Photo: Jim Haines / INDYCAR

SANTOROSKI: Five Takeaways from the INDYCAR Grand Prix

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

The Month of May 2017 for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is officially underway, and the fourth annual INDYCAR Grand Prix is now in the books. Team Penske’s Will Power put on a road racing clinic, dominating both qualifying and the race en route to his first victory of the season. Here are a few thoughts after round five for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series.

1 ) Differing Opinions Part 1: Quality of the Race

After taking a day to digest the many social media fan comments surrounding this event, there is a huge divide in opinion among those that attended the race, and those that tuned in to ABC-TV. This is not uncommon. Everything is better in person, thus the term, “I guess you had to be there.”

This time around, however, the opinions are so divided regarding the quality of the racing, the necessity of the event, and even the size of the crowd, that you would have thought that they were watching two different races.

Yes, the only passes for the lead occurred on pit road, and Power was basically unchallenged all day long. You can call it a masterful performance, or you can call it “stinking up the show.” The race ran caution-free, so it was devoid of any manufactured drama, just a pure road race from start to finish. I can see that some would find it boring or perhaps even tedious.

I get it, an edge of your seat, wheel-banging, battle for the lead would have been awesome to see. At the same time, I grew up in and around road racing, and I can appreciate a race like this.  Maybe that puts me in the minority, and maybe that doesn’t create the highlight reels and buzz that the series needs to grow.

Does it create new fans? When I was a kid, in one of the first races I went to, Peter Gregg lapped the entire field in his Porsche at Lime Rock. It helped make me a fan for life, but that was many years ago, and I’m not sure that this would have the same effect on today’s youth.

Now, I did say that Phoenix was a snoozer, and you may be wondering what is the difference. At Phoenix, passing was close to impossible due to the aero-package. At Indianapolis, the cars were perfectly capable of passing one another, its just that Will Power was on rails and had the field covered. That’s the difference.

Behind Power, overall it was not a bad show. It was far from the bland affair that some are calling it. There were numerous spirited drives, nose-to-tail action, and bold passes through the field that the spectators saw up-close and personal, while ABC-TV focused their cameras on something else.

2) Differing Opinions Part 2: Is this a Necessary Event?

This race was added to the Verizon IndyCar schedule in 2014, one year after the novel concept of double-headers came about. The double-header weekends in Detroit, Toronto and Houston were a clever way to expand the amount of races on the schedule without adding additional travel and transportation costs to the teams. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis (as it was known then) had the same effect, as the teams were already set up at the Speedway for the month of May. Adding another points-paying event not only expanded the schedule, but also served to somewhat fill the missing void left over from a second weekend of qualifications that vanished some years prior.

Believe it or not, some IndyCar old-timers hate this race because it somehow trounces on traditions. These would be the same folks that like to remind you that pole day used to draw 100,000 fans. Times change, and treating the Speedway as a hallowed ground that should remain rooted in the past went out the window more than 20 years ago.

Others like the event, but would rather see it moved to later in the season. Understandably, there are many that cannot afford two race weekends so close together, or cannot take two weekends off from work in the same month. Making the Grand Prix a stand-alone may actually add some luster to the event, rather than its current status as an under-card.

My experiences at the INDYCAR Grand Prix have been quite positive, as it is a very fun event. The atmosphere is much more relaxed, the drivers are filled with anticipation of the coming weeks, and, with a lighter crowd than the 500, the lines for everything (restrooms, concessions, souvenirs, etc) are shorter. The Speedway has done a fine job of making it a family-friendly event with a lot of extras, including the popular track invasion, while offering a very reasonable price of admission.

It’s a thumbs up in my book, but if you are watching from the couch, you can’t feel that vibe. This is one that television does absolutely no justice.

3 ) Differing Opinions Part 3: Attendance

Comments I have read regarding the attendance ran the gamut from a television viewer who said there were “less than 100 people” to raceday spectators that estimated 45-55 thousand on hand. Both are wrong, but the answer lies somewhere in between, closer to the high estimate.

If you are looking at the empty front stretch grandstand for fans, you won’t find them there. That’s no place to watch a road race. In fact, most of those seats, save for the upper deck, are not even offered for sale.  The Northwest Vista and the J Grandstand, which offer a nice view of the cars heading into the turn one complex, had plenty of fans as did the the E Grandstand on the opposite end of the track. The bulk of the fans, however, were on the infield spectator mounds and bleachers.

The camera angles caught a lot of the empty seats on television, leading some to believe that we have another Phoenix, Pocono or Fontana going on. That is simply not the case. By many accounts, attendence was up from previous years, and the weather was fantastic. Remember, the Speedway has more than 200,000 permanent seats, 30-40 thousand fans showing up is kind of like putting three quarts of water in a 55 gallon drum, it’s still gonna look empty.

4 ) Curious Strategy 

With Will Power taking the victory, he joins his Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud as 2017 race winners. This leaves Helio Castroneves as the only full-time Penske driver without a win on the season. This mirrors his results in 2015 and 2016, although he shows consistent speed and remains a threat to win nearly every week.

I can’t imagine what the thought process was behind the choice of tire strategy for Castroneves on Saturday. He started on sticker red Firestones, switched to scuff reds, and finished on scuffed blacks. The red tire is softer, faster but less durable. The harder blacks produce an overall slower lap time, but do not fall off as quickly as the reds.

Conventional wisdom tells you to save the sticker reds for the final segment, as every other car on the grid did. Castroneves was second after the final round of pit stops, but lost positions to Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud fading all the way back to fifth when the checkers flew. Post-race, both Dixon and Hunter-Reay described Castroneves as a “sitting duck.”

The only way that this strategy would make sense is that the team somehow felt that Helio would have built up an insurmountable gap during his first two stints. Well, that wasn’t the case, and this is not the first time that Helio has been on the short end of the stick when it comes to team strategy. For whatever reason, every time Penske wants to try something outside the box, Helio is the guinea pig, and it has cost him in the win department.

Had it paid off, they might have looked like geniuses, but, as we saw, there is a very good reason that nobody else gave that a try.

5 ) Concerns for Honda

Sebastien Bourdais had a pretty good season going on until recently. He failed to complete a lap at Phoenix after getting bottled up in a wreck, and didn’t made it around the Indianapolis road course once before his Honda engine bit the dust. Honda, and Chevrolet for that matter, have had an excellent record of reliability.

Perhaps Bourdais’ engine failure should not raise much of a red flag, as the rest of the Honda’s performed admirably, with two finishing on the podium. However, we have seen a string of electrical system problems plague the Andretti team at Long Beach. We know that Honda has worked very hard in the off-season with improvements to the engine, and sometimes these things just happen.

With the current Honda engine yet to be proven in a 500 mile race, is there cause for concern in the Honda camp? We will find out in a few weeks.

Next up for the Verizon IndyCar Series will be the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28.

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,