IndyCar – Three up, three down: Phoenix

The Verizon IndyCar Series returned to the oddly-shaped 1-mile oval of the Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) after an eleven year absence this past Saturday night. The speedway was built for open-wheel Championship cars and saw its first USAC race in 1964. Open-wheel racing was a fixture at the dogleg oval until 2005 when the Indy Racing League held their final race there after seeing dwindling attendance. The unique geometry has always led to exciting racing, compromises in engineering that allowed different teams and drivers to excel at negotiating different segments of the circuit.

This year, INDYCAR mandated the use of the high-downforce road course aero kits. This increased the speeds, but it killed the racing. Overtaking was a serious challenge for the 22 competitors and was restricted by and large to the few restarts and pit stops. The front runners were no surprise as Helio lead from pole position until his front right tire’s inside shoulder failed. His Team Penske teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, assumed the lead until he suffered the same exact type of tire failure. Dixon took over the front position from Montoya, and although the lead would be passed around a bit during the mid-race yellows and pit stop exchanges, he would regain it every time that there was an extended green flag session. His pace, tire management, solid pit crew, and the fact that was in a Chevrolet helped him cruise to a easy victory.

Three Up

Dixon’s record tying victory

Scott Dixon wins the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway -- Photo by: Chris Owens, IndyCar.com
Scott Dixon wins the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway — Photo by: Chris Owens, IndyCar.com

Scott Dixon’s victory in the desert was his 39th Indy car racing victory, tying him with the legendary Al Unser, Sr and leaving him trailing only Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, and AJ Foyt. He also set the all-time record for continuous race-winning seasons at twelve.

“It’s mind-boggling, for sure. For me, I feel very privileged to be racing, being an Indy car driver, being part of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and then being part of Team Target.

“All my wins except for one have been with this team. I hope we can continue to build on it and the numbers are great. It sounds a bit strange when you hear the names that we’re amongst them fighting on the wins list.” — Scott Dixon, No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing

Dixon is reserved in his public demeanor, a trait that has earned him the moniker of “The Iceman”. Because of the quiet way he goes about his business of showing everyone else on track his rapidly shrinking tailpipe, his name isn’t one that most people think about when it comes to legends of open-wheel racing. Well, at least those who don’t follow the sport closely. Those in the know realize that Dixon is one of the most successful drivers in the history of Indy car racing.

Oval debut for Rossi and Chilton

Max Chilton waits in his pit stand prior to practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway -- Photo by: Chris Jones, IndyCar.com
Max Chilton waits in his pit stand prior to practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway — Photo by: Chris Jones, IndyCar.com
The two former Formula 1 drivers, Alexander Rossi and Max Chilton, both drivers for ManorGP in their time, made their oval-racing debut at Phoenix. Max Chilton has secured a ride in the No. 8 Target Chip Gannasi Racing machine while Alexander Rossi was signed by Bryan Herta Racing to drive the No. 98. Both rookie drivers, at least when it comes to ovals, ran well, ran clean, and ran competitively.

Rossi started and finished in P14. If not for contact with the Turn 4 wall with two laps to go, he might have been higher. Max Chilton ran in the top ten most of the evening, slicing and dicing with a number of drivers. Racing on an oval isn’t as simple as simply turning left ever several hundred yards. You’re always on the edge of the performance envelope, especially at a short oval. It takes quick, smooth, and subtle hands and feet to manage a car that’s constantly at the limit. Chilton showed that he definitely has the skill set to excel at ovals given time and experience. He had already qualified well with his starting position, P8, matching his car number. He would not only hold that position, but improve by one to finish P7.

Oval racing is not easy. It’s also not for the faint of heart. Both Chilton and Rossi did a great job, and their success at Phoenix, even though Rossi’s night came to a premature end, could improve their confidence heading into the Month of May and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It will be entertaining to follow these two through the 2016 season.

It’s a new track record
The previous record at Phoenix was set by the Arie Luyendyk in 1996 at 183.599 mph. It’s funny when we look at cars of the past and we think simply of the power of the motor and nothing else. The CART machines produced 800+ hp, but this past weekend, in cars producing power in the 600 hp range, this track record was shattered by nine miles per hour! Helio Castroneves set a two-lap qualifying speed of 192.324 mph, and his record-setting first lap was 192.631 mph. That’s impressive, but what’s even more telling is that every single driver who completed a qualifying attempt save for Graham Rahal bested Luyendyk’s 1996 record. It’s an indication that the current cars are quite capable, even given their current power levels, of setting track records every where they go, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Three Down

Festival of Carbon Fiber
The Dallara parts department is set to have a record quarter thanks to the mayhem at PIR. In first practice, both Takuma Sato and James Hinchcliffe found the same patch of wall in Turn 1 with the rears of their cars. At the beginning off qualifying later that day, Carlos Munoz would experience the same fate, albeit with significantly more bruising. Thankfully, the race itself saw minimal carnage. Munoz found the wall again, and Ed Carpenter also crumpled the right side of his racing machine late in the race after running in the top ten all night long.

The seriously unfortunate part of the night’s race came with three laps to go. Ryan Hunter-Reay a few laps previous brushed the wall on the exit of Turn 4 and dislodged one of the elements of his right-side rear wheel guard. The bit of broken aero kit that came off of RHR’s car found its way onto the racing line. INDYCAR Race Control held onto the yellow and it looked like we would see the culmination of a building battle between Graham Rahal and a faster Josef Newgarden. Unfortunately, Alexander Rossi would find the wall wtih two laps to go, forcing the race to end under yellow.

Honda still sucks at ovals
Just when it looked like Honda was set to make headway toward parity with Chevrolet, the brutal reality of oval racing and its sensitivity to aero and power shows just how much more work Honda has to do. The highest qualifying Honda-powered machine was Marco Andretti’s No. 26. To be sure, the top oval talents and teams are all running Chevrolet Power, but Marco is no slouch, especially on the short ovals. During practice, many of the teams were even experimenting with using the 2015 kit on the rear wheel guards.

During the race, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal proved to be masterful during the restarts. They did not have the ultimate pace to successfully continue their attack once the field was up to speed. During post-race Rahal noted that he was down about five miles per hour in straight-line speed to his Chevrolet-powered rivals. That’s a significant differential to overcome; a differential than neither Hunter-Reay or Rahal would be able to surmount.

Although the aero package for Phoenix is the road course, high-downforce trim like they use at the 7/8-mile Iowa Speedway, it still does not lend confidence as the teams begin looking toward the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race this coming May. You can expect to hear a lot more about this in the coming weeks, especially from the Honda-powered teams.

Empty grandstands
The official estimate of the crowd for the triumphant return to the Phoenix International Raceway was 17,500. Yup. That’s about the same amount as attended the ill-fated Formula1Blog.com trip to the Kansas Speedway to see an IndyCar race. (Dinner was amazing, even though Shaun was informed that they were out of “mojito juice”.) According to the Indianapolis Star’s Curt Cavin, the crowd estimates didn’t even make 20,000.

Curt Cavin, @curtcavin
Crowd estimate from local writer Michael Knight: 17,500. That’s about what was estimated by officials coming into event. @IndyCar
9:08pm · 2 Apr 2016

That is not enough to sustain an event long-term. That is not enough to sustain an event short-term! I love oval racing, and I regularly attended the IRL race at Kansas, and I frequent the Iowa and Milwaukee races. In short, I try to support the oval racing that I enjoy with my dollars. Throughout the IndyCar fandom, there is a cry for more ovals, but when they put a fantastic venue like PIR back on the schedule, the turnout is anemic. The same was true for the return to New Hampshire, which lasted a single year, and is true currently for Pocono. The Pocono race survives, but not with the crowds that it used to enjoy. If open-wheel oval racing is to continue, the ticket sales have to improve. They must improve.

On Deck

The Verizon IndyCar Series heads to southern California next for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. As always, it’s going to be a jam packed weekend with not only the IndyCars duking it out, but also Robbie Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series, IMSA’s P, PC, and GTLM classes, SCCA Pro’s Pirelli World Challenge GT, GTA, and GTS classes, and the traditional Toyota Pro/Am Challenge. It’s a street party who’s soundtrack is a wide variety of race car engine notes. What’s not to love?