Once again, the three-headed ownership and promotion team at World Wide Techology Raceway at Gateway of Chris Blair, Curtis Francois, and John Bommarito put on a spectacular event that should be the envy of every other promoter in the NTT IndyCar Series. And for 2019, the race itself lived up to the rest of the event.
Though the track formerly known simply as Gateway put on spectacular promotion and drew big crowds in 2017 and 2018 when IndyCar racing came calling, the new track surface placed in summer 2017 led to single groove, processional racing. This past Saturday night, the track showed it is now fully mature and ready to present some of the best racing to be seen all season long.
IndyCar fans have been clamoring for more ovals since St. Petersburg became the first non-oval IRL event in 2005 and the schedule balance shifted toward road and street courses. Unfortunately, since the introduction of the universal aero kit in 2018, many fans have had a lukewarm reception to the oval product on track. Even the short tracks have been a mixed bag as Iowa generally produced great racing but the single-lane, limited passing at Phoenix ultimately led to the demise of that event.
What fans were given Saturday night just outside of St. Louis was probably the best oval race since the UAK-18 introduction last year. Passing was plentiful but never easy. From the drop of the green flag, it was obvious that the cars were a handful to drive, but it was a fair challenge. Cars that were hooked up well could move forward and make passes without spending dozens of laps stuck behind a car that was obviously slower. It was exactly as oval racing should be!
Nothing was more thrilling than the starts and restarts though. Every time the green flag shone from the flagstand, I was holding my breath for two or three laps as cars sliced and diced from the front of the field to the back. The normal cast of characters – Rossi, Ferrucci, RHR, Tony Kanaan, and a few others – made a habit of spectacular outside moves. Throw in guys like Conor Daly, Simon Pagenaud, and Zach Veach making aggressive moves when necessary and you have the making of excitement all over the place.
Santucci shines again
Make no doubt about it . The star of the show Saturday night was young Santino Ferrucci. The young American, who came back to the US after drawing the ire of many for his immature antics in Europe, once again showed why he might be the most exciting driver on track this year when he refused to be denied by guys like James Hinchcliffe, Bourdais, and Josef Newgarden. Ferrucci probably had the best car all night, and only an unfortunately-timed yellow flag kept him from the podium and possibly victory lane. After blowing by Hinchcliffe for the lead on Lap 83, he continued to lead for many of the following 100 laps.
Ferrucci is not confirmed to a ride for 2020 yet, but whispers are starting to make rounds in the paddock that he could be on the short list for a ride at the newly formed Arrow McLaren Racing SP if he doesn’t return to Dale Coyne Racing. I think Ferrucci has benefited immensely from his season of tutelage under Sebastien Bourdais and engineer Michael Canon. I really hope he stays at DCR, but if AMRSP opens their checkbook, it’s not hard to imagine a number that would quickly meet Ferrucci’s price.
It wasn’t a perfect night for Santino, though, and he greatly ruffled the feathers of championship leader Josef Newgarden in the final turn of the race. Ferrucci got high out of the groove and into the marbles after trying to force a pass for third position on Tony Kanaan. After Ferrucci wisely conceded the corner (and the position) to TK, he wound up way out of the groove and nearly into the wall. As he gathered his car back under him, he returned aggressively to the racing line directly in front of Newgarden. As a result of his evasive action, Newgarden spun his car through Turn 4 near the start of pit lane. Josef luckily managed to avoid hitting the wall and actually ended his spin facing the start/finish line. His car, however, was stuck in the anti-stall mode, and Josef lost several positions as he slowly crept to the checkered flag.
In post race, I thought Newgarden’s comments were classy and restrained while certainly getting his point across. He opened his comments by acknowledging that Ferrucci is a rookie, everyone started as a rookie, and that the kid still has a lot to learn. I was much less impressed with Ferrucci’s response, which basically said, “Yeah, I’m a racer and I’m going to cut him off it that’s what it takes to finish ahead of him at the end of the race.” This seems like a very immature response from someone A.) who has never been in a championship hunt and B.) has never been involved in a big accident on an oval. Thankfully this happened in a fairly slow corner (“only” about 170 mph through Turn 4) instead of somewhere like Indianapolis, Pocono, or Texas. Had Ferrucci pulled this move at one of those tracks, it may well have ended with very dire consequences for both drivers.
Additionally, a wiser, more mature driver would recognize that it was the season championship leader than he was pulling in front of. Nevermind the fact that Newgarden had already conceded the position to Santino twice and didn’t want to race him for positions. Santino needs to understand the bigger picture of the season-long championship. You just don’t pull that move on the championship leader and put yourself in such a position to impact that race. I understand wanting to earn all the points he can for the Rookie of the Year battle, but he needs to understand the bigger picture. In time, hopefully, an older, wiser, and more experienced Ferrucci will make a better choice.
The NTT IndyCar Series Podium, sponsored by Geritol
While kids like Ferrucci, Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward, and even Conor Daly have made waves all season long, Saturday night reminded us that the door isn’t closed on the senior citizens of the NTT IndyCar Series quite yet. The combined age of the podium finishers – Takuma Sato (42), Ed Carpenter (38), and Tony Kanaan (44) – is 124 years. That’s average of 41.3 years and just not something you see very often. Yes, you have to recognize they all got to the front by strategy and a very lucky timed yellow. But once they were there, they were all three very fast, and nobody was able to catch and pass them over the last 44 laps of green flag racing.
Each of these three podium finishers is a wonderful story in themselves. Sato obviously had to spend six days dealing with the fallout of the crash at Pocono which went far beyond what I hope most would consider out-of-bounds, regardless of whether those people felt he was or wasn’t at fault. Ed Carpenter was driving in his final race of 2019, and while results have been respectable (sixth-place finishes at Indianapolis and Pocono, along with a very strong run at Iowa), Ed isn’t in the car for “respectable” finishes and only wants to win races. And Tony Kanaan… to say it’s been a brutal season for TK and the entire AJ Foyt Racing Team would be a massive understatement. Just finishing races these days probably feels like a solid podium finish, so to come out of Gateway with a piece of hardware for a third-place finish has to feel like a win for this team. I’m not sure anyone was happier post race than those guys!
According to statistics guru Russ Thompson, the podium from Saturday night’s race was only tied for 20th in terms of all-time oldest podiums. That is shocking to me, but I guess it just showed how different today’s era of racing is compared to years gone by. According to Thompson, the oldest IndyCar podium ever (at least since the formation of USAC in 1956) appears to be the 1979 Music 500 at Pocono Raceway, which saw AJ Foyt chased to the checkered flag by Jim McElreath and Larry Dixon. The combined age of those three finishers was an astonishing 135 years, averaging 45 years old a piece.
It wasn’t all bunnies and rainbows, though
As much as I’d love to leave these thoughts here and pretend everything was perfect Saturday night, there were still some issues I at least want to point out. The first issue I remember complaining about during the race was the extremely long caution periods throughout the race. Looking back over the box score, it appears that only two cautions were excessively long – the first for Power’s crash (lasting 15 laps) and then for Bourdais’ accident (lasting 13 laps). It seemed at the time, however, that several others went for much longer.
My assumption was that the track was swept for marbles during the two long caution periods. Given the frantic restarts that saw passing high, low, and everywhere in between, it was a good thing the track was swept. It would be great if INDYCAR could find a way to do this much quicker though. The caution periods seemed to go on endlessly.
I thought the caution for Marcus Ericsson’s “brush” with the wall was a bit quick though. I’m not sure he even actually made contact with the wall, but video replays show the caution light out before he even had a chance to regather the car and continue on. Thankfully that caution period was “only” nine laps, but for an incident that, at best, was a very light brush of the wall, that again seemed excessively long.
I continue to advocate that INDYCAR not take pit stops into consideration when determining when a caution period should end. The track should only be under caution until safety teams can clear the track and return to their stations. If teams want to risk pitting and having the track go back to green-flag conditions while they are on pit road, that’s their risk. I strongly feel INDYCAR should return to racing as quickly as possible regardless of whether teams have had a chance to pit or not.
Not only would this philosophy ultimately increase the number of green flag pit stops (which I believe makes pit road considerable safer than having the entire field pit at once under yellow), it would also hopefully avoid a scoring situation like we saw Saturday, where Sato, Kanaan, and Carpenter somehow, suddenly went from also-rans to leading the race.
I, as a die-hard fan, feel I know pretty well the ins-and-outs of racing strategy. Yet even I was perplexed how Sato, Kanaan, and Carpenter ended up in the top 3 positions after the Bourdais accident. Ultimately it made sense once I figured out those three had not yet pitted when the yellow flag flew so they were technically a lap ahead at the time, but if I was a casual fan in the stands who just recently started watching IndyCar racing, I would be terribly confused and probably annoyed. I had seen Ferrucci, Newgarden, Pagenaud, and Bourdais run at the front of the field for nearly 200 laps, and now all of them were suddenly shuffled back in the field.
I don’t know that there is really a good answer to this issue other than eliminating yellow-flag pit stops, but INDYCAR needs to understand how this looks to new fans in the stands. Fans watching on TV finally got an explanation from the NBCSN crew, but those in the stands, I’m sure, were not as fortunate. Strategy is always part of racing, whether on a short oval or a street course, but confusing scoring nuances like this can easily drive away fans who just find it too complicated or confusing to understand.
I’ve got a couple other thoughts that I intend to turn into full length articles here in the coming days or weeks. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to enjoy this race and probably watch it again at some point. All in all, I think this was another fantastic race at World Wide Technology Raceway, by far the best race of the three since the series returned. If the 1.25-mile oval just outside of downtown St. Louis isn’t on your bucket list as an IndyCar fan, get it on there quickly!!