Long Beach Preview: Indy Car’s return to the beach party!
Written by Scott Keller · April 15, 2009 | fastmachines.com
Long Beach, California has become famous for, amongst other things, hosting the biggest beach party in the world for 34 years straight, The Long Beach Grand Prix. This storied race is famous for fast cars, and an incredible atmosphere that draws over 100,000 fans every year.
The Long Beach Grand Prix debuted in 1975 as a Formula 5000 race, and became a stop on the Formula 1 schedule for eight years, starting in 1976. However, Long Beach gained its popularity in the 80’s and 90’s as an Indy Car race where the likes of Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy and Alex Zanardi all competed and won. The Grand Prix became one of the biggest events on the schedule, and has maintained its status as the crown-jewel of street races in the states. The race became part of the history of the open-wheel split in recent years, but that’s a saga that has come to a close.
What Indy Car fans can celebrate in 2009 is the fact that the cars and drivers that will battle in the Indy 500 later this year will first compete on the streets of Long Beach for the first time in over a decade. Here’s a preview of things to come this weekend.
Familiarity may provide early edge
The Indy Car Series is returning to Long Beach in its unified form for the first time since the mid 90’s . This means that the Dallara-Honda machines have never competed at this track, so every team will have a new challenge finding the right car setup in practice sessions on Friday and Saturday. The Newman/Haas/Lanigan team may have a bit of an early edge as the weekend kicks off, however. This former Champ Car team has raced at Long Beach during the split, and their engineers will have the advantage of having recent track data. They also seem to be getting a handle on the Dallara. Two weeks ago they put Graham Rahal on the pole in St. Petersburg, a similar track to Long Beach. Considering all of this I’d expect Graham to contend for the pole again this week, and for his teammate, Robert Doornbos, to be running in the top 10 or better.
Will the underdogs run up front again?
The biggest feel-good stories of St. Petersburg two weeks ago were of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s second place run, and Justin Wilson’s third place finish. The drivers and teams of Vision Racing and Dale Coyne Racing gave performances that exceeded expectations. Ryan Hunter-Reay was a late addition to Vision Racing’s 2009 campaign, which meant he had no testing or experience with the Vision crew before the race at St. Pete. After a mid-pack qualifying effort, Hunter-Reay soldiered toward the front, and finished second. Ryan competed in Champ Car at Long Beach in recent years, so he should be pretty comfortable this weekend.
Justin Wilson drove one heck of a race for Dale Coyne in St. Pete, posting a big time finish for a one of the smaller teams in the paddock. Wilson’s another former Champ Car driver that has been wicked-fast at Long Beach in previous years, and could run near the top again this weekend. It would be great to see “Bad Ass Wilson” get DCR their first win.
The Super Teams still show the way
With all of the hoopla over the fantastic finishes by Hunter-Reay and Wilson in St. Pete, the St. Pete race was, in fact, won by Ryan Briscoe at Penske. Roger Penske called a flawless race for Ryan, positioning him take the win in St. Pete. Briscoe might just be the favorite to win again this week if things go right. And let’s not forget that Briscoe’s teammate, Will Power, won at Long Beach in the Champ Car finale in a Panoz in 2008. He knows how to get around this track. But both Power and Team Penske will head into the weekend with the big Castroneves jury decision looming in the background. As of Thursday morning, the 16th, the jury is still out. If a decision comes in Friday from Miami, who knows how that might affect the Penske squad.
Another super-team, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, will be hungry for a win this weekend. Scott Dixon had a rough weekend in St. Pete, but I think that’s more a reason to see him as a likely winner this weekend. I see him as the kind of guy who might use the disappointment of the last race as motivation to win at the next. I’d expect nothing less than to see him to come back strong this week.
Dario Franchitti will ride into Long Beach with the momentum of a fourth place finish at St. Pete, and experience racing at Long Beach in the CART era. Dario has looked sharp ever since winter testing began, and should be fast right off the hauler. A lot of Indy Car fans will be rooting for Dario, but not necessarily because he is their favorite driver. Many would just like to see him shed that legendary mane of hair he has amassed (it really is quite a sight to see). According to an April 15th story by paddocktalk.com, Dario made a friendly “bet” with Tony Kanaan for the 2009 season that he would cut off his hair when he wins a race this year, while Kanaan agreed not to cut his until he wins. So stay tuned, with these two characters involved, this situation could become very entertaining.
And one final note about the Ganassi boys. If any team in the paddock were to post a one-two finish this weekend, my bet would be on these guys.
In terms of numbers, the Andretti-Green team is the largest of the super-teams. However, their finishing positions at Long Beach, as a whole, were less than spectacular. Danica Patrick struggled in practice and qualifying and found herself starting deep in the field. Her day ended in a pretty big shunt when Rafael Matos tried an ill-advised pass at St. Pete. One key for Danica this weekend is to qualify inside the top 10, and to keep her car intact in order to have a shot at the end of the race. Fellow AGR driver, Marco Andretti put in a decent qualifying effort last week, but a late race incident put him out of the race. Marco needs a repeat of his qualifying effort at St. Pete, and to post a solid finish and gain some momentum heading into Indy. Marco has expressed in interviews this spring that one of his main goals in 2009 is to maintain consistency in his performance, so he has a little work to do this weekend to get on track.
The bright spot for AGR two weeks ago was team leader, Tony Kanaan, who posted a fifth place finish at St. Pete, and heads to Long Beach with some experience there. I’d expect nothing less than to see Tony solidly in the top 5 all weekend, and likely fighting for the top spot. After all, the man wants to keep his shaven head, he needs a win!
What about the rest?
The Indy Car series in 2009 has a field that is deep with talent. One driver I’ve not mentioned yet is Dan Wheldon in the Panther Racing National Guard entry. Wheldon struggled a bit last week, but this guy knows how to win in this series. I wouldn’t necessarily expect a win out this team yet, but they have the potential to run with the leaders and greatly improve on their results at St. Pete.
Dreyer & Reinbold’s new hot-shoe, Mike Conway, showed some quickness at St. Pete, and could develop into a very exciting driver to watch. But, as a rookie, he needs some seat time race experience, and DRR’s aim should be to get him to the end in a clean race this weekend after a rough weekend in St. Pete where he found the wall a couple of times. I’m sure that VERSUS commentator and DRR team owner Robbie Buhl would prefer that Conway keep it off the wall this weekend, too!
Others to watch? Alex Tagliani, EJ Viso, Darren Manning, Vitor Meira, Mario Moraes & Raphael Matos are all guys that could win on any given day. Alex Tagliani surprised everyone in St. Pete. He jumped in an unfamiliar car with no testing in St. Pete and qualified seventh.
VERSUS has you covered with seven hours of Long Beach HDTV programming
The VERSUS Network, the broadcast partner of the Indy Racing League, will have a total of seven hours of programming this weekend, including live flag-to-flag coverage of Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET. VERSUS also will have a one-hour qualifying show on Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m. ET. On Monday, April 20th, VERSUS will offer tape delayed coverage of the Firestone Indy Lights action from Long Beach and an encore presentation of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
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