2003:
    1 – Scott Sharp (Tom Kelly)
    2 – Kenny Brack (Bobby Rahal)
    3 – Felipe Giaffone (Mo Nunn)
    4 – Michael Andretti (Andretti Green)
    15 – Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi)
    17 – Alex Barron (Roger Penske)

    I’m quite happy for Sato and for Foyt. It’s especially refreshing to root for Sato and not feel weird about it. Sato is a likable and very entertaining driver who was only tough to cheer for because his tendency to wreck made him a punchline. No more.
    Throw in real nice drives by Graham and Wilson, and a lot of the unpredictability that comes with high contact street courses, and we had ourselves a pretty good race.

  3. I am over the top about the Foyt team’s win and you saw the excitement with the crew when Sato got out of the car. That was a team effort and Sato’s experience also had a lot to do with it. I understand that he is a very enthusiastic person and it rubs off on everyone including AJ. As I have said earlier, there isn’t a better guy in the garage area than Larry and I look forward to seeing the team in Indianapolis after a good run in Sau Paulo.

    By the way, that is a terrific recap George!

  4. Brian McKay in Florida Says:

    Good race recap, George … I surmise that you spent much time writing it. – kudos -

  5. I enjoyed the race, particularly the podium results, but I thought the restarts were poor. On one of them TK jumped the green flag so much that he had to pull a chop move on Hinch to keep from crashing. Does anyone know if the flag man actually makes the decision to go green, or does BB2 make the decision? This goes on year after year it seems to me.

  6. I’m surprised to see another comment about TK already.

    It is hard to take event seriously when TK was allowed to be so far out of line, and so much faster than the cars in front of him prior to the green flag.

    Also hard to respect this qualifying format anymore…

    The sport needed to clarify rules enforcement 3 years ago… Barfield has changed enforcement but done nothing to make clear what will and will not be permitted.

    • Just wanted to weigh in here. I thought restarts were pretty ragged overall this weekend, but it took watching the TK restart 3-4 times on the TiVo before I could really tell anything about what happened. That restart looked especially bad because Mike Conway’s car didn’t accelerate at all coming to the flag (and he subsequently retired a few laps later). TK and the other guys right around and behind Kimball had to scramble to miss him, which is how TK wound up passing like 3 guys before they hit the kink in Shoreline Drive (1-2 guys got bottled up behind Conway, TK jinked to the right to go around them). Like I say, I’m not thrilled at how the restarts looked overall, but that particular one gets a pass from me due to the technical issue at hand.

      • billytheskink Says:

        Good reminder. Also reminds me that in all 3 races a different Rahal car has had a mechanical issue that slowed them on track. Graham at St. Pete, Jakes at Barber, and Conway at Long Beach. Conway was the first to retire due to the issue.

        Interesting trend.

      • Absolutely deserves no pass on this.

        Watch the video again. Conway in no way inhibited Hinch, yet by the time the radio transmission for the green had started, TK had already moved from the outside lane two rows behind Hinch and fully into the inside lane and even with a car in the row behind Hinch.

        You cannot possibly legitimize a change in lane and drawing even with a row advanced from your starting position based on a car that had slowed.

        He gained both a position and speed advantage over cars that were ahead of him and not inhibited by Conway. That is a violation of both the letter and the spirit of the rule.

  7. Timothynothhelfer Says:

    Another great race and first time winner! I wonder about the stats for the Japanese quest to win in the INDYCAR series…the number of drivers, costing millions of dollars per seat over two decades…

  8. James T Suel Says:

    I was and still am a big Mario fan, but still a AJ FOYT fan also! I know thats rare but have always liked both great drivers. That win had me standing up and cheering!!

  9. Gotta say I have stepped back from my previously (similar to you, George) opinion-changing about Kimball. After watching what he did, (not once but twice) in LB (one directly in front of me), his decision making is coming into question…

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