MONTEREY — After a 15 year absence, the IndyCar Series officially returns to historic WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca this weekend for the NTT IndyCar Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sept. 20-22.
Built in 1957 for a cost of $1.5 million the 2.238 mile, 11-turn circuit hosted an Indy race, under the banner of the CART/Champ Car Series, at or near the end of the season from 1983 through 2004.
In 2005 dwindling attendance due to the ongoing sanctioning war between CART and IndyCar resulted in the race being moved to the streets in San Jose for three years. CART announced plans to return the race to Laguna Seca in 2008, but the reunification of the two competing series that year scuttled the move.
Some of the greatest names in IndyCar racing history posted victories at Laguna Seca including Danny Sullivan, Helio Castroneves, Paul Tracy, Rick Mears, Michael Andretti and Jimmy Vasser. Bobby Rahal who won the race for four consecutive years from 1984-87 which earned him the honor of having the back straightaway renamed the “Bobby Rahal Straight”.
Alex Zanardi’s victory in 1996 resulted in one of the most famous passes in the history of IndyCar if not all of auto racing.
On the final lap of the race Zanardi attempted a bonsai, diving pass inside of race leader Bryan Herta entering the famous “Corkscrew” turns. Zanardi slid across the track in front of Herta, plowed wildly over the corner curbing and through the dirt before correcting his car and returning to the track after the next corner just in front of the astonished Herta. Zanardi held off the Herta for the remainder of the lap to take the improbable victory and forever go down in racing folklore for his amazing overtaking move in what became known as “The Pass”.
Herta would recover from the devastating loss by posting his only two career wins in an IndyCar at Laguna Seca in 1998 and 1999.
The list of winners of other major events at Laguna Seca, such as Can-Am or Formula 5000, is even more astonishing. Phil Hill, Mario Andretti, Bruce McLarren, Stirling Moss, Denny Hulme, Roger Penske, Al Unser Sr. and Jr., and Peter Revson have all taken the checkered flag there.
“It is exciting to be racing here again. This track has so much history, especially for my family. They don’t build tracks like this anymore. It is a different style of track with unique turns and big elevation changes,” said Graham Rahal, Bobby’s son. “This track is so challenging and slippery, especially when drivers go off and throw dirt on it. It is easy to make a mistake here.”
Sunday’s race is the final event of the 17 race 2019 IndyCar schedule and the season championship is at stake.
Even with double points available (100 maximum) Penske Racing’s Josef Newgarden holds a commanding 593 to 552 point lead over Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi while Newgarden’s teammate Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon, of Chip Ganassi Racing, remain the only other drivers in contention for the 2019 title with 551 and 508 points respectively.
“I am confident and I believe in myself. I know I’m capable and I know our team is capable. We’ve got all of the right people around us. We’ve got the best of the best,” said Newgarden, the 2017 series champion. “Sure, something can go wrong and maybe it won’t happen, but I feel confident we can do what we’ve done all year and come out as champions.”
For Dixon the task of winning a sixth championship is especially a tall one. He must win the race and hope Newgarden finishes in the bottom three.
“So there’s not much left other than to try to go out and win the race. That’s about all we can do.” stated Dixon matter of factly.
Three current drivers — Tony Kanaan, Sebastian Bourdais, and Ryan Hunter-Reay - have competed in IndyCar at Laguna Seca before the race moved to San Jose, although none of them see much value in it for this weekend.
“It has been a longtime since I raced an IndyCar here and everything has changed – the cars, engines and tires are completely different. Everybody is starting here with a blank sheet,” said Hunter-Reay. “The track is worn so tire degradation will be heavy. As a result you will see very different setups for qualifying and racing.”
Rookie Colton Herta, the son of Bryan Herta, led the 24 car field with a quick time of 1 minute, 10.7335 seconds in Friday’s first round of practice, but fell to third behind Ryan Hunter-Reay, who posted a pace setting lap of 115.244 miles per hour, 1 minute, 9.9105 seconds, in the afternoon practice session.
“It would be amazing to win here 20 years after my dad did it,” said Colton, age 19.
Today’s on-track action will feature a morning practice at 10 a.m. and NTT P1 Award qualifying at 1:30 p.m. live on NBCSN. Sunday’s 90-lap Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will be televised live on NBC beginning with the pre-race show at 11:30 a.m. with the green flag scheduled for 12:25 p.m. The race also will be broadcast on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM Satellite Radio (XM 205, Sirius 98).
In addition to the NTT IndyCar Series five other support series will be competing throughout the weekend. For more information, visit www.weathertechraceway.com or call the Ticketing Office at 831. 242.8200.