Why a ‘dead rubber’ finale at Laguna Seca turned into ‘peak IndyCar’


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Scott McLaughlin was spun out on the opening lap of the Grand Prix of Monterey at Laguna Seca on Sunday, which dropped him from second on the grid to 19th.

Later on, the Penske driver received two penalties arising from his contact with Santino Ferrucci on the run to the Andretti Hairpin: First he was sent to the back of the field at a restart, then had to drive through the pit lane for failing to serve that penalty properly.

Despite his many setbacks, McLaughlin somehow emerged second at Laguna Seca. That secured a career-best third place in the 2023 IndyCar series championship ahead of Pato O’Ward and McLaughlin’s fellow Penske driver Josef Newgarden.

But when it was put to McLaughlin that he must have enjoyed the incident-packed race in which he rose to finish second, he made his feelings clear: “I didn’t say I enjoyed it,” McLaughlin retorted.

The afternoon began with a multi-car tangle at turn one
“I think I hit everything but the pace car today. Certainly one of those crazy days – ‘peak IndyCar’ days.”

There were eight full-course caution periods which lasted for a total of 35 out of 95 laps. Had McLaughlin encountered a crazier contest than that one since arriving in IndyCar three years ago? “Every Nashville race, except this one this year,” he ventured.

Race control and the stewards’ panel issued 17 penalties to eight different drivers for various infractions. Callum Ilott spun entering the pits and recovered to finish a season-best fifth place. Even the Safety Car had to top up for fuel to make it to the end of a chaotic race that verged on farcical.

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As is often the case when IndyCar descends into madness, it was Scott Dixon who emerged victorious. But even IndyCar’s almost fault-free “Iceman” had to overcome a similar penalty to McLaughlin’s for causing a collision in the opening laps of the race. “It was a wild day,” remarked Dixon. “Race control was drive-through-penalty happy today.”

Pole-winner Rosenqvist was (genuinely) hit by Ericsson
“It’s chaos anyway,” he said – still bewildered by the penalty for colliding with Rinus VeeKay and Colton Herta, but relieved to escape with his 56th career win regardless.

The beloved, old-fashioned Laguna Seca Raceway was resurfaced over the summer as part of an extensive renovation to the facility. The new asphalt meant course records were shattered within minutes of the qualifying session starting.

Practice and qualifying hinted at the drama which was to come in the race. Veterans Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves had separate single-car incidents in qualifying. Romain Grosjean spun off and hit the tyres during first practice on a weekend that he desperately needed a good result.

“As we had seen in the last kind of two or three days, even in the practice sessions, there’s been a lot of cars falling off track,” Dixon said.

“I figured that the race was either going to go green to chequered, or have a bunch of yellows. We had the yellows.”

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A pre-event test confirmed that the new surface provided plenty of grip on the racing line but little to none off of it. Alex Palou, of all people, crashed at turn four during the test, damaging his car and the fresh chrome livery denoting the championship he clinched at the preceding round.

Newgarden crashed out early on
“This year at Laguna I think was interesting,” Dixon added. “You kind of had everybody trying a little bit of everything. It was particularly hard, I think, to keep it in the right spot.

“Offline was very difficult. I don’t know if we really saw deg really play out or anything like that.”

The advisories had been issued but the fresh surface and lack of degradation led one too many drivers into temptation and delivered them into crashes with the walls, or other cars. Josef Newgarden’s lap eight crash at turn four was a textbook example of what happens when a car steps over the limit of adhesion.

But without question, the Safety Car restarts were a particular pain point to emerge from this race. On three separate occasions the green flag waved only for the yellow flag to swiftly follow for a multi-car incident at the final corner. It even happened on consecutive restart attempts, on laps 63 and 68.

“Between [turns] 10 and 11, the way they would check up – [it] was difficult to get your space right. There were a lot of crashes in the last corner unfortunately with some restarts,” Dixon said, having narrowly avoided being taken out in a restart crash himself.

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“I remember even being three-wide with Pedersen and Armstrong. I think that’s when Armstrong spun as well when he was on the outside.”

Several restarts led to further crashes
When it was Dixon’s turn to lead a restart “I feel like I did a good job” he said. “I went a lot earlier! There was no caution. Yeah, that’s what the guys need to do!” he joked.

“I don’t know – I feel like when you go out of [turn] 10, just the kind of congestion, some people are on bad tyres – they can’t stop as well. You kind of get this whole pack-up, this rubber-band effect. Ultimately if you kind of go out of nine like I did, before 10, it strings it out a little bit more.”

Perhaps moving the restart area forward or backwards may solve the issues at Laguna Seca. But Dixon admitted that IndyCar’s restart procedures, which have been a bone of contention at other tracks this year, should be up for discussion.

The series allows drivers to overtake for position before the start/finish line, as long as the green flag is shown and the overtaking car does not pass to the inside. “The restarts have been interesting this year,” said Dixon. “Sometimes it’s the only advantage you can get, right? You try to jump it. We’ve seen a lot of that throughout the year,” said the six-time series champion.

“It’s a fine balance. It’s very difficult for race control to call it. There’s a variance of when people hear green, whether it’s a spotter, spotters are looking at the guy that waves the green flag. There’s a whole sequence that goes along.”

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The series needs to have another look at the rules, Dixon believes. “I think in the off-season we have to try and figure out a way to do that a bit better. Even if we need to maybe go to ‘no passing until the start/finish line’ or something. [But] you don’t want to make it boring either.”

Dixon – who else? – emerged from the chaos on top
Dixon could admit it freely as the race winner, but he felt that the race was, if nothing else, entertaining. “I think that’s what you need for a championship finale.”

“Nobody wants to be sitting in the seat, saying, ‘man, this is boring.’ Nobody was bored. From the driver’s seat, nobody knew who was going to have the strategy to pull it off, have enough fuel for the end.”

Which is somewhat ironic: Laguna Seca’s tight turns, narrow lines, and tendencies towards processional racing were used as an underlying reason to justify replacing it as the season finale with Nashville – a course whose races have been, if anything, too eventful over the first three years. We’ll see what transpires with its new ‘Broadway’ layout next year and beyond.

But even McLaughlin, who may not have enjoyed his time out on track, could come away feeling proud of his result above all. “For me as a driver, just thinking of my race, it was probably the craziest race I’ve ever had in my career just from an up-and-down perspective.”

“Up and down, penalties, thing you could avoid and couldn’t avoid. It was just nuts. Like I said, it was peak IndyCar. To be able to come back from that is pretty cool.”

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Author information

RJ O'Connell
Motorsport has been a lifelong interest for RJ, both virtual and ‘in the carbon’, since childhood. RJ picked up motorsports writing as a hobby...

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16 comments on “Why a ‘dead rubber’ finale at Laguna Seca turned into ‘peak IndyCar’”

  1. I followed Indycar for the whole year this season, a first for me, because of Canapino.

    TBH I don’t understand how that race worked… I don’t think Dixon or Illiot did anything particularly brilliant to overcome all those penalties and incidents. How is it possible that a guy that got spun around and damaged in turn 1, then got stuck in the pitlane, managed to finish 5th??

    Something doesn’t add up sometimes in Indycar. Specially the yellow flag pitlane rule. Sometimes they throw it right away, sometimes they wait… that makes or breaks races!

    1. Canapino needs to calm his crazed fans down, and he’s said nothing. There are now death threats on Ilott again, and it was Canapino that slid into Ilott!

      The race had everything. No, it was not clean – but it was very entertaining! F1 could only dream of such action.

  2. I no longer have Sky so I can only watch the 30 minute highlights…. and yes they did manage to fit everything in from this race! Personally, I loved it.

    It can beat be summed up as: everything happened – to everyone.

    On a slightly different note, I remember 20 years ago about the plans for a new F1 circuit in Bahrain. Great, I thought, we’ll have a circuit in the desert like Laguna Seca!

    Then in 2004 when I saw it I was totally disappointed to see the track completely surrounded by tarmac run offs and concrete painted a sand colour. The local elements had been shut out and left at the circuit gates. And so we had been served our first true taste of Tilke homogenisation.

  3. Watching the race, after about 65% of the laps completed, together with about 6 safety car periods, I was absolutely shocked to find that only 1 car had retired from the race.

    This really hammered home a key advantage of Indycar over F1: Because Indycar’s points system progressively awards points all the way down to last place (and not only to the top 10 finishers), many drivers kept racing even if they’d had to stop for some minutes to get repairs done. So most of the race had 26 cars interacting and entertaining. If this had been an F1 race, it’d have gone from 20 starters down to 13 runners after a couple of laps, and (all other things being equal) its race would have had about a quarter of the racing action as a result.

    F1’s points system is a joke. So far this year it has given Red Bull 20,000% more points than Alpha Tauri even though the latter is literally less than 3% slower than the former.

    1. there’s some mental gymnastics, some might say they’re 20,000 times slower…

      1. Sorry, I was wrong – Alpha Tauri aren’t 3% slower than Red Bull. In fact, they’re about 1.75% slower (if we discount De Vries). See the graph half way down Gary Anderson’s analysis:


    2. Great point about points being dished out all the way to last place, best illustrated in Juri Vips’ amazing story.

      Involved in the first lap first turn crash, you could see his front wheels were pointing in opposite directions. So game over, surely?

      Not so – his team repaired the car and sent him out where he then finished a whole 24 laps down in 24th position. Not very impressive… but unbelievably this was good for 6 points which put his car (that he took over from Harvey) into 22nd in the championship, just one point ahead of 23rd place DeFrancesco. The cool bit is that 1 million dollars gets paid out to the top 22 finishers. Incredible. I’d love to see that in F1.

    3. I agree about the points system. I made some comments on it a couple months ago but nobody cares untill it’s cool.

      The base of it was that the seasons are very long and title deciding final races are going to be very very uncommon. 2021 was a freak year and if they want it they need to make some changes. Eg points system can potentially help

      Do they really care though? Probably not. F1’s interest has shifted away from track action in the last years since liberty took over. For example this season yet numbers are up. A close season will only make it better but it doesn’t really matter anymore as much as it may have in the past

    4. The thing with Indycar points system for me is that I can’t tell you who had how many, I can’t tell you who gets what or how it works as it just ends up feeling largely irrelevant and more of a turn up bonus than an actual reward.

      It just feels so convoluted and meaningless that nobody i know that watches Indycar pays any attention to the points.

      Points should be earned and feel special and not simply handed out for turning up.

    5. IndyCar’s are very robust as they have to absorb the insane crash forces on ovals. Which is another reason that only 1 car had retired from the race at that point. Certainly a big part of the crazy aggression and driving was numerous teams were fighting for the Leaders Circle money which awards the top 22 cars in final point standings $1M.

  4. It was pure madness, and very enjoyable to watch! :D

    1. IndyCar usually is just like that! :)

    2. It was only enjoyable if you like crash fests and so many laps been wasted behind the safety car.

      Not a good showcase of Indycar as an actually good racing category as all anyone is talking about is how much contact and amateur hour driving there was, How much the safety car was out and the meme of it having to be refueled because of that.

      It was up there as one of the worst indycar races ive ever had the displeasure to watch. I want to see good racing and not a demolition derby.

  5. In IndyCar, why is the pitlane always closed for a lap after a safety car is deployed. It is that rule that made the race so ridiculous for me, because anyone who had pitted just before a safety car basically gets to move straight to the front for free. It made the entire race a complete lottery. There has been a lot of talk about Singapore 2008 recently, but Renault wouldn’t have been able to do that at all if that stupid rule hadn’t existed at the time.

  6. It might have made for an amusing six minute highlights video in a sort of ‘real life Forza Motorsport’ race, but having to pay to sit through all those neutralizations and seeing the same shenanigans every restart probably got quite old.

  7. For me it’s a reason to put me off. With this much chaos I feel the individual skill of the driver and the skill of the team to setup a car the best way do not receive the credits they deserve in the end result. There will always be outside factors to motor racing, sure. But if you see a nice battle and overtake happening, I want to cheer for it. But the value of the battle is diminished by random factors. There is no way to tell if the battle/overtake is meaningful until after the race.

    It feels to me like: if you like this, then just have a lottery instead of quali. And then just do a race of 5 laps. Saves everyone a lot of time.

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