Random Thoughts On Phoenix
Sometimes I wonder if I live on the same planet as a lot of fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series. After spending all day Saturday doing early spring yard work, I was lucky to get showered and to be sitting in front of the television by the start of the pre-race show for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. In short, I was tired and just wanted to watch the race and not engage anyone on social media throughout the telecast.
After enjoying what I thought was an entertaining race and a great way to spend a Saturday night, I got on Facebook and Twitter only to learn how wrong I was. As it turns out, the race that I enjoyed, which was won by Scott Dixon, was slammed by many. From what they perceived to be a disappointing crowd all the way to a lack of passing and a poor second showing for the revamped race control – many “experts” rained on my parade for my evening of entertainment. How shocked I was to find out that I really didn’t enjoy Saturday night’s race. I just thought I did.
I know, I know…I can hear it now. George is all bunnies and rainbows when it comes to all things IndyCar. If you’ve read this site very long, you know that is far from the truth. And those that know me consider me a grumpy old man who complains about everything, although I’ll dispute that one also.
The setting could not have been more perfect. Typical of Phoenix, there was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was beginning to set. There was still much early-season anticipation as this was only the second race of the season. Would those that prospered at St. Petersburg continue their momentum in Arizona? What about those that stumbled in the season-opener? Would they redeem themselves in the Valley of the Sun? The twenty-two cars glistened under the twilight sky as they prepared to fire. They would look even more spectacular as the artificial lighting took over.
After two practice crashes and one in qualifying – all Hondas and all in Turns One and Two – there was justified speculation that there would be carnage on the first lap. Those fears proved to be unfounded as the race stayed green for the first fifty laps. What Lap One did produce was nail-gripping excitement as Ryan Hunter-Reay gave the entire field a clinic on passing on the outside of what was thought to be a one-groove racetrack.
Hunter-Reay took the green flag in twelfth position. By the time the field reached Turn Three, he was in seventh – having passed five cars all on the outside of Turns One and Two and in the backstretch dogleg. Ignoring how other Hondas had fared in practice and qualifying, Hunter-Reay went for it and it turned out well for him.
Hunter-Reay wasn’t done making jaws drop. On a later restart, RHR passed several cars on the inside of the front-straightaway. But it was all for naught.
If you did not watch Saturday night’s race and looked at the official box score on Sunday morning, you would see that Hunter-Reay finished tenth and figure that he had a forgettable night. What that box score doesn’t reflect is that Hunter-Reay drove his heart out and drove his disadvantaged Honda to as high as third, before not one, but two ill-timed yellow-flags came out just as he had pitted under green.
The irony is that the first one was caused by his own teammate, Carlos Muñoz, hitting the wall on Lap 120. The second was Ed Carpenter getting up in the grey and smacking the wall on Lap 196. Both times, RHR had just pitted under green as he watched the field scream by at speed. Afterwards, most of the field had the luxury of pitting under the yellow as the field crept around at a much slower pace.
Considering all that, it’s a wonder that Hunter-Reay was able to salvage a tenth-place finish, while running on the lead lap at the end. In my mind, there is no question that RHR had the drive of the night and was justifiably disappointed with just a tenth place finish to show for it.
His fellow Honda driver, Graham Rahal, was not quite as spectacular but drove a heck of a race himself. After starting nineteenth, Rahal was racy all evening and was rewarded with a fifth place finish. What this proved to me was that Rahal’s 2015 resurgence was no fluke. He and Sébastien Bourdais were the only two drivers out there on Saturday night without teammates. In this data-rich age of racing, having a teammate is practically imperative, yet Rahal seems to flourish flying solo.
Of course, one of the many storylines involved Team Penske. Pole-sitter Helio Castroneves fought off a charge from Tony Kanaan going into the first turn. Helio led the first thirty-nine laps before apparently cutting his right-front tire. He would finish eleventh and would not be a factor the rest of the night. When Castroneves pitted, teammate Juan Montoya assumed the lead. When the field pitted after the crash of Muñoz on Lap 50, Montoya came out as the leader. He stayed there until his own right-front tire went down in almost identical fashion. Montoya would finish a disappointing ninth.
Considering that both Penske cars had identical issues with the same tire at the exact same point in the stint, one could conclude that there was a problem with the Penske car setup that put too much load on the right-front tire. Penske officials were quick to point out that both cars had suffered cut tires from debris on the track. Conspiracy theorist will claim that they were either covering their own tracks or those of IndyCar partner Firestone. Since the Penske cars of Simon Pagenaud and Will Power did not suffer similar fates, I’ll take the Penske folks at their word.
Speaking of Power and Pagenaud, they both left Phoenix with smiles on their faces. On the strength of his third-place finish, Will Power moved up from dead-last in points to being tied for twelfth, after missing St. Petersburg with an inner-ear problem. Watching him ascend back into championship contention will be interesting to observe throughout the season. With consecutive second-place finishes to start the season, Simon Pagenaud becomes our points-leader with a four point lead over Scott Dixon.
Speaking of Dixon, he won the race by the way. When Montoya suffered his cut tire, Dixon assumed the lead on Lap 96 and never relinquished it. Although he was unspectacular in winning, he was never threatened by Pagenaud who was thrilled with second-place. Tony Kanaan was fast all night and is probably a little dissatisfied by finishing fourth.
My pick to win, Nashvillian Josef Newgarden, was another that persevered through problems in the pits. It took multiple attempts for the refueler to get the fuel probe in, costing Newgarden valuable spots on the track. Some (including Newgarden) say Newgarden pitted too far from the wall for the fuel hose to reach. Others speculate that the fuel rig was set up too far from the pit. Fortunately, he was pitting under caution and didn’t go a lap down, but he did restart from the back of the pack.
Newgarden was the beneficiary of one caution, getting to pit under yellow when many had pitted under green, but the racing gods paid him back when the reverse happened later in the race. He also had to make an unscheduled stop for a new nose, after Charlie Kimball chopped him on Lap 134. With all that, Newgarden was still able to manage a sixth place finish. The fact that he left the track very disappointed shows how far he has come as a driver. Two to three years ago, he would have been pretty pumped over a sixth place finish.
Was this the most riveting race that left me exhausted when it was over? No. Was it a boring parade? No. Let’s focus on what it was, though. It was the much-anticipated return of open-wheel racing to a traditional facility where lots of IndyCar history has been made over the past fifty-two years. This was a starting point. There is much room for growth and improvement, but this was a good starting point.
Perhaps those complaining had their sights set too high. The crowd was about what I was expecting and so was the racing. Phoenix International Raceway President Bryan Sperber was quoted as saying he would have been pleased with a crowd of 13,000 to 15,000 for IndyCar’s first year back. According to Curt Cavin of The Indianapolis Star, Sperber estimates that there were about twenty thousand in attendance Saturday night – a figure he was ecstatic about. If the track is happy, that’s a good thing.
As far as the racing goes, although passing was at a premium, there was enough to keep things interesting. There were enough yellows interspersed to make things interesting without making the race be dubbed a crash-fest. Most importantly, all twenty-two starting drivers walked away in one piece.
So for those on social media that were bemoaning the fact that they were not happy with what they saw on Saturday night, I’m not sure what you were looking for. Perhaps you, in fact, found exactly what you were looking for – something to complain about.
TV Coverage: First the bad – the NBCSN crewed failed to inform viewers the reason for the yellow flag on Lap 248. We were led to believe that race officials sat and watched a piece of debris lying on the front-stretch for several laps before throwing the caution with two laps to go, preventing everyone from seeing a green-flag finish. What actually happened was that Alexander Rossi brushed the wall on Lap 248, forcing the caution. Viewers were left to criticize Race Control for being indecisive.
Now the good – Rick Allen made his IndyCar debut as a broadcaster, but you’d never know it. He was flawless in his delivery and kept the decibels at an acceptable level. I’ll be acused of open-wheel heresy for this, but I may actually prefer Allen’s more subtle approach to the amped-up Leigh Diffey, whom Allen was subbing for. Keep in mind when I say that – I’m a big Leigh Diffey fan. But I see no drop-off whatsoever if Allen is doing a race, and I’ll have no problem if he does many more.
I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it many times in the future, but Paul Tracy is quickly becoming my favorite booth analyst in racing. He is refreshingly candid, does not appear to be coached to tone things down, and gives viewers a peek into what racers are actually thinking. Tracy was never my favorite driver, but I’ve gained a whole new perspective of him as an analyst.
I’m not sure what role Robin Miller fills, but he does it well. He’s not in the booth, but he’s not exactly a pit reporter. He’s just there to offer his opinion and to report little tidbits. Some despise him, but I’m a Robin Miller fan and I think his contribution to the NBCSN telecast is undeniable.
As far as the actual pit reporters go; Kevin Lee is the consummate pro, bringing what appears to be a light-hearted approach to a job he takes very seriously – and he does it very well. Katie Hargitt is growing in her broadcasting role, but don’t think she’s there just to bring a pretty face to the telecast. Hargitt was an accomplished quarter-midgets driver and eventually moved up to midgets in a racing career that spanned eleven years, before turning her attention to broadcasting. She lives and breathes racing and I predict will become a mainstay in some form of motorsports broadcasting for years to come. As for Marty Snider, he comes across as the prima donna of the bunch. I’ll leave it at that. Let’s just say I missed Jon Beekhuis Saturday night.
Hinchcliffe Segment: One more thing on the television front – kudos to whoever produced the pre-race segment on James Hinchcliffe and his road back to an IndyCar cockpit after his harrowing crash at Indianapolis last May. The more I hear of this crash the worse it gets. I had no idea that the medical team lost his pulse on the way to surgery. It magnifies how close we came to losing one of our favorite drivers. This piece shows the more serious side to Hinchcliffe that we rarely see. Even after his crash, Hinchcliffe has been ever the jokester, showing us his incredible sense of humor.
What I liked about this segment is that Hinch was serious in the interview, while being very matter-of-fact and not producing the obligatory tears you see in so many pieces like this. To me, that’s what made it so powerful.
Huge Discrepancy: One thing that was apparent on social media was that those in attendance Saturday night, loved what they saw. It’s no wonder if they were used to seeing the lumbering stock cars of NASCAR make their way around the track. It was pointed out on the telecast Saturday night that Kyle Busch’s pole speed in NASCAR’s race at Phoenix last month was just a tick over 138 mph. Conversely, the pole speed for Helio Castroneves this past weekend was over 192 mph. That’s a difference of 54 mph on a one-mile track or an almost 40% increase in speed.
Those that are against pursuing track records at Indianapolis are fond of saying that you can’t tell the difference between 225 mph and 235 mph with the naked eye. I’ll promise you, NASCAR fans in attendance Saturday night could tell the difference between 138 mph and 192 mph.
Yellow-flag Controversy: While many decried Race Control for throwing what was perceived to be a debris-yellow with two laps to go; no one seemed concerned that they didn’t go to caution as soon as the debris from Ryan Hunter-Reay’s rear wing hit the track.
I totally understand trying to preserve a green-flag finish with debris that was considered out of the racing groove. But should they have gone to a caution as soon as they saw the debris for a couple of laps, keep the pits closed and have a five-to-six lap shootout?
As I watched the waning laps with that winglet sitting to the inside of the front straightaway, I couldn’t help but think that all it takes is for one driver to make a move to the inside, strike that piece to send it airborne and we could have another Justin Wilson situation.
Striking an airborne piece of carbon fiber at 180 mph or more can have devastating consequences, as we learned last August. I trust the former racers in Race Control to know what the normal racing line is and to make the proper calculated risks.
They know a lot more than I do and they probably made the right call. But seeing as we’re still only slightly more than seven months away from the tragic events at Pocono, I’m probably still a little gun-shy when I see debris sitting on a track with cars running at speed.
IndyCar Two-seater: I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard the voice of the winner of the Fastest Seat in Sports, Roger Brint of Nebo, NC. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Brint, but he sounded exactly like comedian Gilbert Gottfried in his interview. If you still have the race on you DVR, go back and listen to it. I expected the next thing out of his mouth to be “Hi ya’ Schmucks!”
But at least he sounded excited to be there, which is more than I can say about some of the past winners. I’ve heard some that sounded like they’d rather be at an insurance seminar than in the cockpit of that two-seater, for whatever reason. You wonder why they registered if it meant nothing to them.
Dixon’s Legacy: Scott Dixon put another check in the win column Saturday night. Not only did he add another track to the long list of venues where he has won, but he also won his thirty-ninth career IndyCar race. That ties Dixon with Al Unser for fourth on the all-time list.
With thirty-nine wins, Dixon now trails only Michael Andretti (42 wins), Mario Andretti (52) and AJ Foyt (67). I seriously doubt that Foyt’s record is in jeopardy, But at only thirty-five years of age, Dixon most likely will surpass Michael Andretti and might even make Mario sweat in a few years.
Detractors will say that Dixon amassed those wins against lesser competition. Although we romanticize about the golden age of the sixties when Mario and AJ were bitter rivals, there were plenty of chumps and low budget teams in those days. Every era in racing had its top-level and low-level teams. In all honesty, I think this era has less disparity between the top and the bottom than in the sixties.
Dixon has been called boring and dull and all types of unflattering names by a lot of people. He may not be the flashiest driver out there, but he’s got more wins than anyone on today’s grid. Isn’t that the ultimate goal for a racer? I’ll also maintain that no one that is dull and boring could keep someone like Emma Davies Dixon as his wife as long as he has. So there.
All in All: The 2016 Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix will not go down in history as a racing classic, with non-stop heart-pounding moments. Nor will it be even closely associated with some of the clunkers that have taken place. One of the dullest races I can remember was the 1992 race at Phoenix that saw Bobby Rahal lead wire-to-wire in a race that had no cautions. Now that was boring.
But history will remember this race as when the Verizon IndyCar Series returned to the site of some of the more memorable moments in IndyCar history and put on a pretty good show for their first time back.
I remember seeing a tweet on Saturday morning from a driver, saying that it’s good to be at a track where IndyCar feels genuinely welcomed, instead of just being tolerated. That’s the difference. It may not have looked spectacular to those with exceedingly high expectations, but we already know that the series will be returning in 2017. The track seemed happy on Sunday and so did IndyCar. That’s really all that matters.