By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
The third Angie’s List GP of Indy is now in the books, and Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud took the checkered flag, extending his win streak to three. Certainly, Pagenaud’s stellar early season is the hottest story coming out of the famed Brickyard. Here are five other takeaways from Saturday’s action at the track.
1 ) Conor Daly is a boss : On Saturday, Conor Daly led laps in the Verizon IndyCar Series for the third time in his career. Having led in Detroit last season, and at St. Pete earlier this year, he showed significant maturity behind the wheel at the front of the field.
Benefiting from from a well-timed yellow flag, he found himself sitting in second place coming back to green on lap 46. He proceeded to out-brake Helio Castroneves into turn one and grab the lead, to the delight of the crowd. Now, to put this into perspective, this is a 24 year old rookie in the Dale Coyne car, out-maneuvering one of the most experienced drivers in the field.
He managed to pull out a gap that he held through the next cycle of pit stops. Admittedly, he made a rookie mistake by using up all of his ‘push-to-passes’ before the final laps. In his own words, he went through them “like a kid unwrapping gifts at Christmas.”
His day ended in sixth place, unable to hold off Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball in the closing stages, however he now leaps ahead of Max Chilton in the rookie-of-the year standings, heading into the biggest race of the season.
2 ) Passing all through the field: While some of the more recent Verizon IndyCar Series races have been criticized for a lack of passing, this was not one of them. The race featured seven lead changes almost five drivers, but there were more than 100 passes for position throughout the field over the course of the day.
Graham Rahal provided plenty of excitement charging up to fourth place after starting on the back row. Charlie Kimball and James Hinchcliffe battled for position, and Alexander Rossi displayed some nice moves of his own, taking his first top-ten in the series.
Competition was aided by the layout of the track, which features some nice passing zones, particularly coming into turn one. Certainly, Pagenaud was the class of the field, even when he was trailing, and perhaps the win was a foregone conclusion. However the shuffling through the field provided enough action for even the harshest of IndyCar critics.
3 ) Redemption for Hinchcliffe : The past two months of May have not exactly been kind to James Hinchcliffe. At the Angie’s List Grand Prix in 2014, the Canadian driver was struck in the helmet with debris causing a concussion. After being forced to sit out the first two weeks of 500 practice, his race ended up in the wall on lap 175.
Coming back to the Brickyard in 2015, Hinchcliffe suffered life-threatening injuries in a crash during practice. His recovery took him off of the track for the balance of the season. To return to the Speedway after a full year, qualify well, lead laps, and bring home a podium finish is nothing short of astonishing.
When asked if this chapter in his career is now closed, Hinchcliffe responded, “Yeah, honestly in my mind, yeah. For me, such a big part of it was just getting back into a race car. So 99 percent of that for me was done back in September. But you know, to come back here and get back on the practice, and we’ve tested here obviously on the oval and we’re going to be back on the oval in 48 hours, and for me, it’s over and done with. It’s in the past. So far, the present is working out pretty well.”
4 ) Paging Mr. Power…Has anyone seen Will Power?: The Angie’s List Grand Prix was notable for the conspicuous absence of Will Power. Now, I don’t mean physically absent from the car, like he was in St. Pete where he was sidelined with an ear infection. I mean absent from the action at the front of the field.
After faltering in qualifying (which is anomaly for a driver with 42 pole positions to his credit), Power started 12th. He took a quick spin in turn seven in the early going, and changed the front wing on the ensuing pit stop. In the later stages he was assessed a stop-and-go penalty for a pit exit violation. He finished 19th on the day, and fell three spots in the points standings.
In between it felt like he wasn’t even there, the car was miserable in traffic, and he was never a factor in any way shape or form. It looked as if he had just given up, and that is not the Will Power that I am used to. It just seems odd to not see Power in the thick of the action, considering the way he dominated this event one year ago.
Now, this is a guy who has won every year since joining the series in 2008, including a stretch that saw him winning three or more races each season from 2010 – 2014.
Now, five races into the 2016 season, he not only missed the season-opener, but he has watched as his young teammate has usurped him in the role of the Penske driver that brings home the most wins.
Now, I’m no psychologist, but I can imagine that this scenario can be a very demotivating experience for a driver. I can also see it as a highly motivating factor as well. Looking back in recent history, Castroneves truly upped his game when Power joined the Penske team. Now, its Power’s turn to do the same.
5 ) The Grand Prix is a unique fan experience at the Speedway : Now in its third year, the Grand Prix is gaining momentum, and it offers an entirely different experience than the 500.
One year ago, a local Indianapolis newspaper writer wrote a scathing column where he speculated that the Grand Prix was ‘cursed.’ Certainly, the inaugural was marred by a messy crash on a failed standing start, and last year’s event turned into a snoozer when Will Power trounced the field. But cursed? I wondered what the race fans thought.
The 2016 edition race drew a healthy crowd of enthusiastic fans. Sure the crowd was much, much smaller than the 500, and the massive grandstands swallowed them up making the place look pretty empty. But, the fans were there, and with the buildup to the 100th running, and the improvements to the Speedway, the atmosphere was pretty exciting.
In the past I’ve always enjoyed going to the Speedway on a practice day. The traffic is lighter, the lines are shorter, you can browse the souvenir shops and trailers without throngs of people crowed around, and folks aren’t packed into the grandstand like sardines. The Grand Prix offers that more relaxing environment, at the greatest race track on earth, combined with an actual Verizon IndyCar Series race. Throw in some exciting support races, and you have a full day.
I took the opportunity to venture away from the media center, and spend a portion of the day roaming about the grounds and speaking with race fans in various places along the race course. I stopped by the spectator mounds at both ends of the course, and found many folks enjoying their day.
Despite the fact that it was 48 degrees with gusty wind and no sunshine, the fans were having a blast. The grassy hillside offered families the perfect distraction for children that get bored between racing action, as I witnessed several kids rolling down the hills, having races of their own.
In the northwest grandstands, that offer a great view of road course turns one through five, some fans were intently watching the race. Some were cheering on their favorite drivers. Others were engaging in non-racing related extracurricular activities, such as capturing cell-phone videos of one another shotgunning cans of beer.
The one thing that all the folks I spoke with have in common is that they love the Grand Prix. Some were road-racing fanatics that miss Formula One at the speedway, others were long-time 500 attendees who find the GP as a perfect way to start off the Month of May, and for others, it offered a lower-cost Speedway alternative than the 500. For some it was their first experience at a race track.
The Grand Prix is carving put its own little piece of Speedway lore, and the fans hope it will remain for years to come.
Image: Matthew Bishop/Tribute Racing