IndyCar 2014 silly season update, round 1

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The championship is in the books for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season, and while my colleague Chris Estrada and I will have a bevy of postseason wrap-up content to come, it’s never too early to look ahead to 2014. And thus far, there’s been no shortage of announcements and already a healthy portion of the field confirmed.

Here’s what we know thus far:

CONFIRMED (14)

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (3 cars, Chevrolet): Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball. The champ is staying until 2015 as announced back in March, “TK” made his switch from KV and the team’s move from Honda to Chevy official at Houston and Kimball will seek to grow even further in his fourth season. We’ll touch on the fourth car in a moment.
  • Team Penske (3 cars, Chevrolet): Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Will Power. Castroneves and Power stay with Penske for their 15th and sixth seasons, respectively, while “JPM’s” shock move from NASCAR was revealed in September.
  • Andretti Autosport (3 cars, Honda): Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay. This trio continues on but Andretti may have a new livery in his Dr Pepper Snapple car, Hinchcliffe will for sure with new sponsor United Fiber & Data, and Hunter-Reay switches back from No. 1 to 28, the latter number he won the 2012 title. Honda switch also was announced at Fontana.
  • Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports (Honda): Simon Pagenaud. Team announced Honda at Sonoma and Pagenaud will drive his third consecutive season with Schmidt, but with a new primary sponsor yet to be determined.
  • KVSH Racing: Sebastien Bourdais. The two-year deal announced just prior to Fontana did not make mention of the team’s engine manufacturer or Bourdais’ teammate, but a switch to KV is an upgrade from Dragon for the four-time Champ Car champion.
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Graham Rahal. The first year of Graham’s homecoming wasn’t stellar so he’ll be looking for a turnaround in year two. A second full-time car is likely, and a third possible for at least selected races.
  • Ed Carpenter Racing: Ed Carpenter. About as shocking as Rahal staying at Rahal and Andretti at Andretti, really…
  • Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing: Josef Newgarden. The American enters the third and final year of his rookie contract in 2014, and seeks his first career win after a much-improved sophomore season.

ALL BUT OFFICIAL (2)

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (fourth car, Chevrolet): Dario Franchitti. It’s all but a formality even though Franchitti was careful to say earlier this year he wanted to return but didn’t have anything official done. As he recovers from his Houston injuries, the team seems set to keep Fontana replacement Alex Tagliani on standby for offseason testing. But this is Dario’s car for 2014 unless he decides otherwise.
  • Dale Coyne Racing: Justin Wilson. Yes, it was announced back in March that the lanky, talented and personable Englishman had signed a contract extension with Coyne. That aside, nothing is ever official with Coyne until Practice 1 at St. Petersburg is underway. The biggest thing here is that like Franchitti, Wilson recovers from his late-season injuries and gets back to being a badass behind the wheel.

VERY LIKELY (2)

  • Andretti Autosport (fourth car, Honda): Carlos Munoz. Assuming the funding comes together, this car seems earmarked for the Colombian who’s paid his dues in Indy Lights, starred in his IndyCar cameos, and is ready to make the jump to IndyCar.
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises: The eponymous team owner said in a conference call prior to Houston that the returns of Takuma Sato and Honda were close, but not finalized. Sato’s ragged second half of the season didn’t help his cause and all weekend at Fontana, my sources were alternating between “yes, he’ll be back” and “no, he won’t” on a consistent basis. I’d lean toward the former at the moment for consistency’s sake, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they go a different direction, either.

LIKELY (2)

  • Barracuda Racing: Luca Filippi. From his three weekend outings, Houston in particular, Bryan Herta’s team was floored by Filippi’s pace, his candor, and his team interaction. JR Hildebrand gave it his best shot at Fontana, but given the higher volume of road and street course races, Filippi is a better full season candidate here.
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Tristan Vautier. Per team co-owner Rick Peterson at Sonoma, the intention and goal is for Vautier and SPM to carry through to a second season, where he can grow further and eliminate some of his mistakes. He’s a good kid with a lot of potential but a couple things work against him: he won’t have the Mazda scholarship support next year – that now goes to this year’s champion Sage Karam – and he had to make due with a consortium of backers on the No. 55 Honda this year. It might be a patchwork project again.

2013 FULL-SEASON DRIVERS LOOKING TO LAND

  • Simona de Silvestro. De Silvestro will be somewhere in 2014 after her best season, and while a KV return is possible, her management team told me at Fontana they are exploring all their options.
  • James Jakes. In roughly the same boat. A RACER.com story earlier this year said Jakes would at least like to consider getting paid as opposed to paying his way via his family’s Acorn Stairlifts business. Still, was one of the year’s most improved drivers and a second year at RLL would give both driver and team a chance to grow further.
  • E.J. Viso. Perhaps hamstrung by the investigation into Venezuelan funding for race drivers, Viso’s a big question mark at the moment as to where he fits into the equation.
  • Sebastian Saavedra. Dragon hasn’t made overtones yet about an IndyCar return, and Bourdais has already bolted, but it has already announced a Formula E program. So, make of that what you will for Saavedra. 
  • Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani, Mike Conway, JR Hildebrand, Ryan Briscoe, etc. Wait and see for all of these drivers, who ran part-time 2013 seasons and traditionally haven’t brought budgets to seats. In other words, just another offseason.

2013 TEAMS LOOKING FOR DRIVERS

  • Second cars at RLL Racing and KVSH Racing will be in play, with RLL’s potentially not requiring a paying driver, if the National Guard-to-RLL story Robin Miller wrote a couple weeks ago for RACER.com comes to pass.
  • The second Dale Coyne Racing car is likely to go to the highest bidder, the latest bidder, or a combination of drivers who come up with the budget to put the year together as was the case this year. Not worth even discussing until St. Petersburg, most likely.
  • Panther Racing has nothing for 2014 confirmed, with seasonal layoffs coming and the potential of losing its title sponsor per that aforementioned Miller report.

If you project maybe one or two full season car losses from 2013, but add the third Penske and fourth Ganassi full-time entries, respectively, the 2014 grid will look fairly similar in terms of overall car count (24-25). Second cars from single car teams are always “possible” but rarely bear fruit. It’s only the end of October, so things will change soon enough.

If Dale Jr. wants a part-time job in retirement, John Force has one for him

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”