The NTT IndyCar Series its much anticipated return to Portland International Raceway in 2018 after an 11-year absence. While the Pacific Northwest has embraced the return of the nation’s premier open-wheel series, it’s very clear that something needs to be done with the track layout at PIR.
I’m talking specifically about Turn 1 of the twisting, turning layout of the PIR road course. While most drivers in general like racing at PIR, many of them will quickly point to the havoc, mayhem and chaos that results in Turn 1, particularly on the opening lap.
We saw it on the opening lap in 2018 with a spectacular multi-car crash on Turn 1. Marco Andretti was the worst for the wear when his car flipped over. Fortunately, he wasn’t injured.
We saw another Turn 1 wreck again on the opening lap in 2019.
We saw the same thing happen once again in Sunday’s race—the third time there has been a significant incident in Turn 1 on the opening lap in as many races.
And the only reason we didn’t see an opening lap wreck in Turn 1 in 2020 was because there was no race due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time in the state of Oregon.
Yet, opening lap crashes in Turn 1 are not a new occurrence. In doing research for this column, there were other crashes in the past at PIR when the former CART Series raced there, including 1998.
While I understand PIR only hosts the IndyCar Series once a year, wouldn’t multiple crashes in three races in a row—not to mention a past history of crashes on the opening lap dating back 20 or more years as well—be enough to convince IndyCar officials to demand a change to how that first-turn layout is structured?
I mean, how many more races do we need to witness—and the resulting carnage that comes along with it—before something is done?
For those of you who aren’t totally familiar with Turn 1 at Portland, there is a semi-long straightaway that comes off the start/finish line, followed by an immediate 90-degree turn to the right. Because the track narrows at the point where the turn begins, it’s not surprising that cars bunch up, get together and mayhem ensues.
There is a runoff area of sorts in front of the turn where cars oftentimes go to try and avoid crashes in front or to the side of them. We saw that Sunday when eventual race winner Alex Palou, defending IndyCar Series champ Scott Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist all either went through or skimmed the edge of the runoff area.
And literally a couple seconds behind them, several other drivers were involved in a follow-up crash or were forced to take evasive action in the same area: Will Power, James Hinchcliffe, Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay.
Hinchcliffe was knocked out of the race without even completing one lap, Castroneves suffered significant suspension damage that kept him off-track for a good chunk of the race until repairs could be made, eventually finishing 23rd, 19 laps down from the leaders. Askew, meanwhile, finished 24th, 21 laps back.
Perhaps the hardest luck driver of all that was involved in the opening incident was Hinchcliffe. Sunday marked the third time in as many races at Portland that he was involved in either a first- or second-turn incident on the opening lap, prematurely ending his day early each time.
“I didn’t see anything, I didn’t see it coming,” Hinchcliffe said of Sunday’s wreck. “I got into Turn 1 pretty clean, locked up a little bit and managed to avoid (Sebastien) Bourdais, but then as I was trying to make the corner, I absolutely got cleaned out from (Romain) Grosjean.
“The rate at which he hit, he wasn’t going to make the corner if there weren’t any cars there, so not sure what he was thinking. I’m sure he is just as bummed. It sucks to be out in the first corner like that. I just can’t believe this happened for the third year in a row here in Portland and I haven’t made it past the first two corners. It’s devastating.”
Power and Veekay were less worse for the wear from the early incident, finishing 13th and 17th, respectively. But being put immediately behind the 8-ball from the opening lap incident ultimately eliminated them from the championship race, as was also the case for four other drivers.
That leaves just five drivers left to battle for the title in the final two races of the season, this coming Sunday at Laguna Seca and the season finale in two weeks at Long Beach: Portland winner and points leader Palou, Pato O’Ward, Dixon, Josef Newgarden and Marcus Ericsson.
“Portland weekend is over and was eventful as always; especially in Turn 1, where we knew it was going to be crazy,” said Rosenqvist, who eventually rebounded to finish sixth. “We got unlucky at the start of the race when we avoided the collision that was about to happen in Turn 1.
“I didn’t really have a choice but to go straight. The way the rules are written, you get penalized if you go straight compared to the guys who stayed on the track. I couldn’t have really done anything so it was out of my hands, which is a shame. We were in third and came out 18th after the reorder.”
Even though Graham Rahal was not involved in the opening-lap crash and eventually led a race-high 36 laps before falling back to finish 10th, he also pointed to the impact on the field of the first-turn mayhem.
“I’m pretty upset, if nothing else just disappointed,” Rahal said. “We played the strategy right but unfortunately all the guys who caused the crash at the start are all the guys who won. It’s just a shame, I don’t know what else to say. I’m obviously disappointed.”
Granted, Turn One has been in its current configuration for much of PIR’s 61-year existence. Owned by the City of Portland, the facility has played host to a number of racing series, including IndyCar, CART, Champ Car, IMSA and ARCA, among others.
It would obviously take a significant amount of money to either straighten out, or at the very least, soften the harshness of Turn 1, particularly its entry where most of the havoc begins. But there certainly are options.
Turn 1 could easily be reworked so that instead of a sharp 90-degree angle, perhaps smooth out the layout so cars go through perhaps a rolling 45-degree turn that would split where the current run-off area is.
That would be much more amenable and would lessen the chances of multi-car wrecks that typically bring out a lengthy red-flag delay.
“Then I kept getting hit and hit and thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be good.’ “
Back in 2018 when IndyCar returned to Portland, Dixon was also involved in the multi-car incident on the opening lap as cars went in virtually every direction heading into or through Turn One.
Dixon’s words then could easily have been repeated—or at least paraphrased—for what happened in 2019 and again on Sunday.
“I couldn’t see anything once I got off in the dirt at the start, it was just dust everywhere,” Dixon said. “Then I kept getting hit and hit and thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be good.’ … What a crazy day.”
And that’s what racing at Portland has become in every IndyCar race starting since 2018: a crazy day.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the hottest ticket to be had for fans in Sunday’s race was for seats with a panoramic view of Turn One because fans not only have come to expect wrecks there, but those who plunk down their cold, hard cash for a seat are almost guaranteed of witnessing a massive first-lap wreck.
Three times in three races is the maximum that IndyCar should have to put up with this debacle. If I was Mark Miles or Jay Frye, I would be on the phone with PIR/Portland city officials today and demand changes be made in the layout for next year’s race.
Otherwise, IndyCar can take its shiny cars and go elsewhere. I’m sure other places in the Pacific Northwest like Seattle or Vancouver, Washington (right across the border from Portland) would more than welcome the series for a street-course event.
After all, do teams and cars come to PIR to crash and start each race off on the wrong foot, or do they race there because it’s a challenging course that leads to exciting action and typically an equally exciting finish?
All except Turn 1, that is.
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter at JerryBonkowski.
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