6:20 PM – Qualifying for the 2019 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama for the NTT IndyCar Series is in the books, and the teammates of Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal have claimed Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s first front row sweep since Buddy Rice and Danica Patrick led the field to green at Chicagoland Speedway in 2005. They’ll be chased to the green flag by Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe in Row 2 and Sebastien Bourdais and Spencer Pigot in Row 3. It was a dominating session for the Honda teams with only two Chevrolets advancing to the second round and Pigot being the only Bowtie representative in the Firestone Fast 6.
In a surprising change, neither Penske nor Andretti put a single car in the Fast 6 for what seems like the first time in ages. Most people expected Team Penske to find the magic bullet this afternoon, but as it turned out, the cars of Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were on the outside looking in after the first round of qualifying.
The Andretti cars of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi have been quick all weekend, but neither were able to find the speed in Round 2 needed to get into the Fast 6. Even their psuedo-teammate Colton Herta fell just short and will start between the veteran pair.
After a strong showing in the morning practice session, the Carlin boys of Max Chilton and Patricio O’Ward were unable to back up their efforts and will start a disappointing 22nd and 18th, respectively.
Also having disappointing qualifying sessions were the pair of Swedish rookies, Felix Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson. Rosenqvist led the first session yesterday but hasn’t been able to reproduce that speed since. Ericsson still has yet to find his feet in the IndyCars, and while he shows flashes of speed, he has yet to show an indication of being able to put together speed on a consistent basis.
Ericsson’s lack of speed today (he will start 15th tomorrow) is even more puzzling given the strong showing by teammate James Hinchcliffe. Hinch led two of the three pre-qualifying practice sessions and missed the pole position by a scant quarter of a second. Marcus will eventually get used to the heavier feel of the Indy car compared to the Formula 1 car he has driven for the past several years, and when he does, he will no doubt be quick.
Another interesting dichotomy of teammates are the Ed Carpenter racing cars of Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones. While Pigot will start sixth tomorrow, Jones was the second slowest car in his Round 1 group. Like several others, Jones could really use a clean run tomorrow and see the checkered flag from inside the cockpit. A Top 10 finish for the #20 AutoGeek Chevrolet would be a very welcome result.
With the high number of run offs and subsequent red flags during the three practice sessions, it was remarkable that none of the qualifying sessions were disrupted by a red flag. Given the qualifying shake ups at both St. Pete and COTA resulting from unfortunately-timed yellow flags, it was nice to see the sessions run without interruption.
That being said, I would be shocked if the race tomorrow runs as clean. I’ll preview the race in tomorrow’s opening post, but suffice is to say I think the very close speeds and competitive cars will frustrate some drivers and cause some cars to tangle as a result of aggression and impatience. I don’t expect Ryan Hunter-Reay to be running 11th for very long; nor will the fast Pato O’Ward be satisfied running in 18th for many corners.
That’s going to be a wrap for the day. George and Susan and I are hitting up Pappadeaux tonight for some Cajun seafood before finishing up some more work tonight at the hotel. I’ll be back on site early tomorrow for a preview of tomorrow’s NTT IndyCar Series race and some comments regarding the general experience here at Barber Motorsports Park. I might even throw out my fantasy picks for you to analysis, dissect, and disagree with.
Thanks again for joining me today here and on Twitter! Your support is greatly appreciated!
2:30 PM – The morning practice session was another disjointed affair with several interruptions for cars stuck off course. Turns 5 and 6 were the biggest trouble spots as Zach Veach and Graham Rahal got their cars stuck in the sand traps. Several other drivers, including Will Power, Takuma Sato, and Felix Rosenqvist, missed the corner and spent time in the grass as well but were able to continue on without bringing out a red flag.
Swedish rookie Marcus Ericsson continues to have a rough go of it this weekend. He brought out the red flag with the most serious incident of the session when he found the Turn 3 ARMCO barrier and slightly damaged the left front suspension. Ericsson would walk away unscathed, but his Arrow Schmidt Peterson crew has some work to do for that team to be ready for qualifying.
James Hinchcliffe took advantage of the one hot last each driver was afforded at the end of the session to post the fastest lap of the day. Once again, Hinch’s Honda-powered machine was the only car to break into the 68-second bracket, outpacing Sebastien Bourdais by 0.3000 seconds.
The surprising news to me this morning is the continued struggle of Team Penske. Ironically, the best of the bunch today was Simon Pagenaud who put his #22 Menards Chevrolet into the seventh position on the charts. Pagenaud has struggled on the road and street courses since the introduction of the UAK-18, so to see him leading his teammate this morning is a good story. However, Will Power and Josef Newgarden, who have four wins here between them, could do no better than 15th and 17th. I still won’t be surprised to see the Penske boys turn it around in qualifying, but they certainly don’t look strong thus far.
The Chevrolet-powered efforts of Carlin Motorsport drivers Max Chilton and Patricio O’Ward had strong efforts, both of which yielded Top 10 results. Carlin, and Chilton in particular, could desperately use a strong effort here this weekend, and back up the practice times with a stout qualifying effort will go a long way toward helping in that chase.
Away from the track, it’s been a great start to the day. As I noted earlier, the weather this morning was beautiful, but as expected, skies have turned overcast since the conclusion of Practice 3. Temperatures have climbed into the mid 70s, but as of now, there doesn’t appear to be rain anywhere in the vicinity. If anyone was hoping for a rainy qualifying session, it appears they will be disappointed.
The crowd here today seems much better than what we saw on site yesterday. The on-track activity has been constant since the F3 Americas Series took to the track at 8:05. The areas I saw overlooking Turn 11 and Turn 15 both seems very well attended. Even in the paddock area, the number of attendees is noticeably greater today.
If I could make a single suggestion to Barber Motorsports Park for execution of this weekend, it would be to sell a very limited number of general admission tickets to the interior portion of the course at what is known as Charlotte’s Web. The potion of the course sits on the outside of Turns 5, 6, and 7 adjacent to the giant spider (and several little baby spiders) statue. From this amazing view, spectators could see the aforementioned Turns 5-7, plus Turns 11, 12, 13, and 17 and the long straight away connecting Turns 11 and 12. This may very well be one of my new favorite places to watch race cars of any facility I’ve been to, and it’s a real shame a small number of paying spectators cannot experience this position.
I’ll be back after qualifying with some closing thoughts for the day.
10:25 AM – Welcome back to the Live Blog for Qualifying Day at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at the beautiful Barber Motorsports Park. This morning dawned bright and sunny with temperatures in the low 60s. However, since arriving at the track at 7:30, the skies have clouded over, and while it isn’t quite overcast yet, it is mostly cloudy and heading toward overcast. We are expecting chances of rain to increase throughout the day, and this afternoon’s qualifying session may be run on a soggy track.
After leaving the track last evening shortly before 6:00, George, Susan, and I made the short drive over to Rusty’s BBQ, which sits about a mile from the main entrance to Barber Motorsports Park. Much like In-and-Out Burger, Rusty’s BBQ has become something of IndyCar lore over the 10 years that the Series has been visiting this picturesque road course. After trying the food for myself, I’m not exactly sure why.
Much like the aforementioned In-and-Out Burger, I thought the food was decent but definitely not something I would go out of my way to get again. I ordered a half-slab of generically-named “ribs.” In this case, they were St. Louis-style pork spare ribs. I generally prefer baby back ribs to spares, but I do enjoy a good cut of St. Louis style spares. Unfortunately, the ribs that came to me seemed as if they had been on a smoker for about 18 hours and were severely overdone.
I know some people like their ribs so done they literally fall of the bone, or even worse, the bone falls out of the meat, but that isn’t the sign of a good, or even decent, rib. In this case, I could not pick up the rib by either the bone or the meat without it just falling apart. Furthermore, while the ribs had a decent smoke flavor to them, they tasted as if they had not at all been seasoned prior to smoking. I appreciate minimal seasoning (like just salt and pepper as in Texas BBQ) or a savory rub (perhaps closer to a Memphis-style rib), but these just really didn’t have much flavor at all. I had been warned by a couple people to expect ribs that almost tasted boiled (which should be a Class D Felony), so my hopes weren’t all that high. In the end, I’d give the ribs a C… I’d call them average.
As for the sides, the macaroni and cheese felt like it had been in the pot for as long as the ribs were on the smoker. The macaroni was so overdone, I was barely even able to pick it up with my fork. It was just mush with cheese on it. The mashed potatoes were pretty good though, so that was slightly redeeming. The two pieces of white bread were just straight out of the bag.
All in all, I’d say Rusty’s BBQ, for all its reputation among the IndyCar faithful, was overrated and average. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a bad experience, but it certainly did make me lose my mind as others might suggest. Just like In-and-Out Burger…
Once we left Rusty’s, it was straight back to the hotel. (Well, not quite straight because George missed the turn to the hotel by about two miles so we got to see a bit more of Hoover, AL than we had expected.) The area we are staying is on US 280 just east of I-459 and heavily populated with restaurants, shopping centers, professional business parks, and hotels.
We are staying at a Holiday Inn Express that is also populated by a handful of race teams from both the NTT IndyCar Series and some of the support series racing this weekend. The hotel was fairly standard fare for an HIE. The beds were comfortable, the breakfast was about what you’d expect, and (most importantly) the shower had plenty of pressure. The decor in both the rooms and the hallways was a bit drag, dark, and dated, so I suppose this hotel will be under renovation within a couple years, but all-in-all, it’s a good place and about a 20-minute drive from Barber.
Even with a 7:00 departure time, I was able to drag myself out of bed this morning by 5:30 to get in a 3.5-mile run. I knew it was going to be hilly, but I was surprised by just how hilly it was. Some of the hills are quite steep here, and gaining 130 feet of elevation in about 1/4 of a mile at upwards of 15% grade was tough for this midwestern guy used to running on nearly flat ground. Nonetheless, I survived and eventually got back to the hotel. I consider it good training for the River to River Relay I am running next Saturday in Southern Illinois!
That’s about it for the report of happenings outside the track. Back at Barber, the Porsche GT3 Cup is currently out now for a short qualifying session before the IndyCars take to the track for Practice 3 at 10:45.
I have posted a large gallery of images to my Facebook page. Please check them out here. I will be sure to post more later in the day after today’s activities.
As always, thanks for following along! Please be sure to comment below or interact with me on Twitter!