Oh, where to begin…
Maybe with a 9:45 p.m. Thursday flight from SFO to SoCal? One that was delayed until 1:30 a.m. and left me dragging into my hotel at 4:15 a.m.? Or maybe that I woke up later that day feeling awful and skipped Friday track activity, what little there was in the torrential rains?
Naw, let’s start with Saturday morning. I found the journey from hotel to the circuit very easy and quick. I should have taken that as a sign, but I was too tired to think about it.
Once planted in the media center, I went out to take some morning practice shots, and when I returned I was informed that I was not permitted in the deadline room and would have to move to the overflow room. Having already set up, I had to tear down and leave while a press availability with Randy Bernard was happening. First chance to get some news for you, shot. There was hardly any space in the other room, but I was there for less than an hour before some kind league and event staff told me I was actually welcome in the deadline room. I dragged all my stuff back to its original spot, thereby missing all of the rest of morning activity on the track. I can tell you that race car noises were happening outside the media center, but I have no idea who did what.
And the day didn’t change from there. The IZOD IndyCar Series qualifications were a state of confusion for everyone, it seems. Couldn’t get my usually trusty Verizon WiFi to work, AT&T cell service was worthless, and the batteries in my scanner had run out, so I had to rely on the Firestone pit cart for running orders. With the infamously cramped and crowded Long Beach pit lane living up to its reputation, I occasionally got close enough to see! And even then, I thought I was seeing things. Josef Newgarden topped the speed charts in his Q1 group? Wait, that’s a Sarah Fisher car — a young team with good oval experience but had skipped many road and street races the past few seasons. And here’s a rookie in her car, tearing up this bumpy, tricky street course. Pigs were about to take wing at any moment. Josef just missed the Firestone Fast 6, putting him 7th on the final standings. But this is the Twilight Zone, and he’ll actually be starting on the outside of the front row. More on Josef later.
You see, over half the field has received 10-spot grid penalties for engine-related reasons. The Fast 6 had five Chevys participating — not surprising since they’ve been strong out of the gate this season. But the pole winner, Ryan Briscoe, will start 11th, and those other Chevys will file in somewhere behind him. Some of the penalties go to cars that qualified slower than 15th in this 26-car field. I’m still wondering how that’s going to work, exactly. Is it fair that the pole winner loses a full 10 spots but a car in 23rd only loses three? Ultimately, it may not really matter much, and my head started spinning when I thought about how this was going to fall out.
Most of the drivers in the post-qualifying press conference had no real idea where they’d roll off, either. It was clear that Briscoe would be 11th and Franchitti would assume pole position, but how the other Chevy drivers shuffle on the grid depends on where the Hondas and Lotuses are. There were several comic moments given to the topic, with Ryan Hunter-Reay injecting a “Who’s on first?” into the dialog that drew laughs from the whole room.
Dario was asked if he was worried about starting next to a rookie, and he replied that he was not at all, and that young Master Newgarden had proven he knew what he was doing. James Hinchcliffe concurred and jokingly lamented in a “how do we stop the guy” manner that Josef was continually improving. The admiration society seems mutual — a bit later, Josef answered a few questions for the press and mentioned how honored he was to drive against guys he grew up watching. He also mentioned that it was strange (kind of like this race weekend has been so far). He noted that Justin Wilson, Will Power and Dario had gone out of their way to offer advice and support, so it seems the Newgarden fan club already has some big names as members.
The purpose of qualifying is to determine start order, so today’s session was an exercise is oddity, if not futility. And if the drivers are right, the race will be just as “huh?”-inducing as the rest of this weekend has been. It’s probably a good idea to stay tuned and not miss a lap. Be sure to follow us on race day at @MoreFrontWing and @SpeedFreakBash as well as here on the site.