By: Max Davies
Gateway to the West 150
World Wide Tech Speedway
Wednesday October 21st
Winner: Nick DeGroot
2nd Place: Brandon Passalacqua
3rd Place: AJ Musselman
Sometimes, a race fails to live up to expectations. Now usually, this is a bad thing but considering that – in the eyes of the drivers at least, the third race in Season two of the Dark Horse IndyCar Series was going to end up a demolition-derby, the Gateway to the West 150 race actually delivered far less caution periods than anticipated.
On a track that was tight, where tire grip levels jumped off the cliff after 20 laps or so, pre-race expectations were that the DW12 IndyCars would become full of understeer on corner entry and oversteer aplenty on corner exit when in traffic. Throughout practice, only a handful of drivers managed to avoid contact with the walls…
Thankfully, under race conditions, the drivers were mindful of their own special awareness by and large and the race or with another driver and although there were a handful of caution periods, it was the #89 of Nick DeGroot once more who took the flag and claim his second consecutive win ahead of Brandon Passalacqua in the #23 car and the #54 of AJ Musselman.
Having stormed to his second pole of the season, it was the #36 of Eric Peterson who led the field round to the green flag before deliberately dropping back into the main mix on lap 3 in a bid to conserve fuel and tires – mindful of a probable caution only round the corner. Taking his place upfront, Charles Johnson in the #14 car began to pull away from the chasing pack with Degroot and debutant Alexander Sandt in the #317 machine not far behind. Elsewhere, the battle for fourth place was intensifying with David Leclair and Charles Teed in the #50 and #27 cars running nose to tail when lap 20 saw the #7 of Gary Corley brush the turn two outside wall forcing an unscheduled pitstop to repair the car.
Lap 31 and Sandt was the first of the front runners to enter the pits before Johnson and Leclair rounding pit road a lap later. Out in front, DeGroot circulated a couple more times before entering the pits on lap 34 still in the lead and looking to re-join ahead of his rivals. Alas, it was not to be for although the stop was clean, his pit exit was not and the #89 released the pit land speed limiter, spun the rear wheels and half spun onto the infield grass. It was at this point iRacing decided the error was sufficient to cause a caution and just as DeGroot collected himself and got back underway, the yellows were out.
As is the usual case with the Dark Horse IndyCar Series, drama seemed to come to the fore from the very second the race began but on lap 37, the viewers and tv broadcaster TMG Racing Network commentators were left shocked at a display of sheer generosity from the #317 machine of Sandt. Now the race leader, Passalaqua had profited the most from the timing of the yellows but this left his petrol tank now dry as the pits were closed when the spin of Degroot happened. Exiting turn two, the #23 car suddenly slowed as its pilot haplessly declared his frustration at having run out of gas. Immediately behind him, Sandt was then seen to generously push the #23 into the pit entry before re-joining the track properly, leaving Passalacqua to coast to his pit stall.
Despite a couple of glitches whilst the running order was sorted out following a full round of pitstops completed, the green flag flew once more on lap 42 with Sandt quickly pulling out a decent lead of 2.5s over DeGroot who was struggling with a damaged front wing as a result of his spin and Jim Brooks in the #76.
Lap 46 and in an attempt to pass Degroot, the #63 of AJ Hobson lunged into turn one, and initially held the balance of the car before the exit of turn two caused him to loose the rear of his car, skittle across the infield grass and into the inside barrier – causing significant front end damage but failing to result in a full course yellow. Two laps later and having found a way past the #89 car, Brooks copied Hobson in similar fashion and this time, the yellows flew. Electing to try a different fuel/tire strategy, Sandt came into the pits with LeClair and a few others as DeGroot returned to the front, with Craig Forsythe in the #131 and Teed in third as the green was out in lap 53.
Lap 72and with it, the next yellow flag as Nick Wnuk got his #33 machine loose following Brooks and had to check-up in turn 2 to avoid hitting the wall before being rear-ended by the #12 of Josh Garner. It was simply a case of wrong place, wrong time for the #12 as Garner was left with nowhere to go – the contact resulting in damage for both drivers that required a ‘fast repair’ in the pits.
Four laps later the green fell once more and at the restart, it was Sandt from Leclair, Forsythe, Teed and Johnson - each separated by half a second. Keen to steal the lead, Leclair repeatedly attempted to pass Sandt into turn one but was unable to make it stick. Behind the front two, the battle for third raged as Teed flew inside Forsythe in turn three on lap 80 with the #77 of Benjamin Combs getting in on the act. Alas, it was not to last as lap 81 saw Combs and Brooks take each other out into turn one.
Yes, there was a little ‘net code’ involved but the racing lines of both did suggest at the time that even without that, the #76 of Brooks would have hit the #77 as he took the low line into the turn but had already started coming back up the track – such were his struggles to maintain the front end grip. Whatever, the incident brought out another caution period and this time, the pits were busy with some drivers electing to stay out on their tires and bank on one final yellow flag period before the end of the race.
Hence, at the restart on lap 86, it was Sandt ahead of Leclair, and Johnson. Nestling in fourth after spending the entire race quietly gaining positions and managing tires, the #51 of Max Davies headed Gary Corley in the #7, Peterson and Krysta Nelson in the #13 and the #88 of Michael Spell with Forsythe and Passalacqua rounding out the top 10.
Further back, DeGroot was on a charge passing the #23 and the #54 of Mussleman into turn three on lap 91. Lap 94 and back to preserving his tires some more, Davies allowed DeGroot by for 10th place before the #89 slipped past Teed two laps later. Ahead, the battle raged between Forsythe, Spell and Nelson and this enabled DeGroot to gain serious ground on Nelson and Peterson who he passed on lap 100 – thus into 5th place. This was nothing short of a masterclass in tenaciousness and race craft from the #89 car.
Lap 103 and third placed Johnson dived into the pits for his final stop as Degroot hounded Corley ahead before passing the #7 into turn 3 on lap 107 and into second place as Leclair pitted but it was not long until the caution was out once more.
Heading into turn one, Spell and Combs made contact as the latter seemed to misjudge pulling out of the draft and sending the hapless Spell into the outside wall. Electing not to pit, Passalacqusa and Musselman now found themselves at the front of the field with the ever impressive DeGroot in third, Forsythe in 4th and Jeffery Duncan a surprising 5th having also deciding not to stop for fresh rubber.
Four laps to go and the green was out and despite being sitting ducks, Passalacqua and Musselman got a flyer of a start with 0.5s lead over the #89 and #131 of Forysthe. Down the back stretch Teed and Davies squeezed inside Duncan for 6th and 7th place whilst back at the front, DeGroot forced his way past Musselman for second as they rounded turn three. Now full of momentum, the #89 was quickly on the gearbox of race leader Passalacqua before diving to the inside of the #23 into the first turn and into the lead as they exited turn two.
Almost at the same time, a little further back there was contact once more as Corley appeared to dump AJ Hobson heading into turn one sending the latter onto his roof. Unsurprisingly, the caution came out and it therefore confirmed the race would finish under yellows, thus handing DeGroot an emphatic win ahead of Passalacqua and Musselman and with it, the championship lead – despite starting one less race than his nearest rivals!
“It was a crazy race really,” DeGroot declared. “After the front wing damage and the drama trying to get the quick repair to work, I found myself in quite the hole. I think we pitted six or seven times, but we were able to charge up through the pack and were in position for a top-five before that timely yellow gave us a shot at the win. It all just lined up perfectly for us and we were able to capitalize.”
Although disappointed to have missed out on the win, Passalacqua was delighted with second place and thankful for some assistance early in the race.
“I have to give a huge shout out to Alex for pushing me to the pits when I ran out of gas,” the #23 driver declared. “If it wasn’t for him, I would’ve been a lap down. Tonight boiled down to strategy for me and worked out well; very grateful for that. Great win by Nick as well.”
Taking a fine third place, Musselman confirmed he had had initial concerns about how to run his race but was pleased with how events unfolded.
“After the practice race on Tuesday, I knew the car was going to be a handful to drive, and my goal was simply to survive, and if lucky, I'd be able to make a late-race charge or use strategy to get into the top 5-7,” he said.
“I spent most of the race in 10th-12th, staying out of the battles at the front. I avoided at least 3 accidents and managed to keep the tires under me for the whole race. After the 2nd to the last restart, I started running some numbers and realized if I slowed down just a bit, I'd be good on fuel. Of course, another yellow came out, but now I was good on fuel, just with old tires. On the final restart, my goal was just to stay in the top 5. DeGroot got by, Forsythe almost had me, but the yellow came out at just the right time to keep me on the podium."
Bagging yet more points, it was a relatively quiet night from Forsythe, Teed and Davies who finished 4th, 5th and 6th respectively ahead of an impressive Duncan in 7th, Wunk in 8th and Sandt and Leclair rounding out the top 10 in a race that delivered unexpectedly clean racing, tire management and plenty of dice rolling. It may not have worked for out for everyone, but there was no doubting that with his consistent speed throughout the race, DeGroot would have sewn this race up even without the final caution.
Next up is Watkins Glen – the first of two road courses in the season two schedule, and a race that promises to be just as action packed as Gateway when these connoisseurs of oval racing jump out of their comfort zone, and head 200mph plus into the unknown…