Can McLaren/Ganassi Improve Pace Here?
Arrow McLaren and Chip Ganassi Racing are two of the top organizations in the entire NTT INDYCAR Series paddock. However, they’ve both struggled on this road course over the years.
Arrow McLaren Racing actually qualifies really well here. They just don’t finish well. Felix Rosenqvist was 6th in May and 9th in July but had more speed in it. Pato O’Ward has two 5th placed finishes in his last 5 starts here. What’s baffling is, O’Ward has four top 5 starting spots in his last five starts here too, but three of his last four finishes have been 12th or worse. Rosenqvist has one top 5 in 8 tries and despite a pair of top 10’s a year ago, he also qualified 6th and 1st respectively. Alexander Rossi may be the one to watch among this group. He won the last time out here in July and has 5 top 7 finishes in his last 6 tries here including 4 of which in the top 4.
All three drivers were solidly in the Top-10 the last time out in Barber and O’Ward has three top four finishes in four races run this season.
Chip Ganassi Racing is the far opposite. They’ve not been qualifying well here as of late but finishing better instead. Basically meeting the McLaren’s in the middle.
They’ve had just 5 total podiums here with only two of which since the Aeroscreen was adopted in 2020. In the case of Scott Dixon, the good? 11 top 10 finishes in 13 starts. The bad? none of the last six finishes here have been better than 8th either. Prior to that, he did have four consecutive top two finishes here. It’s qualifying that’s holding him back with his last six qualifying efforts being 12th, 15th, 16th, 26th, 21st and 20th respectively.
He enters having scored three top seven finishes in four races run this season.
Like Dixon, Marcus Ericsson finishes well, but not always in the top 5 here. In 8 starts, he has 5 top 10 finishes. However, just 1 of those 5 he’s finished in the top 5 (4th last May). Qualifying has been their crux too. He’s started 9th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 15th, 11th, 18th and 25th respectively.
Alex Palou had a fast car last May before going off course in the rain, was 3rd in May 2021 and had a podium going before his engine blew in the August prior. If luck is on his side, watch out. However, that’s asking a lot for a driver with finishes of 27th, 18th and 10th respectively too. On the season, he’s finished eighth, third, fifth and fifth respectively.
Then you have rookie Marcus Armstrong. He’s never raced here before but does have three top 11 finishes in three attempts this season which includes a 15-spot improvement from 26th to 11th the last time out in Barber.
Can Penske Get Back To Winning Way Here….In May?
A few years ago, this race was actually dubbed the Penske Grand Prix, so I’d say, yes. Heading into the 2020 season, Penske had won this race in 5 of the 6 years that it was around including having every winner of it under their umbrella (Simon Pagenaud won the inaugural race for SPM in 2014). Then, Scott Dixon went out and whooped the field in July 2020 in winning by nearly 20 seconds over second place. That ended the Penske reign. They’ve not won this race since.
In 2021, Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay triumphed that day in beating Romain Grosejan and Alex Palou.
Penske went 3-7-20 that July 2020 race. In 2021, they were 4-6-8-11. Last year they went 3-20-25.
However, they’ve been so good in the return trips.
Josef Newgarden led 34 of 85 laps in his win during the first doubleheader race of the Harvest Grand Prix race weekend in 2020. A day later, Will Power led all 75 laps in victory.
In August 2021, Power led 56 of 85 laps in another win. Last year, he finished third in that summer race. The question now is, why are they so good outside of May here and how can they recapture that May magic back?
They took 2 of the top 3 finishers the last time out in Barber including the win by Scott McLaughlin and have won 2 of the last 3 races on the season entering.
“Look, I think we’ve had really good pace all year,” McLaughlin said. “It’s just a matter of putting things together my end and the team’s end. I felt like Barber, we were very simple all weekend. We had a really fast car, didn’t change too much apart from the front wing. Really strong. Hopefully we roll off the truck just as good.
“Yeah, who knows. You don’t know with INDYCAR. You got to ride the wave, keep working hard. The work you put in behind the scenes, you can’t really rest on your laurels in this paddock, so you just got to keep working hard and see how you go.”
Can Josef Newgarden Pick Up Indy Win?
Josef Newgarden is a 25-time race winner in the NTT INDYCAR Series. He’s won two championships and has finished runner-up in the final standings in each of the last three seasons. He’s a generational driver. What’s baffling is, Newgarden hasn’t ever won a race here at IMS. No matter the oval. No matter the road course. Newgarden hasn’t been able to find a path to victory lane.
He’s 0-for-11 in the Indy 500 with just three top five finishes with a best result of third (2016). On the road course, he’s 0-for-12 making him 0-for-23 on these hallowed grounds.
In those 12 starts on the road course, he has just 1 podium even and has led just two total laps on this track in his last five tries.
If you combine the ‘500 and the road course, that’s just two podiums in 23 tries.
Can he finally pick up a win here this month?
Why Doesn’t Starting Position Matter Here In May?
Qualifying is everything here. 12 of the 13 races on this layout were won by a top 8 starter. The only one not was Colton Herta in the rain back in May of last year, who started 14th in the rain.
In fact, 4 of the last 6 races here were won via a front row starter but 3 of those 4 were from the second placed starter though. Just once in the last 8 races here too has the pole sitter actually won. They were 4-for-5 (all 4 consecutively) prior.
The thing is, the last four opening weekend road course races here were won from Row 4 (8, 7th, 7th) and Row 7 (14th) too respectively. What I mean by that is in 2020, the road course event was moved back to July. A second race weekend was added here that Fall and while the spring race has moved back to May, a shared weekend with NASCAR has remained the last two years and is back again this year.
In the second race weekend, all four winners started on the front row. In fact, all the podium finishers in those races came from the top 4 rows.
Podium Finishers Of 2nd Race Weekend Here
2020 Race 1 (October): 2nd, 8th, 1st
2020 Race 2 (October): 1st, 2nd, 3rd
2021: 2nd, 3rd, 5th
2022: 2nd, 6th, 4th
The first race weekend is different.
Podium Starters Of Spring Race Since 2014:
2014: 4th, 3rd, 10th
2015: 1st, 17th, 4th
2016: 1st, 13th, 3rd
2017: 1st, 4th, 8th
2018: 1st, 18th, 2nd
2019: 8th, 2nd, 3rd
2020 (July): 7th, 4th, 20th
2021: 7th, 1st, 4th
2022: 14th, 20th, 1st
Why is that?
In 10th Year, Did Road Course Race Weekend Serve Its Purpose?
This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the first road course race here for the NTT INDYCAR Series on these hallowed grounds. When it was unveiled in 2013 that the series would come back in 2014 and stage a race on the road course, it was met with a ton of controversy from this fan base. Most thought it was sacrilegious to run an INDYCAR the opposite direction on these hallowed grounds, let alone use a road course. This was Indy and Indy was speed and pageantry and tradition.
This was messing with all three.
However, what many fans failed to realize is, this race wasn’t added for them. This was added to introduce the fans already here that there’s more to the NTT INDYCAR Series than the Indianapolis 500. There’s also more to IMS than the Indy 500.
“I think it’s a great way to start the month,” defending Indy 500 champion, Marcus Ericsson said. “To start the month of May out on a road course is in my opinion a perfect way to do it. Usually quite fun race here.
“The track itself is maybe not the most challenging on the calendar, but it produces some good racing, always super close. Early May is usually tricky around here weather-wise. I think it’s a perfect way to start the month of May.”
See, as attendance had dropped, then sort of flattened out over the years, IMS and INDYCAR needed to do something drastic. This was a failed sport that was trying to rise but in order to do so, you have to shake some things up.
Practice days, qualifying days, etc, well it’s mostly filled with empty aluminum bleachers. The once massive crowds that flocked to IMS on those days in the past were long gone. So, how do you get them back?
Adding a second race.
“I think it’s great that we have a road course race before the Indy 500,” noted Alex Palou. “Just makes everybody be ready. It’s a good warmup. I think it’s a fun race.”
See, because of how important that the Indy 500 is, IMS didn’t want to add a second oval race to the schedule. So, with a state-of-the-art road course already here, why not utilize that?
The question then was, why do so in May?
Well, why not?
The road course weekend draws in excess of thousands of more spectators on that Friday-Saturday than a normal practice or qualifying day would draw. While official attendance figures were never released, most considered no more than 5-10k showing up to qualifying days and far less for practice.
Estimated attendance of the road course race is typically anywhere between 40-50k. That’s a massive win and helps the bottom line when that many more paying customers are coming through the gates. It also is a natural build up to the Indy 500 action too which is a win-win.
Practice days and qualifying days for Indy are bigger since the road course race came around than before. Race day crowds for Memorial Day weekend are much bigger now than before too.
One could say that in 8 previous years to where the road course race was in May, it helped the Indy 500 later than month too across most metrics.
That’s a win.
Also, to grow the series and the month, why not show race fans that there’s more to INDYCAR can just the Indy 500. You see 300k people show up on race day for the ‘500 but nowhere close to that elsewhere. Well, by racing on a road course here in their home race, it shows those here in Indianapolis that an Indy Car can make left- and right-hand turns.
These are the same drivers, the same cars, everything the same. They just don’t show up here in May and sit on their hands for the other 11 months. They race elsewhere and what better way to introduce INDYCAR to the fans than doing so in front of their most rabid fan base on a road course.
Like what you see on Memorial Day weekend, why stop there? Well, there’s more to offer and it’s paid off which fans traveling to more races and seeing how fun a road racing event with these cars can be too.
Are the stands filled? No. Are the mounds filled? Heavens no. However, is IMS brought to life a lot more with this race weekend than the alternative?