Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach

Golf staged The Masters last weekend. Now, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES heads to one of its majors.

The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is open-wheel racing’s most prestigious event this side of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, and it also one of its longest running. Only once since 1984 has the Southern California city not hosted an INDYCAR SERIES race, and that was a forced cancellation in 2020 due to the global pandemic. If you’re counting, and we are, this is No. 40 (overall it’s No. 49).

SEE: Race Details

Long Beach winners are a Who’s Who of North American motorsports. In the first 27 years of INDYCAR SERIES races, all but one of the winners were or soon became series champions. The outlier was Helio Castroneves, a four-time “500” winner.

Thirteen “500” winners have combined to conquer Long Beach on 22 occasions. Al Unser Jr. won the event six times, Mario Andretti three. In recent years, Will Power and Alexander Rossi have won it twice each.

The 15 series champions who have gone to victory lane there include Michael Andretti, Danny Sullivan, Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, Dario Franchitti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden.

You get the idea. Long Beach is an event of champions.

The question now is, who’s next?

All Eyes on Andretti Global

Andretti Global’s Kyle Kirkwood, who won last year’s race from the pole, leads the field of 27 car-and-driver combinations to the much-anticipated event.

The driver of the No. 27 AutoNation Honda is one of six former Long Beach winners entered. The others are Power (2008, 2012), Dixon (2015), Rossi (2018, 2019), Colton Herta (2021) and Newgarden (2022).

While there have been different winners, much of the recent success has come from one team. Michael Andretti’s organization has won four of the past five Long Beach races with three different drivers (Rossi, Herta and Kirkwood). Last year, the team went 1-2-4 and then acquired Marcus Ericsson in the offseason; he had finished third at Long Beach in 2023 for Chip Ganassi Racing. Kirkwood led 53 of the 85 laps a year ago.

Of course, Team Penske often has the historical edge, and it does at this event, as well. Its seven all-time wins leads the way, with Newgarden the most recent winner. The driver of the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet also dominated the series’ season-opening race, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, with 92 of the 100 laps led. Newgarden also led 27 laps last year at Long Beach.

Recent Long Beach history suggests qualifying will be extremely important. Four of the past five race winners started on the two-driver front row, and seven of the past eight started in the first two rows. The exception was Herta winning three years ago from the 14th position.

Chevrolet Starts Season Strong

It wasn’t just that Team Penske put its three drivers in the top-four finishing positions in the St. Petersburg race, it’s that Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) was in there, as well. That meant that Chevrolet went 1-2-3-4 in a street race. That hasn’t been recent history.

Prior to Newgarden’s victory, Honda-powered drivers had won the past seven series street races, earning 71.4 percent of the podium positions (15 of 21). Kirkwood had given Andretti Global two wins, with Chip Ganassi Racing winning single races with Alex Palou and Ericsson. Honda also has won nine of the past 14 races at Long Beach.

The question is, has Chevrolet found something for street circuits in its head-to-head battle with Honda? Keep in mind that the 11-turn, 1.968-mile Long Beach layout features the slowest corner of the season – the famous hairpin – and getting off the corner strongly positions a driver for the chance to overtake an opponent on the long, sweeping Shoreline Drive run to Turn 1.

Contenders and Newcomers

This is the point of the season where contenders begin to separate from the pretenders. Maybe they already have.

Newgarden (St. Petersburg) and Palou (The Thermal Club) were dominant in the first two events of the year, and no one should be surprised. They have combined to win four of the past seven series titles and were the popular picks to take the Astor Challenge Cup this year.

But what do we know about Dixon, who remains in pursuit of a record-tying seventh series title? A notoriously slow starter, the driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda finished ninth in St. Petersburg and failed to transfer to the 12-driver main event in the non-points The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge. He would argue he could have finished much higher in St. Petersburg if not for the first caution occurring just as he was about to jump several opponents with a pit overcut.

Another driver expected to make a statement about his chances this season is Felix Rosenqvist. The Swede made the switch to Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda this season, and he has gotten off to a strong start. Rosenqvist qualified on the front row in St. Petersburg before sliding back to seventh in the race, and he delivered a third-place run at The Thermal Club. Can he maintain those results?

This event features two drivers making their series debuts. INDY NXT by Firestone points leader Nolan Siegel will make his official first start in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 51 King Taco Honda, although he competed at The Thermal Club in the same entry. Theo Pourchaire, who won last year’s FIA Formula 2 Championship, will drive the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet as David Malukas is still recovering from his wrist injury and Callum Ilott, who drove the car in the season’s first two races, is unavailable due to sports car racing commitments.

O’Ward Returns to Turn 8

Stay glued to O’Ward if for no other reason that he is off to another strong start to an NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, finishing second in St. Petersburg.

The driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet was at the center of both defining moments in last year’s Long Beach race. Both happened in Turn 8, too. O’Ward virtually was side-by-side with Dixon on Lap 20 when their wheel contact knocked Dixon into the tire barrier. To say the least, Dixon was not happy.

On the restart, O’Ward had a massive run on Kirkwood and Ericsson for position but couldn’t complete the passes. That time it was his car into the barrier, a spin that included light contact with Kirkwood and Ericsson. O’Ward finished 17th, his only finish outside the top four in the season’s first five races.

Long Beach hasn’t been O’Ward’s best circuit. He finished fifth in 2022 and crashed out of his first series race there in 2021. But he’s second in the point standings for a reason.

The Weekend Schedule

The Thunder Thursday Pit Stop Challenge will be held tonight on the track between Turns 5 and 6. The matchups are the crews of Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Odyssey Battery Team Penske Chevrolet) versus Marcus Armstrong (No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and Santino Ferrucci (No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing/Sexton Properties Chevrolet) versus Ericsson (No. 28 Delaware Life Honda). There is no broadcast coverage for the event at 9:30 p.m. ET.

Regular NTT INDYCAR SERIES practices are set for Friday at 5:50 p.m. ET and Saturday at 11:25 a.m. ET. Both sessions are live on Peacock, INDYCAR LIVE and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

Qualifying for the NTT P1 Award will be Saturday at 2:25 p.m. ET on the same broadcast outlets. The final practice of the weekend is at noon ET Sunday. Both will be live on Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

Sunday’s 85-lap race will be at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.