Photo: Walter G. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Preview

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

It might’ve taken the NTT IndyCar Series a month later to kickoff the 2021 campaign, but the time has finally come. While the season won’t start at St. Petersburg, another fan favorite circuit known as Barber, will certainly fill the void.

The unique 2.3-mile circuit will be the site of what may be viewed as a stacked roster consisting of established IndyCar stars, guys looking for a career revival, and former champions across multiple disciplines.

No question, all 24 drivers have one vision and that’s delivering the best result on opening Sunday. Under ideal circumstances, be the man winning in Alabama.

In the case of IndyCar rookie Jimmie Johnson, survival is crucial and even compared Barber to another notable Alabama track.

“I think that the intensity that comes with Barber — you go to Talladega, you’re always fearful of something happening or a big crash and all that kind of thing,” said the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion.

“But Barber is such an intense track that to start things off, although I might be near a track that I raced at in Talladega, I’m going to have my hands full.

“That is such a tough track to get around. I’m going to test there again next Tuesday, so I’m thankful to get another try at the track to try to be on pace and in the mix. It’s a demanding, demanding racetrack.”

Time will tell who’ll stand out in the first of a 17-round championship trail, but the excitement Barber provides will produce a show.

By the Numbers

What: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 1 of 17

Where: Barber Motorsports Park – Birmingham, Alabama (Opened: 2003, first INDYCAR event was 2010)

When: Sunday, April 18

TV/Radio: NBC, 3:00 pm ET / INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 211)

Track Size: 2.3 mile road course

Race Length: 90 laps, 207 miles

Recent Race Winner (2019): Takuma Sato – No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda (Started first, 74 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Sebastien Bourdais – No. 11 KVSH Racing Chevrolet (66.6001 seconds, 124.324 mph – April 23, 2016)

From the Driver’s Seat

Graham Rahal – No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

“Barber repaved, it’s grippy, it’s fast, it’s silky smooth, so that was a good test I think of everybody’s fitness. I saw (Romain) Grosjean and I said, ‘What do you think of Laguna (Seca)?’ He said, It was nice because I actually felt like I could turn the steering wheel, just the grip level between the two. Barber is going to be a test of everybody’s mettle when we get back there.”

Romain Grosjean No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing w/ Rick Ware Racing Honda

“That’s the hardest track of the year, which is always good to start with so you have a baseline of what it’s going to be like. But yeah, I think I can fine-tune my training. I didn’t know really what to expect, and now it’s pretty clear.”

Last Time at Barber

Barber Motorsports Park was one of multiple venues canceled due to the pandemic, thus several race previews will reflect on the races from 2019. Anyhow, the last time the series competed in Alabama was all about Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal locked the front row in the 90-race odyssey and right out of the gate, drama ensued.

At the back of the grid, there was a lock up and Ed Jones blew by the field. Race Control deemed it as a jumped start and had to serve a pit penalty. Jones would finished a lap down in 19th.

Rahal would have a series of problems, notably electrical which made him one of two retirees from the race. His No. 15 Honda went to a complete stop in Turn 15 and shortly thereafter, Max Chilton went into the tire barriers.

Chilton was cut off by Tony Kanaan at pit entry, resulting in a dangerous incident. Fortunately for Chilton, he was able to continue, but ended up 22nd as it turned to be the only full course caution.

Aside from a slow pit stop on Lap 18 and going off late in the race, Sato’s afternoon was nearly flawless, leading a race-high 74 of 90 laps en route to his first of two wins that year. It was certainly one of his finest performances of his long racing career, thanking the team for their role.

“It’s probably the cleanest race that I ever won, and again, big thank you to the team,” said Sato. “Without their support, we wouldn’t able to push this much hard, and I think the engineers did a fantastic job.

“I think we come here with the hopes, always does, that honestly physically never really, really expected to be this much of a domination, be able to do it. But all the conditions and whatever you call it, I think all the environment was really, really helping for us, and today I think showing such a domination, that was a superb feeling. So, I’m just really, really excited.”

Finishing behind Sato was Scott Dixon, who scored his sixth runner-up finish at Barber. Even after Sato sustained minor front damage, he was still 2.387 seconds shy of finally breaking through. Not only that, he had fight off Sebastien Bourdais at the very end with tire degradation being plentiful.

“We started off where we could push really hard and be really quick and close the gap,” said Dixon. “Even on some of those crossovers in the pits we were able to hone in on both Graham and Sato early on in the race. But the last 10 laps were just miserable.

“On that last run, I just tried to hold a steady gap to (Sato), and from there, I have to thank the team. The PNC Bank guys were very strong in the pits (and) we jumped Sebastien in the pits. He drove a hell of a race and went really far on that first stint. (Bourdais) was good on (tire degradation).

“Another second. Hopefully, we can try and get a win here one day.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Saturday, April 17

  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice 1 (11:00 am to 11:45 am – Peacock)
  • Indy Lights – Race 1 (1:05 pm to 2:15 pm – Peacock)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice 2 (2:40 pm to 3:25pm – Peacock)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (5:50 pm to 7:10 pm – Peacock (Live)/NBCSN (10:00 pm))

Sunday, April 18

  • NTT IndyCar Series Warm-Up (11:30 am to Noon – Peacock)
  • Indy Lights – Race 2 (1:10 pm to 2:20 pm – Peacock)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3:00 pm – 90 laps, 207 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 and a four-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.