Expect high speeds and intense drama when the Verizon IndyCar Series makes its return to Watkins Glen International over the Labor Day holiday weekend.
Sunday's IndyCar Grand Prix at The Glen caps a three-day race weekend for America's top open-wheel series, which last competed at WGI from 2005 to 2010.
Two IndyCar practice sessions are on tap Friday, followed by three-segment qualifying Saturday. The 60-lap race, televised on the NBC Sports Network, takes the green flag at 2:37 p.m. Sunday. Players and coaches from Maine-Endwell's world champion Little League team will serve as grand marshals for the event. The supporting races include those for the Indy Lights Series and the Ferrari Club of America.
During the six-year absence, IndyCar introduced a twin-turbocharged Dallara with more power and greater aerodynamic downforce. The 11-turn, 3.4-mile Glen circuit also gained additional grip from an offseason repave.
Both factors combined to push average speeds during two earlier tests this summer to nearly 145 mph. Will Power, who won the last IndyCar race at The Glen, was nearly three seconds under Ryan Briscoe's existing IndyCar and outright Glen track record during testing in August.
"It is ridiculous the speeds we're doing and the grip level is like nothing I've felt," Power said during the test. "With the resurfacing of it, it's become crazy fast.
“I think the fans are really in for a treat when they go to the race this year."
One thing is certain: Briscoe's record lap of 1 minute, 28.13322 seconds (137.657 mph), set during qualifying for the 2009 Camping World Grand Prix at The Glen, will be obliterated.
The Watkins Glen race, added in May after the scheduled inaugural Grand Prix of Boston was canceled, is the penultimate round of the IndyCar season. The Glen signed a multiyear agreement with IndyCar last week and the event will return to Labor Day weekend again in 2017, with a 2018 race also guaranteed.
Power and Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, who have combined to win seven of the nine road course events this year, are pitted in a tight title fight.
Pagenaud, with 529 points and looking for his first title, has a 28-point lead over 2014 series champion Power. The other championship contenders are Chip Ganassi Racing's Tony Kanaan (113 points back), Penske's Helio Castroneves (114 back), Ed Carpenter Racing's Josef Newgarden (123 back) and Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon (132 back). The lead Penske duo will have to race smartly, but look for the other contenders to take more risks to be able to improve their title odds.
A win is worth 50 points, 40 points for second, 35 for third, 32 for fourth and 30 for fifth place. Regardless of the outcome Sunday, the championship will be decided in the double-points finale at the Sonoma (California) Raceway road course event Sept. 18.
Pagenaud, 32, of France, is one of several drivers who will be making their Watkins Glen debuts.
Just seven of the 25 starters from the 2010 Camping World Grand Prix at The Glen will be in the lineup this time around, but among them are some of the series' best. Four of them – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dixon, Kanaan, and Power – have won a combined seven IndyCar Series titles. Dixon, of New Zealand, won consecutive Glen IndyCar events from 2005 to 2007 and Hunter-Reay won in 2008.
Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was one of three Americans who competed in the 2010 Glen race. The 2016 edition has a greater stateside presence, with nine Americans among the expected 22-car field.
Among them are four rookies: Conor Daly, Spencer Pigot, Richard Clay “RC" Enerson and Formula One reserve driver Alexander Rossi.
Enerson, who is making just his second career start, and Daly are driving for Dale Coyne Racing. The car owner captured his first IndyCar win at WGI in 2009 with the late Justin Wilson. Daly is the son of Irish Formula One driver Derek Daly, who competed in the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen from 1978 to 1980. Other American newcomers are Charlie Kimball and Josef Newgarden, who is fifth in the point standings.
All are making their Glen debut, except for Pigot. The 2015 Indy Lights champion competed in the Sahlen's Six Hours of The Glen in July, leading the race in the Mazda Prototype before its engine failed near the end of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship event.
IndyCar's latest winner, Graham Rahal, who competed in the 2008 and 2009 Glen events but not in 2010, is also back. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver won a thrilling Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway in Forth Worth on Saturday, edging Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' James Hinchcliffe to the checkered flag by 0.008 of a second.
Marco Andretti, of nearby Nazareth, Pennsylvania, also returns. He's the son of one of the most successful IndyCar driver, Michael Andretti, and the grandson of racing legend Mario Andretti. The third-generation driver has won twice for his father's Andretti Autosport team.
“Having the grip level where it is, the fans are going to see us cornering at some pretty crazy speeds," Marco Andretti said Wednesday. “From a fan standpoint, I think it's going to be pretty entertaining."
INDYCAR GRAND PRIX AT THE GLEN
When: Friday through Sunday
Where: Watkins Glen International
Friday's highlights: Indy Lights practice, 10-10:45 a.m.; Verizon IndyCar Series practice, 11-11:45 a.m. (NBC Sports Network); Ferrari Club of American on track, noon-2:15 p.m.; Indy Lights practice, 2:30-3:15 p.m.; IndyCar practice, 3:30-5:30.
Saturday's highlights: Ferrari Club of America on track, 7:30-9:45 a.m.; Indy Lights qualifying, 10-10:45 a.m.; IndyCar practice, 11-11:45 a.m.; Ferrari Club of America on track, noon-1:20 p.m.; Driver autograph session at IndyCar Fan Village, 1-2 p.m.; Indy Lights race, 1:35-2:45 p.m.; Indycar Series qualifying (Firestone Fast 6), 3-4:15 p.m. (NBC Sports Network at 6 p.m.); Ferrari Club of America on track, 4:30-5:30 p.m.; concert on Jack Daniel's Summer Stage (near Sir Jackie Stewart Grandstand) featuring Scott Marshall & Marshall's Highway.
Sunday's highlights: Ferrari Club of America on track, 7:30-10:15 a.m.; IndyCar Series warm-up, 10:30-11 a.m.; IndyCar Series driver introductions, 1:55 p.m.; IndyCar Grand Prix at The Glen, 2:37 p.m. (60 laps, live coverage on NBC Sports Network starting at 2).