Pruett’s cooldown lap: Long Beach

Having lived through dozens of IndyCar championship runs, I’d put everything we just experienced in 2021 towards the top of a list that contains many classics from the CART and Champ Car eras. From the dumpster fire that was Nashville to the fairytale in May that made Helio Castroneves a four-timer and Michael Shank the world’s biggest recipient of Busch Light, we were blessed with compelling races at nearly every stop on the calendar.

Following that theme, it was fitting to close the season at one of IndyCar’s most popular events where drama was all but guaranteed to be on display, and the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach delivered in the best and worst ways. It was heartbreak for Pato O’Ward, hard charging by Josef Newgarden, a mile-wide smile from our new champion Alex Palou, and the need for Ed Jones to be airlifted away from the circuit for his safety after taking out a title-contending crowd favorite.

We’ve covered a lot of post-race topics in standalone stories, so let’s take a deep dive on the rest of the topics of interest as we farewell last season and move into the quieter months ahead.

STATEMENT MADE

Colton Herta sure put the fear of future potential into the rest of his rival drivers and teams. The Andretti Autosport phenom became the year’s only back-to-back winner with his disappearing act from pole at Laguna Seca and recovery drive from a midfield starting position at his home race to school all the attendees at his Long Beach masterclass. Imagine if this were to become a more common occurrence in 2022 and beyond.

In concert with his peerless race engineer Nathan O’Rourke and his father Bryan calling strategy, the decision to open the contest by using Firestone’s faster red-banded tires and to stay on reds for the second stint – all while using healthy amounts of extra push-to-pass horsepower from his Honda – proved to be the perfect call to overcome his P14 origination point.

Like Romain Grosjean’s epic drive to finish the Laguna Seca race, Herta’s incredible performance was flipped 180 degrees as he charged to the front early in the contest and then spent the last stint on Firestone’s primary tires trying to hold off polesitter Josef Newgarden. The Team Penske driver hounded the back of the No. 26 Honda without mercy as his reds gave the No. 2 Chevy a marked advantage.

The choice to go red-red-black was a brilliant one by the No. 26 team, with only Arrow McLaren SP’s Felix Rosenqvist opting for the same tire strategy among the 28 drivers.

Consider this: Herta’s become a six-time race winner in three seasons; teammate Alexander Rossi has seven wins in six, and outgoing teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay had 15 in 12 with Andretti. The numbers suggest something big is on the horizon for the No. 26 team.

This was the latest storming drive by Herta who, in his brief IndyCar career, is cornering the market on statement-making victories. His first win came at COTA in 2019 amid changing fortunes in a race Will Power led convincingly until his gearbox failed. Since then, all five victories have been epic mollywhoppings.

The smile of a man who specialized in mollywhoppings. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

He started from pole and ran away and hid at Laguna in 2019, leading 83 of 90 laps to take his second win. At Mid-Ohio’s second race of the 2020 doubleheader, he dominated by leading 57 of 75 laps from pole to shepherd home Rossi and RHR in an Andretti 1-2-3 to claim his third victory.

Herta’s fourth win, snatched this year at St. Petersburg, was downright ridiculous with pole and 97 of 100 laps owned. Then it was onto Laguna Seca earlier this month with… pole and total proprietorship of the event with 91 of 95 laps led.

Long Beach was something new for Herta after running wide in qualifying, clouting the wall with his car’s left-rear corner, and failing to turn his pole-grade speed into anything better than P14 on the starting grid. Forced to fix his mistake, the aforementioned tire strategy and P2P usage and bold driving added to the lore of all he’s achieved since arriving in IndyCar.

This win was somewhat lost among the season-long celebrations involving Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing, but it deserves respect; this was Herta’s first fightback victory. Other than earning his first oval win and a championship, there isn’t much that’s left for the second-generation driver to cross off the list. He turns 22 in March. If Laguna and Long Beach are indicators of what’s ahead for Herta, the next title run is going to be incredible.

LONG BEACH A GO-GO

The traditional April date for Long Beach is one of IndyCar’s pillars, and that might make moving it to the end of the season a bit of a problem, but after the thrills and strong crowd size amid heavily restrictive COVID policies at the venue, I’m convinced the series needs to think hard about ending its seasons in the LBC.

Go back to the 2020 season finale at St. Petersburg, and while it didn’t have the same kind of fan component, the style of track was a heavy contributor to the drama that unfolded on the Floridian street circuit. Speaking purely from a storytelling mindset, closing the last two championships on circuits that generate intrigue is everything IndyCar needs to continue with its future calendars.

As much as I love my home race at WeatherTech Laguna Seca, the crowd size has been dismal since our return. In 2019 and again in 2021, the only thing missing was a decent audience to witness the spectacle of open-wheel cars back where they belong in Monterey. We’ll end the 2022 season there, and the new track managers at A&D Narigi, LLC, have done a fine job of hosting the series for the first time without the former stewards at SCRAMP being involved.

But smooth facilitation of an IndyCar race isn’t a metric the series can use to its benefit. It would be much easier to overlook the limited crowd sizes if the grandstands and hillsides were even half full in Monterey, but as I’ve written repeatedly for more than a decade, a rebuilding series like IndyCar cannot afford to look weak or unimportant on TV, or to its fans and sponsors in attendance, at any of its events. Playing in front of an empty house is the opposite of what IndyCar needs, which is why Long Beach stands out as the right place and right visuals to embrace.

If there’s a solution to double or triple the crowd size in Monterey, I’d love to see it hold onto its status as the season finale. And if that problem can’t be solved, pick a Long Beach, or a World Wide Technologies Raceway, or a Road America to send off the season with a robust audience that speaks to the series’ growth and restoration.