Grand Prix of Long Beach a special race for IndyCar’s rising stars and veterans
The words click off the tip of Alex Palou’s tongue as if he’s clicking off fast laps on a short oval. “The Indy 500,” he says. “Long Beach.”
And then there’s a long pause.
“I get stuck from there.”
That’s all you need to know about the importance of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and the prestige it holds in the hearts and minds of NTT INDYCAR Series drivers. In defending series champion Palou’s mind, his Mt. Rushmore of race tracks has only two heads.
The 47th running of America’s oldest street race takes place Sunday as America’s premier open wheel series highlights a weekend of racing that includes the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Robby Gordon’s Speed Energy Stadium Super Trucks, Formula D Super Drift Challenge, Porsche Carrera Cup, and Historic IMSA GTP Challenge.
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Palou, at 24 years, became the youngest driver to win the championship since Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon, who was 23 in 2003 when he won the first of six titles. Palou finished on the podium in half of his races despite several instances of adversity. Yet he salvaged his bad days to make chicken salad, which is a really good skill to have at season’s end.
In last year’s race, Palou started 10th but finished fourth, one of 12 times in 16 races (and 11 of the last 12) that Palou finished equal to or better than he qualified.
“There’s many highs and lows in a race weekend, and many times I feel the people who have successful careers, it’s not so much about the highs but the rebounds from the lows,” Dixon said. “That’s what impresses me so much about Alex, it doesn’t faze him. He’s very quick to move on. He’s a young guy but he’s been racing like he’s been in INDYCAR for 10-plus years. He already has the maturity, the race knowledge.”
Palou said he likes his prospects in his Honda-powered Dallara on the high-risk, high-reward, 11-turn, 1.988-mile layout.
“I felt last year we were really good,” he said. “Knowing that it’s the same car and nothing changed, we have a good base car to start with and I got better on street courses.”
That could lead to one of racing’s stellar prizes if he can take the checkered flag on Shoreline Drive.
“Obviously, a win is a win and you don’t care where it is, but it adds a little more value when it’s a big event,” said Palou, whose three victories last season were on road courses. “Long Beach is a street course that we know is tough, it’s not easy to drive and win, but it would be more special for me for two reasons. First, we won the championship here last year, and it would be like ‘my place’ if I can win it this weekend. Second, I’ve never won on a street course and it would be awesome to get my first win on a street course here at Long Beach.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 race was canceled and the 2021 race was postponed to the end of the season, when Palou won the championship and Valencia’s Colton Herta won the race.
Practice took place Friday and Palou was seventh-fastest, directly behind Herta. Simon Pagenaud of Meyer Shank Racing took honors in 1 minute 07.1991 seconds followed by Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi — both with Honda power — and series leader Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden in Team Penske’s Chevrolets.
Ganassi’s Marcus Ericsson rounded out the top five. The top 13 drivers were separated by less than one second. Several drivers made contact with the wall, including Jimmie Johnson and Pato O’Ward.
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Herta broke the Long Beach track record in qualifying on Saturday, and he will start from the pole. Herta turned a lap at 1 minute, 05.3095 seconds to earn his eighth career pole. The previous track record was 1:06.2254 set by Helio Castroneves in 2017.
Palou is currently third in the championship after finishing second and seventh, respectively, on the streets of St. Petersburg and the Texas Motor Speedway oval.
Sebastien Bourdais, who was Palou’s teammate at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in the Ganassi Racing Cadillac, couldn’t be more impressed.
“He has a very high maturity level for his age, super calm demeanor, really detail-focused, very hard worker, doesn’t like to leave any stones unturned,” said the four-time Champ Car champion who is racing this season in the IMSA series and broke the DPi track qualifying record at 1:09.472, which beat Castroneves’ 2019 record of 1:11.332. “I was really impressed with him at Daytona when he jumped into a car he didn’t know at a track he didn’t know.
“There’s definitely a young Scott Dixon there.”
That’s an entirely different Mt. Rushmore discussion.
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