It was a common theme among IZOD IndyCar Series drivers this week that they were in Japan for more than just a race. They were there to provide entertainment, escape and support for the people of Japan, especially those from the region just north of the Twin Ring Motegi motorsports facility, who have endured much since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March.
For Sam Schmidt Motorsports’ Alex Tagliani, driver of the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Honda/Dallara/Firestone car, the Indy Japan 300 was also an opportunity to provide a lift to all the team members and employees of Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Earlier in the day in Akron, Indiana, fellow co-worker and Sam Schmidt Motorsports Firestone Indy Lights Team Manager Chris Griffis was buried after dying unexpectedly Monday.
Tagliani did his job in Japan. After starting 15th, the oldest regular driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series drove an inspiring race to finish fourth in the Indy Japan 300 at the Twin Ring Motegi in Tochigi, Japan. The result matched Tagliani’s fourth-place finish in June at Texas, the highest for an SSM entry in the IndyCar series this year.
“It was a good race for the Sam Schmidt Bowers and Wilkins team and it was a great team effort,” said Tagliani. “We lost a team member this week, Chris Griffis, team manager of the Indy Lights team. He was very close to Sam and ran the operation for Sam for everything before the IndyCar team was started. We know how close Sam and Chris were and how devastated Sam is, so it’s great that we could give him a finish like this to be excited about.”
It was a race result for which Tagliani and the Rob Edwards-led SSM IndyCar team worked hard.
“We had some struggles over the weekend, but we got it together and the guys gave me a good car for the race. We had good strategy and we were able to save some fuel on the blacks. Then when we put the reds on, and we were very competitive. The car was very balanced and we had some good restarts as well. It was a good team effort. Nick (Snyder), our lead engineer, was at home with his wife, Lauren, expecting a baby but we had Brendon (Cleave) here at the track whom I’ve worked with in the past. We work very well together. Nick gave us good preparation for this race, and he worked with us from home as well. We were sending him data after every session and working with his feedback.”
SSM’s second team car this weekend, the No. 17 Autobacs Formula Dream/SSM Honda/Dallara/Firestone car driven by Japan’s Hideki Mutoh, finished 18th and on the lead lap. It was veteran Mutoh’s first IZOD IndyCar Series start of this season.
“We went with a different strategy than other guys,” said Mutoh. “I stopped at lap two, and after that I was pushing very hard. We pitted, and right as I came in, a yellow came out. We could not change anything (under the yellow), so I ended up losing a lot of positions on a drive through. The car next to me was able to move up to fifth that time so I think if strategy had worked out I would have been in the top 10 easily. After that I was stuck behind traffic and it was very hard to overtake, and I ended up 19th. I was very happy to work for a new team with such a funny guy, Alex. I wish I could come back.”
Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon won the Indy Japan 300 from the pole Sunday in dominating fashion, leading nearly every lap. It was his second win in 2011 and his 27th win in his Indy car career. The win ties him for 11th on the all-time Indy car win list with three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford.
Dixon’s win also gives him the distinction of being the only driver to win on Motegi’s 2.983-mile road course and its 1.9-mile oval. He won his Indy car oval race at Motegi in 2009, also driving for Ganassi.
Penske Racing’s Will Power finished second to Dixon and catapulted ahead of Dario Franchitti to take the lead of the IZOD IndyCar Series points battle. Power chased Dixon by 3.4-seconds across the finish line. It was his 11th top-five finish and ninth podium this year.
Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti finished third, which was his second podium finish this year. With Tagliani in fourth place, Newman-Haas Racing’s Oriol Servia rounded out the top five.
The Indy Japan 300 saw only three caution periods for a total of eight laps, and there were two lead changes among two drivers. There were also only three drivers not finishing the 63-lap race.
Franchitti entered the Indy Japan 300 with a five-point lead over Power in the season Championship but leaves Japan now trailing his Penske Racing rival by 11 points. With his fourth place finish, Tagliani inched back closer to the top 10 in the season points. Sitting in 11th, he trails Helio Castroneves by just six points with two races remaining.
The next IZOD IndyCar Series race is the Kentucky Indy 300 on Oct. 2 at Kentucky Speedway. The race will be televised live at 2 p.m. (EDT) by VERSUS and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network and on SiriusXM. The next Firestone Indy Lights race is the Kentucky 100 on Oct. 2 at Kentucky Speedway. It will be televised live by VERSUS at Noon (EDT).
Date: Sept. 18, 2011
Event: Indy Japan 300 (Round 15 of 17)
Series: IZOD IndyCar Series
Location: Twin Ring Motegi (2.9-mile, 14-turn road course)
Start/Finish: 15th/4th (Running, completed 63 of 63 laps)
Winner: Scott Dixon of Ganassi Racing