Friday, March 29, 2024

Best of the Month: March 2024

We have reached the point in the year when most series are up and running. March marks the point where offseason is behind us and we are looking forward to every race as the championship pursuits are beginning. We are only in the early stages of 2024, but we have already witnessed some remarkable performances.

At the Quarter Pole
Three months down, and while there are many more races ahead of us, we have seen plenty of exceptional things in the few events that have taken place. Before spring heats into summer and we will forget more races than we will remember, let's take a moment to highlight the best so far in 2024.

Racers Worth Your Consideration...
Matt Campbell
It comes down to two things for Matt Campbell. Sensational drive to win the 24 Hours of Daytona. Sensational drive to win the Bathurst 12 Hour. Campbell has been a talent for quite some time. The start of 2024 has taken him to a higher level and with a full FIA World Endurance Championship season remaining, including a 24 Hours of Le Mans, this is well on its way to a historic season for the Australian.

Josef Newgarden
Speaking of 24 Hours of Daytona winners, Newgarden was one of Campbell's co-drivers in the two-around-the-clock endurance race and in his second Daytona start, his first in the premier class, Newgarden came out on top. How did he follow it up? With a dominant victory in the IndyCar season opener in St. Petersburg. He won four IndyCar races last season, including the Indianapolis 500, and 2023 felt like a disappointment. If Newgarden keeps up the form from St. Petersburg, he could have his best season yet, and he is already a two-time champion.

Connor Zilisch
Everybody's favorite new driver... well, new if you haven't been paying attention to Mazda MX5-Cup in recent years. Zilisch was announced as a Trackhouse development driver for NASCAR, and along with his NASCAR plans, he also made his IMSA debut in the LMP2 class with Era Motorsport. They won at Daytona and Sebring. Zilisch started on pole position for his NASCAR Truck Series debut at Austin before finishing fourth. He will make his debut in NASCAR's second division later this year. Zilisch is still only 17 years old, but already doing extraordinary things.

William Byron
The only driver with multiple race victories so far this season in the NASCAR Cup Series, Byron followed up a 2023 Cup season where he won six races with a Daytona 500 victory, Hendrick Motorsports' first in a decade, and Byron just won at Austin. He has the most Cup victories since the start of 2022. He was knocking on the door of a championship last year. Byron is proving it wasn't a fluke.

Jett Lawrence
Nobody is really surprised Lawrence entered the 450cc division in Supercross and was immediately a pace-setter, but it is still brilliant to watch. He won on debut at Anaheim and leads the series in victories and points. He went perfect last year in the Motocross championship and took the inaugural SuperMotocross championship to boot. Lawrence is on the path to repeating in 2024.

Races Worth Your Consideration...
12 Hours of Sebring
Last year's 12 Hours of Sebring was enthralling and was going to be difficult to top. This year's race went a step further. All four classes were within a second between the top two cars entering the final fifteen minutes. There were a stunning passes across the board, and some rather clean racing despite how tight it was. For the overall victory, Louis Delétraz muscled ahead of Sébastien Bourdais to give Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti and Acura a long-awaiting win. Jack Hawksworth capped off a staggering drive to beat Risi Competizione. It was somehow better than the year before. 

São Paulo ePrix
Formula E's second visit to Brazil's most populous city had a race that went to the wire with a handful of cars in contention. On the final lap Mitch Evans and Sam Bird had cleared themselves as the top two. Evans held the point entering the final series of corners, but Bird made a move to the outside and took the lead into the penultimate turn. Bird held on for his first victory in over two years. Meanwhile, Oliver Rowland went from fifth to third in the final corner in a three-wide battle with Pascal Wehrlein and Jake Dennis.

Food City 500
High tire degradation turned the NASCAR Cup Series race from Bristol into a game of whit. Drivers learned the hard way early on as some went from the lead to the back despite showing speed early in a run. Everyone soon learned pushing would be your downfall, and it became a game a chicken. Nobody wanted to stop for tires, but nobody could go much longer than 50 laps. The race was decided with a late cycle of green flag pit stops, and Denny Hamlin came out on top in a race that saw 54 lead changes, the most ever in a non-superspeedway Cup race. 

Passes Worth Your Consideration...
Sebring had about a dozen passses there were pass of the year candidates, but we are focusing on just two. With a little under two hours remaining Hunter McElrea was in second in LMP2 behind Nico Pino while negotiating lapped traffic. Both drivers were approaching Jack Hawksworth's Lexus entering turn 17. Pino was hung on the outside while McElrea dove inside both Pino and Hawksworth, using the Lexus as a pick and completing the pass. It could have gone horribly wrong. McElrea showed incredible skill and bravery.

Hawksworth gets to be the main protagonist in this pass. Entering the final 20 minutes, Hawksworth had driven up to second in GTD Pro and was chasing Daniel Serra for the lead. Heading into turn one, Hawksworth went deeper into the corner than the Ferrari and forced Serra wide on exit. No contact happened between the two cars. Hawksworth had the position and made the move stick, leading to the class victory.

It was go big or go home time when Bird entered the final sector of the São Paulo ePrix. Bird and Mitch Evans had been the two best drivers all race, but Bird was looking to end a two-plus year winless drought. Bird closed onto the back of Evans' Jaguar as they approached the last great passing opportunity in turn ten. Bird went early, looking to the outside in the fast kink of turn nine, and forcing himself to accept the outside for turn ten. Bird was able to make the move stick into the penultimate corner and take the lead. Evans had one last look into the final corner but Bird had done enough to steal the victory.

Comebacks Worth Your Consideration
Eli Tomac's Second at Arlington
At the end of the second lap, Tomac was in 16th, nearly 13 seconds off the lead, after suffering a fall battling for sixth. Over the remaining 25 laps, Tomac climbed his way up the order. It took him two more laps to enter the top ten. By lap 18, he entered the top five. After a strong battle with Hunter Lawrence, Tomac was up to fourth before another spirited battle with Aaron Plessinger put Tomac into third on lap 23. Meanwhile, Jett Lawrence's issues in the closing laps allowed Tomac to sweep into second at the checkered flag, three seconds behind race winner Cooper Webb.

Carlos Sainz, Jr.'s Australian Grand Prix victory
Sainz, Jr. won the Australian Grand Prix just over two weeks after an appendectomy kept him out of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. The Spaniard had done less training in the buildup to Melbourne due to his recovery. In his first race back, not only did Sainz, Jr. qualify second, but he led all but the first lap on his way to victory. Yes, Max Verstappen retired due to a brake issue, but Sainz, Jr. withstood the physical punishment of an entire grand prix and came out on top despite not being in tip-top condition.

April Preview
Two championships start in April that are worth keeping an eye on: European Le Mans Series and Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters.

ELMS begins its six-race season on April 14 in Barcelona. A few familiar names to know...

Sebring winner Louis Delétraz will be in the #14 Orlen Team AO by TF Oreca-Gibson with Robert Kubica and Jonny Edgar. 

Cadillac Racing's Alex Lynn will be in the #25 Algarve Pro Racing Oreca-Gibson with Olli Caldwell and Matthias Kaiser.

United Autosports will have three cars with Oliver Jarvis leading the #21 Oreca (with Andy Meyrick and Daniel Schneider), Ben Hanley leading the #22 Oreca (with Marino Sato and Filip Ugran) and Paul di Resta in the #23 Oreca (alongside Bijoy Garg and Fabio Scherer). 

Along with his Formula Two responsibilities, Ritomo Miyata will run the #37 Cool Racing Oreca with Lorenzo Fluxá and Malthe Jakobsen. Last year's runner-up in the Formula Two championship, Frederik Vesti, will share Cool Racing's other entry, the #47 Oreca with Alex García and Ferdinand Habsburg.

In the GT class, Nicklas Nielsen leads the all-Danish #50 Formula Racing Ferrari with Conrad Laursen and Johnny Laursen. Daniel Serra will lead the #57 Kessel Racing Ferrari with Takeshi Kimura and Esteban Masson. Iron Dames will run the #85 Porsche for Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting while Proton Competition will have the #60 Porsche for Julien Andlauer, Matteo Cressoni and Claudio Schiavoni. Iron Lynx will run the #63 Lamborghini for Andrea Caldarelli, Hiroshi Hamaguchi and Axcil Jefferies. 

After Barcelona, ELMS will be at Circuit Paul Ricard on May 5, Imola on July 7, Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, Mugello on September 29 and Portimão closes the season on October 19.

DTM will have seven manufacturers and 20 cars entered this season. This is the fourth season of GT3 regulations for the German-based championship. The opening round of eight will be over April 27-28 at Oschersleben. 

Thomas Preining is back to defend his championship with Porsche while Lamborghini's Mirko Bortolotti and Audi's Ricardo Feller will look to top the Austrian. Kelvin van der Linde returns to DTM with Audi. Bortolotti will have Nicki Thiim as his teammate. Ayhancan Güven will be Preining's Porsche teammate.

BMW has three past DTM champions in its lineup with Marco Wittmann, René Rast and Sheldon van der Linde. 

Jack Aitken leads the two-car Ferrari lineup for Emil Frey Racing with Thierry Vermeulen in the other 296 GT3. 

Luca Engstler and Christian Engelhart will drive Lamborghinis for GRT Grasser Racing Team, and Maximilian Paul will be in a fifth Huracán GT3 Evo 2. 

Mercedes-AMG will have Luca Stolz, Arjun Maini, Lucas Auer and Maro Engel in its lineup. 

McLaren joins DTM with Clemens Schmid and Ben Dörr. 

One month after Oschersleben will be Lausitzring over May 25-26. DTM will be at Zandvoort June 8-9, a month before the Norisring July 6-7. The second half of the season begins at the Nürburgring over August 17-18 with the Sachsenring hosting DTM on September 7-8. The penultimate round will be at the Red Bull Ring over September 28-29 with Hockenheim hosting the finale over October 19-20.

Other events of note in April:
The Super GT seasons begins at Okayama. 
Supercars makes its first visit to Taupō Motorsports Park. 
Supercross has three rounds, including its first visit to Philadelphia in over 40 years. 
Formula One makes its earliest visit to Japan and returns to China for the first time in five years. 
IndyCar is back in action at Long Beach and Barber. 
Formula E makes its first trip to Misano.
MotoGP makes its one trip to the Americas, heading to Austin, with Jerez closing the month.
Imola hosts the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Musings From the Weekend: Does the Money Matter?

Here is a rundown of what got me thinking...

After two races, the perfect season bid is over for Max Verstappen and Red Bull. Carlos Sainz, Jr. and Ferrari swept through to Melbourne victory as the brakes burned on the RB20. Mercedes had a weekend to forget. Fernando Alonso received a penalty. The MotoE season started in Portugal, who knew? MotoGP has a new, young stud Where is Brodie Kostecki? NASCAR's track limit rules are ridiculous. Álex Palou won $500,000, so it was a good weekend for Spaniards, but there was one question on my mind.

Does the Money Matter?
IndyCar's big prize for the Thermal Club race winner was about half short of what was being sold, but regardless over whether it was $500,000 or $1 million, does the money matter? 

Money, of course, matters. These teams aren't competing for nothing. IndyCar isn't a charity. These people make their living in the series. We all have a price that we roll out of bed for. After all, our bills are not going to pay themselves, but is a large prize on offer for the winner of an event enough to get an expanded audience to tune in when otherwise there would be no interest? 

We care when the Powerball or Mega Millions lotteries are a big prize. Any lottery is great to win. It is particularly nice when it is a large jackpot. Tonight's Powerball draw is for $800 million. Tuesday's Mega Millions draw is for $1.1 billion. 

The money matters. 

But does it matter for IndyCar, specifically for an exhibition race at a venue with no competitive motorsports history that most racing fans didn't know existed until last year? 

There is a greater identity issue for IndyCar beyond being known for large purses. If people aren't watching now, is a $1 million prize really going to change their mind, especially when $1 million isn't as sexy as it once was. 

At the turn of the 21st century, it might draw some attention, but NASCAR has been paying $1 million for its All-Star Race winner since 2003. In 2024, that isn't as big of a pull for NASCAR's All-Star Race as it was in 2003 or 2004. The Marlboro Challenge paid $1 million if a driver won it along with the Meadowlands and Michigan races during the season. That is late-1980s/early-1990s money. A million dollars in 1991 would be around $2.278 million in 2024 money. The Thermal Club event doesn't look as wonderful in that context. 

Even if Thermal Club at least matched the worth of the Marlboro Challenge, would it have mattered?

If it was $2 million, would that mean two million people would tune in? Probably not. 

What if it was $5 million? Or $10 million? Would either of those draw significantly more viewers? 

What is the number? Is there a number? 

Consider that the Indianapolis 500 winner received $3.666 million last year. Nobody is tuning into the Indianapolis 500 for the purse, but that race has history. The payout is a nice bonus. The winner's share is not promoted beforehand. It isn't public knowledge until the banquet the following night. Even once known, it is not wildly circulated, not like it once was.

Even if all the money isn't going to the driver, and we know that is the case, it is still notable, something that was once used as a sign of prestige. In the last two decades, really since the recession over the late-2000s into the 2010s, many series have gone quiet over how much money is being handed out. IndyCar isn't alone in that boat. 

Money is still something we understand. Even if a person doesn't know what the Indianapolis 500 is, if they hear the winner got over $3.6 million they would understand it is a big deal to win. Not many people earn north of $3 million for one day of work. 

LIV Golf, the golf tour financial backed by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, pays out handsomely. It is the reason why many top golfers no longer competed in the PGA Tour full-time and only show up for the major events. Every LIV Golf events pays $25 million in prize money. The LIV Golf Team Championship final pays $50 million in prize money. Despite the amount of money being paid, LIV Golf hasn't taken over golf viewership.

Perhaps the source of the money matters, but it takes more than being a disruptor with a large bank account. LIV Golf events are not traditional golf tournaments with four days and a cut halfway through. None of the events have history that date back nearly a century or more. Most of the events take place at private courses that haven't hosted significant professional golf tournaments before. (Geez, does that sound familiar?)

For IndyCar to grow, it will need more than one weekend with a heavily promoted monetary prize, especially one that doesn't raise the blood pressure of many. However, it doesn't hurt to have a big pay day, and it can be a tentpole event that people can look forward to watching each year. 

The Indianapolis 500 is the only race currently fitting that criteria. If IndyCar wants more major events, it must start treating its events like major events and treat them like major events every year. That means paying a major amount of money. 

IndyCar flirts but never commits. The Triple Crown came back with a million dollar prize if anyone could sweep the 500-mile races at Indianapolis, Pocono and Fontana for two years. Then it went away.

Do you even realize the PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge did not return for the 2024 season? The charitable initiative tied into the IndyCar season lasted all of two seasons. Josef Newgarden claimed the $1 million prize in 2022 with a victory on each a road course, street course and oval. No one claimed the grand prize last year as no driver won on all three track disciplines, and now it is gone. 

IndyCar constantly does these bonus programs and then abandons them after a year or two. The Triple Crown, Force for Good Challenge, remember when IndyCar acknowledged the road/street course and oval champions? Everything gets a one or two-year shot, if it does shatter the world, IndyCar gives up. Crap, NASCAR's second division has been doing its "Dash For Cash" bonus program for well over a decade now and it is a regular storyline each season for the month or so it take place. Why? Because they have kept doing it for all this time. 

IndyCar cannot get anything to stick, but if it wants an idea to work, it must keep doing it. Just because it hasn't become front page news across the country doesn't mean it is a waste of time. Doing something annually allows people to get attached and look forward to that event or prize. If IndyCar is treating it seriously, the fanbase will start treating it seriously. Until the series commits, nobody (fans, drivers and teams included) else will.

We have spent a lot of time over the last year looking at all the ways IndyCar hasn't taken chances. The Triple Crown isn't coming back anytime soon. Fontana is gone, and Michigan and Pocono aren't walking through that door, but if IndyCar put the chips on the table and had two large purse races in addition to the Indianapolis 500 that were also championship races, it would be likely do a better job attracting attention than what we just saw at Thermal Club. 

I don't know how much is enough, but no series at the moment is promoting having three races paying at least $2 million to the winner. It would be something tangible IndyCar could promote. Hell, make it $2.5 million to the winner of two races and raise the Indianapolis 500 to $5 million for the winner, and there is a $10 million triple crown right there. 

It would at least be something bold for a series that hasn't made any waves since Danica Patrick made her Indianapolis 500 debut, oh, and she isn't walking through that door either. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Carlos Sainz, Jr. and Álex Palou, but did you know...

Jorge Martín won MotoGP's Portuguese Grand Prix. Maverick Viñales won the sprint race. Arón Canet won the Moto2 race, his first career Moto2 victory. Danny Holgado won the Moto3 race. Nicholas Spinelli and Mattia Casadei split the MotoE races.  

William Byron won the NASCAR Cup race from Austin, his second victory of the season. Kyle Larson won the Grand National Series race. Corey Heim won the Truck race.

Roman Staněk (sprint) and Isack Hadjar (feature) split the Formula Two races from Melbourne. 

Broc Feeney (races one and three), Will Brown (race two) and Nick Percat (race four) split the Supercars races from Melbourne. 

Toprak Razgatlioglu (race one and SuperPole race) and Álvaro Bautista (race two) split the World Superbike races from Barcelona. Adrián Huertas and Stefano Manzi split the World Supersport races.

Cooper Webb won the Supercross race from Seattle, his third career victory. Levi Kitchen won the 250cc race.

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR has a night race at Richmond.
Formula E makes its first visit to Tokyo. 
Supercross is in St. Louis. 
Safari Rally Kenya marks round three of the World Rally Championship season. 
The British GT Championship opens its season on Easter Monday at Oulton Park.  

Sunday, March 24, 2024

First Impressions: Thermal Club 2024

1. The best driver in IndyCar won. What else needs to be said? In IndyCar's first exhibition race in over 15 years, Álex Palou dominated, leading every lap in his heat race and the main event to claim the $500,000 prize. It wasn't a surprise, and it is the kind of performance we are accustomed to in every IndyCar race. Palou finds a way to come out on top more times than not. It was no different in an exhibition race at a track that was still relatively new to the entire field. Today was a bonus. Tomorrow, the championship defense returns to focus. 

2. I don't know how deep we should go into the results and how drivers did because this was an exhibition race and the result doesn't really matter. Scott McLaughlin was untouched in second. Felix Rosenqvist was third after winning the first heat race. It is still early in the season, but after St. Petersburg this was a great way to follow up for Rosenqvist and the Meyer Shank Racing group. It is something to keep an eye on for the remainder of the season.

3. Entering this weekend, Alexander Rossi made known a strategy on his podcast, "Off-Track with Hinch and Rossi," where a driver could lay back in the first ten laps of the main event to save tires before going for it in the second half. A few drivers attempted it. It worked out best for Colton Herta. Herta was eight to 12 seconds off Palou for the entire first half. He went for it and ended up fourth. Once he got in dirty air, it slowed him up and he wasn't blowing through drivers. Still a good drive to fourth, but it wasn't the insane difference in speed some may have thought.

4. Speaking of tires, for all the talk of falloff, the drivers at the end of the 20-lap main event were still running laps in the 102-103 second range. The fastest laps we were seeing all weekend was low 98s and the fastest lap in the main event was 101.6145 seconds. Considering most were still within three seconds of the fastest race lap at the end, the tires didn't drop off a cliff. It sounded like everyone expected the end of the stint to be six or seven seconds off the top pace, but we didn't see that. There was still tire falloff, but not overly extreme.

5. Good day for Marcus Armstrong and Linus Lundqvist as they rounded out the top six. Armstrong made it tough on Herta. Herta ultimately had a little more tire. Lundqvist gave Herta some trouble and Lundqvist successful held off Alexander Rossi.

6. Alexander Rossi started saving tires about two laps into the first half of the main event, and Rossi looked quicker than Herta at the start of the second half. However, Rossi and Josef Newgarden ran wide in a battle and neither could get back ahead of Lundqvist and Herta once they slid ahead. It was definitely difficult to pass at Thermal Club even with a tire advantage.

7. Christian Lundgaard somehow overcame a hole being punched into the left side of his car at the start of the first heat race to advance to the final. Lundgaard attempted to save tires but the damage appeared to be too much to overcome. Agustín Canapino rounded out the top ten, as the Argentine driver was a benefactor to the chaos at the start of the first heat race. 

8. If you had told Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at the start of the weekend it would have all three cars in the final race, the team likely would have been ecstatic. Unfortunately, Graham Rahal's throttle was sticking in the final race, forcing a retirement, and the team failed to fill Pietro Fittipaldi's car full of fuel for the main event, which led to a disqualification. Not a great day for RLLR, but it could have been worse.

9. Let's tackle heat race one and the accident at the start. It could have been a mixture of an early start, cooler morning, rough surface and push-to-pass activated at the start with cars double-file. Scott Dixon flat ran into the back of Romain Grosjean. It was always going to be a penalty, and it kept Dixon out of the main. Grosjean slid into Rinus VeeKay, who also clipped Lundgaard. Rough way to end a weekend. Grosjean and VeeKay had been respectable all weekend.

That incident also forced Will Power wide and put him in a hole he couldn't drive out of. 

10. Nothing really happened in the second heat race. The top four starters finished 1-2-3-4. Pietro Fittipaldi went from sixth to fifth. Tom Blomqvist lost some ground, allowing Alexander Rossi to get into the main race. With ten-lap heat races, not much  happen. It was highly unlikely anyone starting tenth or worse was to drive into the top six. You had to start in the top eight to have a chance of making it to the main race unless there was some kind of incident. 

11. More can be said about the event itself and there are pluses and minuses..

Plus... IndyCar should explore push-to-pass usage in every road and street course qualifying session. It would add a new wrinkle and would be fascinating to see how it plays out and how drivers use it. 

Minus... Last year, one of the concerns with Thermal was if it could safely host an IndyCar race. I don't think those questions have been answered. The track was coming apart. The runoff could use some work, especially the barriers. The most cars we saw racing together at once was 14. That's half the field. I am not sure Thermal is adequate for a full race. Then again, IndyCar still races at Toronto, and have you see that pit lane?

Plus... There was tire degradation, and that would help in a full race. I don't think anyone would want to drive more than 20 laps, and if there was an alternate compound it would mix up strategies even more. That would be fun to watch.

Minus... It was difficult to pass. There was only one tire compound, which didn't help today, but I think even with a second compound it might not have changed much. There are a few promising areas. Turns one and three were tricky. A driver could make a look but had to be pinpoint accurate to make a pass stick. The best passing zone was turn seven. If you got through the esses, turn 14 was possible. Turn 15 was a good area but that tightened up considerable once you got into the corner. The track isn't going to change that much for IndyCar. This is a private track. They are focused on the members. 

Plus... I suggested something similar a few years ago, but I liked that the push-to-pass reset in the middle of the main event. I am not saying there should be a hard reset, but I think there should be a minimum use within the first half of the race. I wrote this after the 2021 Barber race. Essentially, a driver must use 40% of the allotted time within the first half of the race otherwise it is lost. Let's say a driver gets 150 seconds at the start of a race. A driver must use at least 60 seconds within the first half of the race or the driver will lose it. There is no point in saving it. It could potentially decrease teams saving fuel as they cannot backload and have over two minutes of push-to-pass in the final stint. I think this should be explored moving forward. 

Minus... It was odd there was no pit stop component to this weekend. The reason for the halftime break was no one could make it on 20 laps of fuel. However, considering the tire degradation, wouldn't it have made sense for the main race to be 30 laps and had at least one pit stop? I think that would have been more compelling than what we saw today.

Plus... I did like that Herta and a few drivers did lay back to see how it would work saving tires. It wasn't a guarantee for victory but Herta did end up finishing fourth, which is likely about five positions better than if he went all out from the opening lap.

Minus... The first ten laps did feel redundant because drivers were saving tires. There was no incentive to go for it. IndyCar could have easily added an incentive if it didn't want drivers running ten seconds off the pace. IndyCar could have eliminated the bottom four drivers after the first ten laps and had the top eight in the ten-lap shootout for the grand prize. That would have been an easy way to make the first half of the main event matter. 

Plus... I like that the heat races weren't balanced. IndyCar could have done a snake and alternated cars in each heat, but it made it random and the first heat was stacked. That is fine. 

Minus... There was no solid name for this race. "Million Dollar Challenge." "Sprint for the Purse." "All-Star Race." I would say if this was an IndyCar "all-star race," three of IndyCar's biggest stars weren't in it. There was no Scott Dixon, Will Power nor Patricio O'Ward. If IndyCar considers this its all-star race, it was a terrible all-star race. It was a straight-up format, top six from each heat made the final race, but IndyCar deprived itself of having its best drivers competing. I don't know if all past champions should have been locked in. I don't know if there should have been a fan vote for one driver to make the main, but let's not dare call this IndyCar's all-star race if three of its most notable drivers aren't competing in the main event. 

12. Roger Penske should have coughed up the other half-million to make it a proper million dollar prize for the winner. I don't really care about the payout to the other positions, but Penske should have made sure the winner at least got a million dollars and avoided this being the butt of the joke the entire weekend for fans, writers, team owners and drivers. Penske isn't hurting for money. I don't understand how the other half of the purse wasn't there because the club members weren't going to share the prize. Either way, Penske should have paid the price to avoid egg getting on IndyCar's face. 

13. I am going to defend Romain Grosjean here. The safety worker didn't have to grab Grosjean. Grosjean is a grown man. He was walking under his own power. There was no need to grab Grosjean. He wasn't in harm's way. He wasn't in peril. There is no need to be handsy. The safety workers are appreciated and do a great job. That doesn't mean they don't make mistakes. This isn't the first time they have gone overboard with grabbing drivers (see Will Power at Fontana). If a driver gets out of a car, is clearly fine and clearly angry, give the drivers some space. 

14. The big question from this weekend is what did IndyCar hope to get out of this event? It was an exhibition race taking place in front of at most 2,000 paying customers and maybe a smattering more Thermal Club members with friends and family. I doubt the "million dollar challenge" aspect is going to draw many more viewers than an average IndyCar race. 

So what is success for this event? 

If there is anything we have learned over the last 25 years is no single race is going to shift the tides and all of a sudden turn IndyCar into a cultural force with four or five million people tuning in every time an event is taking place. Thermal Club wasn't going to change that. 

The answer is success will be if IndyCar gets a new series partner out of this weekend or a team gets a sponsor that sticks around for four or five years. This was a business-to-business weekend hoping to sell the series to the rich. Nothing wrong with that but it might not be evident to the average fan how this weekend was a success. Remember that. 

15. And now there are... three weeks off until Long Beach. At least we had Thermal Club to break up the dead time. 

Morning Warm-Up: Thermal Club 2024

IndyCar's exhibition race from The Thermal Club will have a different format compared to normal race weekends. The field has already been split in half and will compete in heat races to begin Sunday's proceedings. The top six finishers from each heat race will advance to the final, where the winner of the 20-lap feature will earn a $500,000 prize.

The first ten-lap heat race features seven of the top ten finishers and nine of the top 12 finishers from the St. Petersburg season opener two weeks ago.

Felix Rosenqvist starts on pole position for the first heat race after the Swede ran a 98.5831-second lap in the group one qualifying session. This is the third consecutive year Rosenqvist is starting on pole position for the second event of the IndyCar season. He started on pole position the previous two years at Texas Motor Speedway, both of which counted toward the championship. Rosenqvist's seventh at St. Petersburg was Meyer Shank Racing's best finish in 24 races.

Scott McLaughlin was 0.0237 seconds off Rosenqvist and McLaughlin will start second. McLaughlin has finished on the podium in the last two races dating back to last season. The only other time McLaughlin has had consecutive podium finishes was in 2022. He went second, third and first between Nashville, Gateway and Portland.

Rinus Veekay was only 0.0452 seconds off and VeeKay will start third. VeeKay has not had a top five finish in his last 24 starts. The Dutchman was 10th at St. Petersburg, only his third top ten finish in his last 22 starts.

Christian Lundgaard made it four cars within a tenth of a second in heat race one's qualifying session. Lundgaard was 0.0563 seconds behind Rosenqvist. Lundgaard had the fastest time overall from the two test days at Thermal Club. 

Josef Newgarden rounds out the top five, 0.2095 seconds slower than the top time. Newgarden is coming off winning the season opener, his first victory on a road or street course since Road America in 2022. Three times has Newgarden won consecutive races. Only once were both races on a road and street course, that was in 2017 at Toronto and Iowa.

Will Power makes it an all-Team Penske row three. Power was 0.2225 seconds from pole position. Power led the opening 16 laps of IndyCar's most recent exhibition race in 2008 at Surfers Paradise before clipping a barrier to end his race. 

Romain Grosjean leads an all-Juncos Hollinger Racing row four and be the first driver starting outside the bubble for the main event. Grosjean was 0.2943 seconds behind Rosenqvist. In the last 14 races, Grosjean has one top ten finishes and six results outside the top twenty.

Agustín Canapino will start eighth, but he was 1.0163 seconds off Rosenqvist's pole-winning time. Canapino was 14th in the overall test results, faster than three Ganassi cars, two of three Rahal Letterman Lanigan racing cars, both Meyer Shank Racing cars, and both A.J. Foyt Racing entries. 

Scott Dixon ended up ninth in qualifying. Dixon was second in the 2008 Surfers Paradise race behind Ryan Briscoe. Dixon does have a non-championship race victory. He won the first heat race at 2013 Iowa weekend.

Santino Ferrucci starts tenth two weeks after he finished 11th at St. Petersburg. Ferrucci had one top fifteen finish on a road/street course throughout the entire 2023 season, an 11th at Long Beach. His best finish on a permanent road course was 16th at Road America and Portland.

Colton Herta was unable to put together a truly representative lap in qualifying, and Herta will start 11th. Three of Herta's seven career IndyCar victories have come in his home state of California. This event falls on the fifth anniversary of Colton Herta's first career victory in his third career start at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Nolan Siegel takes 12th on the grid. Siegel participates in his first IndyCar event this weekend driving the #18 Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. Siegel won the Indy Lights season opener at St. Petersburg two weeks ago.

Kyle Kirkwood starts 13th. Kirkwood won at the 12 Hours of Sebring in the GTD Pro class last week driving the #14 VasserSullivan Lexus with Jack Hawksworth and Ben Barnicoat. Kirkwood did have a practice accident, but the damage was minor to the attenuator.

Sting Ray Robb rounds out the grid in 14th. Robb ended 26th after a mechanical issue led to his retirement at St. Petersburg. It was the 13th time in 18 starts Robb has finished outside the top twenty.

The first heat race will take place at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Álex Palou set the fastest time for heat two, as well as the fastest time between the two groups, with a lap at 98.5675 seconds. Palou was the fastest driver over Friday's test sessions from Thermal. The pole-sitter for the main event will be the heat winner with the better qualifying time. If Palou wins the second heat, he will start on pole position for the final.

Marcus Armstrong swept the front row for heat two for Chip Ganassi Racing, but Armstrong was 0.19 seconds slower than his teammate Palou. Armstrong's accident at St. Petersburg gave him his worst career finish in IndyCar in 27th.

Graham Rahal leapt up to third on the final lap of qualifying, 0.4048 seconds behind Palou. Rahal was ninth in the 2008 Surfers Paradise race. Rahal also won two of the Iowa heat races over 2012 and 2013. 

Linus Lundqvist makes its three Chip Ganassi Racing entries in the top four for heat two. Lundqvist was just over a half-second slower than Palou. Lundqvist was 21st in the combined test results.

Tom Blomqvist takes fifth on the grid, 0.5145 seconds behind Palou. Blomqvist ended up 17th at St. Petersburg and he completed all 100 laps, Blomqvist's first lead lap finish in his IndyCar career.

Pietro Fittipaldi made it a Honda sweep of the top six positions in the heat two starting grid. Fittipaldi was 0.5442 seconds off Palou. Fittipaldi's grandfather Emerson won the 1992 Marlboro Challenge from Nazareth Speedway, the penultimate exhibition race in IndyCar history prior to this weekend's festivities.

Alexander Rossi was not only the top Chevrolet qualifier, but the first of three consecutive Arrow McLaren entries on the grid, as Rossi has car #7 starting seventh for heat two. Since winning the 2019 Long Beach race, Rossi has not finished in the top five of the last seven California races.

Callum Ilott starts next to Rossi in eighth. Ilott was the fastest driver in Saturday morning's test session ahead of qualifying. He had the fourth-best combined time over the four test sessions.

Patricio O'Ward finds himself starting ninth. O'Ward has gone 609 days since his most recent IndyCar victory at Iowa. All three McLaren cars were in the top seven of the overall test. O'Ward was seventh.

Kyffin Simpson rounds out the top ten on the grid. Simpson was the top finishing rookie at St. Petersburg in 14th. He is the third-best starting rookie in heat two as five of the six rookies entered this weekend are in heat two.

Christian Rasmussen will start 11th. Rasmussen completed 91 laps over the two test sessions and he was 19th fastest in the test.

Colin Braun makes it 12th starting spot for both Dale Coyne Racing entries between the two heat races. Braun was faster than Siegel in the test, but the DCR cars were 25th and 26th respectively 

Marcus Ericsson had an accident in qualifying and that leaves Ericsson 13th on the grid. Ericsson ended up 25th after his car broke down 33 laps into St. Petersburg. In each of the previous three seasons, Ericsson has had exactly only one result outside the top twenty.

The second heat race is scheduled for a 1:05 p.m. ET start. The 20-lap final race will begin at 1:59 p.m. ET. The race will have a ten-minute intermission after lap ten. NBC's coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Track Walk: Thermal Club 2024

For the first time since 2008, the NTT IndyCar Series is hosting a standalone exhibition race along with its full complement of championship races. This event will take place at The Thermal Club in Palm Springs, California, a track that is more known for being the home of novice racers looking to have a good time with their personal sports cars or historic car purchases than professional series. This will be the first IndyCar race at the circuit, but not the first time the series has listed the track, as the 2023 preseason test was held at this facility in late-January last year.

Time: Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on Sunday March 24 with green flag scheduled for 12:45 p.m. ET.
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and James Hinchcliffe will be in the booth. Marty Snider and Kevin Lee will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Test Session: 12:00 p.m. ET (120 minutes)
Second Test Session: 5:00 p.m. ET (180 minutes)
Third Test Session: 12:00 p.m. ET (120 minutes)
Fourth Test Session: 4:00 p.m. ET (120 minutes)
Qualifying: 8:00 p.m. ET 
Race: 12:30 p.m. ET (40 laps split over two heat races and a main event)

* - All sessions will be available live on Peacock

The Event
The Thermal $1 Million Challenge is a non-championship event on the IndyCar schedule that will see the 27 drivers compete in a different format from a traditional race weekend. 

Festivities will begin on Thursday March 21 at a draw party, where the grid will be split into two groups and they will compete in those groups for the duration of the weekend. Friday March 22 will strictly be test day with another pair of test sessions on Saturday March 23. 

On Saturday evening, qualifying will take place where there will be two sessions for each group. This will determine the starting positions in the two heat races that will take place on Sunday March 24. Different from other IndyCar weekends is each driver will be allotted 40 seconds of push-to-pass that can be used during the session 

Heat races will start the action on Sunday. Each heat race is scheduled for ten laps or 20 minutes. Caution laps will not count but the clock will continue running. The top six finishers in each heat race will advance to the 20-lap main event. 

The main event will be split into two 10-lap segments. After the first segment, teams will be able to make adjustments to the race car and re-fuel the car. Teams will not be allowed to change tires during the race unless it is for an emergency, and the replacement must be from the qualifying set of tires. 

In the main event, each car will get 40 seconds of push-to-pass for each segment with the time resetting after the break. Caution laps will not count but there is not a time limit for the main event.

The winning car will receive $500,000 while second place will earn $350,000 and third gets $250,000. Fourth and fifth will receive $100,000 and $50,000 respectable. Every other driver from sixth through 12th and the drivers that did not advanced from the heat races will receive $23,000.

The Track
The Thermal Club opened in 2012 but the first of three circuit layouts on the property was not complete until 2014 when a 1.8-mile course was finished. 

Designed by Alan Wilson, who also designed Barber Motorsports Park, Thermal Club is a country club racetrack, where members pay to build villas on the property with access to the racetrack for track days. Along with a monthly $1,200 fee and $175,000 initiation fee, building a 30,000 square-foot home on the property leads to a membership cost around a $5 million. 

The Indianapolis Star's Nathan Brown reported last year Thermal Club had 210 members, 75 properties and 135 lots sold. Brown also reported club founder Tim Rogers hosted then-IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard at the ribbon-cutting ceremony more than a decade ago, and Rogers asked Roger Penske for advice on finding the right asphalt consultant when working on the property. 

The circuit IndyCar will race on the is 3.067-mile configuration. The 19-turn circuit hosted IndyCar's preseason test last season. This will be the biggest motorsports event to date held at Thermal Club. Previously, the facility hosted the 2020 SRO America Winter Invitational designed for bronze-level drivers from the various SRO-sanctioned series. 

Thermal Club is also home to a BMW Performance Driving School. 

What Do We Know?
All we have to base on this event is last year's preseason test at Thermal Club, which was done with heavier cars as the current technical regulations have the cars at a lower weight due to the absence of the hybrid system with an undetermined debut date set for sometime in 2024. 

At that test, Marcus Ericsson was the fastest driver with Chip Ganassi Racing and Ericsson's best lap was 98.4223 seconds (112.182 mph). Ericsson led a Honda 1-2-3 as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's Christian Lundgaard was 0.1459 seconds back and Kyle Kirkwood rounded out the top three for then-Andretti Autosport, 0.3662 seconds off the top time.

The fastest Chevrolet came from Juncos Hollinger Racing, and it was Callum Ilott in fourth with a time 0.4181 seconds slower than Ericsson. Marcus Armstrong made it four Hondas in the top five, only five-thousandths of a second slower than Ilott. 

Will Power was the fastest Team Penske driver in sixth, and Power led a powerful back half of the top ten at the test. Álex Palou, Scott McLaughlin, then-Arrow McLaren driver Felix Rosenqvist, and Scott Dixon rounded out the top ten as 0.5539 seconds covered the top ten.

Josef Newgarden was just outside the top ten in 12th with Alexander Rossi, Romain Grosjean and Colton Herta following the driver who won the 2024 season opener at St. Petersburg. Patricio O'Ward was down in 16th, 0.7263 seconds slower than Ericsson. 

While Lundgaard was second at the 2023 preseason test, RLLR's other two drivers were 20th (Jack Harvey) and 23rd (Graham Rahal). Neither Ed Carpenter Racing nor A.J. Foyt Racing put a car in the top twenty. Meyer Shank Racing was 11th (Simon Pagenaud) and 18th (Hélio Castroneves). Dale Coyne Racing had David Malukas in 17th, but Sting Ray Robb was 24th. Agustín Canapino ended 21st in his first official IndyCar test session.

Exhibition History
As stated above, this is the first time IndyCar has had a standalone exhibition race since 2008. That was the reunification season and due to the late-timing of the Indy Racing League and Champ Car coming together, only a handful of events could have been incorporated into the championship. Long Beach and Edmonton were the only races that counted to the championship. Edmonton was the only race with a full field of cars as Long Beach was held the same weekend as Motegi, and featured only the Champ Car teams with the Panoz DP01 chassis while the IRL teams raced in Japan. 

The third Champ Car event that took place in 2008 was Surfers Paradise, as IndyCar chose to honor the contract for the event that dated back to 1991. The race was held on October 26, 2008, over a month and a half after the 2008 season finale was run at Chicagoland Speedway on September 8. 

This will unofficially be the 44th time since 1946 an exhibition race has been held during an IndyCar season. During that time, event such as the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, Race of Two World from Monza and Marlboro Challenge are just a few of the exhibition races to take place during that time frame. 

With the Thermal Club race taking place on March 24, this will be the earliest exhibition race since 1946. The previous earliest was in March 31, 1946 when the Mike Benton Sweepstakes was held on the one-mile Lakewood Speedway just outside Atlanta. 

Bobby Unser leads all drivers in exhibition race victories with seven, all of which were at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Jim Rathmann and Jimmy Bryan each won four exhibition races. Bryan won the 1955 and 1956 Indianapolis Sweepstakes held at the half-mile Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and he won the first two races of the 1956 Race of Two Worlds held on the Monza oval. Rathmann swept all three races of the 1957 Race of Two Worlds and won the 1959 USAC/FIA Formula Libre Race held at Daytona International Speedway. Rathmann had more victories in exhibition races than championship races in his IndyCar career, having won three times, including his famous victory in the 1960 Indianapolis 500. 

Troy Ruttman also had more exhibition victories in his career than championship victories. Ruttman won the Indianapolis Sweepstakes from Williams Grove twice, 1950 and 1951, and he won the final race of the 1956 Race of Two Worlds. 

The only other drivers with multiple exhibition race victories are Jimmy Davies, Jud Larson and Michael Andretti. 

While this will be the first exhibition race since Ryan Briscoe won the 2008 Nikon Indy 300 from Surfers Paradise, there were non-championship races run in 2012 and 2013 at Iowa Speedway. In each of those two years, heat races were used to determine the starting grid for the Iowa IndyCar race. 

In 2012, each of the three races were 30 laps in length, and the field was split over the three races based on practice speed. The top eight cars were put in the third heat race and determined the first four rows while the remaining cars were split between odd and even positions from practice and determined the odd and even positions from row five on down. In 2013, the Iowa heat races were extended to 50 laps and the winners of the first two races transferred in to the final race to set the top ten positions. 

Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti split the three races in 2012 while Scott Dixon, Rahal and Hélio Castroneves split the three races in 2013.

Fast Facts
Five IndyCar races have taken place on March 24. The last two IndyCar races that have taken place on March 24 produced first-time winners. James Hinchcliffe's first career victory came on March 24, 2013 at St. Petersburg. Colton Herta's first career victory came on March 24, 2019 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. 

This March 24 will be the 77th birthday for Roger Mears, and the 64th birthday for Scott Pruett. 

Five drivers have won an exhibition race in IndyCar but never won a championship race (Jimmy Wilburn, Duane Carter, Ed Elisian, Jackie Stewart and Ted Foltz). 

Wilburn won the first exhibition race held on March 31, 1946 at Lakewood Speedway. That race was two months prior to Wilburn's one and only official IndyCar start. He ran the 1946 Indianapolis 500 in an Alfa Romeo and retired after 52 laps due to an engine failure. Wilburn did run 35 laps in relief for Harry McQuinn in that race in a car that was classified in 13th.

Carter's best IndyCar finish was second in the 1953 season finale at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, over three years after Carter won the MGM Sweepstakes, an exhibition race held at Arlington Downs Speedway in Texas. 

Elisian's best finish was third at Langhorne in 1959, over three years after he won an exhibition race held at Dayton Speedway.

Stewart made only two starts in his Indycar career, sixth in the 1966 Indianapolis 500 and 18th in the 1967 Indianaplis 500. Stewart won at Fuji Speedway on October 9, 1966 ahead of Bobby Unser.

Foltz only ever competed at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. He made seven championship starts at Pikes Peak and eight non-championship appearances. He was second when the race counted toward the championship in three consecutive seasons, 1967-69, finishing behind Wes Vandervoort, Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti respectively. Foltz won the 1970 edition, the final year Pikes Peak was a non-championship round.

Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and Will Power are the only drivers remaining from the 2008 Surfers Paradise race still competing full-time in IndyCar. 

When including the Iowa heat races from 2012 and 2013, the only other active full-time driver that competed in those along with Dixon, Rahal and Power is Josef Newgarden.

Team Penske and McLaren are the only active teams to have won an exhibition IndyCar race.

McLaren won the 1975 World Series of Auto Racing event at Trenton with Johnny Rutherford.

The World Series of Auto Racing was a four-legged event that began on October 19-20, 1974 with a sprint car and midget car race on Pocono Raceway's 3/4-mile oval with an IndyCar race and USAC Stock Car race concluding the series on April 25, 1975. Each race paid points to the top seven finishers (9-6-5-4-3-2-1).

Twelve drivers were invited to participate in the World Series of Auto Racing (A.J. Foyt, Billy Vukovich, Jimmy Caruthers, Pancho Carter, Bobby Unser, Jim McElreath, Johnny Parsons, Johnny Rutherford, Roger McCluskey, Wally Dallenbach, Steve Krisiloff and Lloyd Ruby).

A.J. Foyt and Pancho Carter split the sprint car race and midget car race respectively at Pocono. Foyt won the stock car. Ruby and Dallenbach did not run the stock car race. For the IndyCar race, Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva, John Martin and Dick Simon replaced Carter, Caruthers, Ruby and Unser). 

Foyt won the series with 24 points after finishing fourth in the IndyCar race. Rutherford was second on 14 points while Carter and Unser finished tied for third on 12 points. 

The only driver to have won an exhibition race and the Indianapolis 500 in the same season was Rodger Ward in 1959. Ward won the Indianapolis Sweepstakes at Williams Grove about six weeks after his first Indianapolis 500 victory. 

Five times has a driver won an exhibition race and the championship in the same season (Jimmy Bryan 1956-57, Rodger Ward 1959, Bobby Rahal 1987, Michael Andretti 1991).

Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Scott McLaughlin, Álex Palou, Scott Dixon, Patricio O'Ward, Marcus Ericsson, Colton Herta, Kyle Kirkwood, Callum Ilott, Christian Lundgaard and Romain Grosjean will be the 12 drivers that make the main event. None of the drivers that start outside the top eight in either heat race make the main event. There will be fewer than three combined lead changes between the heat races and main event. The gap between sixth and seventh in each heat race will be greater than a second. Alexander Rossi will give an interview where he is clearly indifferent to everything that is going on. As for a winner? Scott McLaughlin. Sleeper: Callum Ilott.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Musings From the Weekend: What Are We Doing?

Here is a rundown of what got me thinking...

IMSA announced its 2025 schedule, so it's got that going for it. Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Global took victory with Louis Delétraz, Jordan Taylor and Colton Herta. Sebring had about three passes that could have been pass of the year, and that isn't even taking into consideration Formula E had a candidate in São Paulo. MX-5 Cup had another stellar photo finish. There was less dirt at Bristol, and somehow NASCAR avoided a tire debacle. There was testing at North Wilkesboro. Kamui Kobayashi is going to run the NASCAR Cup race in Austin next week. However, focus is on a race next week that is technically for nothing.

What Are We Doing?
Soon, the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains will be hosting IndyCar, but the second event of the 2024 season is not greeted with much fanfare. Despite only one race in the previous six months, the excitement has dipped from the St. Petersburg season opener ahead of the "$1 million" exhibition race held at The Thermal Club in Palm Springs, California. 

New track, new format, big (albeit inaccurately stated) prize, and yet, the general sense is everyone is waiting for Long Beach in over a month's time. 

For a series that does not do much outside the box, IndyCar's exhibition race at Thermal Club is different. It is something the series has never done before, but it has fallen flat and was not received with warmth when it was first announced late last year, nor has the sentiment changed in the last few months. 

IndyCar only has 17 races a year as it is. The offseason is as long, if not slightly longer, than the season itself. Does IndyCar really warrant having an exhibition race? 

The answer is yes because Thermal Club is paying for it. IndyCar isn't going to say no to a paycheck that is large enough. As has been the case for going on two decades now, not many tracks are lining up to host IndyCar. Anytime one is showing up at the door and waving money around, IndyCar must listen, even if the proposal is for a convoluted exhibition race that will neither draw in new viewers nor please those already watching. 

Despite the announced prize, does this event even matter? 

It is being billed as an "all-star race," but there are the same drivers already competing in IndyCar that really isn't turning that many heads. No offense to Nolan Siegel, but he isn't going to be the new face that gets the people excited. 

It is being billed as a "$1 million prize," bur it is only $500,000 for the winner after the decision to split the prize with a Thermal Club member was dropped. Whether that was dropped over the poor optic of giving a millionaire another half-million remains to be seen. Either way, the promoted prize really isn't the prize. It might be more than every other non-Indianapolis 500 IndyCar race winner has received, but it really isn't enough to make anyone gasp nor grease any peaches with excitement. 

What is the point of this race and how should we treat it? 

I don't know. Without this weekend, IndyCar would be in the middle of a six-week break between the first and second championship races, and no on would be happy about that either. Yet, it is still another month until the next event with championship implications. Arguably, the one thing that could grab people's attention is a race with stakes that carry over the entire season. 

There is also the fact that the limited $2,000 tickets that were being sold to non-Thermal Club members were reduced to $500 tickets a few weeks ago, and fans that had purchased at full price were given $1,500 back. I don't think there is a better way to illustrate how this event has been received and a lack of an embrace than a 75% reduction on ticket prices. 

This race will be different from other IndyCar races, but isn't an earth-shattering format. The field will be split in half for two 10-lap heat races with the top six from each race advancing to the 20-lap main event. The main event will be held in two 10-lap segments. It doesn't lead one to believe what one will see on track is really going to make them tune into Long Beach next month. 

After all, 12 cars on a three-mile circuit isn't all that breathtaking. It is actually constraining what is best about IndyCar. There will not be traffic nor any strategy the teams must work through.

If the hope is this will be an all-out event where drivers don't have to worry about tires or fuel and everyone will be tight together for the entirety of each race, well, Hollywood is a few hours west. Bring your script with you. 

IndyCar is doing something different. It is the stereotypical back-and-forth between fans and sanctioning body...

Fans: "Do something different."

IndyCar: (Does something different).

Fans: "No, not that!"

Some credit is due to IndyCar. It is using this weekend as a test of sorts for procedural elements of the series. During the qualifying session ahead of the heat races, teams will be allocated 40 seconds push-to-pass to use during the session. Push-to-pass will reset mid-race, and perhaps that is an element that could be used in actual races moving forward. It is a new track, though Thermal did host the preseason testing ahead of the 2023 season. This was always going to be a networking event, attempting to showcase IndyCar to millionaires who might not be involved in a series but has a company that could use the advertising space or maybe is having a mid-life crisis and either wants to purchase a team or start a team. 

IndyCar is living in a state of cognitive dissonance. It is a series that requires millions of dollars to compete with drivers making more than they have in the previous two decades and it requires wealthy individuals for the series to exist. Simultaneously, it is a series with an overwhelmingly primary fanbase that is firmly in the middle class and does not spend exorbitant amounts of tickets that thinks $100 for a seat is too much let alone $2,000 just to get in the door. IndyCar needs both but pleasing both is a challenge.

With how the lead up has gone to year one of this race, it is difficult to imagine there being a year two. It was always going to be an event where if one side of the series' economy divide is happy with how it turns out, the other will be disappointed and IndyCar would lose in some way. If this is a one-and-done, IndyCar will have lost a nice payday despite the celebrations that would come from the existing fanbase. If Thermal Club does turn out to be a success and the club members are willing to pony up more for next year, a return would alienate its Midwestern base even more. 

Conversations will continue beyond Thermal Club about what must be done to increase IndyCar's exposure and interest in the series. Just remember, in the end, money always wins.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about the overall Sebring winner, but did you know...

The #18 Era Motorsport Oreca-Gibson of Ryan Dalziel, Connor Zilisch and Dwight Merriman won the LMP2 class at the 12 Hours of Sebring. The #14 VasserSullivan Lexus of Jack Hawksworth, Ben Barnicoat and Kyle Kirkwood won the GTD Pro class. The #57 Winward Racing Mercedes-AMG of Indy Dontje, Philip Ellis and Russell Ward won in the GTD class.

Sam Bird won the São Paulo ePrix with a last lap pass on Mitch Evans. It ended a 35-race winless drought for Bird.

Denny Hamlin won the NASCAR Cup race from Bristol. Christian Eckes won the Truck race.

Jett Lawrence swept the Triple Crown races to win the Supercross round from Indianapolis, his third consecutive victory and fifth of the season. Cameron McAdoo won the 250cc round with finishes of first, secon and third. Haiden Deegan and Tom Vialle won the other two races in the Triple Crown format. 

Coming Up This Weekend
The aforementioned IndyCar exhibition in Palm Springs.
Formula One will be in Melbourne.
Supercars will be on the Melbourne undercard.
MotoGP is at Portimão.
World Superbike is across the Iberian peninsula in Barcelona. 
NASCAR is in Austin. 
Supercross sweeps into Seattle.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

You Cannot Be Afraid Of Getting Younger

IndyCar's fanbase is old. 

Overwhelmingly old.

Seventy-percent born before 1970 old. 

That is what we learned ahead of the 2024 season opener. Due to a supermajority of the fanbase approaching retirement age, the series is planning on emphasizing attracting younger fans this year, and that was unfortunately met with backlash that IndyCar was abandoning its current fanbase. 

A fanbase is not an exclusive club. There are not a finite number of seats in the place and if one comes in, one must leave. It can accommodate everyone, and frankly, everyone should be welcoming newcomers. 

The combined percentage of the present fanbase between the ages of 18 and 44, born between 1980 and 2006, is 12%. That is not a healthy distribution, especially when you break the older portion of the fanbase down further and find out 45% is 65 years or older. That is not a stable foundation to be standing on. It is part of the population that is retiring, living on more fixed incomes and approaching death. If the average IndyCar race draws one million viewers, 450,000 people are 65 years or older. Not all those 450,000 people will not be around in 20 years, and even fewer will be around in 30 years 

If IndyCar does not attract more younger fans, it will be in a critical position within the next two decades. You can argue it is in a critical position now. 

Fandom is not a precise science. IndyCar isn't just going to have new fans show up when they turn 65 years old because there is something in the air that makes 65 years old watch IndyCar. The current 65-year-olds have been watching likely for most of their lives. They grew up watching A.J Foyt, Mario Andretti, the Unsers and Rick Mears, and the only video games they grew up with were down at the arcade or Pong.

At the same time, just because you don't have a 30-year-old watching now doesn't mean you will not get them in 15 years when they are 45 years old. A nine-year-old that is obsessed with race cars might not be as interested and hardly watch 20 years later when he or she is on the verge of turning 30. 

It must be a constant cycle to try and attract fans of all ages. Gains must be made across the board for overall health of the series. 

Motorsports isn't as transferable as football, baseball, basketball, soccer or hockey. You cannot just pick it up in the backyard. It isn't accessible to a number of people depending on where they live. Exposure might not come until an older age. Interest might not develop until an older age. 

A person might not see the appeal at the age of 12 and think it is just cars going around in circles, but at the age of 20 or 21, while studying engineering in college, that person might see motorsports in a different light and spark an interest in how the cars work and want to be apart of it. 

While some people might grow into it, there will always be that life-long fan, someone who was enthralled from the age of five seeing the cars zoom by and the noise and colors. They will play with the toy cars on the carpet, going around in circles and mimic engine sounds for hours. It will continue into teenage years with video games, birthday parties at the indoor go-karting place and that person will continue watching races and attending races and it will become a passion into adulthood and for decades to come. You cannot rely on every fan following this path. This is the anomaly. 

No series will have all its future fans locked up when those people are seven years old. People will come and go at various different points in their lives. The important thing is to have various jumping-on points for people of all ages. 

At the present moment, IndyCar must turn its attention to drawing young adults and those recently out of college. That doesn't mean IndyCar is turning its back on older fans. 

If you are already watching IndyCar races and you are 55 years old, IndyCar is happy to have you. Just because it is having a concert during a race weekend with a musical group you have never heard of doesn't mean you are no longer welcomed. Just because IndyCar is going to college campuses and offering ticket packages doesn't mean you are being cast aside. 

This isn't a competition. 

IndyCar isn't telling the older fans to scram. It is attempting self-preservation because it needs more people it can count on that will be fans 20 and 30 years from now. It cannot afford to lose a segment of the population for decades. Motorsport in general, but IndyCar in particular at this moment, needs a rather causal following. 

The best thing we can do is use non-motorsports specific avenues to gauge what the interest is in motorsports. As a listener of The Tony Kornheiser Podcast, last month, the famous co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, Tony Kornheiser noted he tuned in for the finish of the Daytona 500, something he feels is important to do because of the importance of the Daytona 500 to NASCAR. When asked if his son Michael tuned in, Michael said no. When he asked his assistant Nigel saw it, Nigel said no. 

It is only three people, but it is a microcosm of motorsports in the general sports landscape in the 2020s. To Kornheiser, the Daytona 500 represents an important American sporting event that has been around his entire life and is meaningful. However, to the younger members of his show, both in that late-30s to early-50s range, neither thought it was worth tuning into even as causal sports fans. This will likely be the case come May, where Mr. Kornheiser will tune into the Indianapolis 500 somewhat out of a generational reflex to the Memorial Day holiday while a younger crowd, represented by his son, will likely go through the weekend and have no clue the race even happened. 

That is what every motorsports series is facing today. That is what IndyCar is facing today. The Indianapolis 500 winner was once something the average person might have known on the street. Today, you could probably stroll through New York City on Memorial Day and ask 10,000 people if they saw a lap of the "500" before finally finding someone who did.

IndyCar isn't going to get 100 million people watching the Indianapolis 500. It would be an accomplishment just to get ten million people watching, but it must improve awareness of the series, and at least having more younger people willing and comfortable to tune in, or possibly attend a race if it is in their local area, and give it a shot. 

The 450,000 65-plus viewers still have a seat at the races. IndyCar isn't looking to kick people out and take away from that current 450,000 number and fill it elsewhere. IndyCar is looking to add to that 450,000 number in other younger age groups. Only about 120,000 people between the ages of 18 and 44 are watching. IndyCar is trying to make that number bigger, perhaps having it equal the 450,000 senior citizen crowd. 

There cannot be fear that IndyCar is trying to get younger, especially from older fans. Don't forget, you were once young as well. There should be some encouragement to increase the size of the congregation and fill in more seats, if not force more seats to be added. 

Anyone that is new will not have the same amount of knowledge or experience with the series. They are going to learn about the drivers, the past, the rules, etc. Just because they don't know everything doesn't mean they don't belong. Not everyone at a baseball game is analyzing bullpen decisions and not everyone at a hockey game is thinking about rotating line mates. Some people are just there to have a good time, and occasionally dip in to care about what is happening on the field. A race can be the same way. What we should be happy with is a person is choosing to have a good time at a race. That is progress. 

This isn't an either/or situation. This isn't choosing one over the other. 

This is about bringing many different people together from different backgrounds and age groups. That is what a truly healthy IndyCar will look like. 

Monday, March 11, 2024

Musings From the Weekend: Money, Money

Here is a rundown of what got me thinking...

Carlos Sainz, Jr.'s appendix kept him from racing, but it did allow Oliver Bearman to become the third youngest Formula One starter, and Bearman finished seventh. Haas used Kevin Magnussen's penalty to its advantage to earn a point. It rained for Supercross' first trip to Birmingham. The Daytona 200 was only 200 miles this year. Despite a wet start on Friday, MotoGP began its season without any other issues. Josef Newgarden won the St. Petersburg season opener for IndyCar, but that isn't what is on everyone's mind after this weekend.

Money, Money
It is going to be one of those years in IndyCar. It could be one of those years in motorsports in general. 

No matter what happens on the track, the discussions off the track will seize control, putting in the backseat what is trying to be sold, but so goes it. 

We couldn't get through the first race before Michael Andretti dropped a bombshell of a quote on the paddock. Speaking to Nathan Brown of the Indianapolis Star on Friday of the St. Petersburg weekend, Andretti said if series owner Roger Penske was not going to invest more that Penske should sell the series.

It has already been an acrimonious relationship between the team owners and IndyCar this offseason, as the team owners are looking for greater equity from the series to increase value in participating full-time. Discussions of an adaptation of the current Leader Circle program into something more in line with NASCAR's charter system have been ongoing with a pivotal hurdle being guaranteed participation in the Indianapolis 500. 

That is currently at an impasse with the hope it will be settled before this year's Indianapolis 500. Also on the series' plate is a new television contract, which the series has said it would like settled before the Indianapolis 500, as the series also hopes to introduce the hybrid system sometime after the Indianapolis 500. Not is also not including work on new regulations with the hope of those being introduced come the 2027 season. 

Let's just say, IndyCar has a lot on its plate over the next two and a half months. 

But let's address the newest drama to the series. On the morning of Monday November 4, 2019, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced the Hulman-George family was selling the track after nearly 75 years of ownership, as well as the IndyCar Series, to Roger Penske. In less than five years, a team owner is calling for a change in leadership. 

It is a gutsy call considering it was just under four years ago, in the midst of a global pandemic, everyone was saying there was no way an IndyCar Series season would have happened in 2020 without Roger Penske's ownership. Penske had spent millions on renovations to the 2.5-mile Speedway over the winter of 2019-20 only for his first year of track ownership to see its biggest events held behind closed doors with zero revenue coming in. 

This is also coming at a time when the NTT IndyCar Series has 27 full-time entries when five years ago, the season prior to Penske's ownership, the average number of entries in non-Indianapolis 500 races was 22.875 cars. Not to forget mentioning, IndyCar directed $17 million more toward marketing last year. 

Chip Ganassi mentioned Penske's guidance through 2020 in a rebuttal interview issuing more support for current series ownership with Brown after Andretti's quotes. 

Things can be two things. IndyCar can be doing more and things can be better, and yet, more can still be done. 

More can always be done. The problem is the money must come from somewhere. 

That $17 million marketing increase came from the Leaders Circle program. Each entry received about $150,000 less money than it did in 2022. That money has returned to the teams for 2024. Where else could the series find money to give the teams?

Unless there is something we don't know about, IndyCar isn't known for its high-profile contracts. It isn't making billions from television and its title sponsor. Compared to NASCAR and Formula One, it is making a fraction to those behemoths. There surely is money in the bank, but emptying the vault for the sake of the teams isn't a viable long-term strategy. 

Throwing money at a problem only solves so much. Would $100 million more toward marketing make a difference? Would it double the average viewership, drawing two million people to their televisions on race day instead of the customary one million? Would it increase the average attendance at every race to 100,000 spectators? Would it make Josef Newgarden, Patricio O'Ward, Scott Dixon and Álex Palou household names? But more importantly, would IndyCar be able to make its sizable invest back?

I doubt it.

That is the important thing. You can only burn so much money. Roger Penske is not a risk-taker. He also isn't a foolish man. He isn't going to throw caution to the wind on an investment. He isn't looking to make take a loss. Let's not forget Tony George lost an estimate $500 million over his time leading the series when he was removed from his role in 2009. This is new ownership, but IndyCar was losing money for a significant period of time and the series wasn't growing then. How would losing tens, if not hundreds of millions dollars, be for the best of the series? Whatever is chosen will be done after methodically weighing the risks and the rewards. 

I get it. I have written about it multiple times over recent years. At a time when other series are doing new things, taking risks and being exciting, IndyCar is sticking to its playbook. It isn't being flashy. It isn't risking going over its skis. NASCAR and Formula One are seeing a boom of sorts. IndyCar is making baby steps with the status quo. 

We want something exciting that stands out, something IndyCar hasn't done in a very long time. 

Michael Andretti might be knee-jerk, but he is also right about a few things. He is right that IndyCar should look to expand its regulations to entice multiple new manufacturers instead of just focusing on adding a third. Adjusting the rules to potentially allow IMSA engines could be a great thing for the series. It isn't a guarantee to work, but the current plan isn't drawing a third manufacturer as it is.

Remember, we were supposed to have new 2.4-litre V6 engines introduced with the hybrid system until IndyCar decided with the manufacturers it would just bolt the hybrid to the existing 2.2-litre engine because why force Honda and Chevrolet to adopt a new engine structure when Honda and Chevrolet are still the only manufacturers' competing? 

IndyCar is saying it will have new regulations in 2027. We were supposed to have a new chassis two years ago, along with hybrid engines. Developing a common chassis that can accommodate a range of engine structures seems to be an easy thing the series and teams can agree upon, and honestly, we could put it to bed this afternoon and commit to it, along with a loose formula that allows for a variety of engine sizes from displacement to cylinders, for in three years time. We can lock that down and not hem and haw leading to any further delays. Then attention can be turned elsewhere. 

Would it likely require IndyCar to adopt Balance of Performance and new regulations for competitiveness? Yeah, probably, but it is the unnecessary evil in modern motorsports. Without Balance of Performance, sports car racing likely doesn't have the number of manufacturers and entries we are seeing in IMSA and the FIA World Endurance Championship at this moment. The question is, how bad do you want it for IndyCar? Because you are likely not going to get increased manufacturer participation in the way you want it. 

Andretti wants what is best for IndyCar. He wants IndyCar to grow and garner more attention and present itself in the best possible way. It wants the series to take itself seriously. It sounds like every other team owner in the series agrees. The issue is this is a series that has been successfully operating under the slow and steady philosophy for 15 years at this point, well prior to Penske's ownership.  

The series doesn't make many big gambles. It will take a moment to persuade it to do so. Throwing more money is doing something, but it must yield some kind of produce to make it worth it. If IndyCar is the same size with no discernible change in average viewership and general awareness five to ten years after such a staggering investment, you cannot blame series ownership for being upset and then pulling in the reigns.

Penske might have been the guy that could lead IndyCar through this rough patch, through a global pandemic. The series might have grown in size with more cars taking part full-time, and there could have been modest increases in viewership and race attendance. However, Penske might not be the guy willing to pull the trigger on a nine-figure investment that has a low-chance of breaking even. Whether such a fervor from those within the paddock is enough to twist his arm and de-vest from the series he purchased less than five years ago is a game of political chess that likely will not have a clear and satisfying winner. 

It is also important to remember be careful of what you wish for. Just over four years ago, everyone was applauding Roger Penske taking over the series. Now, here we are.

Winner From the Weekend
You know about Josef Newgarden, but did you know...

Max Verstappen won the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, his ninth consecutive victory dating back to last season.

Francesco Bagnaia won MotoGP's Qatar Grand Prix. Jorge Martín won the sprint race. Alonso López won the Moto2 race. David Alonso won the Moto3 race.

Christopher Bell won the NASCAR Cup race from Phoenix. Chandler Smith won the Grand National Series race. 

Josh Herrin won the 82nd Daytona 200, his second consecutive Daytona 200 victory and third total Daytona 200 victory.

Nolan Siegel won the Indy Lights race from St. Petersburg. Lochie Hughes and Nikita Johnson split the USF Pro 2000 races. Max Garcia swept the U.S. F2000 races.

Richard Verschoor (sprint) and Enzo Fittipaldi (feature) split the Formula Two races from Jeddah.

Tomoki Nojiri won the Super Formula race from Suzuka. 

Jett Lawrence won the Supercross race from Birmingham, his fourth victory of the season. Tom Vialle won the 250cc race, his second consecutive victory.

Coming Up This Weekend
12 Hours of Sebring.
Formula E is back in São Paulo.
NASCAR is racing on Bristol's concrete.
Supercross heads to Indianapolis.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

First Impressions: St. Petersburg 2024

1. Coming into this season, it was noted that for all of Josef Newgarden's oval success, his form on road and street courses hurt him in 2023. It took all of one weekend for Newgarden to get back on top. Pole position, most laps led, victory in convincing fashion. The Tennessean had not finished on the podium on a street course since his Long Beach victory in 2022. 

For a year where Newgarden wants to focus on his craft, something he was already quite excellent at, this is just what one offseason can do. He was flawlessly all weekend, and after getting off to slow starts the last three years, starting out in first is a much better position to be in. 

There is a long-way to go in this season. There will be tough days for everyone, but for Newgarden, he isn't climbing out of a hole. He isn't looking up. He holds serve and the next race is Long Beach. If the team is this good at St. Petersburg, how do you think they must be feeling about Long Beach?

Expanding beyond this weekend and 2024, this was Newgarden's 30th career victory, the 13th driver to reach the milestone, and he did it in his 199th start. 

Who else had 30 victories in their first 200 start? 

A.J. Foyt
Sébastien Bourdais
Will Power 
Al Unser
Mario Andretti 
Michael Andretti

Now, add Josef Newgarden.

That's it. That's the list. Are those guys any good? 

Newgarden is 33 years old. His career is just getting started. He is one victory behind tying tenth all-time. One of those drivers tied for tenth is Dario Franchitti. When Franchitti turned 33 years old, he had 14 victories, zero championships and zero Indianapolis 500 victories. Think about the career Franchitti ended with. The sky is the limit for Newgarden and we should already be appreciating his ability.

2. The mid-race restarts played into Patricio O'Ward's favor as being on the alternate tire while others struggled to get the primary tires up to speed allowed O'Ward to move up to second. He didn't have anything for Newgarden today, no one did, but he was able to capitalize on an opportunity, and it earned him a few spots up the order. Second consecutive year starting with a second, but this one feels significantly better than last year. 

3. If it wasn't for Josef Newgarden's dominance, I think Scott McLaughlin had the best performance. McLaughlin went from ninth to sixth in turn one at the start, his crew had a fine first pit stop to get him another position, and holding off on using the alternate tire until the final stint put him on the podium. Solid run on what was a solid day for Team Penske.

4. Rounding out Team Penske was Will Power in fourth. Like McLaughlin, Power held off on the alternate tire until the final stint. That got him a few more spots. It was always going to be a race where Power was going to finish in the middle of the top ten. The cautions and the strategy got him a few more spots. Either way, Team Penske looks good. 

5. On the flip side of the tires, Colton Herta probably lost a podium finish because he started on the alternates and he was swallowed up on each restart with new primary tires. Herta lost spots to McLaughlin and O'Ward the first time. He lost another spot to Power the second time. That's three spots and he was fifth. This wasn't as bad as last year for the Andretti Global team. Unfortunately, it is another case of the team not coming to grips, mind the pun, with one of the tire compounds and it costing them.

6. And here in sixth we find Álex Palou. For the first 60% of this race, it didn't feel like he was going to finish in the top ten. Then one pit stop, one stint on the alternate tires to close the race, and he is sixth. Even on a bad day for the #10 Chip Ganassi Racing crew they find a way to pick off a respectable result. The team didn't panic. Palou is a capable set of hands. They stuck to the plan and pulled out something to be pleased with on a weekend that wasn't great for the Ganassi team across the board.

7. It is difficult to look at seventh for Meyer Shank Racing and Felix Rosenqvist and say it was a bad day. If you had offered MSR and Rosenqvist seventh at the start of the weekend, they would have bitten off your hand. This is the team's best finish since Toronto 2022. The problem is Rosenqvist was keeping up with Newgarden in that opening stint. Like Herta, the primary tire did not suit Rosenqvist and he lost spots on every restart. This is an abject failure on the team considering this was a car that spent practically the entire day in the top five and MSR couldn't spend a lap in the top ten for its life in 2023. This is a great starting point for this new combination.

8. Alexander Rossi finished eighth. That's really all that needs to be say. He made up a few spots on each stint, but did nothing exceptional. He started 15th. There was a gap between O'Ward and the other Arrow McLaren cars this weekend. Entering the race, a few teams looks like that with one driver clear of the others. Rossi did the minimum today. At some point, he must do more.

9. Scott Dixon was ninth. Palou found something in the closing stages of the race. The rest of the Ganassi team was not a factor in this race. It appeared the entire team was struggling with the balance of the car. Dixon had a few squirrelly moments. Marcus Armstrong had an error under braking put him in the tires. Not a great day for Dixon, but it could have been much worse.

10. Rinus VeeKay spent a fair amount of the race in the top ten, and he finished tenth. VeeKay ended 2023 heading in the right direction and he picked up 2024 heading in an upward trajectory. He did lose some spots over the closing laps. I think some of that can be pinned down to the likes of Power and Palou finishing on the alternate tire versus VeeKay on the primary. 

11. Santino Ferrucci spent the entire race somewhere between 15th and 11th and he ended up finishing 11th. Through practice, it didn't feel like Ferrucci would be on the cusp of the top ten. There wasn't anything to suggest he would have been on the bubble to advance from the first round of qualifying, and yet he was. He backed up that speed today. It is one race. The technical alliance with Team Penske is bound to yield some results.

12. Kyle Kirkwood was stuck outside the top ten all race. He started 18th, he really couldn't make up much ground. He looked like he could push for a top ten but ended up bogged down in 12th. It felt like Kirkwood should have been up there with his teammates through practice. One off qualifying session set him back and this was the best he could do.

13. Considering he was a substitute, 13th should be feel unfulfilling for Callum Ilott. Ilott didn't get much time in the car as David Malukas' deputy, but there must be some disappointment Ilott wasn't more of a threat for the top team while O'Ward ended up third and Rossi in eighth. Every race is an audition. This one wasn't make or break, but he probably feels he could have done better.

14. Credit to Kyffin Simpson because he ended up 14th and ran respectably well. He didn't make any mistakes and for someone who didn't have outstanding Indy Lights results, he started his IndyCar career as well as the average rookie. Not bad. 

15. We are going to start hitting teams and drivers in bunches. Not the opening weekend Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing likely hoped for. Once Christian Lundgaard's tire was punctured on the opening lap, his race was ruined. He was kept out under the first caution to put him out front and hopefully run about five to eight laps to open a gap and maybe help him. Of course, Sting Ray Robb then broke down and that Hail Mary strategy was cancelled out. Lundgaard had to settle for 20th.

Pietro Fittipaldi was best in the team finishing 15th, but he never showed great pace. Graham Rahal struggled with electrical issues all weekend, and he fought to finish 16th. For a team hoping to be clear of the issues from last year, they haven't quite ironed everything out.

16. Tom Blomqvist was 17th. It is an improvement from his first three races but he has a long way to go. Agustín Canapino ran wide in turn one at one point, losing Canapino a few spots, and he still finished 18th. Jack Harvey went from 27th to 19th. It isn't worth throwing a parade but considering how late everything was put together at Dale Coyne Racing, how good did you really think Harvey and this team would do? 

17. Christian Rasmussen was having issues prior to the start and the team got the car sorted just before the race went green. It did mean Rasmussen had to start at the back, which isn't saying much since he was starting 21st anyway, but it was six more cars ahead of him than expected, and he still finished 21st. 

18. Colin Braun's IndyCar debut will never turn into a feature film, but it did have a flashy moment when it appeared the fuel hose broke apart on one stop and it sent Braun out in a burst of flames, literally. The fire put itself out and it wasn't much of a scene. Braun did run wide in turn nine at one point. Despite all this, Braun remained on the lead lap and finished 22nd with only one day of testing prior to the season. Again, how good did you really think Coyne would do this weekend?

19. Romain Grosjean spun Linus Lundqvist in turn nine. It was just after the final pit stops had concluded. No one was caught out, but this did cost Grosjean a possible top ten. Lundqvist had been the top running rookie for most of the race up to that point. To add insult to injury, Grosjean's race ended 18 laps early with what sounded like a gearbox issue. 

20. Two other cars broke down. Marcus Ericsson lost power while running in the top ten. There was the aforementioned incident with Sting Ray Robb stopping on course. Robb wasn't making waves prior to that incident. Ericsson was running in the top ten as well. 

21. St. Petersburg has a small problem. The race reverted back to 100 laps in 2020, during the pandemic. It has remained 100 laps for the last five seasons. When it was 110 laps, we saw greater variety in strategies, better battles because it was a three-stop race, but a three-stop race with large pit windows. At 100 laps, it is a two-stop race with small pit windows. 

After a few races last year, I suggested IndyCar should mandate each tire compound must be used twice during a race. It would at least break a race up. Either that or IndyCar should shortened St. Petersburg by another ten laps. It isn't going to return to 110 laps in all likelihood. Those races always took over two hours and television doesn't want a race that takes two hours and 12 minutes to complete. Even 100 laps is a little long. This is the longest street race by over 12 miles and it is 29 miles longer than Toronto. 

Shortened this race to 90 laps. It would be 162 miles in length, in the ballpark with Long Beach and Detroit. Everyone ended today's race with stints between 34 and 37 laps in length. If a stint is an average of 35 laps, you are talking about drivers able to pit as early as lap 20 and being able to make it to the finish. Or you could go 35 laps. It opens it up, and adds some variety in strategy.

22. Let's get out of here. There is two weeks until an exhibition race from The Thermal Club in Palm Springs, California, and only... 42 days until race number two of the season in Long Beach. Oh boy.