For one reason or another (a laptop killed by a Naturday and flying straight from Bommarito to Seattle in 2018), I’ve never done a real Grand Prix of Portland Preview. Of course, 2020 had its slew of issues that we won’t dwell on. In a few short days, the drivers of the NTT INDYCAR series restart the season after a few weeks off and go back-to-back-to-back for the final three races all in the West Coast. They start up in the Pacific Northwest at Portland International Raceway (PIR). The track is a twelve-turn 1.97-mile permanent road course in the northwestern part of the city. Something I did not know was the track is built on the location of a former flooded city, Vanport, a little creepy. While 2018 was the inaugural INDYCAR Grand Prix of Portland, CART and ChampCar raced at PIR from 1984 to 2007. The track holds the record for the closest three-car finish. In 1997 Mark Blundell squeaked out a win over Gil de Ferran (separated by 0.027 seconds) and Raul Boesel (0.055 seconds).
As mentioned, the inaugural event was in 2018 where of course Will Power did his qualifying thing and claimed pole, as well as setting the track record for the fastest lap (123.577 miles per hour). The race did start with a lot of heartbreak with a Lap 1 incident where it was just, excuse my French, a shit-show. Marco Andretti ended upside down and it was surprising how many drivers managed to get out of the incident. In 2019 history repeated itself with yet another Lap 1 major incident, but the race ended with a good dog fight between Will Power and Felix Rosenqvist due to a late yellow – Power did ultimately win that race. As we all know, and most likely will be reminded multiple times during the broadcast, the race was not held in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns.
What will 2021’s Grand Prix of Portland bring? The start of a bare-knuckle championship fight. Sixty points separate first (Pato O’Ward) from fifth (Marcus Ericsson) in the championship standings. A perfect race where you get pole, lead the most laps, and win, will get you fifty-three points. What does that mean? A bad race for Pato and a great race for anyone else in the top 5 is going to upset the leaderboard. Teams won’t play it safe, Pato cannot sit comfortably in his lead and Ericsson is only sixty points back. If he has two great races: he could easily be upfront heading into the championship race.
Since this is a road course, qualification is even more important. Starting position is vital, it’s important to get upfront and into that clean air and just take off. Look for some high drama in qualifications. I also suspect some strategery within the top five with fuel numbers. The race is 110 laps so about three pit stops, two if you have some yellows and fuel magic. Scott Dixon is in the mix and there’s no one with more fuel and tire magic than Dixon.
We’re also seeing some try-outs this race, and the final races of the season. There are a lot of unknowns and team shake-ups coming to INDYCAR so those without a seat or in a precarious situation are going to be auditioning for everyone. Not to mention Oliver Askew and Callum Ilott who will be stepping into new seats for the remainder of the season. Ilott will be driving for recently re-named Juncos Hollinger Racing, and Askew will be in the third Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing car. Askew holds the honor of being my good bet for the race. He’s going to be quite cheap but as he’s auditioning look for him to qualify well, race clean but aggressive, and bring the car home in one piece and up a few places.
We shall see!