There's no other road or street course event on the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule quite like Long Beach. The 38th edition of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach sets the standard for excellence among all street races, and since IndyCar took over sanctioning at the track from Champ Car in 2009, it hasn't been a race dominated by the usual suspects from the top two teams in the series.
Here are some of the contenders capable of putting pause to Team Penske's powerful start to the season.
MAYOR HINCH'S BEST WIN CHANCE – After an excellent yet almost unfulfilling start to the season, James Hinchcliffe enters this weekend's race at Long Beach with his best chance yet at his first victory.
The fourth and sixth place results are good, yet could have been better. Slow pit stops at Barber, particularly with the rear tires, cost him what should have been his first podium. He ran primarily second and third throughout the day.
Hinch's record at Long Beach from his junior formula career and his first IndyCar race at the track last year is fairly impressive. A year ago, he used Oriol Servia's backup car after a mechanical issue on his own car. He then qualified 11th and improved to fourth by the flag for his first career IndyCar top-five finish. Coming through the ranks, he won from pole in Indy Lights in 2010 (RIGHT), and also has two more podiums at the track, split between his first Lights and Atlantic starts there (2009 and 2006).
It doesn't hurt he's driving for the team that's won here the last two years, either. Andretti Autosport has been stellar in terms of setup, with Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway delivering surprise but welcome victories. Hinch or RHR would be a good bet for success at “the beach.”
Hinchcliffe's charge may be compromised by having a 10-spot grid penalty for an engine failure in testing on Monday at Sonoma. Still, as Simon Pagenaud proved at St. Petersburg, recovering from that position is not impossible. There will be extra motivation for the Canadian to get the most out of his weekend.
CONWAY LEADS FOYT RESURGENCE – A year ago at Long Beach, Conway qualified third, fell to the back early, but then silently and stealthily snuck through the field – culminating with a pass on Ryan Briscoe for the lead at turn 6. After winning his first career race, Conway looked and sounded like he'd barely broken a sweat.
Driving for A.J. Foyt, Conway wants not only to revitalize the team's efforts on road and street courses, but also buck a disturbing trend involving Foyt's recent full-time hires. Vitor Meira (2009-11), Darren Manning (2007-08), and Felipe Giaffone (2006) have not garnered another full-time IndyCar ride after they parted ways with Foyt, and Conway is at a point in his career where a year or two of poor results could spell the same fate.
However, the signs are there that this won't be the case. Conway surged into the Firestone Fast Six at Barber last race, for Foyt's first top six start on a road or street course since Manning at St. Petersburg in 2007. He felt disappointed with a seventh place result, this after also showing promise at St. Pete this year but retiring late with mechanical woes.
Larry Foyt has worked to change the staff and reputation of this team, and the Conway and Don Halliday (lead engineer) pairing on this car has the potential to work more wonders going forward. A top-five or even another podium might not be out of the question for Conway this weekend.
JR'S ACHIEVEMENT – Another one in the “results don't tell the whole story” camp through two races is JR Hildebrand of Panther Racing. Compared to last year when Panther's road and street course setup failed to match the more developed, established contenders, the new car has provided a fresh start for Hildebrand and the crew led by engineer David Cripps to find new footing and begin making their mark.
“It's been a little bit of a tough start from (a results) perspective,” Hildebrand said. “We've put a pretty high priority on improving our road and street course program. Through the last two weekends, at least from a pace standpoint, we've showed that.
“We're quite happy with the improvements we've made and feel like we're way further ahead in terms of our competitiveness on those types of tracks going into this season. Although it doesn't really show it on paper, we feel pretty good about where we're at.”
Late fuel pressure issues negated a potential sixth place finish at St. Pete, while at Barber, a run to the Firestone Fast Six was the team's best qualifying result on a road or street course since 2005. Long Beach was where Hildebrand kick-started his run to the 2009 Indy Lights title, with a win from pole, and he seeks a complete weekend this time around.
The team itself has also launched its media guide this weekend, complete with a comic book-esque cover showcasing Hildebrand in his “Captain America” nickname finest – an artistic masterpiece which the team's PR ace Mike Kitchel should be proud to distribute (RIGHT).
NEW COLORS, NEW FORTUNE FOR TK? – Tony Kanaan enters Long Beach after two forgettable races. An early DNF at St. Pete and a subsequent 21st at Barber leave the ebullient Brazilian stone last in the standings.
Kanaan, who won his first career pole at Long Beach in 1999, looks for a shift in luck this weekend as he'll make his first of four starts in a new blue livery thanks to primary sponsor Mouser Electronics. Mouser, an associate on the GEICO yellow-and-green car that has started the year, had its first full race livery last year in Sonoma on board Ho-Pin Tung's car.
DOUBLE DUTY – As it's been since 2007, the open-wheel feature at Long Beach will also have the American Le Mans Series racing alongside this weekend. Three individuals, plus a handful of crewmembers, will be working in both this weekend.
One of our RACER.com bloggers, Bobby Rahal, is primed for both. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing IndyCar team makes its return to the track, while the ALMS BMW Team RLL M3 looks for a repeat of its GT class victory of a year ago.
Meanwhile Derrick Walker, a longtime competitor with his own Walker Racing team (and one which qualified second with Alex Tagliani on a shoestring effort in the 2008 Champ Car finale here) will be managing the efforts of both Ed Carpenter Racing in IndyCar and the Team Falken Tire ALMS Porsche. Walker joked that “he may be spotted switching team gear Superman-phonebooth style.”
Lastly, Townsend Bell will be providing insight from both the cockpit and pit road. After winning his sports car debut at the 12 Hours of Sebring in the GTC class, Bell now shifts to Alex Job Racing's new Lotus Evora – still scheduled to make its debut – while also doing pit reporting for the NBC Sports Network.
PENSKE LONG BEACH DROUGHT – Just as a desert without water is one in a drought, so too is Long Beach without Roger Penske in victory lane. A third win in a row to start the 2012 season would give “The Captain” only his second Long Beach open-wheel win since Al Unser Jr. won his sixth and final race at the track in 1995. His lone open-wheel win in that 17-year period came with Helio Castroneves in 2001.
If we're being technical, Penske doesn't have a Long Beach win under IndyCar sanction, but still has four all-time at the track – all in succession from 1993 through '95 with Paul Tracy, Unser Jr. in back-to-back years and Castroneves' triumph. And, to be fair, Penske Racing did win overall with its P2 Porsche RS Spyder in the 2007 American Le Mans Series race at the track (RIGHT).
In the interim, Target Chip Ganassi Racing has five wins – four straight to match its championship seasons, with its title-winning drivers from 1996 through 1999 (Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi twice and Juan Pablo Montoya), and on IndyCar's return to the track in 2009 with Dario Franchitti.
HISTORY LESSON – The IndyCar field has experience in the IndyCar race at Long Beach, whatever the series iteration, dating to Franchitti's first start on the track in 1997 in a Hogan Racing Reynard-Mercedes. A year later, Franchitti recorded his first open-wheel podium – in a race that also saw the Long Beach CART debuts of Helio Castroneves (then called Castro-Neves) and Tony Kanaan, and an epic comeback by Zanardi with a pass late in the race on Bryan Herta (LEFT).
Herta's driver this year, Alex Tagliani, has the longest active streak of Long Beach starts – every year since 2000 in CART, Champ Car and IndyCar, and before that, four years straight (1996-1999) with two wins in Formula Atlantic. Tagliani seeks a rebound race in the Team Barracuda-BHA entry after failing to survive the first lap at Barber due to engine woes. His best results at Long Beach are third in 2006, and fourth his first start in 2000.
Prior winners at Long Beach include Sebastien Bourdais (three straight from 2005 to 2007), the aforementioned Conway, Hunter-Reay, Franchitti and Castroneves, and also Will Power in the 2008 Champ Car finale. Justin Wilson, who has the second-longest active Long Beach streak, scored the 2008 pole but has yet to add his name to the rostrum of winners.
• The IZOD IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach airs on NBC Sports Network live Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.