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IndyCar Preview: Grand Prix of Road America

Written by Dan Jones

Credit: Chris Jones

After the thrills of the Indianapolis 500, and the carnage of Detroit, the IndyCar roadshow heads straight to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, for a third consecutive weekend of racing action, and a fifth consecutive weekend of competitive on-track action, as the 27 drivers come to tackle the iconic Road America circuit, for Round 7 of 17 in the 2024 NTT IndyCar Series.

But let's quickly recap what went on in Detroit, where Scott Dixon took a vintage victory to propel himself into the championship lead, after Álex Palou's incredible streak of finishing in the top eight in every race since Laguna Seca 2022 came to an end, after he was caught up in Josef Newgarden's accident.

The story of the race was yellow, 47 of the 100 laps being under caution for eight separate incidents, with four green laps between Lap 33 and Lap 73. The race would have a bit of everything: drops of rain, bold overtakes, pit-stop incidents and more in IndyCar's annual crash-fest race, with slippery conditions, frustrated drivers and the tight Detroit barriers all playing a factor on the chaos.

Dixon is now within single figures of A.J. Foyt's all-time win record. Credit: James Black

Dixon took the headlines, ahead of Marcus Ericsson who began his '2024 2.0', with his first podium for Andretti Global. Marcus Armstrong claimed his first IndyCar podium in third, after superbly holding off Ericsson to help his countryman take his 57th career victory. Kyle Kirkwood finished fourth to end his bizarre statistic of his only top fives being victories. You can read the full race report here.

But drivers can't reflect on Detroit's action for too long, as the show heads straight to the woods of Elkhart Lake, the home of the iconic Road America, one of America's oldest road courses, a track that opened in 1955, with it's layout remaining the same since that very day, a 6.515km (4.048 mile) circuit consisting of ten to the right and four to the left.

The lap starts on the climb for Turn 1, before subtly going downhill before you turn in right, as the track continues to fall away, with a non-existent kink at Turn 2, before shifting down a few gears for the tighter Turn 3. Drivers will then be met with one of the longest straightaways on the calendar, which includes another easy flat-out kink at Turn 4, down the Morraine Sweep for the best overtaking zone on the circuit, as they heavily brake for the left-hander at Turn 5.

The carousel is one of the fastest corners on the calendar. Credit: James Black

Drivers will then quickly ascend under the bridge at the left-hander at Turn 6, before a high-speed right-hander at Turn 7. The left-hander at Turn 8 is a bit slower, but leads onto the 'Carousel' a terrifying high-speed right-hander, which drivers will take flat-out, before 'The Kink' at Turn 11, another flat-out right-hander, before heading down Kettle Bottoms to another overtaking opportunity for the right-hander at Canada Corner. Drivers flick right and then left through Bill Mitchell Bend, before the right-hander at Turn 14 brings them uphill to the start-finish line.

Road America is a true drivers circuit. Very little margin for error, with plenty of grass and gravel awaiting you on either side. It's high-speed, filled with elevation, and has plenty of overtaking opportunities throughout the track - the longest circuit on the entire IndyCar calendar, with Sunday's race consisting of 55 laps.

Palou took a vital win here last season. Credit: Travis Hinkle

Álex Palou is the defending race winner at Road America, arguably his best circuit on the calendar. Palou took victory here in 2021, in addition to last season, and took his maiden podium at this venue, when racing for Dale Coyne Racing in 2020. His 2022 event ended on Lap 2, after he collided with his then-teammate, Marcus Ericsson. Almost unusually, Palou doesn't lead the championship after a frustrating Detroit, but there's almost no better venue for him to turn his fortunes around.

But of course, now-championship leader, Scott Dixon, has found great success here too, winning in 2017 and 2020, and having four more top fives at the circuit. Last season, the Kiwi recovered from 23rd to 4th in this race, and with the consistency and racecraft that Dixon has displayed so far in 2024, it's impossible to count him out of the equation too.

Despite winning the Indianapolis 500, 2024 has been disappointing for Josef Newgarden. After his disqualification from victory on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Newgarden now lies 10th in the standings, with only two top ten finishes to his name in the six rounds so far. However, this could well be Newgarden's best road course on the schedule, winning in 2018 and 2022, as well as taking three poles at the circuit. He would have also won the 2021 race had it not been for a mechanical failure late on, and was runner-up here last year, and in 2017.

Newgarden signed a new contract mid-weekend at Detroit, and although the race did not turn out his way, after he spun into Kyle Kirkwood and hit the wall himself, this presents an excellent venue for him to turn his championship fortunes around, especially with the oval stretch that will end the season.

Felix Rosenqvist won his only IndyCar race to date here in 2020, when he duelled with Pato O'Ward. Alexander Rossi won the event in 2019, with a further two podiums in 2020 and 2022. Rossi has had a quiet, but excellent year so far, and now lies fifth in the standings, with McLaren potentially looking at extending his deal for 2025.

Power was not pleased last year. Credit: James Black

Will Power stole the headlines last year though. He got into a practice crash with Scott Dixon, before the Aussie started shoving the Kiwi around. And in his post-qualifying interview, Power would slate the track, and Romain Grosjean, stating the Frenchman needed 'a punch in the face.' Power won this event when it returned to the schedule in 2017, and has taken a further three podiums since.

Almost unbelievably, Colton Herta is over two seasons without a victory. But, this track has been kind to him in recent years. He took his first career pole at Road America in 2019, and took pole last season, but had to settle for fifth after a poorly-timed pit-stop late on. Herta has claimed a top five in his last five visits though, and has never finished outside the top eight at the venue - is this his time to turn his fortunes around?

It's still early days in the season, but the championship remains as critical as ever, with three road courses set to swing the season before the multitude of ovals to see out the season. The top ten are as follows:

Dixon - 216

Palou - 198

Power - 185

O'Ward - 160

Rossi - 150

Kirkwood - 148

Herta - 147

McLaughlin - 141

Rosenqvist - 140

Newgarden - 128

Looking into the weekend, few drivers changes are to be made. As was the case in Detroit, Hélio Castroneves will be in the #66 Meyer Shank Racing car, after the team and Tom Blomqvist 'mutually stepped aside' after an underwhelming start to the Brit's IndyCar career. Castroneves looks set to hand over the keys after this event, with many expecting David Malukas to take the helm when the series hits Laguna Seca on June 23rd.

Ghiotto will be back this weekend. Credit: Chris Jones

The seat at the #51 Dale Coyne Racing car is handed back to Luca Ghiotto, who piloted the car at Barber Motorsports Park and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Tristan Vautier impressed in the car at Detroit, running as high as third, but the Frenchman returns to his usual commitments at the Le Mans 2024, for Cadillac Chip Ganassi Racing, where Álex Palou and Scott Dixon will participate in the iconic race next week.

Road America's lap record has bizarrely stood since 1998, where Alex Zanardi did a 1:41.874. Dario Franchitti holds the outright record, with a 1:39.866 in qualifying in 2000. Many believed that record would be broken last season when the track was re-paved, however, the field where three tenths shy in qualifying and a second off in the race.

But, with the lighter components for 2024, brought in anticipation for the hybrid engine, which will debut at Mid-Ohio, those records could finally be broken, with the circuit still benefitting from the re-pave, and the cars as light as ever.

Newgarden will be hoping for more of this over the weekend. Credit: Joe Skibinski

The race winner at Road America has gone onto win the title in three of the last five seasons. It may be coincidental, but with every single championship round now more significant than the previous, there's plenty on the line. Palou and Power remain the only drivers within a race win of Dixon at this moment in time, the likes of Pato O'Ward, Colton Herta, Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden having a lot of work to do if they're to claw down that gap before it becomes unattainable.

Nestled in the woods, Road America is a picturesque race track, but it's one of the most challenging for drivers on the calendar - is that why we see the likes of Josef Newgarden and Álex Palou do so well here? Can Palou or Dixon further break away from the pack? Can the likes of Newgarden and Herta reel them back in? Will we get lap records broken? There's plenty to look forward to this weekend at Road America.


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