They're Baaaack...IndyCar Returns to Laguna Seca
It was the last official racing event of the 2019 season for TLP, and it concluded at one of the best road courses in the world (as it should).
It’s been 15 years since the IndyCar series has raced at the famed Laguna Seca Raceway. Some things have changed since those days as both the series and the venue have undergone big changes and renewed enthusiasm for the present and the future. Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca hosted Indy Car races from 1983 to 2004. From 1983-2003 it was under the sanctioning of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and then in 2004 the Champ Car World Series. Indy Car racing was back under the banner of the NTT IndyCar series at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for the 2019 Firestone Monterey Grand Prix.
Entering the weekend, three drivers were in contention for the series title, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet) with a 41-point lead over Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda) and a 42-point advantage on Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Chevrolet).
As the weekend opened with practice sessions the worn track surface and 750hp twin-turbo engines provided plenty of jaw clenching excitement as almost every driver found themselves drifting through the corners and in some cases going off track. It was termed by Jack Harvey of Meyer Shank Racing as the “Laguna Seca Drift.” Saturday practice demonstrated drivers searching for grip at every corner as they experimented with different lines and strategies to take on each obstacle the track presented.
While the names on the sponsor billboards have changed from the last time America’s premier open wheel racing series tore around the 2.38 mile road racing course, some of the names for the history books would stay the same. Bryan Herta took the checkered flag In 1999 and 2000 at Laguna Seca. Some twenty years later, his son Colton Herta took his third pole position of the season in the #88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda, effectively spoiling the party for the championship contenders who desired to be out front.
Qualifying is always key to a good race result, maybe even more so at Laguna Seca, but that was no guarantee, with a pack of championship contenders looking for every advantage against the 19-year-old rookie Herta. Many predicted that the arrival of the pack after the green flag to the Andretti hairpin would see some “coming together,” but all the drivers made it through the first turn and first lap without incident. Herta settled in, and for the first third of the race held off five-time series champion Scott Dixon, who was often a few tenths of a second behind. Herta demonstrated nerves of steel as he was stalked lap after lap by the experienced Dixon looking for any lapse in Herta’s concentration.
If a driver’s resume won races, Dixon would have walked away with it on Sunday to add to his record wins by any active IndyCar series driver (45) but after following for half the race he was unable to faze Herta.
After the final series of pitstops, Herta would have to survive the charge of 2014 Champion and 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power who followed in 2nd place. Over the last 20 laps, Power would be within tenths of a second of Herta, but the young rookie never put a wheel wrong. At the end of the day, like a video game hero, he faced two “boss fights,” to emerge with his name at the top of the leaderboard.
While Team Penske has the most wins for a single organization (6) at the track, Team Penske wouldn’t take the race win, but Penske driver Josef Newgarden would take his second series championship. Newgarden finished in eighth, staking claim to the 2019 crown. In spite of the multiple combinations of luck his championship rivals would need to win the title, it was not a clear conclusion that he would hoist the Astor Cub at races end. At times, it was clear the car was struggling in Newgarden’s hands, but constant feedback from Penske’s Tim Cindric over the radio reminded the Championship leader that survival was paramount to winning the championship.
There’s an old saying that we always hear at the track: “age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.” Whether this sentiment is based in fact or just the wishful musing of the old guard, Colton Herta certainly proved it wrong. At 19 years of age, he basically taught a master class of not only how to drive and win, but also how remain composed and unrattled (and FAST) while being hunted down by the biggest, baddest and most experienced drivers and teams in American open-wheeled racing.
Sunday’s race attendance was estimated at 35,000 people with the paddock at times appearing as a sea of people, elbow to elbow, searching for a glimpse of their favorite driver and car. Some motorsports journalists and others questioned whether IndyCar’s return to Laguna Seca would be successful. Some predicted a parade lap race with no passing, while others predicted a lack of spectators. Both predictions were proven wrong as the racing was presented several key storylines to the 2019 season and the crowds were energized and excited about the return of IndyCar to the Monterey peninsula.
As always, we’d like to point out that our pictures are much better than our words, so please check out the gallery below.
-The Loud Pedal