The Top Five: Breaking down the Long Beach and Richmond weekends

Five thoughts after the IndyCar race in Long Beach and the NASCAR race in Richmond…

1. It’s an event

The Long Beach Grand Prix — at least the IndyCar part of it — was an uneventful race dominated by one driver who started from the pole and only lost the lead during cycles of green-flag pit stops. Alexander Rossi, the winner, won by more than 20 seconds (!!!) — the largest margin in more than two decades.

By most traditional measures, it was not a good race.

But I’m willing to guess the majority of the massive crowd at Long Beach didn’t care at all — and maybe didn’t even notice.

Street circuits like Long Beach aren’t about the racing so much as they are about the scene. And it was a glorious scene.

“This isn’t a slight at any other series, but this is an event,” team owner Chip Ganassi said. “I go to races all the time; I love going to events. I wish there was an event every weekend.”

As mentioned here Friday, there’s a real joy about being in Long Beach for the three days of racing — and Sunday was no different. People stood on tiptoes along fences with cell phone cameras aloft and craned their necks for a better view on elevated walkways and bridges. They strolled along the perimeter of the track (a freaking harbor!) and soaked up the sunshine while seated in various grandstands around the course.

The attraction at the Long Beach Grand Prix really is the event itself, and it’s no wonder attendance set another modern day record this year (187,000 over the three day festival). There were six different racing series on track, plus concerts, DJs, a car expo, food and drink options galore and Instagram-worthy photo spots at literally every turn. It’s an absolute must-go if you ever get a chance.

But while there are certainly hardcore IndyCar or IMSA fans who attended, most people were just here to see cars and spend a fun day walking around with their families or friends.

So are those people going to get bent out of shape about a lack of passing in the IndyCar race? Uh, NO. But that’s what happens when the focus is on the event more than the race, which is almost always the case at street circuits.

Long Beach is a weekend that can certainly serve the devoted race fan and give them all the racing they could desire from dawn to dusk every day. And it’s also a place that can satisfy even the most casual of race fans — including those who might never see another race.

All of that adds up to make it the greatest racing event in America — not race, but event. When the event is the attraction, there’s no such thing as a bad day on the track, even if the main event was a snoozer.

2. Scott-blocked

Just when it looked like Graham Rahal had held off Scott Dixon for a podium finish at Long Beach, IndyCar stewards Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk ruled the spot should be taken away.

IndyCar said Rahal violated its blocking rule — which is reviewed in the drivers meeting — that says, “A driver must not alter his or her racing line to pursuing drivers.”

Essentially, officials decided Rahal made a movement in reaction to Dixon — though NBCSN analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy disagreed and said Rahal moved first. Nevertheless, Dixon was awarded third place and Rahal was dropped one spot, which IndyCar said was the lightest penalty option available.

The outspoken Rahal was calm in his postrace television interview, and later met with officials to discuss the incident. He then told reporters after seeing the replay, “I stand behind the move even more than I did before.”

“Hell yeah, I blocked,” he said. “Anybody would have blocked. The thing is you can do it legally.”

But the stewards, along with race director Kyle Novak, disagreed. Blocking — which IndyCar tells drivers is defined as “movement in reaction to (a) pursuing competitor” — is not allowed. There’s nothing that says a driver is allowed to make one move.

And that decision raises more questions, team owner Bob Rahal said, because similar cases happen all the time.

“Everybody is blocking all the time,” he said. “So to call that a block? What’s a block? … It opens up a can of worms.

“Now the issue is you’ve got to live up to that for every single race from now on in. You make this call, then what’s the difference with the next one?”

Bob Rahal said he hates it when positions aren’t settled on the track, and I have to agree. It’s not unlike a referee calling a borderline holding penalty that alters an NFL game on the final drive.

I get the blocking rule is in place for a reason: On a narrow street circuit with open-wheel cars, unregulated blocking could be disastrous from a safety standpoint. You don’t want drivers zig-zagging back and forth to defend position.

Still, this call…eh. It sure seemed close enough to let it slide as a racing incident — and on the last lap of a IndyCar’s second-biggest race while going for the podium, it would have been preferable to see the drivers’ battle determine the position instead of officials.

3. Stop the bickering

It’s an odd experience to cover IndyCar because for some reason, any positive comments about another series creates a lot of sensitivity and tension for NASCAR and its fans.

Many NASCAR supporters were quick to chime in this weekend when they saw something NASCAR does better — No blocking rule here! Our drivers never win by 20 seconds! — and IndyCar fans took shots at NASCAR when they could — The best driver wins our races! We don’t have cars failing inspection!

It’s almost as if people don’t realize one series can be praised and appreciated without taking it as a backhanded shot at the other. There are things IndyCar actually does better that NASCAR can learn from — but by the same token, there are also things NASCAR does better that IndyCar can learn from.

The fact the series are considering joining forces for a doubleheader in the future is a good thing, because they offer very different philosophies.

NASCAR emphasizes the show/entertainment in a desire to please its fans, with stages and overtime and playoffs. IndyCar emphasizes pure speed/pure racing, preferring to let the races play out in a traditional way.

Cup racing, Rossi noted, “is very different than what we do.”

There’s nothing wrong with liking both, or liking dirt or Supercross or sports cars or Formula One or whatever it may be. It’s all motor racing, right?

“More people are coming to the realization today is we shouldn’t be pitting one against the other,” Ganassi said. “We shouldn’t be in a circular firing squad. Should we all be shooting at each other? I don’t know what purpose that serves.”

4. Mercedes vs. Ferrari

Formula One gets ripped for having only two teams that dominate the sport — and rightfully so. It would be great to see other teams like Red Bull or even Haas F1 Team have a shot to win, but Mercedes or Ferrari have won 91 of the last 103 races. F1 has let things get out of hand with the spending of its powerhouse teams, so much so that F1 actually promotes the “midfield” battle (which is really just the race for “best non-Mercedes/Ferrari/Red Bull car.”)

But while NASCAR certainly has more competitive racing than F1, a two-headed team domination has formed in the Cup Series of late. And to be honest, that’s a bit worrisome.

Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have now combined to win 11 straight Cup races — the first nine of 2019 and the final two of last season.

Stewart-Haas Racing has had its chances, but everyone else — including Chevrolet teams Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing — seems behind right now.

NASCAR is at its best when a wide variety of teams and drivers are winning. It keeps the storylines fresher throughout a marathon season and in turn helps keeps fans more engaged (and less annoyed).

Let’s hope the other teams can step up to catch Gibbs and Penske sooner than later, or there’s danger of a predictable slog of a season that could make the “Big Three” look like child’s play.

5. Inspection wars

Taking a step back and being across the country from NASCAR this weekend made it hit home how bad it looks for cars to be failing inspection and crew members to be getting ejected on the day of a race.

Everyone understands NASCAR has a job to do with keeping these sneaky teams in line, but there has to be a better way on those two-day weekends where post-qualifying inspection takes place on the day of the race. Those inspection failures — the ones that come with stripping starting positions and throwing people out of the garage — is so self-defeating for NASCAR.

In the very moments when excitement should be building for the race, the string of updates about failed inspections only builds anger and frustration instead.

Just like with qualifying, this is a problem that can be solved. It might require some give-and-take and creative thinking, but NASCAR has to get out of the business of creating its own bad headlines so people can get back to focusing on what they like and enjoy about what is still by far the No. 1 form of auto racing in America.

Five quotes from the Fast 6 at Long Beach Grand Prix

The IndyCar drivers who qualified first through sixth at Long Beach on Saturday — Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon, Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal — held a smile-filled news conference after the session, cracking jokes and laughing through several exchanges.

Here are five of the best quotes from the Fast 6:

Josef Newgarden, on how impossibly close to the wall the drivers get at Long Beach:

“It’s kind of like when you’re pulling out of a parking spot and it’s tight on both sides and you back up and you start to turn and you’re like, ‘Man, am I going to miss that car in front of me?’ And your nose is like right there.

“Like 50 percent of the time, I’m just like, ‘Well, I think I’m going to make it. If I don’t, I hit him.’ (Shrugs)

“That’s kind of what it feels like. All the time on every lap, you’re just like, ‘Argh, I could hit — or maybe not.’ Most of the time you don’t. That’s what it’s like for me. It’s kind of fun.”

Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud on starting alongside each other Sunday despite their incident at the start of last year’s Long Beach Grand Prix:

Rahal: “(Last year) was like a very minor love tap.”

Pagenaud: (Scoffs in disagreement.)

Rahal: “It’s going to be a lot harder to hit him when he’s next to me. So if I’m going to do it again, I’m going to try really hard to do it.’

Pagenaud: “I think you were next to me…”

Rahal: “No, I was behind you and…”

Alexander Rossi: “It was like a torpedo.”

Pagenaud: “Yeah, a torpedo!”

Rahal: “That’s Power’s issue now, right?”

Will Power: “You behind me?”

Rahal: “Yeah.”

Power: “The difference is I’m from Toowoomba, see, and we fight.”

Rahal: “I’m really not worried about you. I’ve got like 50 pounds on you.”

Pagenaud: “I might not brake in Turn 1 just to make sure I don’t get hit.”

Rahal: “Actually, I would be perfectly fine with that. If you want to do that, that would help. You could like take out everybody and I’ll be good.”

Simon Pagenaud, off to a poor start this season, on proclaiming he was “never gone” after he made the final round of qualifying:

Pagenaud (deadpan): “It’s just my ego coming out. I’m a pretentious person, so I just said these things. Why not say it, right?”

Reporter: “I was wondering if you’re feeling unloved or ignored or if there’s something going on…”

Will Power, his teammate: “I have been ignoring him a little bit.”

Pagenaud: “Actually I have plenty of love, mostly from Will, a lot from Josef (Newgarden), too much sometimes. But no, I feel confident, so I think ego comes out when you’re confident. I think that’s what’s going on maybe.”

Reporter: “Do you have a chip on your shoulder?”

Pagenaud: “A chip? Chips are for dogs, I think. So I don’t have a chip, no. It’s all good. I’m pretty focused, 100 percent. Yeah, might have shown some aggressiveness, fire — and that’s not a bad thing.”

Alexander Rossi, responding to a reporter who said it was tough to pass at Long Beach:

“I don’t know how true that is. I don’t think it’s that hard to pass.”

Graham Rahal on why the drivers seemed so happy after making the Fast Six (final round of qualifying) but not winning the pole:

Rahal: “It’s not even the top six anymore. You feel like if you’re in the top 10, you’ve been solid. Didn’t used to be that way. Obviously, we’d all like to be on pole. It would be even better. But I think you really have to feel a sense of like accomplishment as a team. You can see it across all our mechanics, too; everybody is happy. You make it to the Fast Six, you’ve really done something.

“In my first years in this, if you made it to the Fast Six then you were like decent. And nowadays it’s just like the gap — like this morning, 1.1 seconds across from 1st to 25th over a street course this long (almost two miles) with all the bumps and curves and this and that — nowhere else in the world will you find racing that competitive, period. So I think you should feel proud if you had a good day.”

Long Beach Grand Prix: Sebastian Bourdais infuriated after race goes sour

Sebastien Bourdais finished a disappointing 13th in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach after challenging for the win early in the race. (Action Sports Photography)

Have you ever purchased a delicious-looking donut, dropped the donut after one bite, watched it roll into the street and get run over by a semi-truck?

If so, you might be able to relate to Sebastien Bourdais’ afternoon at the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Bourdais made a holy-crap, did-you-see-that pass of three cars in a single corner entering Turn 1, which lit up social media with a collective “WOW.”

But that move to take second place turned out to be the highlight of his day, because it all went to crap shortly thereafter.

First of all, Bourdais was penalized by IndyCar race control — which ruled he used the pit exit lane to make the pass. He had to drop back and give one of his spots back as a result.

But Bourdais insisted he was actually forced into the lane by Scott Dixon — who was one of the cars he passed three-wide — which made the incident “an avoided crash that turned into a brilliant pass,” he said.

“It was the biggest save of the day,” Bourdais said, sitting at his pit box well after the race had ended. “When you get forced in there, then you’re braking in an area that has no grip and you’ve got to go over the eggs to come back on track, the car is bouncing up and down and you’re trying to save your life. I don’t see what I was supposed to do, honestly.”


After the penalty, Bourdais fell back to third and said he was so fired up about it that he made another bold pass to retake second place the very next lap.

“I was plain straight pissed off (about the penalty),” he said. “When I make a mistake or violate a rule, I’m the first one to raise my hand. But I did nothing wrong on that one.”


He only got angrier five laps later, when a caution brought out by teammate Zachary Claman De Melo occurred right when Bourdais was coming to pit road. As a result, Bourdais had to drive through pit road — losing track position — and return for his pit stop under caution.

“It was pretty straightforward until my teammate made a mess of it and hung us out to dry,” he said. “On top of that, race control decided to hang us out for two seconds. Greatly appreciated. These races turn into circuses when that happens.”

But that wasn’t even the end of it. Bourdais got even more upset after he had to restart back in the pack — where “you end up racing idiots who don’t give you any room.” He had only gotten back up to 10th when rookie Jordan King spun him around in the hairpin turn, finishing off the bad day.

“Jordan feels like a million dollars, dumps it in there and turns us around. Alright. Have at it, boys,” Bourdais said sarcastically.


Bourdais, who won four championships during the open-wheel split, said he was deeply disappointed in finishing 13th because he “drove one of my best races in quite sometime.”

He just had nothing to show for it.

Oh, and there was one more thing he was mad about, Bourdais said.

“What really upsets me the way the races are run these days,” he said. “You have a Graham Rahal who turns someone (Simon Pagenaud) around at the start of the race and ends up, what, fourth? (Rahal finished fifth.) I’m sorry, that’s just…we got to do something about this. It’s infuriating.”

Long Beach Grand Prix: How much racing is too much?

There’s no such thing as too much racing — well, perhaps unless there’s not enough time to fit it all in.

Such was the case on a glorious Saturday at Long Beach — “Super Saturday,” which squeezed in track activity for six different series over the course of 11 hours.

It was a fantastic day for anyone who likes racing even the tiniest bit, and a near-perfect one when you factor in the sunshine, spectacular oceanside setting — complete with a harbor and lagoon — and the huge motorsports expo that takes up the entire Long Beach Convention Center floor.

But there was one small blemish on the day: Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks, which had a 20-minute window to race between IndyCar qualifying and the Motegi Racing Super Drift Challenge, had to end its race after only six laps.

Stadium Super Trucks leap off jumps placed as obstacles in the street course, and driver Apdaly Lopez accidentally flipped his truck off a jump on Lap 5.

Typically, track workers just roll an upside-down truck back over and keep going. But this time, it took too long — and officials ran out of time to restart the race.

Gordon apologized to the fans on the public address system after finishing second, and third-place finisher Arie Luyendyk Jr. — also known as The Bachelor — said the drivers were “a little bummed.”

“There’s a certain time window we have to abide by,” Luyendyk said. “But typically, 90 percent of the time we get a full race in.”

A spokesman for the series was critical of the amount of time to get the truck rolled over, telling reporters the race should have gone back to green.

“We are governed by race control of the Long Beach Grand Prix, who put on an extremely great event every year and we’re lucky to be a part of it,” the spokesman said. “However, we’re obviously very upset with the way things happened. … That was just not right, and it shouldn’t have taken so long.”

Race winner Gavin Harlien said he didn’t expect the race would be over when the caution came out and thus felt a little shortchanged.

“That’s not how I want to win, but, I mean, I’ll take it,” he said.

On the positive, side, this sort of thing is only possible when so many series share the track at once. That’s actually a good problem to have from a fan standpoint.

For a $65 general admission ticket (or a $100 weekend pass with a reserved seat), spectators could spend the entire day wandering the course, which snakes its way through the prime real estate of the Long Beach waterfront.

There are multiple spots to stop and observe the cars, take photos or just bask in the California sun; personally, I walked 7.9 miles during the course of the day while exploring the circuit.

From IndyCar practice and qualifying (Alexander Rossi won the pole) to an IMSA’s slick sports cars to Gordon’s trucks to Historic Trans Am cars (that ran in the 60s and still race), it seemed like a non-stop schedule. As I write this, there are still cars on the track —  a drifting challenge competition that goes until 8 p.m. local time.

Anyway, there’s some solace knowing another Stadium Super Trucks race will run tomorrow — and since it’s scheduled for after the IndyCar race, the entire thing should be completed this time.

If not, that’s the only way “too much of a good thing” could ever apply to racing.

Long Beach Grand Prix: Inside IndyCar’s Race Control

Race stewards Arie Luyendyk Sr. (center, back to camera) and Max Papis and race director Kyle Novak monitor practice Friday at the Long Beach Grand Prix from IndyCar Race Control. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

You can’t hear the cars inside IndyCar Race Control for the Long Beach Grand Prix, let alone see them.

Buried in the bowels of an arena attached to the Long Beach Convention Center — a venue that will be used for Disney On Ice at this time next week — IndyCar’s top officials are positioned in a windowless room to watch Friday’s second practice session.

The room is filled with monitors — 20 different camera angles of the track are displayed at once, not counting a smaller box showing a variety of in-car cameras — along with more than a dozen people who each have a crucial role in making sure everything goes smoothly.

In the center of it all is first-year race director Kyle Novak, the conductor for a complicated orchestra. He’s in charge of determining whether the track needs to have a local yellow flag, a full-course yellow or red flag, in addition to deploying safety personnel.

Flanking Novak are IndyCar’s two stewards — former drivers Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk Sr., who remain standing at all times. Their job is to determine penalties; if you hear an incident is under review, they’re the ones doing the reviewing.

Just past the stewards are those tasked with communication to various units: One person conveys Novak’s message to the teams, another speaks to the safety workers and so on.

There are also other officials nearby, such as a man who watches a screen full of dots moving around the track — to look at the gaps between the cars — and a woman in charge of IndyCar’s instant message system (every command from race control is also sent via IM in order to provide a record of it, and teams can send back IMs with questions).

Although it’s just practice, but the room is buzzing with activity. Oddly, though, there is no sound — no race commentary, radio chatter or vehicle noise — other than the officials communicating with each other.

The stewards believe it’s important to issue the same penalties during practice they would in a race, setting a standard of consistency so the drivers know what to expect.

For example: Rookie Robert Wickens cuts the exit of pit lane too early — there’s an orange line that marks where the transponder must cross in order to be scored — and receives a pass-through penalty after the footage is reviewed.

A pass-through during practice isn’t too damaging — aside from wasting a couple laps on tires — but it would be in the race. So it’s somewhat of a warning: This will hurt you a lot more on Sunday, so don’t do it again.

The stewards carefully watch any interaction between other cars. Papis’ eyes scan the map of dots to see drivers racing close together, then dart to the camera angle showing that battle.

“It’s way easier for people to watch races on TV and criticize, because you’re just following one story that the camera shows you,” Papis says. “In here, it’s like you are watching many episodes of a show at once.”

Papis believes the drivers and IndyCar are “one team,” and his role is not an adversarial one. He and Luyendyk view themselves as a resource for the drivers, providing an education on what they did incorrectly and gathering evidence during the sessions to present afterward.

For example: Luyendyk pulls out his cell phone to take screenshots and video from the IndyCar replay system, which is like if NASA Mission Control had TiVo. He’ll take the visual proof to the drivers in question as soon as practice ends.

Both stewards must agree on a call in order to issue a penalty, and IndyCar president Jay Frye serves as the tiebreaker for any disputes. When there’s a potential incident to review, replay officials call over the stewards for a closer look.

Everyone in the room seems to work methodically and calmly. But their voices rise and carry an extra urgency when safety workers are present on the track, exposed to danger.

Officials seemed to dislike that one car drove through a local yellow safety zone carrying too much speed. And it wasn’t just a feeling; they had the numbers to prove it. The computer said the driver went through at 94.5 percent of his typical lap speed, and Papis said drivers are asked to slow down a minimum of 15 percent — showing they at least made an effort to use caution.

Practice ends before all the penalties can be issued and served, so Papis sets off to speak with some drivers instead — clutching small printouts that looks like betting slips from a Vegas sportsbook.

In general, the stewards don’t want to issue penalties. Papis said they ask themselves two questions before doing so: First, does the action affect safety? Second, does the action affect competition?

If the answer to one of those questions is yes, a penalty is more likely than not.

“I tell these guys, ‘Don’t put it in my hands, because I haven’t done (the infraction),'” he said. “You did it.”

Papis looks around the room and shakes his head at all the technology present.

“If I would have come in here and gotten this education when I was driving, I would have used the F word a lot less,” he said with a grin.

The session ends when Takuma Sato suddenly has the back end wash out while entering Turn 1, smacking the wall.

Novak immediately spots it.

“Car in the wall, Turn 1. Red flag,” he says.

“Red flag,” the man next to him radios to the teams. “This will be the red and the checkered on the session.”

The officials guide the safety workers to Sato’s car and watch until he gets out, then begin to pack up so the next series can get ready to run.

“Great job, everyone,” Novak tells the room. “You guys are all-stars.”