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

Up to Speed: Previewing the 2021 Bommarito Automotive Group 500

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

The third and final oval race of an unpredictable NTT IndyCar Series campaign heads to the popular World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. As always, the storylines aren’t lacking with two subjects taking the paddock by storm.

Of course, you have the championship trail which took a wild turn following Alex Palou’s mechanical woes at Indianapolis last Saturday.

With just four rounds remaining, the gap between Palou and second-place Pato O’Ward by 21 points. A further 13 points back is Palou’s teammate Scott Dixon, who struggled in all-around pace with a uncharacteristic 17th place result.

The Chip Ganassi Racing duo will need a massive turnaround if they want to win another Astor Cup. A year ago, O’Ward had a chance of sweeping both races which could make him an early favorite to win Saturday’s 260-lap event.

There’s a catch because this year’s running will be held at night. Both races last August were held during the day and didn’t have support races either. This time, Indy Lights and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will run the 1.25-mile oval and pending on weather, will lay a lot of non-Firestone rubber.

You’ll always have that in the sport, but time will tell how this championship chase will unfold. More so when it’s an oval race like Gateway.

Finally, the biggest headline is the anticipated oval racing debut of Romain Grosjean. The two-time podium finisher will dabble on the the sport’s genuine heartbeat, hoping to have a “strong result.”

An emphasis on “strong result” because despite not running at Texas and the 105th Indianapolis 500, Grosjean is two points behind Scott McLaughlin for Rookie of the Year honors.

Grosjean tested at Gateway last month and right away he knew there’s so much to learn. Especially if he wanted to achieve similar success on this style of racing like Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell did.

“It’s so different from every type of racing I’ve done before. So next week I’m a rookie, a proper rookie. I’ve been named a rookie all year long. I don’t feel like one. Next week I am one,” said Grosjean last Saturday.

“I just want to gradually go for it, improve myself, learn about it. It’s a weird one. The cars drive itself. People are telling you that’ll be fine, and you’re like, what are they talking about; I drive my car. On the ovals I think the car does the work and you control the speed, and it’s quite a bit of a strange feeling.”

With 24 drivers taking the green flag, both honorable battles will be the focal point on a late August evening.

Not only it’ll be both Ed Carpenter and Tony Kanaan’s last start of 2021, but also the last race before heading West to cap off the 16-round odyssey in a span of a month. Any low points can’t be afforded as it could either cost a driver’s chance at a title or further strain their careers with a race team.

By the Numbers

What: Bommarito Automotive Group 500, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 13 of 16

Where: World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway – Madison, IL (Opened: 1967, first INDYCAR event was 1997)

When: Saturday, August 21

TV/Radio: NBCSN 8:00 p.m. EST / Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 205)

Track Size: 1.25-mile oval

Race Length: 260 laps, 500 kilometers

2020 Race Winners: Scott Dixon – No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (Started third, 38 laps led) (Race No. 1) & Josef Newgarden – No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet (Started second, 48 laps led) (Race No. 2)

Track Qualifying Record: Will Power – No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet (23.7206 seconds, 189.709 mph – August 25, 2017)

From the Driver’s Seat

Conor Daly – No. 59 Carlin Chevrolet

“It’s one of my favorite tracks. I couldn’t tell you why. Ever since our very first test day with Foyt, where we were quickest, we kind of all looked at each other, This is weird, not really sure why this is happening.

“I love racing there. Love the way that track challenges us as drivers and challenges these cars. It will be fun. I’m just happy to be racing, honestly, which is nice.

“I know we’re going to be strong. We didn’t get to test. I think we’ll just show up and probably try to beat all the rest of the guys.”

Alexander Rossi – No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda

“We’re really looking forward to this weekend. We had a great test back in July at Gateway. We were one of the few teams that tested there so we have an idea of what kind of the track is going to have for us on a one-day event. The tires are a little bit different for the weekend as well.

“We feel good about kind of our homework that we’ve done and the momentum that the whole organization has. Hopefully can be another strong weekend on Saturday.”

Last Time at Gateway

Race No. 1

Accidents and pit stops were among the many memorable moments in last year’s doubleheader at Gateway. Certainly, it was a weekend mistakes couldn’t be made. Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden, ended up winning those races as a result of not making any mistakes.

Following a gut punching loss at the Indianapolis 500, Dixon came back with vengeance. He scored his fourth and final win of 2020 in Race No. 1 over last year’s 500 champ Takuma Sato and a hard charging Pato O’Ward. Both competitors fought very hard and certainly put on a great show towards the end of the race.

However, it was Dixon’s day as it marked his 50th career IndyCar victory that played a key role in locking up his sixth title at season’s end.

“It was definitely a lot of fun. I think today we kind of just sat there and waited on strategy. Also the pit stops were amazing,” said Dixon.

“Super proud of the team. The whole PNC Bank No. 9 crew were phenomenal and that’s definitely what made it a little bit easier for me. It was definitely quite hard to pass on track. We were kind of cruising a little bit there until we saw Sato coming, had to get going. Obviously started to catch the back of the pack there.”

“Yeah, 50 is huge. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever get 50 INDYCAR wins, and hopefully we keep adding to that.”

Race No. 2

The following day, it was Newgarden’s turn to celebrate. Like Dixon, team performance was essential. More so when he also had to deal with O’Ward during the pivotal moments of the second race.

“It was very close, yeah. Honestly I wasn’t sure, I thought he was going to maybe back out,” said Newgarden. “We were just slightly ahead thanks to my crew. My pit crew has been just unbelievable.

“I don’t even know what to say. I think they’ve been fast or fastest in the majority of races we’ve been in. They’re so good on pit lane. We’ve been dialed in, the way we stop, launch, everything dialed in metrically.”

The duo would fight hard to claim top honors, but the two-time series champion reigned supreme as O’Ward had to settle for second. Another podium, but no victory until this season where he’s won twice.

For Newgarden, it was his 16th career IndyCar victory, equaling Dan Wheldon for wins. He would describe Wheldon, who passed away nearly a decade ago as a “phenomenal ambassador” in the world of racing.

“Right when I was coming up in Indy is when the unfortunate accident happened with Dan,” Newgarden on Wheldon. “I got to spend some time with him in karting when I was a kid. That’s where I kind of became a fan of his. He would come back to the karting tracks, hang out with us.

“Loved seeing the kids coming up. Was very passionate about motorsports overall, not just the top level, but where the new kids were coming in from, going back to his roots with karting.

“What an honor to be at the same wins with him. I never thought one day. I never thought I would be in INDYCAR one day. It’s all kind of cool.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, August 20

  • Indy Lights Race No. 1 (6:20 p.m. – Peacock)

Saturday, August 21

  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice (1:15 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. – Peacock)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. – Peacock)
  • Indy Lights Race No. 2 (6:20 p.m. – Peacock)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (8:00 p.m. – 260 laps, 500 kilometers – NBCSN)

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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.