Random Thoughts On Long Beach
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?