Saturday, June 30, 2018

Road America weekend, part two: Paddock and race day

Saturday practice was another relatively new spot, though we had been there the past couple of years. The inside of the track on the back side around The Kink is opened up with a paved path. It's one of the closest places fans can get to the track. Of course, debris fencing along the way doesn't make it an ideal photo spot, but it's great for taking some video as the cars speed down the straight at 180 mph. You're so close that the sound of the cars got to my ears just a tiny bit, which usually isn't the case with IndyCars.

In all the years at Road America, we've been through the paddock many times, usually two or three times a weekend. But we had never been around the pits during an active session. We started out the afternoon qualifying rounds standing at the exit to pit road, with just a concrete barrier and some fencing separating us from the track. It was cool to see the cars get set up in the pits, which cars went out for the first round, quick Twitter check to see who advanced to round two and then to see the cars speed by once they had been on track for a lap. I snapped a few photos of them going by, but it was total guesswork. It was like the cars appeared in a blur, with slanted wheels because of the high speeds.

You could also look down toward turn one and watch the cars from behind as they went into the corner. It's a cool perspective because, as Dad pointed out, you don't get to see the cars from behind very often. The TV broadcast always shows them from the front, which makes sense.

Qualifying and the paddock
Robert Wickens during qualifying.
 As the sessions went on, we ventured down along pit road behind the team stands to see which drivers were done and who was still going. This is where we had a lot of different driver sightings, too.

We saw plenty of drivers, team owners, etc. In no particular order: The three Andrettis (Mario, Michael, Marco), Ryan Hunter-Reay (and later his wife and two of his boys), Dario Franchitti, Chip Ganassi, Bobby Rahal, Jimmy Vasser, Josef Newgarden, Ed Jones, Graham Rahal, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon (and his wife Emma), pit reporter Robin Miller, Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Gabby Chaves, Spencer Pigot, Jordan King, Dad even spotted former CART driver Roberto Moreno in the pits.

I also spotted David Hobbs earlier in the weekend, so Dad went up to shake his hand and chat with him briefly. A cool moment for him.

Defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden ended up on the pole with a 1:43.2026 lap, which wasn't a surprise for Team Penske. It marked his third P1 award this season. Four cars dominated the weekend at Road America last year, starting 1-2-3-4 for Penske. Newgarden nearly won the race then, too, but Dixon made a restart pass that stuck for the lead and the eventual win.

This year though, Simon Pagenaud struggled and didn't advance to the second round. On a four-mile track, drivers commented how close and competitive the field was throughout the sessions. The margin of error is just so small. Penske teammate Will Power, this year's Indy 500 champion who won the 2016 IndyCar race at Road America from the pole, qualified second with a 1:43.2508. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi, both Indy 500 winners and Andretti Autosport teammates, started third and fourth on the grid.

A great day for a race
When it came to race day, the weather was about perfect and much better than last year's cloudy, windy and cool conditions. It was a perfect summer day this time, with pure sunshine and some heat. We set up in some grandstands in turn five, along the outside more toward the hill. You can see the cars drop down into the slow corner, then head up the hill and under the bridge for turn six. Turn around, and you could see the cars on the other side of the track heading to turn 14. A small break in the trees allowed me to see the cars going up the hill toward the start/finish.

The field came through for a pace lap and then green flag racing. Turn five can be an action-filled corner since it's a good passing zone on the track. However, it was a day filled with clean racing. In fact, the yellow caution flag didn't fly at all during the entire 55-lap affair. Like Power in 2016, Newgarden won the race from the pole position, leading all but a couple laps during pit stops. He won by a 3.3759-second margin over runner-up Hunter-Reay.

Newgarden was in control the entire race, but the rest of the top cars were right there with him. After the first round of pit stops, it looked like Hunter-Reay had gained some ground on him. I thought for sure he'd be able to catch Newgarden and overtake him for the lead. But, then I remembered Newgarden drives a Penske machine, and his lead was maintained and increased throughout the race.

Sometimes it's nice to have at least one caution in order to bunch up the field and have an exciting restart with some passing. Though, it's hard to wish for that because "yellows breed yellows." It was just the ninth time an IndyCar race went caution-free at Road America and the first time since 2000. Without the slower laps, Newgarden set a race record in speed with a 132.101 average speed.

As always, Dixon was not to be overlooked. He was looking for his third victory of the season but still raced very well and moved up from his starting spot in eighth to achieve a podium finishing third. Power had a very short day on the track. He had a mechanical issue very early, tried to give it a go but ultimately parked the car behind the pit wall and finished in 23rd position. Rossi was in fourth until he was sidelined with suspension problems.

Dixon still holds the series points lead after this 10th race out of 17 this season with 393 points. Hunter-Reay, Rossi and Newgarden follow in the points battle.

Just like that, the race weekend was over. It's always a great time, and it always leaves you wanting more.

Read part one of the weekend:

Road America weekend, part one: Back at the track

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