As we prepare for the NTT IndyCar Series championship finale in Monterey, Robin Miller returns to The Week In IndyCar podcast to help answer listener Q&A on the fight for the 2019 title, the ongoing silly season, tracks that have a chance to make a comeback, and more.
It looked like a bad idea from the outset. Hosting IndyCar’s return to Monterey, just days after IMSA’s mid-September visit, had all the markings of a box office failure for at least one series, if not both premiere championships.
With IMSA’s sports car show set for Sept. 13-15 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and IndyCar’s open-wheel season finale ready for its Sept. 20-22 showdown, expectations were for IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship to suffer as budget-minded fans put their money behind IndyCar’s grand re-appearance after a 15-year hiatus.
According to circuit CEO Tim McGrane, who runs the facility on behalf of Monterey County through the non-profit SCRAMP organization, a pleasant surprise has been found among ticket buyers. Sales are up by a considerable margin over IMSA’s 2018 race at Laguna Seca, and positive numbers are being seen for IndyCar’s long-awaited homecoming.
“IMSA’s been here for a number of years, so when IndyCar was re-introduced, there was some trepidation about back-to-back events with IndyCar’s season-ending event coming right after IMSA’s event, and in time, IMSA embraced the idea, while reinforcing the need to increase sales for their event,” McGrane told RACER.
“We have the Monterey Car Week, a template we use for the Rolex Reunion and the Pre-Reunion vintage racing events, so we put the Monterey Speed Week format together where fans can buy tickets for both races at a discount. And for the sponsors and partners, there are packages where they can come and be part of the IMSA weekend, enjoy off-track entertainment with golfing and dining and wine tasting after, and return for more racing with IndyCar. We’re just over a 30-percent increase year-to-year specifically for IMSA, and have seen as high as 45-percent a few weeks ago.”
Stacking IMSA and IndyCar on consecutive weekends and creating the Monterey Speed Week promotion appears to be a game changer for the famous Californian road course. With the recent release of their schedules, the Speed Week trend will continue as IMSA and IndyCar return to race within a span of seven days in September of 2020.
In recent years, IMSA’s annual appearance has produced some great racing, yet lacked a compelling audience size to witness its prototypes and GTs fight during the 2h40m contest.
Provided the 30-percent increase holds leading into the IMSA weekend, a rise in foot traffic should be visible, but McGrane knows it will take a few years of similar gains to fill the turns and grandstands with fans as IMSA did decades ago. IndyCar, which saw its audience dwindle in the early 2000s under the Champ Car banner, will also need to see a healthy bump in attendance to solidify Laguna Seca as a must-have venue.
So far, McGrane is pleased with the ticket sales for the open-wheel series.
“It’s the season finale for IndyCar, and it’s their return to Monterey — what we consider a spiritual home for the series — and its sales are trending higher than IMSA, but that’s to be expected because of the return,” he said.
“It’s both very exciting race series, and it’s a big plus for us and the Monterey Peninsula. And for those that can’t be here, both races are broadcast on NBC, available to all. We’ll be working harder than ever to welcome IMSA and turn the facility around for IndyCar in record time. There’s a real buzz around what’s coming.”
Indy Lights championship leader Oliver Askew has dominated the season with Andretti Autosport, following in the footsteps of Patricio O’Ward, who earned the 2018 Indy Lights title with the same team. Looking at how far O’Ward’s traveled since his achievement with Andretti Autosport, Askew’s preparing to reach similar heights in the NTT IndyCar Series.
With seven wins to his credit, and having stood on the podium at every race barring one since March 23rd, the Floridian has authored an epic year where seven poles have underscored his preparedness for all phases of the job he’s seeking in IndyCar.
On the heels of his rookie Indy Lights performances, the 22-year-old needs to do nothing more than take the start at the final two rounds in Monterey later this month to be crowned and earn the advancement prize of three NTT IndyCar Series races in 2020, including the Indy 500.
His hope is for team owners and sponsors to take notice and create the opportunity to complete the rest of the calendar behind the wheel of a Chevy- or Honda-powered Dallara DW12.
“First of all, it’s a privilege to race with a championship-winning team,” he told RACER. “Now to provisionally win two championships in a row, and then win a championship for the reigning champions in Indy Lights and Andretti Autosport is a privilege, and I’m very proud of the people around me to give me the car that I had this year.
“Winning championships means you need to be consistent at every single race, and I feel like that’s what we did this year. We stayed out of trouble and did the best we can with what we had every single day. I’m very proud of myself and the people around me working tirelessly. Honestly, I feel like we put a stranglehold on this championship a couple of races ago, so it’s kind of sunk in slowly.”
Askew and Indy Lights title rival Rinus VeeKay are expected to be featured players in IndyCar’s next rookie class. The two have battled for a few years on the Mazda Road To Indy, and also completed their first IndyCar tests on the same day at Portland International Raceway, with Askew invited to drive Scott Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
In assessing how far he’s come since being selected to represent Jeremy Shaw’s Team USA program in 2016, and the major role Mazda Motorsports boss John Doonan has played in fast-tracking his open-wheel career since winning a shootout in Monterey that brought him out of karts, Askew credited a deep group of individuals for his rapid success.
“I’m so very proud of Andretti Autosport and my sponsors and everyone that’s gotten me to this point,” he said. “I’ve got to thank John Doonan as well, because John Doonan and Jeremy Shaw really kick started my Road To Indy and car racing career from karts, and Cape Motorsports as well, who I spent the past couple of years with. And I think it’s important to point out that that I’m going to be beginning and ending my Road To Indy career in WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, and that’s pretty emotional for sure.”
Standing behind Victory Lane on Sunday in Portland after earning his 14th podium visit of 2019, Askew wore a measured smile as he contemplated the months ahead. He’s bound for IndyCar, and has the look of his Andretti Indy Lights predecessors who hit the big series and made immediate waves with Carlin Racing and Harding Steinbrenner Racing.
Askew isn’t bubbly like O’Ward, or irreverent like Herta. He’s on a singular mission to become an IndyCar champion which, if we’re looking for parallels, feels more like his team owner, Michael Andretti, than any young American in recent memory.
“I’m confident that I have the right people around me working for me and working for my best interests that we’re going to be racing with the top team next year, whether it’s for a partial or full season in IndyCar,” he said.
“So that’s all we’ve been working for all year and if people are wondering why I haven’t been too ‘over the moon’ or looking super emotional about this championship, it’s because I believed this could happen from the start, and I think that’s why I believe that this is happening. There’s no surprises.”
It was a messy weekend for many at the Portland Grand Prix, including Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey, who was clobbered into submission and out of contention early in the event, and who makes his return to The Week In IndyCar podcast, and he’s followed by new Indy Lights race winner Toby Sowery from the HMD/Pelfrey team.
Jack Harvey (starts at 11m32s)
Toby Sowery (1h05m48s)
The Week In IndyCar, Sept 4, Listener Q&A Part 1
It’s Part 1 of a packed listener Q&A session on The Week In IndyCar podcast following a news-rich Portland Grand Prix.
The Week In IndyCar, Sept 4, Listener Q&A Part 2
It’s Part 2 of a packed listener Q&A session on The Week In IndyCar podcast following a news-rich Portland Grand Prix.
With four wins and 12 podiums in hand during his first Indy Lights season, Juncos Racing’s Rinus VeeKay isn’t looking to return to the top step of the Road to Indy ladder.
The 18-year-old would need a miracle to overcome Andretti Autosport’s Oliver Askew to earn the Indy Lights title, but for those who’ve seen the young Dutchman drive, there’s little doubt as to whether he’s ready for an NTT IndyCar Series graduation in 2020.
Two races remain on the Indy Lights calendar in Monterey; Askew simply needs to start both races to clinch the championship and earn the three-race IndyCar prize that comes with the achievement. For VeeKay, adding to his win tally is the goal, all while preparing for the next phase of his career by solidifying where he’ll drive in IndyCar next season.
“For now, I think the next week we’ll be talking to all those guys and then further in Laguna, it’s going to be a big focus, show A-class performance from myself, and show the IndyCar teams what I can do,” he told RACER.
VeeKay completed his first IndyCar test last month at Portland with the Ed Carpenter Racing team, where he was among the fastest drivers on a day that had Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and other front-running drivers in attendance.
While Askew has, rightfully, garnered most of the attention in Indy Lights this year, VeeKay’s successful IndyCar test at Portland helped raise his profile in the IndyCar paddock in powerful ways.
“I’ve got now quite a few teams that show a lot of interest in me,” he said. “After the IndyCar test I walked around the track in Gateway and a lot of people know me now. It’s a lot different. It takes longer to get somewhere!
“Also, fans and people that know a lot about IndyCar, they start to acknowledge me and I think they are hopefully looking forward to seeing me in IndyCar next season, like I do.”
As the 2018 Indy Pro 2000 champion, VeeKay has carried Mazda’s Soul Red livery all season with Juncos Racing. The car also wears branding from his sponsor Jumbo, Holland’s second-largest supermarket chain, and with its enthusiastic support of Dutch Formula 1 star Max Verstappen, the company is expected to play a key role in helping VeeKay reach IndyCar.
Although his destination in the big series has yet to be named, the links to ECR have only strengthened since the Portland test. Carpenter spent time during last weekend’s Portland Grand Prix on pit lane observing Indy Lights qualifying, and during Sunday’s IndyCar race, VeeKay’s tall frame was impossible to miss on the ECR timing stand as he listened to driver Ed Jones and his engineers throughout the 105-lap contest.
Whether it’s with ECR or another capable team, VeeKay is confident the grandstands will see plenty of orange on display as Dutch fans in America embrace his IndyCar journey.
“I think it will be a lot,” he added. “If you look at Max Verstappen, he has a whole orange army behind him and even in the Belgian GP, it’s all orange. So that’s something I would like to take over a bit here and I think it’s been such a long time since there’s been a Dutch driver in IndyCar, and especially a winning Dutch driver.
“I think if I can really put the Netherlands in the spotlight here, I think it will help. It’s a small country, but everything goes super quick. It’s way easier to get your whole army behind you in the Netherlands, and we will see IndyCar grow a lot there. I think it’s getting better and better too with media following IndyCar in the Netherlands. I’d like to be the guy that fans at home want to follow in IndyCar.”
As Carlin Racing’s Charlie Kimball can attest, sometimes a 10th-place finish feels like a podium. The NTT IndyCar Series veteran was thrust into the No. 23 Chevy for the Portland Grand Prix, and in a result that’s typical of the Californian’s career, he turned a poor day of qualifying into something positive. Motoring from 23rd to 10th, Kimball produced Carlin’s top performance on Sunday which, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t be cause for celebration. However, 2019 has been anything but normal for Trevor Carlin’s outfit.
As the British team nears the end of its sophomore season, it’s faced constant change in the cockpit as six drivers have rotated in an out of its seats, missed qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 with two of its three entries, lost Patricio O’Ward to the Japanese Super Formula series, had lead driver Max Chilton cut the remaining ovals from his calendar, and made a midseason engineering change on one of its cars.
To have Kimball making steady improvement late in the season, and Chilton, who ran in the top 10 late in the race until falling to 11th, showing well at Portland speaks to the resilience of the Carlin team and its drivers.
“I’m just happy for these guys because all year they put so much effort in,” Kimball told RACER. “I see it when I’m not in the car almost as much or more than when I am behind the wheel because they’re one of the last ones to leave every day. They’re the first ones here every day. Qualifying was tough for us. Part of that was my not being on a road course since Sonoma last year. Part of that is just getting up to speed and getting going. Once we got there, we got up front. I made a couple of mistakes after the second restart, lost a few spots, but then, it was just metronomic.
“It’s nice to really shake all the rust clear before we get down to Laguna for a double points race. Not that we’re in the points championship, but points are always good. It was honestly, it just came down to strategy, great pit stops, giving me the fuel number and me being able to hit it. Of course we want to be talking about podiums and wins, but we’re pleased with the progress we’ve been making. Such things do not happen overnight.”
The nine-year IndyCar veteran will complete the season having contested seven of the 17 races on the schedule, and it actively working to make a full-time return in 2020. Longtime sponsor Novo Nordisk, and new energy optimization partner ripKurrent, could play significant roles in helping the 34-year-old achieve his goals as he explores business-to-business relationships in the paddock.
“We’re working hard with our partners towards next year,” he said. “The ripKurrent guys had so much fun being with us at Gateway. They were so enthusiastic. The result, we were knocking on the door of the top 10. They just loved it. I think with their business model and some of the business opportunities within the IndyCar product, some of the big energy consumption people like Preferred Freezer on the Ed Carpenter cars, I recently went, ‘Oh, I should introduce those guys to them.’
“There’s just some big energy consumption brands within the sport. Maybe NTT Data and some of their server sites. I think the more I can give them a business reason to back up their enthusiasm, they’re already talking about what next year looks like. Novo Nordisk is talking about next year. Carlin talked about next year. Honestly, at Portland, I was just focused on trying to find my feet again, but beyond that, it’s working to create the best season possible for myself and my sponsors.”
Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot was left staring up the front straight moments after the start of the Portland Grand Prix.
As one of the many drivers affected by the Royal Rumble at Turn 1, the 2015 Indy Lights champion assessed his backwards situation, noticed his Chevy engine was still running, engaged first gear, and promptly spun the No. 21 around to rejoin the pack at the back of the field.
Having fallen from his 10th-place starting spot to 17th as the race returned to green, the California-born 25-year-old spent the rest of the sunny afternoon in Oregon moving forward. Decisive passes, slashing moves under braking, and a perfect balance of aggression and intelligence produced a drive that had ECR’s top driver up to 10th by Lap 20. By Lap 30, he’d captured sixth, and spent the remainder of the race fighting to take fifth from Team Penske’s championship leader Josef Newgarden while keeping Penske’s Simon Pagenaud — another innocent Lap 1 victim — at bay in seventh.
Sandwiched between the Penske duo, Pigot’s impressive drive was amplified by the damage suffered on Lap 1 that misaligned the No. 21 Chevy’s steering system. Forced to wrangle a car that wanted to turn on its own all day, the Road to Indy graduate was tired but pleased to salvage a solid result for the Carpenter crew.
“It was a tough race, obviously; I didn’t really think we had much of a chance after how hard we were hit in the first corner,” he told RACER. “I don’t honestly know really what happened, but just kind of got hit from behind. We stopped and ended up, I think, last on the lead lap after all that. Just had to go and pass as many people as we could. Didn’t really get any yellows or anything to help catch up to the field or anything. Just went out had to get it done on the track. It was for sure a fun race, you know?
“I had a lot of fun battling and passing people, but recovering the sixth leaves you thinking what could have been if that first lap didn’t happen. Overall, happy with our performance in the race. We battled back from a tough start to the weekend in practice. I think the ECR team showed with our usual great pit stops, really good strategy, and, ultimately, even with a damaged car, we had good pace despite the steering being off.”
Although ECR has yet to name its drivers for 2020, it’s believed Pigot will be retained for his third full-time season with the team. It wasn’t a win, nor was it a podium finish, but with a gritty performance amid adversity like Sunday’s run in Portland, the young IndyCar veteran continues to give ECR a reason to show faith in his future potential.
“It’s definitely a good feeling to have a strong race, especially after the last couple, where I thought we had good runs going and just didn’t end up that well,” he said. “On paper, sixth isn’t too much to write home about, but coming from where we did, I think it says a bit more about our performance as a team, and I’m just happy to have a strong race and battle with the guys that I know we can fight with.”