Much like the salad bar at a Brazilian steakhouse that’s really good more because of its location rather than its actual quality, the NTT IndyCar Series kicks off its 16 days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend with the eighth running of the GMR Grand Prix on the 2.439-mile IMS road course. While most people inside the paddock, and certainly a large majority of fans outside the paddock, have already turned their attention to May 29’s Indianapolis 500, there is still business to be conducted beforehand, and the GMR Grand Prix serves as that last hurdle to clear before practice for the big race starts next Tuesday.
The Smart Money
Generally speaking, handicapping this event is pretty easy. Go with either Will Power or Simon Pagenaud. The former teammates have combined to win six of the seven previous runnings of this race, five of which came under the Team Penske banner. Only last year’s victor, Rinus Veekay, has managed to break the stranglehold that Power and Pagenaud have had on this event. That isn’t to say that either of those drivers is a shoe-in for Saturday’s race though.
In last year’s race, neither driver of the aforementioned duo managed to crack the Top 5 at race’s end. Simon Pagenaud, still driving for Team Penske at the time, came home sixth, well ahead of Will Power in eleventh position. However, Team Penske in 2022 comes into the Month of May much stronger than they were last year, and Power is the only driver in the field to crack the Top 4 in all four race thus far this season.
Conversely, Pagenaud has largely struggled in his new ride at Meyer Shank Racing. A single Top 10 effort at Texas Motor Speedway may bode well for the Indianapolis 500, but finishes of 15, 19, and 11 in the three road/street course races will probably not inspire an abundance of confidence for the Frenchman heading into one of his strongest events.
So where does one look beyond the obvious answers of Power and Pagenaud? For starters, look at last year’s pole sitter – Romain Grosjean. The second year driver started first and finished second in his IMS debut a year ago and returns this year with the powerhouse Andretti Autosport team. The Swiss-born Frenchman has been knocking on the door of a major breakthrough as evidenced by three Top-10 finishes this year, including a strong runner-up finish at Long Beach. His ascension to the second step of last year’s podium was one of the feel-good stories of the year as he continued to battle back from a life-threatening crash the previous fall in Bahrain. I would be shocked in Romain is not a strong contender this weekend.
Another driver I expect to be in contention this weekend is Grosjean’s young stablemate, Colton Herta. While his early season results don’t show how strong Herta has been at times, the second-generation driver was dominant through much of the Long Beach weekend before an unforced error relegated him to another distant finish, not at all dissimilar to his experience last year in Nashville. Herta still needs to learn how to be a championship contender, but there is no doubt he knows how to be a winner. If he can survive an almost certain first turn melee, this is the type of race he could settle in and dominate.
I also expect that Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin will continue his strong start to the season. McLaughlin comes to Indianapolis second in the points, only three points behind Alex Palou, with a win, a pole, a pair of Top 5 finishes, a trio of Top 10s, and 235 laps led of 523 total laps this season (48.6%). With the entire Team Penske operation running strong and seemingly returning to its pre-2020 form, there is no reason to suspect McLaughlin won’t be strong both this weekend and in his second effort at the Indianapolis 500 in a couple weeks.
Will Ganassi continue to struggle?
If there is a track where the Chip Ganassi Team struggles, it seems to be the IMS Road Course. The team has only managed a single victory on the Road Course, that being Scott Dixon’s 2020 victory when the NTT IndyCar Series played second fiddle to NASCAR during the July Brickyard weekend. The results for the two IndyCar weekends in 2021 were honestly bewildering.
During the GMR Grand Prix, still newcomer Alex Palou managed to eek out a third place finish (which somehow still managed to surprise us in spite of Palou’s victory earlier that year at Barber and strong showings at other early races). Behind Palou, teammate Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson could only manage finishes of ninth and tenth. (Their third teammate, Jimmie Johnson, finished 24th, but… yeah….)
The team’s August results were worse with Ericsson again coming home ninth, Dixon 17th, Johnson 19th, and Palou 27th of 28 entries. (To be fair, Palou was running fourth when his Honda engine expired on Lap 68 of 85.)
Why a team as strong as Ganassi has perpetually struggled on this track is a mystery. Nonetheless, I think those struggles will come to an end this year. I won’t be at all shocked if Alex Palou wins this race. I also won’t be shocked if we never really hear Alex’s name during the race and he manages to somehow finish the race third. As I have written about previously, Alex has an uncanny way of being invisible throughout a race and suddenly finding himself securing a lot of points at the end of the day. And that is how you win many championships.
For my sleeper pick, if you can consider a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner a sleeper, I think it’s worth taking a look at Takuma Sato, especially if rain becomes a factor on race day. Somehow the Dale Coyne cars always find a way to work themselves forward during the race, and Sato’s aggressiveness can pay off handsomely on a track like this. Takuma hasn’t had a lot of success on the IMS road course over the years, but something tells me he just might be one to watch this weekend.
Heading to the track?
If you haven’t been to the GMR Grand Prix, it has an interesting vibe to it. Unfortunately, my schedule usually doesn’t allow me to attend the race in person and won’t allow me to do so again this year. But when I have been, I have definitely felt that it is something of an overlooked event. While it is presented as a regular IndyCar event and teams certainly want to perform at their very best, it has always just had a feeling about it that everyone was kind of going through the motions and just ready to get through it to focus on what’s coming next. And I’m not so sure that isn’t actually part of the reason this event exists.
No matter what venue hosts the event immediately before the Indianapolis 500, the event is going to be a little overlooked and overshadowed by the 500. It felt that way before when the IndyCar Series had races at Kansas Speedway, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Barber Motorsports Park, and others. No matter what the event, people know the 500 is on the horizon, and as soon as the checkered flag falls, all attention is squarely on the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. In a way, the GMR Grand Prix feels like a sacrificial lamb so that the current preceding race at Barber doesn’t have to feel that stigma. It still gets a bit of that feeling that people focus on going to Indianapolis afterwards, but with the GMR Grand Prix sitting as a buffer between the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama and the Indianapolis 500, the good folks in Alabama don’t get quite as overlooked as they would without the Indy GP.
Because of that overlooked feeling, the atmosphere for the GMR Grand Prix is actually quite relaxed and enjoyable. You don’t have the massive and crushing crowds that are present for the 500, nor does there feel like such a rush to ancillary events. It doesn’t quite have the party-like feeling of Carb Day, but it feels like a bigger event than 500 qualifying weekend. As the crowd is mostly local, getting hotel and restaurant reservations are generally much easier as well.
In the several runnings of this race that I have been to, I have really enjoyed taking advantage of the general admission option and checking out various vantage points throughout the infield sections of the course. The first year I attended, we planted ourselves in the Turns 7-8-9 complex and got a great view of many drivers trying to out-brake each other coming off Hulman Boulevard just north of the IMS Museum.
In subsequent years, I have watched the race from the spectator mounds near Turn 2. This area gives a great view of the opening lap chaos that tends to ensue and has the added benefit of having ample viewing monitors close by to keep track of all the action you can’t see personally. In my opinion, the mounds on the infield side of Turn 2 are the best place to watch this race. Give them a try – you won’t be sorry!
Festivities for the 8th GMR Grand Prix kick off bright and early this morning with NTT IndyCar Series practice session 1 going green at 9:30AM EDT and running for 60 minutes. That will be followed by another hour-long practice session at 12:45PM and qualifying at 4:00.
Sunday’s schedule sees a 30-minute warmup at 10:30. The green flag is scheduled to fly for the race at 3:00PM. All sessions will be broadcast live on Peacock Premium with the main event running live on Network NBC.
In addition to the NTT IndyCar Series, the entire Road to Indy will be partaking in activities this weekend. While their schedules are a bit all over the place, the first three Indy Lights session all immediately follow the conclusion of IndyCar sessions by 15 minutes. Races for Indy Lights will be on Peacock Premium today at 5:30PM and tomorrow at 1:15.
You can also follow all IndyCar and Indy Lights sessions with IndyCar Radio at IndyCar.com/Radio.