Grand Prix at the Glen
by Esteban Morales
July 6, 2008
One week after Richmond’s demolition derby the IndyCar Series visited Watkins Glen International in picturesque upstate New York where it almost got away with a fairly clean race. Despite a mostly trouble free 40 laps, a string of yellows and blunders set the scene for Ryan Hunter-Reay’s first major openwheel triumph since his last win behind the wheel of a Champ Car in 2004.
Though critics may call Hunter-Reay’s win opportunistic, the Rahal Letterman Racing driver showed he had the raw speed to challenge for victory throughout the weekend. Hunter-Reay lined up third for the event behind Ryan Briscoe and Justin Wilson and held his own at the start of the race. He advanced to second when Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon was penalized one position for jumping the start. Early in the event Briscoe and Hunter-Reay kept their cars out of the pits during a caution for Helio Castroneves’ slowing car. The caution allowed Dixon to close the gap between himself and Hunter-Reay. Following the restart Dixon set up Hunter-Reay through the uphill esses and the backstraight to take second at the Bus Stop.
Briscoe kept a steady gap back to Dixon as the leaders settled just before the second stint. During the first set of green stops Briscoe traded the lead with Vitor Meira who was slightly off sequence. When Meira pealed into the pits Briscoe continued to dominate with Dixon and Hunter-Reay second and third. Behind the leaders Tony Kanaan drove a steady race in fourth with a fractured wrist. Further back teammates Bruno Junqueira and Mario Moraes kept their cars in or just outside the top ten and ultimately gave Dale Coyne Racing two very respectable results finishing sixth and seventh.
Halfway through the event Dixon began turning Briscoe’s race into a frustrating afternoon. Dixon steadily closed on the Team Penske driver and pressured him into dropping a couple of wheels off in the dirt as the leaders maneuvered through lapped traffic. Just as the leaders were preparing to enter the pits the yellow flew for the second time when EJ Viso ran wide and knocked Vitor Meira into the tire barriers in the eighth turn. Darren Manning, who pitted out of the top ten just prior to the yellow, kept his car on the track while most of the pack dove into the pits. While Dixon was able to edge Briscoe out of the pits, the Iceman had to settle for second on the track behind Manning.
Instead of setting up Manning for a pass in the first turn Dixon fell behind the Britton at the restart with Ed Carpenter’s lapped car in the way. Before the drivers were able to get back into any rhythm, however, the yellow was unfurled just one lap later when Enrique Bernoldi spun in Turn 1. Bernoldi’s spin set up a series of bizarre events that plummeted Dixon and Briscoe and catapulted Hunter-Reay to second. The first incident took place between Milka Duno and A.J. Foyt IV; had it not been for contact between both drivers, IndyCar officials would have restarted the race on lap 48. The officials tried a second time one lap later but Dixon made an uncharacteristic rookie mistake. While warming his tires Dixon spun his car. With nowhere to go Briscoe collided into Dixon’s Dallara sending the pair to the back of the grid. In the midst of late-race mayhem, Hunter-Reay kept his nose clean and moved to second as team owner Bobby Rahal celebrated the carnage by clapping in pitlane.
The race finally went back to green on lap 51. Hunter-Reay restarted cleanly, closed on Manning and took the lead in the first turn. Manning mounted a brief but unsuccessful challenge in the Bus Stop just before the race went back to yellow for the last time after rookie Jaime Camara spun. When the race went green Hunter-Reay checked out and ran a flawless handful of laps to end Rahal Letterman Racing’s three-year drought since winning at Michigan International Speedway with Buddy Rice. Hunter-Reay was happy to point out that an “American kid” fittingly won with an “American team” flying Old Glory on its end plates on Independence Day weekend.