Commentary Open Wheel

What We Learned: Phoenix International Raceway

The Big Picture:  The Verizon IndyCar Series oval races begin. Back in the olden days, the Indy Racing League (1995 – 2007) was all about ovals, at least at the start. Now, not so much.

Event: We call them fly in races. Arrive Friday, qualify and race Saturday. Except they changed qualifying to Friday. Woo Hoo. The crowds were sparse both days. Somebody lost money on this one, but it may take time to build this race as it only started running again in 2016.

Qualifying: Ever watched paint dry? Oval qualifying in the ICS is even less exciting. However, veteran Helio Castroneves took the number one spot and set a new track record. It appeared that Chevy was going to dominate the weekend.

Race:   After a horrible first lap crash that took out five cars, pole sitter Castroneves led the field through 50 odd laps of decent racing, followed by pit stop generated leads by Josef Newgarden and then Simon Pagenaud. It seemed we were going to see a Will Power win as the Australian headed the field for 59 circuits. But wait! Defending series champion Pagenaud took the lead on Lap 137 and never let go. There was relatively little passing for an oval race, with the notable exception of Hildebrand, who picked off cars like it was a spectator sport. Overall, not a bad contest of speed except for that nasty Aleshin wreck.

Biggest Surprise: J.R. Hildebrand’s astonishing comeback after a broken hand at Long Beach and missing Barber; he got a podium finish at Phoenix.

Biggest Disappointment: Without a doubt, the initial lap first turn spin by Mikhail Aleshin, causing a crash taking out himself, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Max Chilton, and points leader Sebastien Bourdais.

Best Team:  The Penskes were once again awesome, taking pole and finishing first, second, fourth, and ninth, plus setting fastest lap of the race. No other team led during the event.

Worst Team:  Andretti Autosport failing to post a top-12.We can only hope it gets better as the series moves to Indianapolis for the month of May.

Sponsor of the Weekend: Menard’s, sponsor of Pagenaud’s #1 car.

What We Learned:  Races that start with crashes taking out a big part of the field are not as exciting as those which start cleanly. Frenchmen can learn to drive oval tracks in their mid-twenties.  Events with only two cautions and no penalties can go very quickly.

Say Goodbye, Part I: Motorcycle and Indy 500 racer Joe Leonard died at the age of 84 on April 27th, but we heard about it race day. Leonard won the pole at Indy in 1968, driving for Parnelli Jones. Among others, Leonard is survived by his 1968 teammates Mario Andretti and Al Unser.

Say Goodbye Part II: Allen Bestwick and Dr. Jerry Punch were unceremoniously dismissed by ESPN along with 97 other employees on Friday. Dr. Punch, a loyal employee for 30 years is also credited with saving the lives of racer Rusty Wallace and singer Vince Gill’s daughter. This follows an earlier dismissal by ESPN of print and internet journalist John Oreovicz.

Schedule:  In two weeks, many of the drivers get to drive one of their favorite races, the IndyCar Grand Prix, the road course at Indianapolis on May 13th.

Quotes of the Weekend:

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “I can’t explain how excited I am. Ovals are not my specialty. I grew up in Europe racing go-karts. I learned about ovals when I was 26 years old, so I had to learn the skill and the technique that I didn’t know. Man, this is incredible. What a win. The car was phenomenal and thanks to the Menards Chevrolet crew. On the pit stops these guys never make any mistakes – I can completely rely on them and the car was just incredible from the beginning to the end. The car was so strong at the beginning of the race; we were able to save fuel in traffic. And it paid off with that lucky yellow but we’ve had our fair share of bad luck too this year so it doesn’t hurt sometimes to have a little break.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda):“Certainly not the end result we were hoping for. For us, the race started pretty decently. Obviously, I felt bad to see Mikhail get caught up in a Turn 1 incident. From there we had a decent first stint. During the first round of stops, we realized we weren’t on the same program as everyone else. We ended up having to stop a whole lot earlier than the other cars, and we just weren’t getting the (fuel) mileage. Even though it got us the track position early on, ultimately having to stop five, six laps earlier than everyone over the course of a race adds up. There was no yellow that kind of came out at the right time to put us on the same page as everyone else, and at the end of the race, we had to come in for a splash and go which cost a couple spots. It’s too bad; I think we could have had a solid top-10 finish. The Arrow Electronics car was the strongest that we’ve had here between last year, the test and now; it was a really good car. Unfortunately, the mileage situation really deterred us today. Big credit to the Arrow boys – we rolled off the truck with a good car again. We’ll head into the Month of May and see what we can do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 United Rentals Honda): “I was told by my spotter ‘Go low, go low’ but Max (Chilton) was spinning in front of me to the bottom so I could not go low. My only choice was to go above him and when he released the brake pedal, his car came back up the banking. Where do you go?  There was no way to stop the car on the banking. It’s not his fault, that’s just the circumstances of racing. Unfortunately, we got pinched between Max and Marco (Andretti). We’re all innocent bystanders. I haven’t seen the replay yet but I heard Aleshin lost it. With all the smoke, you can’t see a thing. There are cars flying everywhere. I was just kind of hanging on. It’s a shame because we obviously wanted to get a good finish for United Rentals and all of our sponsors.”

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By Lisa Davidson

Lisa Davidson is a graduate of the University of Arizona and spent her corporate career as a Controller. She is a lifelong writer who has been covering open wheel racing since 2000 and is the author of historical articles and co-author of one book She and her husband, photographer Jeff Davidson, have two daughters and make their home in Murrieta, CA.