Photo: Chris Jones/INDYCAR

Santoroski: Five Takeaways from the KOHLER Grand Prix

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

After tremendous anticipation, the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America for the Verizon IndyCar Series is now in the books. At the end of the day, it was Team Penske driver Will Power who led from pole and took the victory. Looking back, here are five takeaways from the days action.

1 ) The event was everything we had hoped it would be

The last time Indy cars graced the Wisconsin countryside was 2007. With its high speed corners, long front straight, and a lap length in excess of four miles, Road America is indeed North America’s premier road racing facility. With the exception of the historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, the return to Road America was the most anticipated race on the 2016 schedule. Fans came out in droves to support the race, estimated at over 100,000 for the weekend, and the series did not disappoint.

Of course, it is hard to go wrong, looking at what the Elkhart Lake track has to offer. For the fan, there are many different viewing areas available, with the opportunity to move around throughout the day. Sufficient runoff areas allow the drivers to utilize every inch of the race track, and a little more when necessary. Combine this with the best trackside food offered anywhere, and its a win.

The race itself was a good one too.  Sure, Will Power ran away from the field and his lead was uncontested, save for a futile final lap surge from Tony Kanaan, but the battles through the field all-race long were incredible.

Juan Pablo Montoya put it best when he said, ” This place is incredible, it’s just amazing. If anyone complains about the racing today, then they should just go watch horse racing or something. ”

2 ) Newgarden is a Boss

Two weeks removed from an accident that landed him in the hospital, ECR Racing’s Josef Newgarden was back behind the wheel at Road America. Knowing fully that he will be on the sidelines when the postponed Texas race resumes in August, there was a sense of urgency to score points at Road America.

Newgarden suffered a broken clavicle and a fracture to his right hand, but he managed to convince his doctors to clear him for practice.  While the shoulder injury only proved to be only mildly bothersome, it was the right hand that caused the Tennessee-born driver considerable pain. Because the Indycars do not have power steering, and the aerokits produce a significant amount of front downforce, a venue like Road America offers a tremendous physical challenge for a driver. In fighting through the pain, Newgarden clearly demonstrated that he is one of the toughest out there.

He was forced to start near the back of the field after spinning during qualifying, but ran a tremendously aggressive race, becoming embroiled in a fantastic battle with Juan Pablo Montoya in the closing stages en route to an 8th place finish. Quite impressive, all things considered.

3 ) Dear Simon, Will Power is coming to get you

If history tells us anything, once Will Power get on a roll, he is hard to stop. After missing the season-opener with an inner-ear infection, and putting up lousy finishes in the Angie’s List Grand Prix and at Detroit Race One, the Team Penske driver has now taken two consecutive wins vaulting himself up into the third spot in the season standings.

His quest for a second championship was aided by an early exit from the event by Chip Ganassi driver, Scott Dixon, who fell from second to fourth in points. Series points-leader Simon Pagenaud, who is a teammate to Will Power, looked poised to add to his points lead. Pagenaud was running second to Power in the closing stages until a misfiring engine dropped him to 13th.

With Helio Castroneves now in second place, Team Penske holds the top three spots in the Championship with seven races remaining. Will Power, the 2014 series champion, still faces a tremendous uphill battle and he seems up to the challenge. Even with a 74-point lead, Simon Pagenaud can not afford to take a conservative approach with Power running in top form.

4 ) Pit exit issues 

Pit stops always produce tense moments for a team, and there is a definite sense of urgency to rejoin the track ahead of your rivals. The problem with Road America is that the pit lane exits towards the end of the front straightaway, into one of the fastest sections of the race course.

While drivers are instructed not to exit right into the racing line, we saw a number of incidents where that ‘suggestion’ was ignored. It was not only ignored by some of the drivers, but it also appeared to be ignored by race control. The most blatant of these incidents came from Graham Rahal who inserted himself directly in front of Tony Kanaan, who was flying towards turn one at top speed. After braking hard, Kanaan was able to muscle around Rahal, and there was no review from race control.

While none of these incidents resulted in any type of contact, the potential was there. Perhaps the pit exit can be modified in the future. However, the simpler solution would be for someone in race control to take a harder look at how the drivers are blending into the field.

5 ) Under achievers

A podium consisting of Will Power, Tony Kanaan, and Graham Rahal on a road course is not surprising at all. The Road America circuit, however, has a history of producing some surprises at the front of the order. One might have expected the Kohler Grand Prix to favor some of the drivers with recent European experience, like Max Chilton, Alexander Rossi or even Jack Hawksworth.

While all three showed moments of promise over the course of the weekend, they were all left with rather unremarkable results. Chilton actually wasn’t doing too bad in the race, running in the top ten, but a miscalculation by his team saw him run out of fuel entering the pit lane. With a four mile lap, and an uphill pit lane entrance, this is the last track that you want to run out of fuel on. Chilton would finish 20th, the last car running.

Rossi got off to a good start, but an extra stop to change the front wing put him out of contention. His resulting 15th place finish dropped him from fifth in the points standings all the way back to tenth.

Hawksworth, who is having a miserable 2016 season, realistically had the fastest car of the three. After spinning on the opening lap and rejoining in last place, he was passing cars left and right to regain some position. He soon found that his tires were wearing quicker than normal, which once again dropped him back. A drive through penalty for a pit lane speed violation further compounded his efforts. After a late yellow, and with sticker red (alternate) tires, he once again charged forward picking up three positions on the restart. While the eventual 11th place finish was not indicative of the potential he had, it is actually his best finish of the season.

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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,

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