Thursday, April 19, 2012

Notes from the Long Beach Grand Prix

Posted By on Thu, Apr 19, 2012 at 1:37 PM

EJ Visos KV Racing Technology #5 machine, before the start at Long Beach, with team co-owner Jimmy Vasser (in all black).
  • Kate Shoup
  • EJ Viso's KV Racing Technology #5 machine, before the start at Long Beach, with team co-owner Jimmy Vasser (in all black).
One of the best races of the IZOD IndyCar series, and the one that's by far the "scene-iest," is the Long Beach Grand Prix, this year in its 38th running. At the 11-turn street circuit situated in the shadow of masts in the Shoreline Marina, you'll see an excellent cross-section of the Southern California population: hippies, surfers, bikers, and the occasional "celebrity."

(Note the use of quotes here. Although there is the occasional A-lister - Mark Wahlberg put in an appearance a few years ago, and Oscar-winner Adrien Brody is a regular - most of the stars are of the Brody Jenner/Eddie Cipriani/Adam Carolla variety.)

As the spouse-type person (STP) of an engineer for KV Racing, I'm in the fortunate position of being able to attend any race I want - and Long Beach is one I never like to miss.

Upon my arrival in Long Beach on Thursday morning, I ate brunch with driver Marco Andretti, grandson of racing legend Mario Andretti and son of other racing legend and team owner Michael Andretti. Okay - "with Marco Andretti" might be kind of strong. I guess if you want to be a stickler about things, "in the same restaurant as Marco Andretti" is technically more accurate.

But my table was right by his, and I was close enough to eavesdrop on his various phone conversations, most of which, I later figured out, pertained to Chevy's decision to swap out the engines on each of their 11 cars in the field.

"What's the big deal?" you're probably thinking. After all, getting a fresh, shiny new engine in your IndyCar seems like it would be a good thing. The problem is, if your engine manufacturer replaces your engine before the engine has run the prescribed number of miles (in this case, 1,850), you get docked 10 positions on the starting grid. It's an attempt by the series to keep engine costs down.

So every Chevy car in the field, regardless of where they actually qualified, started outside of the top 10 - including Marco Andretti's and, worse, EJ Viso's, which is engineered by my aforementioned STP, Olivier.

This was a particular bummer for EJ and Olivier because EJ actually advanced to the Firestone Fast Six during qualifying, ultimately claiming the fifth spot on the grid - the second-best starting position in his IndyCar career. The penalty, however, exiled him to 15th. It's not impossible to win a race from back there - indeed, Will Power would charge to the front from P12 to claim the victory.

But as EJ discovered on race day, it sure is a lot harder. Any chance EJ might have had to advance was foiled first by Graham Rahal, who blocked EJ as he attempted to enter his pit after the first stint, and second by contact with Alex Tagliani, for which EJ was assessed a questionable drive-through penalty, meaning he had to make one pass down Pit Lane during a green. In the end, EJ managed a mere 12th-place finish.

For all that, even EJ's day was better than my brunch partner, Marco Andretti's. (God! Fine. Let's say we were "brunch-adjacent.") He qualified miserably, ultimately starting at P21 after the Chevy penalty was assessed. Although he eventually picked his way to 14th place, contact with Graham Rahal on lap 23 sent him airborne over Rahal's rear wing and into a tire barrier.

Marco claimed Rahal had "chopped" him; Rahal replied by insulting the entire Andretti family. ("What's Marco's last name? I've said enough.") This pissed off Grandpa Mario, who called out Rahal on Twitter. Rahal responded by essentially calling Mario "immature."

Although I don't expect this battle to devolve into the physical realm, like the time an irate AJ Foyt tackled Arie Luyendyk in victory lane in 1997, expect things to be interesting at the next race, in Brazil, where the series reconvenes on Sunday, April 29.

One more thing: Although I suppose I didn't technically brunch with Marco Andretti, I was driven to the airport by EJ Viso on Sunday night. Like, we were in the same car and everything. As you can imagine, we made it there in record time. Let's just say that after that experience, I'm pleased to still be among the living.

Olivier, EJ, and EJs coach, Italian former F1 driver Giorgio Pantano, converse after the race.
  • Kate Shoup
  • Olivier, EJ, and EJ's coach, Italian former F1 driver Giorgio Pantano, converse after the race.

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