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

Up to Speed: Previewing the 2021 Grand Prix of Portland

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

After not having an NTT IndyCar Series on the West Coast for the first time since 1946 last year, the region will be the final destination for the next three weeks.

The first leg of the West Coast Swing begins at Portland International Raceway where the news continue to be endless.

Among the 27-car field, there’ll be another debutant in American Open Wheel Racing, driving for a team that’s making its series return. That being former Formula 2 driver Callum Ilott, who’ll drive for the rebranded Juncos Hollinger Racing that hasn’t been on the grid since 2019.

The young Brit who has spent time with Formula One’s Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN’s as co-reserve driver, recently tested at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. One of the grand challenges coming up is setting up realistic goals that could help him deliver a promising performance in front of an enthused Northwest crowd.

“We will work as we should. We’ve got to be focused and get what we can,” said Ilott. “Portland is a small track, but it doesn’t look easy. It’s tough, very tight. I’m focused and I don’t care what people’s expectations of me are. People know how fast I can be. Once we get it right, whether it’s in Portland or afterwards, we’ll see.”

Towards the front of the field, the championship trail took another dramatic turn at Gateway last month. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou and Scott Dixon were collected in a multi-car crash, putting them in a hole on their Astor Cup aspirations.

Through the smoke, Josef Newgarden thrusted himself into the title mix following a vital win in the oval finale. Right behind Newgarden that late-August night was Pato O’Ward, the current championship leader.

No driver from Mexico has ever led the trail this late into the season as he’ll enter Portland with a 10-point lead on Palou. In spite of the fierce campaign, O’Ward isn’t thinking about what’s went down to much and it won’t change anytime soon.

“A lot can shift in one race, as we saw (at Gateway),” said O’Ward. “You just always try to maximize every session you’re in. Whether it’s practice, qualifying, race. The race counts way more than others. Yeah, you kind of just have to weigh it out and understand who you’re racing against.”

With three races in three weeks across two different states on the West Coast, the competition will continue to heat up. More so, when the season is near its end.

By the Numbers

What: Grand Prix of Portland, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 14 of 16

Where: Portland International Raceway – Portland, OR (Opened: 1960, first INDYCAR event was 1984)

When: Sunday, September 12

TV/Radio: NBC 3:00 p.m. EST / Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 205)

Track Size: 1.964-mile road course

Race Length: 110 laps, 216.04 miles

2019 Race Winner: Will Power – No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet (Started second, 52 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Will Power – No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet (57.2143 seconds, 123.577 mph – September 1, 2018)

From the Driver’s Seat

Sebastien Bourdais – No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet

“This race can obviously be a race strategy that can be quite interesting. Fuel can often at times come into play. The nature of the track being a very short track, there are a lot of laps, and to save a lap, two laps, three laps is not out of the question.

“It’s definitely one of those races that’s been played out in fuel saving mode sometimes pretty aggressively. Surely ’18 was. ’19 there was some drama, as well. I think it’s never really a boring race, and with the number of cars you increase the chances of these things happening, it’s definitely going to be one to watch.”

Takuma Sato – No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda

“Certainly, it’s a special place for me and the team. It was my first win for the team back in 2018. It was a special day. Portland is a flat track and possibly shorter medium length than the other courses. It’s quite challenging because it has a quite fast chicane before the last corner.

“I think most drivers find it tough getting it right. You need carry a lot of speed through there. You’ll see some braking into the last corner wide. Good straight line and heavy braking in Turn 1, which is a great passing point. Then you basically go to a complex section where there’s a double apex corners. It’s a fun, challenging track.”

Last Time at Portland

Since IndyCar returned to Portland in 2018, there’s been one common theme. Making it through the Shelton Chicane on the first lap without crashing. Both races in that span saw accidents right out of the gate, impacting drivers afternoons.

Two years ago, those drivers impacted by the accident included Conor Daly (filling in for Marcus Ericsson, who was on standby at Monza), Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, and Zach Veach. Once the mess was cleaned up, another tangle took place that involved Ryan Hunter-Reay and Jack Harvey.

All drivers involved in those two separate accidents failed to finish the 105-lap contest.

Once everything settled down, the focus shifted towards pole sitter Colton Herta, who led the first 36 laps. However, his time out front ended when Scott Dixon hunted down the young driver and took the lead momentarily. Neither of them would be in the race win picture as Will Power would later control the competition.

But a late-race caution by Santino Ferrucci bunched up the field, setting up a five-lap shootout between Power and Felix Rosenqvist.

Despite some pressure, Power crossed the line in first by 2.788 seconds over Rosenqvist. It would be the last of his two wins that season. After celebrating with his Team Penske crew, Power noted the pressure on those final laps.

“It was a pretty tough race for the Verizon Chevy. Rosenqvist caused some pressure,” said Power. “At the end, we could slowly pull away and I felt like ‘Oh yeah, this is going to be good,” and then we got that yellow flag and I’m like ‘Oh, come on, man!’

“But I was determined to get a good restart and just so stoked to get into Victory Lane. It helps the teams and the other guys take some points away. Awesome. I’m exhausted. I’m mentally exhausted. We’ve had plenty of what-if years. We will just race right now how we will race next year. It is so good to go into next year with a couple of wins.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Saturday, September 11

  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 1 (12:00 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. – Peacock)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (3:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. – Peacock (Live)/11:30 p.m. to 1: a.m. – NBCSN)
  • Indy Lights Race No. 1 (4:45 p.m. – Peacock)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 2 (6:15 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. – Peacock)

Sunday, September 12

  • Indy Lights Race No. 2 (1:20 p.m. – Peacock)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Portland (3:00 p.m. – 110 laps, 216.04 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. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography ranging from Idaho athletics to auto racing with ambitions of having his work recognized.