Above: A. J. Foyt on his way to winning the inaugural race at Phoenix in 1964.
A classic track and the new aerokit come together Saturday night, testing Indycar on two fronts. USAC began racing at Phoenix in 1964. The track was a staple on the circuit through 1978, hosting two races, one in the spring, and one in the fall. There was no spring race in 1973. CART held races from 1979 off and on through 1995. The current Indycar series raced at Phoenix from 1996-2005, then returned in 2016.
Will this new car make for a better race and will that lead to better attendance? Those two questions may decide if Phoenix remains on the schedule. Attendance in 2016 was low, and the race didn’t help the crowd grow last year. The original deal ends after this race. The last two races at Phoenix ISM Raceway were rather dull affairs. Scott Dixon won in 2016 after first Helio Castroneves and then Juan Pablo Montoya had tire issues. The leaders had difficulty lapping the slower cars. Last year, the leaders had the same problem passing cars. Simon Pagenaud won after inheriting the lead from the way the cautions fell. Once he got to the lead, he was not going to be passed. Phoenix has never allowed much passing. It has always been a one groove track, but I remember some great races there.
The new aerokit creates less downforce and should lead to more tire degradation. This combination should lead to more passing late in a tire stint. Depending on when the caution periods occur, we could see a great show. Where last year many races were about fuel management, the game this year could be tire management. I much prefer tire math over fuel math.
Late word is a second groove will be rubbered in, perhaps before each session, to allow for more passing opportunities. Indycar must not be sure that the new aero package will work. This is a gimmicky fix to the problem. I know the race needs to be good, but I’d like it to be naturally good. Added horsepower for all races might help, for instance.
From the open test in Phoenix before the season began, it looked like the cars could run closer together. Whether they can pass remains to be seen. Rahal Letterman Lanigan had the fastest team with Takuma Sato. Will they be quick this time as well? Team Penske has dominated the last two years here, winning the pole both years and the race last year. Look for another strong showing from them. Matheus Leist was quick in the test, but spun four times in the final session. He is quick, but needs to manage his speed to have success. How will Robert Wickens do in his first oval race?
A team I wouldn’t count out this weekend is Andretti Autosport. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi had strong showings in St. Pete. Marco Andretti also was competitive. Zach Veach had some early issues but was the highest finishing rookie. If Hunter-Reay’s car is working right, watch out for him to contend late in the race.
My fearless predictions: I think Ryan Hunter-Reay returns to Victory Lane this week.
Bonus prediction: Graham Rahal heads to Long Beach as the points leader.
Watch for updates from Phoenix Friday and Saturday on twitter (@tutorindie) and a brief post or two in this space.