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IndyCar: Hinchcliffe Victorious in Messy NOLA Debut

by Frank Santoroski   @seveng1967

04CJ3762Highly disappointed. These are the best words that I can use to sum up my feelings after the checkered flag flew at The Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana on Sunday.

I was hoping for a stellar first-year event, and a highly competitive race, at a new venue for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Perhaps I had set my expectations too high, and now I have this ‘punched in the gut feeling’ about the weekend.

I know I’m not alone. I’m sure the series, the organizers, and many of the competitors, crew members and fans are left with the same empty feeling, having hoped for so much more.

The one thing none of us can control, the weather, played a major hand in reducing our high hopes to rubble. At the same time, the weekend gave a bunch of ‘lessons learned’ for future IndyCar races at NOLA Motorsports Park.

16C_0134One person who was not disappointed was Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports driver, James Hinchcliffe, who was declared the race winner when time ran out.

The team made a gutsy call on lap 33, opting to stay out as most of the field pitted. Counting on additional yellows and a shortened race, Hinchcliffe got his wish.

“At the end of the day it was actually yellows that saved us,” said the Canadian driver. “At first I was cursing the yellows that were coming out because we needed to go green to get the gap and have a better shot at it when we did stop. But a one‑stop strategy, who thought that was going to play out here today?  So super proud of everybody at Schmidt.  To have a second race together and already have a win is awesome.”

This was a much-needed win for a driver who went winless last season, and finds himself with a new team for 2015. The confidence-boosting early-season win gives both the driver and team momentum to carry into the rest of the season. Throw in the fact that his teammate, James Jakes, joined him on the podium after finishing third, and it was a great weekend for Schmidt-Peterson and for Honda.

JGS_8514-1Helio Castroneves, driving for Team Penske, took home the second-place trophy.  Simona de Silvestro, in her second outing for Andretti AutoSport, came home fourth while Penske driver, Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top five.

Attempting to squeeze the race in between storm systems, the green flag waved on a wet track with a starting time pushed up 30 minutes. We saw sixteen laps of fine racing as the Firestone rain tires seemed nicely suited to NOLA’s smooth racing surface. The Penske duo of Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power began to pull away up front, as we saw some great racing behind them.

As a dry racing line began to form between the puddles, the drivers began to make the change to slicks as early as lap 13, with many choosing the grippier ‘red’ tires.

JGS_8822-1Tony Kanaan, the first to switch to slicks, was also the first to slide off-course. He managed to keep it running, kicking up grass and mud as he spun the tires frantically, eventually getting himself back on the track.

When Gabby Chaves ran into a similar situation a few laps later, he stalled the car, bringing out the first caution period of the day. From that moment, things went downhill quickly.

From lap 19 through the end of the race, there were not more than two consecutive green-flag laps. The race ended after 47 of the scheduled 75 laps when the timed race rule came into effect. Twenty-six of the final thirty laps were run under caution. The average speed of the race was 71.995 mph. I can make better time than that on the interstate in my 1994 Oldsmobile.

16C_5429Don’t get me wrong. I’m not upset that it rained, these things happen. I recall a similar mess at Road America in 2001.

I’m not upset with race control, or the yellows: they did all they could faced with a poor situation.

I’m not upset with the organizers, they truly brought their A-game to put on a fine show.

But there is one thing that I am upset with, and that is the ‘timed race’ rule that set a limit of one hour, forty-five minutes for the event.

In my mind, the timed race rule is antiquated. The rule began during the CART era, and was put into place to ensure that an event would fit into the television window. Mind you, this was during a time when the the races were broadcast on ABC-TV and there were no streaming options or alternate networks to switch coverage to. I remember many times during that era where a race may be shortened, albeit just a few laps, so that coverage of a golf match would start on time. It made sense in the 1990s.

HinchAeroKitWalkthru1-620x264So, what did NBC-Sports have on the docket Sunday immediately following the IndyCar race that they had to switch to? An IndyCar special (fittingly enough, a profile of James Hinchcliffe) that had previously aired on Friday. That was followed by a previously aired NASCAR recap show, that could also have taken a back-burner to a live event.

In my mind, there was plenty of daylight left, and still about an hour before the next storm system was expected. I feel like we could have gotten the full race distance instead of closing up shop after a yellow parade. After all, one of the goals of this weekend was to introduce the series to a new market and broaden the fanbase. Did taking 28 more laps of racing away from the paying fans that came out in the rain do anything toward accomplishing that goal?

Of course, we very may well have seen another hour of solid yellows. We will never know at this point.

41BK1542And, in all honesty, while the racing line was drying nicely, the grass and runoff areas were pretty dangerous. Many of the yellow flags were for minor spins or off-track excursions, but the final caution of the day came after a major shunt involving Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais.

Battling for position, Ryan Hunter-Reay essentially pushed Pagenaud’s Penske car into the wet grass sending both cars careening off the track. Bourdais, the innocent victim being taken along for the ride, took the hardest hit. His car nailed the armco barrier hard enough to crack the tub.

“It was a pretty nasty hit and missed my head by a couple of inches,” Bourdais said. “The tub is broken at shoulder level. It was a very big hit. I’m on the inside and I’m three wide. The bummer is Ryan throws him (Pagenaud) in the grass. If he doesn’t do that, we’re just running three-wide and it’s all good. But once he put Simon in the grass it was all over. It was a big hit.”

41BK1611For his part, Pagenaud did not mince words when it came to laying the blame on Hunter-Reay. “It’s a shame Sebastien got involved in there,” said Pagenaud,  “He didn’t deserve it. I’m really disappointed with Ryan’s actions. That is just not professional. That is absolutely as bad a move as I’ve experienced.”

With the inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana now in the books, the challenge now is to make this a better event going forward.

A different date on the calendar might be a good place to start. Not only was the race held when April Showers rule, but they had to go up against established local events such as the Strawberry Festival and the French Quarter Festival.

IndyCar CEO, Mark Miles, has stated that he wants to start the season in February with an International swing. I can’t help but think that a February date may suit NOLA just fine, and the season can kick off in the States before heading overseas. Just some food for thought.

The Verizon IndyCar Series will return to action next weekend for the 41st Annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

04CJ3958

photos courtesy IndyCar

2 comments

  1. The “Timed race” rule is put in place for TV, not to mention the entire IndyCar circus that has to hit a flight home.

  2. I totally agree with you Frank! I was hoping things would be different. I would like to see the series do better than this but I had that same punched in the gut feeling. Thank you for writing your article and keeping us at DTC informed!

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