Romain Grosjean

The crowd gathered around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s victory podium following Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix was cheering wildly for an NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver.

Only in this case, the driver wasn’t the race winner; it was the second-place finisher.

Most motorsports fans know where Romain Grosjean was six months ago, painfully extricating himself from a burning Formula One car at the Bahrain circuit. It was frightening, and it was emotional for all of those who viewed the nearly three-minute ordeal in real time. (It’s even difficult watching the replay knowing the outcome!)

The positive attitude Grosjean has responded with has earned him a legion of supporters, and many of them were in the throng yelling his name Saturday.

Yes, Grosjean noticed, and he certainly appreciated the sentiment. The proof was in the aggressive manner in which he pumped his fist.

“People have been very good to me,” he said. “I’m very grateful for all of the support for me and my family.”

Everything about Grosjean’s U.S. experience seems to be going well, with a pole and a podium in this event, and a top-10 finish in the season-opening race at Barber Motorsports Park. But most of all, he is having fun for the first time since 2013 when he scored six F1 podiums for the Lotus team.

“Leading (44) laps,” he said of the best part of being in INDYCAR. “I love driving the car. Even in the warm-up this morning, (the crew) said you can pit for some changes, and I said, ‘No, I’m not pitting.’ I was just happy to be out there and pushing and learning the car.

“I’m having a great time. The atmosphere between the drivers is excellent. We’re joking and having fun. It is super competitive on the track but as soon as you remove your helmet, it’s like good friendship between the drivers, which, surprisingly, you don’t find anywhere else. I love that part.”

Traffic Jam for Grosjean

Asked what he didn’t love about Saturday’s race, French driver Grosjean didn’t hesitate.

“Blue flags,” he said, pausing for effect but still smiling.

Grosjean said he got stuck behind the lapped car of Sebastien Bourdais late in the race, preventing him from making up ground on leader and eventual winner Rinus VeeKay. But Grosjean said his friend and countryman was on new alternate (red) tires, something he couldn’t overcome with older tires.

INDYCAR’s next race is the 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, with practice beginning Tuesday. Grosjean won’t be driving the No. 51 NURTEC ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR as he is only competing on the road courses and street circuits this season. He said he will watch Pietro Fittipaldi drive the car from his home in Switzerland.

Grosjean: Not Yes or No on ‘500’

One probably shouldn’t read too much into Grosjean’s comments Friday about reconsidering an Indy 500 run in the future. He didn’t say no, but he didn’t say yes, either.

“Never say never,” he said. “We take things step by step. I think for my whole family, they were super supportive (regarding joining INDYCAR), but obviously seeing me going back racing I guess was not that easy. They can see how happy I am (here).

“But right now, I can’t say yes or no.”

Podium Finish Helps Palou Gain in Standings

Five races into 2021, Alex Palou is still here – within reach of the championship lead, that is.

Palou, in just his second season and first driving Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 10 The American Legion Honda, is just 13 points behind six-time series champion and teammate Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda). The 24-year-old Spaniard finished third in Saturday’s race to move into second place heading to the “500.” And, he closed on Dixon, who finished ninth, gaining 13 points.

So far this season, Palou has won a race (at Barber Motorsports Park) and finished in the top four of two other races to demonstrate consistency. Remove that frustrating 17th-place finish in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Palou would be the points leader.

“That’s what happens when you have the best team around you,” he said.

Now comes the “500.” Palou will seek to avoid a repeat of last year’s race when he hit the Turn 1 wall on Lap 122. He finished 28th after starting seventh.

“I had a good Month of May going until I crashed,” he said. “I’m not going to do that again.”

Wentz Gets First Look at Massive Speedway

New Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz apparently had done the math before making his first visit to IMS. When asked about capacity at the iconic motorsports facility, Wentz was on the mark.

“Like five (of my) hometowns,” he said.

Indeed, Bismarck, North Dakota, where Wentz’s North Carolina family moved to when he was 3, has a listed population of 72,777. Venue capacity at IMS is estimated at 350,000, which makes five times accurate.

Wentz gave the command to start engines for Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix and hopes to attend the “500.” Of course, this year’s race will have attendance capped at 135,000 due to COVID-19 precautions.

Wentz met 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti, who has driven the Ruoff Mortgage Fastest Seat in Sports two-seater at INDYCAR races for years and did so again Saturday. Wentz said he likely would accept a ride with Andretti, if offered and his schedule allowed.

Another Colt on Hand, Too

Colts cornerback Kenny Moore has been a fixture at INDYCAR races this season, and this was his third event in four so far, with the “500” up next. Moore has become particularly good friends with Pato O’Ward, but he also knows Felix Rosenqvist and Alexander Rossi, among others.

“They think what I do is crazy,” Moore said. “Let’s just break it here: What they do is crazy. It’s just a mutual respect.”

Moore emphasized the adrenaline rush he gets being on pit road when the engines are roaring – “It makes me pumped to put on a helmet again,” he said – and hopes teammate Wentz enjoyed it as much as he has.

And for the record, Moore rode with Andretti in the Ruoff Mortgage Fastest Seat in Sports at Barber Motorsports Park.

“Loved it,” he said.

Road to Indy Finishes Strong

Chicago’s David Malukas of HMD Motorsports held off England’s Toby Sowery of Juncos Racing in a wild final lap of Saturday’s Indy Lights race.

The two cars went side by side in Turn 1, with Sowery drifting into the grass. But he recovered to give two more challenges, the last at the finish line where the cars were separated by .0283 of a second. Malukas, who started on the pole and led every lap, has won the second race of each of the three events this season.

In Indy Pro 2000, Denmark’s Christian Rasmussen of Jay Howard Driver Development won his second race of the weekend and his third in the past four starts in his rookie season. Russia’s Artern Petrov of Exclusive Autosport won Saturday’s first race, his first of the season and his third in the series.

Brazil’s Kiko Porto of DEForce Racing won the third and final race of the weekend in the USF2000 Championship. The victory was his first in the series.

Odds and Ends

  • VeeKay not only became the third first-time winner of 2021, he became the first driver to have won races in all four levels of INDYCAR’s ladder system.
  • The youth movement is on this season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Four of the five winners this season are younger than 25 (Alex Palou, Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay), and they just happen to be the four youngest full-time drivers in the series. Six-time series champion Scott Dixon, 40, is the other race winner.
  • VeeKay said he has an agreement with his trainer that podium finishes earned can be rewarded with his favorite dessert. “Cheesecake,” he excitedly said. “And this might have syrup on it.” VeeKay was told he could have an entire cake, but he vowed to stick to a single piece.
  • Graham Rahal had an exceptional fifth-place finish. The driver of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda got knocked into the first-turn grass on the opening lap and found himself 24th in a 25-car race after pitting twice. His crew insisted he conserve fuel the rest of the race while trying to maintain pace, and he did that in finishing fifth. He remained fifth in the standings, but he gained seven points on the series leader. He trails by 39 points.
  • Palou had the best quote of the day, pointing out last year he drove the car Grosjean drove Saturday. “I did a really good job of giving him a good car,” he said.
  • Stat of the Weekend, courtesy of Trackside Online: Before Grosjean won the pole for the GMR Grand Prix, the last recorded INDYCAR pole by a Swiss-born driver was on July 4, 1917. That was Louis Chevrolet on a board track in Omaha, Nebraska.