BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Hello from the Deep South. NASCAR country, some might call it. That’s exactly how we in the Verizon IndyCar Series regarded it when we first came here, to Barber Motorsports Park, six years ago. But the so-called myth of southern hospitality is 100% true. They’ve welcomed us with open arms and been massive supporters of this weekend’s event—the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, which you can catch on Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN.
For those of you thinking about attending in person, know there are plenty of good seats still available, with great sight lines too. The grounds alone are beautiful. The racetrack—a 2.3-mile, 17-turn fun ride—is top notch. No, there aren’t many grandstands. But there is a sort of stadium-style terrain that allows fans to post up in tents and lawn chairs, crack open a cooler and enjoy a good race. Certainly, all of us on the No. 5 Arrow Honda machine for Schmidt Peterson have reason to feel extra optimistic after the effort we gave last week in Long Beach.
That was a solid weekend, the first one all season that we didn’t have some major catastrophe affect our performance. We rolled off the truck on Friday with a really good car, and that makes such a difference. Relatively, the track time in this series is so short right now that if you have to fix some major issue, there really isn’t enough leeway. So huge props to the team for prepping the car and giving us a strong package right from the get-go. In qualifying, we just missed out on the Firestone Fast 6. There was a bit of confusion there with the timing line. For a second, officials reverted to a timing line that had us getting into the Fast 6. But then a minute later, they went to a different line and we were out. As disappointing as that was, we could take pride in emerging as the top Honda, seventh to start. Obviously, that shows we’re running toward the sharp end of the grid.
Then in the race we got off to a clean start, maintained position and kept up with the guys at the front. And then we made our first pit stop, in a box at the very end of pit lane—which is generally not a bad position to be in if you can’t get the box at the very front. If there’s a hazard to this spot it’s that if you’re running up front, and there’s a good chance that the guys at the back of the field will be diving in right as you’re trying to escape. And, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to us.
Right as we finished our stop, Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Muñoz dove in right in front of us. Rather than risk a collision, we stayed put for an extra two seconds while he settled into his box. That was just enough time for Takuma Sato (of AJ Foyt Racing) and Josef Newgarden (Ed Carpenter Racing) to gain positions on us. We managed to get Josef back on the track but couldn’t catch Takuma, who moved farther up and hung on for a fifth-place finish. We finished three spots lower, in eighth, thinking that could’ve been us. So, yeah, even though the stops were quick, the team did a great job, and there was plenty of pace in the car—we were all over the gearboxes of Will Power (Team Penske) and Tony Kanaan (Ganassi Racing) toward the end—it was just a case of bad timing, which turned out to be the story of the day.
The race itself was decided when Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud exited the pits and made an early cross over the commitment line back on to the track as Ganassi’s Scott Dixon (who was leading the race) was setting up for the first turn. Pagenaud’s bold move was met with a warning from the stewards. Some felt he should’ve been issued a drive-through penalty, which ostensibly would’ve sealed the victory for Dixon. I see both sides of the argument.
On one hand, the rule is black and white. What’s more, when the season began, we drivers went on and on boasting about our off-season success in excising 27 warning-worthy infractions from the rulebook. On the other hand, Pagenaud’s pass is one of those moves that’s still a judgment call. Is it really fair to lose a race win over six inches? The officials were in a tough position. I understand their desire to not want to interfere with the racing any more than they absolutely had to. [Editor’s note: Going forward, legal pit exits will be determined by the positioning of a car’s transponder relative to a virtual commit line drawn by sensors embedded in the track surface—an electronic trip wire, if you will.]
Fingers crossed, the action here at Barber can remain pure. For me personally, this has been a place of some big highs (my first IndyCar start, in 2011) and some big lows (like that time, in 2013, where I got hit on the first lap and remained stranded for 75 laps as we waited for a yellow, which never materialized). But I love this racetrack—its long, fast corners in particular. The Turn 12-13 chicane, one of the quickest sections, might be my favorite part.
You’re turning almost flat out in fifth gear, then it’s quick downshift a couple gears and a bunch of changes in elevation and directions. You feel lateral acceleration, longitudinal acceleration and vertical acceleration all at the same time. You’re really getting g’d on three different axes. It’s quite an experience, the kind of thing that separates racing drivers from the public. If there were a way to somehow feel that through the TV, IndyCar would be appointment viewing for sure.
Speaking of dates to keep, I’m late for mine—on the podium. After last week’s effort in Long Beach, I feel like we’re finally making up for lost time. I think we’re getting close to one of those perfect days, one that could well take that "myth" of southern hospitality to a whole new level.
James Hinchcliffe is a veteran IndyCar driver and your new best friend. You just don’t know it yet. Check out his website, Hinchtown.com or follow him on Twitter @hinchtown. There could be a round of Hinchtown Hammerdown in it.