An exit from the pits during last year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach proved pivotal in the race and also the season, and the drivers involved haven’t forgotten heading into this weekend’s event.
The 1.97-mile street course around the Long Beach Convention Center is the second IndyCar stop of 2017, and Simon Pagenaud will be the person to beat on Sunday.
On the way out of his final pit stop of the 2016 race, Pagenaud, who was seeking his first Team Penske victory, crossed a yellow blended line too early in an attempt to cut off Scott Dixon, the defending IndyCar champion.
Pagenaud was successful, as he took over first place and ultimately held off Dixon by 0.3032 seconds. IndyCar officials chose only to warn Pagenaud rather than give him a harsher penalty.
“For any driver coming to Penske, that’s the defining moment in your career,” Pagenaud said of winning his first race with the team. “For that reason, it was definitely an incredible weekend. The way I drove to leapfrog Dixon in the pit stop was, to me, one of my best two laps in racing ever.”
Pagenaud went on to take the IndyCar championship from Dixon, and he credits the Long Beach race for giving him traction.
“I think it started to definitely give us momentum as a team, which is considered key in this business,” Pagenaud said. “So I think it made the difference for sure.”
Dixon faded to sixth in the season standings, his worst finish in a decade. He remembers the incident at Long Beach quite differently.
“I think we should’ve won the race here last year,” Dixon said. “I was a little mad at the situation, but I rightfully can’t be mad at Simon. Every driver is going to try and take advantage, and they sure did in that situation.”
Close calls come with the territory at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, which features 12 turns and prompts driver emphasis on avoiding major mistakes.
“You’re running between walls — concrete walls — at 200 miles per hour at the end of the straight,” Pagenaud said. “You better be precise and you better be committed as well.”
The mix of fast straightaways and tight corners makes Long Beach an appealing destination. Dixon, who won here in 2015, ranks it atop his list of non-oval venues.
“I think it’s the best street course that we go to for a lot of reasons,” Dixon said. “The longevity of that race, the crowd the last couple of years has been outstanding. The environment they create there and the atmosphere — you can tell everybody is pumped.”
At the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., last month, Pagenaud and Dixon were jockeying near the front, with the Frenchman finishing second, and Dixon third. The winner was Sebastien Bourdais, who also knows a thing or two about Long Beach.
“We’ve enjoyed a lot of really happy days over there,” Bourdais said. “Things have changed a lot.”
Bourdais had three consecutive victories in Long Beach as part of the Champ Car Series from 2005 to 2007. But since making the transition to the IndyCar circuit, he’s struggled to regain winning form at Long Beach. His best finish is sixth in 2015. His best finish in the IndyCar season standings is 10th, in 2014.
Bourdais said he entered this season figuring he’d win “a race or two.” During his win at St. Petersburg, he was aided by an early pit stop and a caution flag that sent him catapulting from the back to the front of the action.
The win, he said, “definitely is going to change the way people look at us. … People tend to look at results and say, ‘Oh, well, if you won the last race, why would you not win this one?”’
Still, Bourdais believes his Dale Coyne Racing Honda was a top-five car at St. Petersburg, and with nearly a month off between races — the longest gap of the season — he’s not dismissing his chances this weekend.
“For the smaller teams like us, when things are a little spaced it gives us some time to collect ourselves and prepare,” Bourdais said. “It’s definitely in our favor.”
Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach
Where: Long Beach street circuit around the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center.
Defending champion: Simon Pagenaud.
Schedule: Friday, IndyCar practice at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, IndyCar practice at 10:45 a.m. IndyCar qualifying at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, IndyCar Grand Prix runs from 1:30 to approximately 4 p.m.
TV coverage: NBCSN, 1 p.m. Sunday.
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