IndyCar’s Problems Drowned Out By The Sound of Engines

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IndyCar Ready To Race Forward Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

When a motorsports series is pummeled by the sort of wacky intrigue that cloaked the IndyCar Series this week, there is one solid – if temporary -- fix to the problems.

And that is the racing.

The roar of engines is the answer to the back-and-forth, yes-and-no, point-counterpoint drama that has overshadowed virtually everything else about American open-wheel racing this week. Drivers, especially those wearing Team Penske colors, seemed overly eager to hit the track at Barber Motorsports Park, one of the IndyCar tour’s most impressive facilities, for Friday’s opening round of practice and Saturday’s practice and qualifying for Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix.

There were several incidents on track, including a long spin through the grass by Josef Newgarden, the man at the center of this week’s imbroglio. Perhaps determined to dampen the focus on his troubles, Newgarden recovered in style, eventually leading the first practice session with a speed of 124.130 miles per hour. To add a touch of irony to the proceedings, Pato O’Ward, who got the St. Petersburg victory that had been stripped from Newgarden for push-to-pass violations, was second in that first session at 123.975.

Rinus VeeKay led Saturday’s practice at 124.425, and Grosjean was second despite bobbles. Newgarden was ninth.

Attention was on the numbers and the off-track adventures, not on the cloud hanging over Team Penske following the disqualifications of Newgarden and teammate Scott McLaughlin related to push-to-pass violations during the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, Florida. Those issues, remarkably not discovered until last Sunday during warmups for the race at Long Beach, California, cost Newgarden the St. Petersburg victory and put him in the center of controversy over exactly what happened at St. Pete, which individuals knew what happened and when it happened and why series officials didn’t discover the violations earlier.

Newgarden, whose rise through the sport has been steady and includes both a series championship and an Indianapolis 500 victory, was in the most uncomfortable of spotlights Friday, sitting behind a microphone and in front of a splash of sponsor logos while trying for 25 long minutes to explain himself, his team and his angst. It isn’t often that big, bad, brash race car drivers are brought to the edge of tears repeatedly in front of inquiring media representatives and the unblinking eye of television, but that was exactly the case with Newgarden, whose words satisfied some but irritated others. There was both belief and disbelief, and so it was that time on the track was welcomed by all.

There is a decided attractiveness to Barber, a race course plopped down somewhere east of Birmingham in a slice of Deep South wilderness. It is a race track disguised as a forest, and the course’s intelligent design sends race cars looping through tough turns and across up-and-down elevation changes, most in front of green hillsides dotted with spectators and tents blocking the Alabama sun. Interstate 20 is just down the road, as is one of the latest outposts of the convenience store/truck stop/beef jerky/theme park establishment known as Buc-ee’s, an entity clearly on the move toward global domination. But Barber exists in a world apart, shielded by parkland.

Barber should not be mistaken for a glade of calm and woodsy bliss, however. Drivers describe it as one of the toughest tracks on the IndyCar circuit. It is fast and unforgiving, as more than a few drivers confirmed in both Friday’s first practice and Saturday’s second. Cars slipped off the faster parts of the track, rolled through the bright green grass and bounced into runoff traps designed to keep vehicles from slamming into nearby fencing or running over assorted wildlife. Some of the best drivers in the open-wheel universe found the raw edge – and went over it.

“It's just Barber,” said Romain Grosjean, by way of explanation. “It's probably the most physical track of the season. It's very hot. We're pushing the limits on the car. High-speed corners.”

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Scott Mclaughlin of New Zealand (3) driving for Team Penske wins the Pole for the NTT IndyCar Series Children’s of Alabama INDY Grand Prix race on Saturday April 27, 2024 at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

Saturday the irony continued for Team Penske as McLaughlin won the pole with teammate Will Power close behind in second.

On Sunday, the third race of the season is scheduled to get the green flag at 1 p.m. (ET). Then, early-season preliminaries aside, it’s time for the month of May and teams essentially living inside the rectangle of Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a big chunk of spring. The Sonsio Grand Prix road course race is scheduled May 11, Indy 500 qualifying May 19 and the 500 May 26.

Let the racing continue.