Photo: Walter G. Arce, Sr./ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: GMR Grand Prix Preview

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

The NTT IndyCar Series will make its first of three stops at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this season on a historic Independence Day weekend as NASCAR will also make the trip to the landmark Indiana circuit as part of the televised billed “Indy Doubleheader.”

The grand prix will kick-off the “Indy Doubleheader” as the Xfinity Series will have its inaugural race on the road course following the 80-lap race. Meanwhile, the Cup Series will be the first major race on the 2.5-mile oval as they’re hosting the 27th running of the Brickyard 400 July 5.

While crowds aren’t allowed to attend due to the pandemic, NBC have gone all-in with the race weekend and for the second straight race, the big boy network will air the INDYCAR race.

INDYCAR will race the road course that once hosted Formula One’s United States Grand Prix from 2000-07 for the seventh time.

Ever since the first race at the 2.439-mile road course in 2014, there has been two trends which are all but one race has been won by Team Penske and only two competitors taking the top step of the podium which are defending race winner Simon Pagenaud and Will Power each having three wins to their name.

Also, the previous six installments of the newly titled GMR Grand Prix has been a part of “The Month of May,” but with COVID-19 altering the schedule, it’s resulted of having three races at Indy in a span of four months.

Not only that, it’ll be the first time since the 1999 IRL finale at Texas Motor Speedway that an Indy car racing grid won’t feature a Brazilian as AJ Foyt Racing’s Tony Kanaan will only run the ovals in his final INDYCAR campaign. Indy Lights veteran Dalton Kellett will make his debut in the sport’s highest level for Foyt.

The biggest subject going into Indy is that it’ll start the busiest month with three circuits (Indy RC, Road America and Iowa) hosting five races in 15 days time.

Therefore, the contenders will begin to pop up while the pretenders will have a long road ahead of them. It’ll be wise to pay close attention of how the drivers will fare Saturday as they’ll hit the road circuit in October as the INDYCAR Harvest GP will be penultimate round of the championship trail.

There’s lot at steak despite just being the second race of 2020 as 26 drivers will be fighting for stellar results on Independence Day.

By the Numbers

What: GMR Grand Prix, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 2 of 14

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course – Speedway, Indiana (Opened: 2000, first INDYCAR event was 2014)

When: Saturday, July 4

TV/Radio: NBC 12:00 p.m. EST / Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 211)

Track Size: 2.439-mile road course

Race Length: 80 laps, 195.12 miles

2019 Race Winner: Simon Pagenaud – No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet (Started eighth, five laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Will Power – No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet (67.7044 seconds, 129.687 mph – May 12, 2017)

From the Driver’s Seat

“I love the road course at Indy. I love the racing opportunity it brings. We know it’s going to be hard to beat Team Penske there as usual, but it’s going to be a fun challenge. It’s going to be great just to get back on track on a road course, fight with everyone,” said Conor Daly, who’ll be making his first start with Ed Carpenter Racing.

“There’s a lot of entries as well. We’ve obviously got some one-off entries. It’s great to see some other people in the field again, like Sage Karam and stuff like that. It’s going to be cool to just get back out, get on the road course, let these cars live a little bit at Indianapolis and just have a good weekend.”

Last Time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course

Unlike previous editions of the GMR Grand Prix, last year’s running had some intriguing moments that brought life to an otherwise negative received annual event. Thanks in most part of the wet conditions resulting a brilliant drive by one former champion who was looking to save his racing career.

That man was Simon Pagenaud, who appeared to have a bleak future with Team Penske following a winless 2018 season. He wouldn’t pop up in the race-winning battle until late in the race as he had to avoid the mayhem and having the right pit strategy to put himself in prime position for a race win.

Beforehand, the team who owned the competition was Chip Ganassi Racing as Felix Rosenqvist and Scott Dixon led a combined total of 54 of 85 laps, hoping to join Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as the only team not named Team Penske to win the GP.

It appeared it was going to be the team’s day as Dixon would take control for much of the afternoon following a lockup by Rosenqvist in Turn 2 on Lap 16. Rosenqvist’s chaotic day would literally lit up twice as his No. 10 NTT Data Honda was on fire on pit road but still ended up with an eighth-place result.

The second half of the race was when the track became damped, forcing competitors to go for Firestone wets. Even that option bit some competitors such as Helio Castroneves, who went off into the gravel in Turn 2 and brought out a full course caution on Lap 59.

The race came down to the final 17 laps and that’s when Pagenaud shined bright as he emulated his racing idol Ayrton Senna by navigating through the field in the rain. With six laps remaining, he got by Jack Harvey in Turn 2 for the runner-up spot and was on the charge to catch Dixon, who had a 5+ second lead.

The Frenchman needed two laps to catch Dixon, but the winning move took an additional two laps following a rare Dixon error as he went wide in Turn 7. Pagenaud made the most of it, passing Dixon in Turn 9 and for the first time since Sonoma in 2017, the 2016 champ won an INDYCAR race.

“Honestly, in the last two laps to go, I almost started out saving second, and then all of a sudden I realized, ‘Wait, I’ve got too much pace for this,'” Pagenaud on the final two laps.

“We caught Scott by a lot – and I guess you call it the penultimate lap, the one before the last – and I realized that I had a shot, but I was out of push-to-pass, so my only chance was to get him on the infield. But quite frankly, none of the passes I made today I planned. I just drove with full instinct mode, and it worked out.”

Pagenaud added that once the rain kicked in, fuel strategy wasn’t a concern and while not having knowledge of how the road course handled in wet conditions, he went full attack mode in order to get his third Indy GP victory.

“I had no knowledge of the track, no knowledge of our setup in the rain. I thought, ‘OK, the sports cars have been racing a lot in the rain.’ A lot of racing in the rain, so I thought, ‘I’m just going to attack right away and see,'” said Pagneaud.

“Right away I noticed our car was much better now that it’s on the braking, so I could really attack and get the tires hot quickly and that’s how I jumped a lot of people right away, and then I gained confidence. Then, I noticed that other people were struggling with tire wear and we didn’t. So then I kept on pushing, but was still trying to keep the tires underneath me.

“It was just incredible to see the pace we had in the rain conditions. I took a lot of risks for sure, maybe more than Dixon needed to take some risk because we were in a position where I can take some risks right now, and the car was so good that I just gave it 100 percent, 100 percent every lap.”

Pagneaud may have only led five laps, but it was the final green flag run that started a historic “Month of May” for the Penske racer. Following the grand prix, Pageanud went on to win the Indianapolis 500 pole and joined Rene Thomas (1914) as the only Frenchman drivers to win the Indianapolis 500.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, July 3

  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice (11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. – NBC Sports Gold)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. – NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold)

Saturday, July 4

  • NTT IndyCar Series Warmup (9:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. – NBC Sports Gold)
  • NTT IndyCar Series GMR Grand Prix (12:00 p.m. – 80 laps, 195.12 miles – NBC)

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. He's also covered Idaho Athletics and high school football as both a writer and videographer. Additionally, he spent 2017 writing several racing columns as an independent journalist. Luis does video and photography, and is a fan of Seattle sports, a music critic and a motivator who wants to impact people's lives.