LONG BEACH, Calif. – Scott Dixon likes the technical aspect of the 1.968-mile, 11-turn street course in Long Beach.
That may be one reason why the five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion was the fastest driver in Friday’s practice sessions for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Dixon, the 2015 Long Beach winner, was the fastest driver in Friday’s combined practice session with a fast lap at 1:07.7940 (104.505 mph) in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda.
Dixon believes the challenge of Long Beach is the course itself. It’s tight, with very little room for passing and even less margin for error.
“It’s very difficult,” Dixon said. “It’s quite a technical circuit, hard to piece it together. I think any street course, it’s very easy to get caught out. I think even in that session I probably hit the wall three or four times just lightly. You’re constantly just rubbing the walls or getting close.
“Especially with how tight the competition is right now, if you give up a little bit, you’re going to slip down the field pretty quickly,” Dixon added. “Long Beach, it’s a race that’s been around; this is the 45th one. The history here, whether it’s IndyCar, Grand Prix cars, Can-Am cars or what, it’s always a strong event. I think what we all love the most is the atmosphere. The fans here and the people that come out, the event the promoters turn this into, is a big deal.”
Friday’s activity at the 45th running of the event was watched by a huge crowd under sunny conditions alongside the Pacific Ocean.
The ideal conditions helped the speeds increase.
“The times in this session were over a second faster than last year, but the temperature last year was very hot,” Dixon explained. “The heat is the biggest performance factor for us right now, especially track temp. The tires don’t like it, the engine doesn’t like it.
“Today we had a really nice headwind into turn one, and that definitely helps. That makes it difficult getting into the last corner, turn nine on the back straight there,” he continued. “I think the track surface has been pretty good. It’s always a little funky through (turns) nine, 10 and 11, just because of the Drifters. There’s an inch thick of rubber out there. If you get a little wide, it builds up on the tire, you go straight into the fence. I think you notice everybody staying pretty tight on that corner.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2010 winner of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, was second at 1:07.8434 (104.429 mph) in the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport.
He spent much of the session swapping the fast time with Dixon.
“Really, we’re just getting back to finding our baseline,” Hunter-Reay said. “Last year, we had very competitive cars. Again, this year rolled off with a really good setup, I think. It was a good starting point. We’ve made some changes to it trying to find what to do, what not to do, as you regularly would on a street course.
“The tricky part of a street course is you have to keep up with the racetrack, you have to be proactive with keeping up with it. As you go through the race weekend, it’s constantly changing conditions, but it was a good first day. We definitely learned a lot. I know what to apply for tomorrow.”
Rookie driver Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden was third at 1:07.8867 (104.362 mph) in a Honda, followed by 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden’s Chevrolet at 1:07.9648 (104.242 mph).
Rookie Patricio O’Ward of Mexico rounded out the top five with a lap at 1:08.0303 (104.142 mph) in a Carlin Chevrolet.
“This place is a blast,” O’Ward said. “It’s quite hard to get those last three tenths. It’s really, really hard to get everything right. You have to be precise because here you don’t have grass, you have a wall. It’s pretty tough to get around here with a perfect lap.
“But I’m enjoying so far. We’ve done some pretty good running,” O’Ward added. We’re struggling with the blacks for some reason, but look to be OK with reds, so we’re going to be working on that for tomorrow.
“I’m looking forward to the event. All I hear is good things about this place.”