IndyCar: Gateway Bommarito Automotive Group 500 Preview

© [Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

by Paul Gohde

After a highly successful return to the St. Louis area (Madison, IL) in 2017, the Verizon IndyCar Series will race again at the tight Gateway Motorsports Park oval Saturday night in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 with three dominant drivers hoping a win might lead them to the 2018 championship. Last week’s Pocono winner, Alexander Rossi, is second in Verizon-Series points as he chases leader Scott Dixon with just three races remaining. Joseph Newgarden won here last season on his way to his first championship but finds himself in third this year. The Team Penske driver hopes that another win here will move him closer to defending that series’ title.

Race Facts: CART and the IRL raced here seven times (1997-2003), but declining attendance caused the series to look elsewhere. A highly promoted return last year saw an entertained sold-out crowd asking for more at the 1.25-mile, low-banked oval that sits almost in the shadow of the Gateway Arch across the Mississippi River. The ‘500’ name refers to kilometers, not miles, as the race is 312.5-miles (250 laps). Team Penske has won four of the eight Indy car events here, but no driver has won more than once. Newgarden is the only former winner in the field though Paul Tracy, who won the inaugural event in 1997 will be in the NBCSN television booth.

Past Gateway Races: Newgarden, who started outside of pole-winner Will Power last year, electrified the large crowd with a daring pass that involved slight contact with teammate Simon Pagenaud for a lead that he held on to for the final 31 laps. Dixon moved to second as the Frenchman lost momentum but rallied to finish third. Newgarden’s victory was his third in four races and gave him a commanding 31-point lead with just three races remaining. Pole-winner Power dropped to a 20th-place finish after early-race contact with Ed Carpenter and Takuma Sato. Five caution periods for 43 laps slowed the winner’s speed to 139.465 mph. The winner turned a lap of 182.691mph in his pursuit of Pagenaud; just one lap prior to assuming the lead for good.

2018 So Far: Standings: 1. Dixon (Honda-530 points, 3 wins) 2. Rossi (H -29, 3) 3. Newgarden, (Chevy -66, 3)   4. Power (C -81, 2)   5. Ryan Hunter-Reay (H- 119, 1) …Other winners: James Hinchcliffe and Sebastien Bourdais; one each…Honda 9 wins/Chevrolet 6. After Gateway, the series moves to Portland, a road course that returns to the schedule after an 11-year hiatus. Sonoma will be a double-point finale that may decide the championship.

The Field: Twenty-one cars will test the tight oval, hoping to avoid a crash like the Pocono incident that caused serious injuries to rookie Robert Wickens. As of this writing, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has withdrawn Wickens’ car for the Gateway race. Ed Carpenter races again in the last oval event of the season.

Notes: Several drivers who raced at Pocono have talked of raising the heights of the Safer-Barriers at oval tracks to help prevent cars like Wickens’ from getting to the catch-fences above the soft walls…Conor Daly will race at Road America Saturday in a NASCAR X-finity Series road course race that also features a one-off run by veteran Bill Elliott. Also running at RA will be Indy car drivers James Davison and Katherine Legge. Matt Brabham, Arie Luyendyk Jr. and Robby Gordon are scheduled to compete in the Speed Energy Stadium Super Trucks events on Friday and Saturday…Helio Castroneves, Al Unser Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya have won after starting on the pole at Gateway…Eighty-eight laps were run under caution during the inaugural race in 1997.

Our Take: There may be some trepidation in the Gateway paddock this weekend after the scary Pocono wreck that seriously injured Robert Wickens. Pocono is a generally roomy track with quite a bit of passing space. Two accidents happened in the first seven laps last Sunday, perhaps due to over-anxious driver decisions early in a 500-mile race where just finishing is a prime objective for most in the field. Gateway, however, is a tight oval that is known for wheel-to-wheel competition. Some may begin to wonder after last week whether the current Indy cars are becoming too fast for oval tracks. While we don’t want decisions made as a reaction to the Pocono accidents, we wonder whether IndyCar is at the same point today that USAC was when they finally removed dirt tracks from the circuit. Will we ever see an all-road/street course series someday (including the Indy 500, of course)? Milwaukee and Phoenix are gone, among many, many other ovals. Perhaps tracks like Iowa, Pocono and Texas need to be looking over their shoulder. It could happen.

Final Words: Takuma Sato No. 30Mi-Jack/ Panasonic Honda: “The characteristics of Gateway are very unique. I think it is one of the best short ovals because there is such high banking in Turns 1-2 (11-degrees) and Turns 3-4 (9-degrees) are kind of flat. And as we observed, it was one of the best short oval races of the year. It was great to see so many enthusiastic fans there last year.”

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