‘Unleashing the Dragon’ uncorks big emotions for Marcus Ericsson, team in reliving Indy 500
INDIANAPOLIS – During each IndyCar offseason, Marcus Ericsson and race engineer Brad Goldberg spend a week reliving every race weekend of the previous year.
Either in person or over videoconferencing, the Chip Ganassi Racing duo take a deep dive into all the setup and strategy decisions they made in practice, qualifying and the race. They dissect every minute detail that had a positive or negative impact on their No. 8 Dallara-Honda.
They naturally had been saving the 2022 Indianapolis 500 for last heading into this season, but they wound up reviewing the race separately this time.
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And this time, their debrief will be shared with the world in an hourlong documentary.
“Unleashing the Dragon” offers a behind-the-scenes retelling of how Ericsson won the biggest race of his career – relying heavily on commentary from Ericsson, Goldberg and support engineer Angela Ashmore to peel back the layers on the myriad twists of fate that landed them in the winner’s circle.
“Of course, I watched the ending, but I’d never actually sat down and walked through the race – stint by stint, pit stop by pit stop, lap by lap,” Goldberg told NBC Sports about his sitdown for the film. “To go through the whole day, even what time I got there in the morning, was pretty neat, because I hadn’t really processed that yet.
“And winning that race was a childhood dream of mine. When you’re in the moment, it seems like you’re making the right decisions, but the blinders are on. It made sense at the time, but then to see it unfold globally in the race this way.
“It was a good time just to sit and understand how it happened. It was a good day.”
Ericsson, of course, is the main character in “Unleashing The Dragon” (the title was derived from an Indianapolis Star story that nicknamed Ericsson’s snaking move down the backstretch to fend off runner-up Pato O’Ward), and the documentary takes a unique tack for his perspective.
Filmed at a Palm Springs cinema (just after preseason IndyCar testing wrapped in nearby Thermal), Ericsson rewatched the entire race with IndyCar on NBC analyst James Hinchcliffe (who helped coach the Swede on racing ovals as a teammate in his 2019 rookie season).
“It’s a pretty cool and clever way to tell the story, and I was sitting there with tears in my eyes watching the final cut of the documentary,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “Obviously, I’m biased, but I think they still did an amazing job with it, so I’m excited to share that with everyone.”
Guys, a very cool project that I got to be a part of with @Ericsson_Marcus can now be viewed in the US on @NBCSports YouTube page. ‘Unleashing the Dragon’ has Marcus and I watch, relive, and discuss his path to victory in the 2022 Indy 500. Check it out!https://t.co/l7a9Q1qORp— James Hinchcliffe (@Hinchtown) May 15, 2023
Made by the Stockholm-based Katagarma production company, “Unleashing the Dragon” also features interviews with several stars (O’Ward, Alex Palou, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Tony Kanaan and Scott McLaughlin among them) whose fortunes intersected with Ericsson’s over 500 miles on the 2.5-mile oval.
But the most powerful anecdotes come from Goldberg, who went to high school just 3 miles from Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the city’s west side.
Ericsson’s victory also was the first in the Indy 500 for Goldberg, who was working the race for a 20th time as an IndyCar team member.
When Goldberg told Ericsson on the cooldown lap to “think about your family,” it was because Goldberg was looking at Ericsson’s mother, father, brother and future wife while thinking about his late father.
Before David Goldberg died of lung cancer when Brad was 9, father and son created several years of memories together attending the Indy 500 and the “Thursday Night Thunder” sprint car races at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
“It’s just that sort of emotion,” Brad Goldberg said. “I lost my father when I was very young and just the sense of accomplishment and pride that he would have is very special to me.”
Ericsson said reliving the significance of the win for Goldberg and Ashmore (the first woman on a winning Indy 500 team) was as emotional as his own celebration.
“I know how much it means to me,” Ericsson said, “but also to see how much it means for them and other people, it’s very touching for me.”
Beyond its emotional elements (which also come from the stars explaining what the Brickyard means to them and its historical context), “Unleashing the Dragon” also has an analytical side with a rare window into how teams determine fuel strategy.
The movie uses some dramatic snippets from Ganassi’s team intercom as Ashmore and Goldberg discuss how to manage strategy. Every IndyCar team’s timing stand in the pits has a similar system in which engineers and strategists constantly discuss fuel calculations outside of the public eye.
Unlike the driver-team radio communications easily accessible to anyone with a smartphone or wifi, team communications on the intercom (which functions similarly to what pilots use) are private because the discussions are viewed as proprietary. But they are recorded, and Ganassi allowed the documentary’s producers access to some transmissions (after they were vetted).
“You can have this open dialogue, and the privacy gives us a free ability to talk about things without having McLaren, Andretti or Penske, McLaren hear what we’re actually doing,” Goldberg said.
Ashmore’s primary duty is analyzing and managing the fuel windows, keeping Goldberg and the No. 8 strategist apprised of how various strategy options are changing. A collective decision is made on the mileage target and then relayed by to Ericsson by the strategist, a role filled by a Ganassi executive (last year was Mike O’Gara, this year it’s team manager Taylor Kiel).
“There’s a ton of conversations that’s just between us on the stand talking through the strategy,” Ashmore told NBC Sports. “I’ll give them a mileage target, and we have a back and forth as they’re watching how the race is progressing and where our gaps to other cars are moving. They kind of tell me, ‘OK, this is what we want to do with the strategy. We want to overcut, or we want to undercut. What do we have to do fuel-wise to make that happen?’ ”
It’s a strategic dance that happens in virtually every IndyCar race, and Goldberg hopes “Unleashing the Dragon” could lead to more instances of content that goes behind the curtain.
“I wish there was more,” he said. “If it gets more people involved in the sport and more fans enticed to watch the sport, we need to be doing it. Because there’s a whole other race that goes on besides the race on the track. Literally, that’s where all the game of strategy happens. That’s where the chess players live.
“I had no idea as a kid that this is how it happened, and then you get ingrained in it, and this is really cool to be part of it.”
Said Ashmore: “I think there’s a lot of things that happen on the timing stand or during the race that most people don’t know or understand just because there’s not a lot of visibility. By design because you don’t necessarily want all that information out there for everyone to hear, but in this specific instance, I think it’s really cool that we can share it and give a little bit of insight into the decision-making process and how much is going on outside of Marcus just navigating traffic and driving the car. There’s a lot of decision-making on the stand that goes behind that.”
The team intercom chatter also includes a performance engineer (who monitors other teams and does timing models) and a Honda Performance Development engineer. Goldberg said the team is talking via the intercom for virtually every lap until the final pit stop.
“It’s always constant communication, but toward the end of that race, it was pretty quiet,” Goldberg said with a laugh. “You’re just watching gearshift by gearshift, lap by lap, corner by corner, steering trace by steering trace. Trying to get through the lap and then another lap.”
“Unleashing The Dragon” also touches on a few tense moments in which Ericsson’s win seemed in doubt, including two incidents that involved featured teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Ericsson was seething after getting blocked by Johnson on an early pit stop, and he was angry again when his comfortable lead was neutralized by Johnson’s crash with five laps remaining.
“Oh my gosh, there were some hotheads on the stand,” Ashmore said. “I think because we won, everything was cool. It was OK. I think after the race, some people were like, ‘Man, (Johnson is) lucky that things didn’t go another way, because that would have been a bad deal.’ ”
The documentary focuses on an exchange between Ericsson and Goldberg during the red flag for Johnson’s wreck that set up a restart for the final three laps.
“Marcus always knows if I get on the radio, it’s serious,” Goldberg said with a laugh. “If you listen in the documentary, he’s all spun up. I let him go and then when he wasn’t stopping, you heard me very sternly, calmly come on and say it’s not a problem. We have the best car. If (O’Ward) passes you, there’s no problem. We’ll just pass him back. We’re not going to lose this race. After that, he got real quiet, and it was time to go race again.”
The documentary triggered memories of a few heart-stopping moments for Ashmore, who also hadn’t rewatched the entire race before being involved with “Unleashing The Dragon.” She initially was unaware she had made history that she was the first winning female team member (which journalist Marshall Pruett confirmed with IMS historians a few weeks later).
“I feel it more now than I did a year ago right after we won,” she said. “It didn’t sink in until we’re coming back to the race this year, and you have a little more respect for how much work went into that whole year of preparation. I’m just a generally unemotional person, which I think is what makes me good at my job. I’m never too high, never too low.
“I don’t get too worked up usually, although there were a couple of moments in that race when I went back and watched the deal with Jimmie, it was like another flash of anger and a ‘Wow, we got really lucky.’ How many things had to go right for us to win this race? I think it was just the amazement of ‘Man, if that would have happened, we wouldn’t have won.’ Wow, we really saved a lot of fuel being back a few cars in the pack. That was a really good deal for us. If that hadn’t have happened, we wouldn’t have won.
“I think that was more of an eye-opener watching it back. Oh man, so many things went our way.”