Random Thoughts On Gateway

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After very little sleep and a long drive home yesterday, I found time to ponder the events of this past weekend – from the moment I first arrived at Gateway Motorsports Park on Friday at lunchtime, to leaving the track in the wee hours of Sunday morning long after the huge crowd had departed the grounds.

The one overriding thought from the weekend was that the return of the Verizon IndyCar Series for the first time since 2003, in the form of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500, was a rousing success. Does that mean that everything was perfect? Not by a long shot.

And then there was the race itself. On the surface, the race seemed rather mundane, if you discount the crazy start that didn’t see one lap completed under green until Lap 18. But there were many stories and subplots from the race to give fans plenty to talk about leading into next weekend’s race at Watkins Glen.

Of course, the main takeaway from the race was the pass that Josef Newgarden made on his teammate, Simon Pagenaud, with thirty laps to go. It ruffled the feathers of Pagenaud, put Newgarden in better shape to win this season’s championship and split the fan base on who was right and who was wrong in that situation.

But there was much more to discuss from Saturday night’s race than one single pass, so let’s get right to it.

Some wrinkles to iron out: Seventeen IndyCar seasons, a track closing and a new track owner have taken place since the last IndyCar race took place at Gateway Motorsports Park in 2003. Suffice it to say that the crowd for that race was a fraction of what showed up Saturday night at the 1.25-mile egg-shaped oval just across the river from St. Louis.

Although IndyCar had been there, it’s pretty safe to consider Saturday night’s race as a new event. New events tend to have unforeseen problems and this was certainly the case at Gateway. On Friday, I wrote about having to wait in line for fifty minutes for my parking pass and weekend credentials. This was not due to the fact that I happen to be a lowly blogger. The likes of Robin Miller and Jim Ayello were waiting in line all of that time with me. With probably seventy-five people waiting in line, they had one person working the counter.

When I got back into my car with my pass properly displayed, there was poor signage telling me where to go. The staff people directing traffic had no clue how I was to get into the infield parking. I was directed to a lot outside of Turn Two before someone told me I had to turn around and go back, make a left and I would see signage directing me to the tunnel. I never saw the signs but I saw an opening where I could simply cross the track on the backstretch.

I got right in the middle of the track before someone came out of nowhere frantically waving his arms telling me I couldn’t go that way. He looked at my pass which was bright green and told me to follow the signs for purple parking, which made no sense at all. But I did and found some more “security” people that looked all of fifteen years old, who looked at me like I had two heads when I asked for the infield tunnel. They said they had no idea but they would allow me to proceed. I ended up following my own instincts and finally found it under the exit of Turn Four. Once inside, no one told me where to go, so I just drove on the pavement. I followed my nose to the middle of the infield until someone finally waved me into a parking lot.

I thought I was home free until I asked him how to get to the Media Center. Again, I got the familiar blank stare I had been encountering for the last fifteen minutes. I figured it’s got to be somewhere behind the pits so I headed that way. Fortunately, I ran into someone with IndyCar that I knew and he directed me where to go.

That was my story but I heard others that were much worse, from media members and fans. To be blunt, the “security” was a joke. You apparently needed no credentials to wander the grid just before the race. I saw people with beer in their hands, freely strolling around cars that were carrying their race setups. Kids not connected with any teams were allowed to sit on the pit wall, eat hot dogs and run amok in the pits with cars qualifying on the track.

Yet during the Friday afternoon practice, I wandered down to pit-in (where I also watched the race Saturday night) and a young girl in a security T-shirt ran up to me like I had just shot someone and told me that I was not allowed there, and proceeded to escort me away. I pointed out that my credentials allowed me to be there, but she argued vehemently and proceeded to carry me out of there. Fortunately I was saved by someone higher up the pecking order who pointed to my credentials and told her I was allowed there. I heard countless stories of the inconsistency of enforcing various rules all weekend.

I also heard about extremely long lines at concession stands just before and during the race, but the ones I visited Saturday afternoon had no lines whatsoever. On a side note, I was very pleasantly surprised to get a very good breaded pork tenderloin sandwich in the concession area on Saturday. This one was so big, they folded it on the bun.

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I heard that general parking outside the track was a nightmare and that it seemed there was no plan on how to evacuate the large crowd once the race was over. I didn’t experience this personally but heard from some that did.

These are all things that could have been avoided, but were probably expected with a new event. Hopefully, track management will learn of all the mishaps (which is one reason I’m going into all of this detail) and figure out a plan to deal with things better next year. Remember: the Indianapolis 500 didn’t become the well-oiled machine that it is overnight.

The crowd: As I said earlier, this crowd far exceeded the crowds the last few races drew in the CART/IRL days. Ill admit I had never heard of Bommarito Automotive Group, but they did a great job of marketing this event and promoting their brand at the race. Whether they did an outstaying job of marketing and promotion, or the perfect weather led to a huge walk-up crowd – the crowd was huge and the biggest crowd (in stands) I’ve seen this season other than the Indianapolis 500.

Another thing I noticed was that this was a well-educated group of open-wheel fans, not just curious NASCAR fans wanting to check it out. Most of the apparel I saw was either from previous Indianapolis 500’s, Indy Car or IndyCar team apparel.

The pass: I saw on the video boards when Josef Newgarden made the bold move to the inside of his Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, when they briefly touched in Turn One. My immediate thought was “…that’s how you win a championship”. When I got back to the Media Center and watched Pagenaud talk with disdain about how he no longer trusts Newgarden and how Josef apparently doesn’t respect him – all I could think about was how he should instead be kicking himself for leaving the door open for Newgarden to stick his nose in there.

Afterwards, I was surprised to hear some media members agreed with Pagenaud. I was just as surprised scouring social media on Sunday morning to find that many fans felt that Newgarden had made a NASCAR type move and he put himself, his teammate and the rest of the field in danger by making such an aggressive move.

Granted, I’m more than a little biased because Newgarden is from Nashville and he is one of the few drivers I’ve interviewed (back in 2011), when I found him to be very engaging – so I’ll put out that disclaimer.

But it never dawned on me that Newgarden’s pass would generate so much controversy. The way I look at it is; no harm, no foul. Newgarden wasn’t racing for a decent result; he was racing for the win and a championship. He has made two gutsy moves in the last three races against his Penske teammates, both for the lead and ultimately for the win. In addition to Saturday night’s move against Pagenaud, He also outfoxed teammate Will Power on a pass for the lead and the win at Mid-Ohio. Neither teammate suffered any damage other than a bruise to their ego. Roger Penske has a standing order – don’t take out your teammate. He never said anything about hurting their feelings.

So regardless of any Nashville allegiance I have toward Newgarden, I thought it was a great move and if he goes on to win the championship – people will be pointing to that pass that may have sealed it for him. As for Simon Pagenaud, I like him because he is a great driver and he is outstanding when he deals with fans. But when it comes to racing against his teammate, I think it’s time for Pagenaud to man up and admit that he was schooled by the young Newgarden, rather than whining to the media about lack of respect. Leave that line to the NFL.

Daly’s big night: Fan favorite Conor Daly has been having a dreadful season in his first year driving a full season for AJ Foyt. He is currently eighteenth in points and is ranked last among the drivers that have started every race this season. Aside from a seventh at Texas and a tenth at Mid-Ohio, his results this year have been abysmal. Lifelong fans of AJ Foyt tend to blame the driver rather than admit that Foyt’s team is still in need of a lot of pieces – a top-notch engineering staff for one.

Jack Hawksworth had a good year with Bryan Herta Autosport in 2014 and turned some heads. But he killed his career when he went to the second car for Foyt. He had disastrous results and has now been written off to the point where I’m not sure he’ll ever drive in IndyCar ever again.

Fans were reminded Saturday night that Conor Daly can still drive a race car, when given one that is properly set up. He started eleventh and moved up all night to finish fifth, just behind three Penske cars and one Ganassi car. In the closing laps, it looked as if he was catching Helio Castroneves and thinking about trying to pass him. But he made the wise choice to keep the good finish in hand, rather than wadding up the car and having to face AJ, who was in the pits Saturday night.

Conor

I think that Foyt has a good duo of drivers. They have struggled adapting to the Chevy engine and aero kit this season, but at a track where no one had much data – they were on a more level playing field. If AJ or Larry Foyt decide to make changes to the team, it needs to be with the engineering staff and not the drivers. I don’t think Scott Dixon could do much with the cars that Daly and Carlos Muñoz have been given this season.

But it was good to see that big Conor Daly smile after the race Saturday night.

Trouble at Ganassi: To say there is trouble at Chip Ganassi Racing is an understatement. Tony Kanaan has already announced that he will not be returning next season. After the NBC crew played excerpts from Max Chilton’s radio exchange when he was parked at Pocono, it sounds as if he will leave the Ganassi fold after the season. If Carlin moves into IndyCar fulltime next season, Charlie Kimball may follow Chilton there.

Kanaan waved the Penske leaders by when he was leaving the pits, which did not help his Ganassi teammate, Scott Dixon, in his own championship battle. From what I’ve heard, Dixon can expect no help from any of his Ganassi teammates for the final two races of the season. This is not any personal indictment against Dixon, but a way for the other three drivers to thumb their collective noses at Chip Ganassi. Is it a coincidence that Ganassi decided to park Kanaan at that point, when there was apparently nothing wrong with the car? It’s one thing to park a second-year driver like Chilton, but it takes nerve to park a former series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner like Kanaan.

It looks as if Dixon will be the only Ganassi driver back next season, as the wheels continue to fall off at the team that was the cream of the crop not that long ago. If so, what will the rest of the team look like? Will they sign three more drivers to replace the three that are leaving? Probably not. In fact, based on some of the conversations I heard at Gateway this weekend, Ganassi may sign one teammate for Dixon to a one-year deal for next season and then it’s possible that Ganassi could leave IndyCar and focus strictly on NASCAR and IMSA beginning in 2019. To me, that’s hard to fathom – but stranger things have happened. Just file that one away and stay tuned to see how it turns out.

All in all: The first half of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 was about as exciting as a forty-pound bag of fertilizer. Cars could not pass each other and ran in a single-file parade. Even as Josef Newgarden came up on Sebastian Saavedra to put him a lap down; Newgarden caught him but could not get past him for several laps. My hope is that the new cleaner body kit for 2018 will help that issue.

But the second half got interesting with some restarts, some botched pit stops and then, of course, the pass. Things could get spicy between Newgarden and Pagenaud as the series heads to Watkins Glen next weekend if they don’t patch things up before then. I guess I’m a little cheesy, but there is one side of me that hopes they don’t.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Gateway”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    Josef Newgarden made a great pass. Simon won’t man up because he could never and would never make a move like that. This is good old American oval racing. Reminded me Foyt, Mario, Bobby Unser and Johncock in there prime. Newgarden is a great racer and a great driver. He took them all to school including Power. The only thing like Nascar was Kimble blocking like a Nascar sissy. Don’t forget the only way Simon got the lead was because they held him too long in the pits.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Ask Bryan Herta how he felt about Alex Zanardi’s move at Laguna Sega in 1996, I imagine that’s how Pagenaud felt on Saturday night. Like “The Pass” (which I am aware is not without controversy) it was a risky move that was good because it worked and would have been foolish had it not. Newgarden wants this championship badly.

  3. Josef want the title badly and that was shown in that pass. I think there are times when a career implodes or explodes on the scene and that was one of them right there. Penske needs to be smart though, they have to know that Ganassi is in shambles and mentally weak right now.

    Kanaan spinning the car at the start was a joke and another reason why I feel that his time has passed in the series. That is the 2nd bonehead move he has made this year. I would expect something like that out of Saavedra or Hilderbrand but not a guy with the 2nd best team right now.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      I don’t think that Mike Hull, Scott Dixon, and the rest of the car 9 team are in shambles or mentally weak. Look at Dixon carrying that car to second place and earning mucho points.

  4. The crowd was large. It reminded me of the Cincinnati FC soccer crowd. I do not understand it at all. Why were so many people there? It was a great thing to see, but I remember watching NASCAR Trucks and Xfinity on tv there and it was not that crowded, and i don’t remember hearing great things about the CART/IRL crowds. It’s nice to see the last three new races added by Indycar all get through with no attendance problems, and it was also nice to see Pocono decently well attended as well (40K was a number thrown out for both Pocono and Gateway). If that number is correct, Indycar needs to take 40K (or even 30K) of attendance and be happy with that anywhere but Indy & Long Beach.

    The race was not very good. I’m not sure how good an open wheel race at Gateway is ever going to be; it’s not a track that really encourages passing. That’s why I can’t understand how anyone not related to Pagenaud is upset about the pass. One could argue it was the only interesting thing to happen all night.

    I’ve not been enjoying the Penske domination this year, but the amount of wins by Newgarden is good. The fact he’s taken the fight directly to Power, Pagenaud, and Dixon is good to see. He really has put down a strong claim to the title and has the most wins this season. Remember, Newgarden is leading despite the fact that he crashed out of Indy.

    Ganassi implosion on one hand is good, because I don’t like Ganassi in Indycar (his NASCAR team is fine) and it may open up some new quality rides. However, watching the car count implode in NASCAR makes me just a little nervous about Ganassi in Indycar.

    Indycar has a little momentum. Hopefully car count and team ownership disasters don’t undercut it.

  5. Best blog of the year George. JoNew is hungry. Conor showed us he can still drive which we all knew. And Pagenaud was taught a lesson, consistency is great but champions win races. Last year he won multiple races, only 1 this year. That won’t cut it. Lastly, I respect Dixon and Mike Hull, but their other 3 teams at Ganassi are really vanilla. After Dario left, the 10 has been winless. Remember that Graham left and for good reason after 1 year.

  6. Great race at Gateway – your thoughts are spot-on, George. The on-track product was well above average, although the lack of passing in the middle made the race less exciting than it could have been.
    Logistics need a tune-up: the parking was a complete mess – we didn’t get out until three hours post-race. That crowd was something else. They can do better, and have to if the event will continue to grow. It was awesome to see the momentum of this season and INDYCAR continues to deliver a pro-fan racing experience. Hope the event continues into the future as it was affordable, accessible and enjoyable. From a fan perspective, discounting parking, it was an awesome night.
    Good to have you up in St. Louis – and sorry we didn’t get together as we discussed. Would be good to see you and shake your hand to tell you thanks for the work on the blog – glad you made it to our area, and hope you come back next year.

  7. Great seeing you and Susan this weekend. I saw Larry Foyt and I told him I really think he should keep Conor and Carlos. I laughed after- why would he care or listen to what a fan thinks but I had to try. It was great seeing both cars in the top ten and Conor had a fantastic night.
    I plan to write about our experience later today. Many problems were the same you mentioned but all in all it was a great event that the entire city of St Louis was behind. Everywhere I went business owners mentioned the race when they saw my IndyCar gear. I’ve never experienced that before.

  8. Regarding “The Pass” : Just one of them racin’ deals. Nicely done by that Hendersonville, Tennessee kid.

    I hope that your post today and that of others about the logistical problems related to getting in and out of the Gateway track will find its way to the folks who need to read it. The exact same thing happened when the Milwaukee Mile race returned after a long absence. Although once Michael Andretti took over promotion there, things ran a lot more smoothly.

  9. Remember when Ganassi threw his then engine supper Honda under the bus publicly, and immediately the next year switched to Chevrolet? Since then, he has returned to Honda for the 2017 season. This guy has a temper and when the stakes are really high, has no problem doing serious damage. It seems like he has has issues with IndyCar in the past and maybe he has decided he has had enough. He seems to get way more excited about his NASCAR venture and Kyle Larson than he does with his IndyCar program. I think that really sucks given Ganassi himself is an IndyCar driver but honestly the guy seems like a real jerk.

    • I have no opinion as to whether he is a jerk or not and don’t care as long as he keeps putting competive Indy cars on the track.

      • How would you feel as a senior driver, and your boss tells you to park it? 20 years of driving for different teams and surviving as an IndyCar driver and you get treated the way TK was treated Saturday night?

        • I like TK. Very much actually. But it is not his money involved and IndyCar racing is a bottom line business. Perhaps a difference between TK’s approach to a race and that of Scott Dixon is that Dixon allows the race to come to him and TK trys perhaps too hard to force the race to come to him. I wanted very badly for TK to do well at Gateway, but it was his own mistake that did him in.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      After Honda Performance Development propelled Scott Dixon to a championship, Ganassi abandoned it for its rival. Smooth move. Such loyalty and gratitude. Years later he wanted to go back to Honda? Strange. You see Roger Penske causing his engineers and racers to learn engines and turbochargers and aero kits of a different company every two years? Is Mr. Penske an unstable hothead?

  10. great to meet you at the race in the pits. took 2 1st timers and they both were shocked with pit/paddock passes you could get that close to the real drivers and Ed Carpenter would talk to them. The pit stops
    practice before also totally won them over when they could stand right behind pits and watch. I agree some work needs to be done on logistics for next year with concessions, parking. What also makes crowd outstanding was Cardinals played night game drew 41,000. Try to pick race night when Cards not in down maybe much bigger. Took us 5 hours to get to race and they both want to return and bring friends next year. Even did the Arch and cubes you get into for the ride up almost as tight getting in cockpit indycar.

  11. Mark Wick Says:

    I have been watching Indycar races since 1963 and have more than 30 years experience covering the races. If he stays healthy, I expect Josef Newgarden will complete his career with more wins than any other driver. He is with the team that consistently wins races, he is young, and he clearly is willing to take chances to win.

    • I must say, at the end of AJ Foyt’s 26th year (1961) Foyt had amassed one National Championship, one Indianapolis 500 win and 7 other “IndyCar” wins. Newgarden will wind up his 26th year this year and at the moment has seven wins so far while looking to wrap up his first National Championship. Mr. Wick’s prognostication could turn out to be incredibly prescient and we could indeed be seeing history in the making; history I never thought I’d see for sure.

      I met him at Long’s bakery here in Indianapolis last year while sitting in my car waiting for my wife and sister-in-law to grab some donuts. Newgarden surprisingly came out (it was an off day at The Track) and I spoke to him as he neared my car and he reached right in, shook my hand and engaged me in some small talk for a moment. Classy move, and the way one makes fans for life. Like the kid a lot.

  12. Heavy crash damage is more likely on ovals. If money is tight maybe Chip didn’t want to risk it with cars that were out of contention. (Max at Pocono and Tony at Gateway.) it’s certainly understandable that the drivers would be unhappy about it.

  13. Brian McKay Says:

    Great blog post, George.
    I don’t remember a mention of your ‘better half’ here. Didn’t see a photograph of you or her above. I didn’t read the blog yesterday or late Saturday, however. And I guess I’m not following you on Twitter – or you didn’t tweet during the race and soon afterward.

    “Seventeen IndyCar seasons … since … 2003?”

    • Maybe I meant fourteen…or it’s 2017. Whatever. I was tired when I wrote it. I tweeted constantly Friday and Saturday until the race when I couldn’t get a cellular signal because of the crowd.

      • Brian McKay Says:

        I shouldn’t have mentioned it.

        On Friday I watched practice and then qualifying (while dining) on Internet but didn’t look at Twitter.

        And I was busy all Saturday until IndyCar pre-race show, so I didn’t see any MRTI, Oilpressure, or tweets. Opened Twitter a quarter-hour before the race.

  14. The folk at GMP were pleasant and helpful, but it did seem that they were on a more club racing footing. I don’t think they were really prepared for all of the logistic differences inherent to top-tier motorsport series event. I’ve been there during SCCA events to help crew for our Formula 500 guys, and my initial thought was that they weren’t really treating the IndyCar weekend much different. Issues regarding track security did improve over the weekend, and I suspect that Mr. Bischi and his crew have already done a post-mortem on the event. I’d bet dollars to pesos that things go more smoothly next year. They’re good folk at Gateway.

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