Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing had quite the day at the Portland Grand Prix, with one driver in victory lane and the other ripping the racing, the stewards and the series. Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato scored another victory, while his teammate Ragin’ Graham Rahal was along with several others caught up in another frightening first lap pileup that for once was no fault of his own. However, his scathing criticisms of blatant incompetence in race control had us grinning from ear to ear.
After qualifications but prior to the race, two Andretti Autosport teammates who factored largely in the outcome poignantly diverged in their assessment of the place. And after eleven years away, why not? Ryan Hunter-Reay praised the braking zones as portending engaging racing, while his teammate Alexander Rossi said flatly, “we all know it’s hard to pass here.” In the long run, Rossi was the more correct – though less lucky – on the day.
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Once the green flag flew, Rossi sped around Josef Newgarden for second, with RHR gaining too, until trouble struck. In the back Simon Pagenaud initially encountered problems going off track, followed by fellow Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais. Then the latest frightening first lap crash occurred due to contact between rookie phenom Zach Veach and James Hinchcliffe in turn 3. Hinch spun, causing a trailing Marco Andretti to spin and roll backwards over Hinch’s car, flipping upside down in the process. After Pocono, it was the last thing anyone wanted to see, although Portland’s configuration – specifically the chicane – invites it. Remarkably, and once he was turned right side up, Marco jumped out of the car unscathed, though covered in dirt. He spoke of being “really lucky,” and of his head being “on the ground,” thanks to Rahal hitting him from behind.
Ganassi’s potentially soon to be ex Ed Jones was victimized in the incident and out of the race, his helmet scarred from the crash. Hinch’s car was repaired and he was able to get back out, though many laps down. Another victim of course was the aforementioned Rahal, who made his feelings on the accident crystal clear. “It was a cluster. . . . Oh yeah, Veach – I mean come on now, give him some room. There’s no room there at all … So it’s just wrong, and then the officials take no action, which is typical of our officiating crew. It’s disappointing.”
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Included in the carnage was championship leader Scott Dixon, who started 11th but dropped to the very rear as he was sandwiched between cars in the melee, completely stopped. He somehow kept the engine going in the middle of it all and sped away, saving his lap, his day and his cherished points lead. Dixon’s on board view proved terrifying, a carbon fiber wing flying overhead and a haboob of dirt and debris clouding his visor. He soldiered on to a fifth place finish. Will “Sour Grapes” Power led ’em to the lap 8 restart as more sensible driving prevailed this time around.
The Gateway winner then suddenly slowed, dropping through the field like a newspaper stock price before getting back up to speed, gear box issues being the culprit. The unlikable Aussie’d eventually lose not only the lead but also the track, crashing into a tire barrier and finishing 21st. Rossi led RHR and began cruising away while Daffy Leigh Diffey coined the phrase “Rossi radio,” unfortunately a highlight of the day’s coverage on NBCSN. The cars became strung out in parade like fashion until Veach and fellow rookie Jordan King resumed their battle for fourth. RHR inherited the lead when Rossi pitted, trailed by Newkid, Veach and King, with Dixon already climbing to 9th.
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Veach pitted as did King, and in a glimpse of the future of the sport the two left pit lane together, fighting it out just as they had much of the day. Hunter-Reay next pitted from the front, exiting behind Rossi who was already at speed. Replay showed Newkid cutting the curb in turn 1 to get around Dixie, before another view the next lap showed him cut the chicane for an additional, illegal advantage. He was made to give the spot back, but promptly retook it the next lap.
Dixon pitted from fifth on lap 39 – up fifteen spots in only thirty laps – but soon received a drive through penalty for a pit lane speed violation. It was typical of his weekend out west. Rossi still led both the race and the championship, although it wouldn’t last. Power’s crash brought out the second yellow flag, precipitating pit stops galore. Rossi led Newkid, RHR, King and Veach to the lap 46 restart, which was single file. Rossi threatened to pull away until Newgarden drew close and then took the lead in somewhat dramatic fashion through turns 1 and 2. Behind them, King surged up to third getting around RHR simultaneously, though again the order wouldn’t hold. At this point in the telecast, owner/sometime driver Ed Carpenter pointedly told Katie Hargitt: “I’m definitely not retiring, as some have reported.”
Veach was penalized for blocking and forced to give up fifth, then soon ran off track where Power had previously porpoised, ruining his shot at another consecutive decent finish – just as we predicted. The third caution carried the race beyond the midway point and brought numerous pit stops. Newkid pitted from lead, followed by Rossi – whose service was slow – barely beating King out of the pits. By then, Dixon had advanced all the way back to fourth.
In the lead RHR stayed out as did Sato, both on the two stop strategy that would prove decisive. The lap 61 restart saw RHR, Sato, Bourdais, Dixon and Spencer Pigot out front; for once on the wrong strategy, Rossi trailed in 17th. The leader pitted on lap 72 taking just over six seconds, shadowed by Dixon who pitted for the third and final time from third on lap 74. Suddenly Santino Ferrucci’s god-awful looking pink car slowed on track, causing Rossi, Bourdais and others to frantically dive into the pits. Wisely, the caution flag was held off until everyone had pitted, slowing the action once again but keeping the racing fair.
In a bit of pit lane excitement, Pags nearly hit two cars – including Rossi – upon exiting his pit; fortunately contact was avoided, narrowly. The restart on lap 80 was waived off as Max “Paris” Chilton oddly – and ineffectually – lead the field. Next lap hostilities resumed, with Pigot getting around Dixon for position. Once Chilton was forced to pit, Sato led the processional final twenty laps and, even more oddly, that’s how it would end. RHR, Bourdais, Pigot and Dixie rounded out the top five.
In almost a decade of racing, it was only the third career IndyCar victory for the Japanese, including his unlikely upset Indy 500 win. “Beautiful, beautiful,” and “brilliant” were among the things he blurted out post race. Deservedly so, racing from 20th to first in the race nearest his home country. Afterward Dixon summed up, “I think the suspension was bent . . . Ah, man – crazy, crazy! . . . Super happy for Sato.”
Dixie’s lead in the points is now 29 over Rossi and 87 over both Power and Newkid heading into the Sonoma finale. Despite the overdone praise from the booth and even acknowledging the large crowd at Portland, the racing never quite overcame that cluster of a start.