Pigot at Sonoma. Photo: Mike Finnegan/Sonoma Raceway

IndyCar’s test silly season sustaining interest prior to St. Pete

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Quoting Ron Burgundy in Anchorman for a minute, diversity isn’t just an old wooden ship; it’s also the word that can describe the type of drivers who’ve made their Verizon IndyCar Series test debuts in recent months.

Because of the length of the IndyCar offseason between the season finale (September 18, 2016 at Sonoma Raceway) and new season opener (March 12, 2017 on the streets of St. Petersburg), testing takes on a greater bit of interest and attention than it otherwise would.

In recent years, both the series itself and the teams within IndyCar have upped their social media game. It means we get things like ridiculously cool eye-level visor cam (Graham Rahal at Phoenix and JR Hildebrand at Sonoma have done this in recent weeks) and additional cool on-board footage (Spencer Pigot had this at Sonoma).

Usually mundane days of running are spiced up for those watching at home. And to IndyCar’s credit, one of the surprise (I thought) but cool things they’ve done was stream the Phoenix Prix View open test. People watched… which indicated a desire to see cars on track.

And with this year seeing so many changes in the driver roster – not so much new drivers as it is existing drivers changing teams – it’s been a fun and entertaining break even if there hasn’t been any activity that’s counted other than preparing and developing for the new season ahead.

However it’s been some of the additional drivers that either have tested or are scheduled to in the coming days that have added even more intrigue to again, an otherwise stale and long period of the season.

Ricky Taylor’s test Thursday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Simon Pagenaud’s No. 1 PPG Chevrolet for Team Penske offered the Rolex 24 champion a chance to show his chops in the defending champion’s machinery. He’s the second surprise test driver Team Penske has run in the last eight months, as NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski had a test in Pagenaud’s car at the Road America road course last June.

Pace is never going to be something they’re shooting for in their first day in an IndyCar, but Pagenaud and others such as Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull were quick to identify Taylor’s talent.

The test had been in the works for a bit of time so it was cool to see one half of the dynamic pair of brothers have their first run in an IndyCar; surely now the prospect of eventually seeing younger brother Jordan test one must enter the discussion phase (we know he has pace so imagine that, plus the potential social media hilarity he could provide).

Then there was the first bit of surprise news that arose earlier Thursday, and why it was such a good and genuine surprise was because it was kept quiet and only known to a select few people.

The ride swap set between James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens will see the longtime friends and full-time Canadian fulfill lifelong dreams, if just for a test day. Wickens’ timing was unfortunate for IndyCar because he had the potential to join Hinchcliffe and become the next big star from that country in the series. His career was rising as Paul Tracy’s active driving career wound down, and Alex Tagliani and Patrick Carpentier evolved into racing other types of cars. Hinchcliffe, too, knows how cool it will be to test a DTM car because that is an opportunity afforded to very few North American drivers.

Add in SPM’s next day of testing a day later for Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker and there’s more intrigue there. Derani’s sports car career has grown stratospherically in a very short amount of time but he was an open-wheel guy first; the Brazilian has the talent and should come to grips rather quickly. Dorrbecker is a bit further under the radar but seems keen to deliver in his opportunity.

Felix Rosenqvist's Ganassi test last year was an intriguing one. Photo: IndyCar
Felix Rosenqvist’s Ganassi test last year was an intriguing one. Photo: IndyCar

It’s not just these four that have made testing more intriguing, either. Thanks to the rules that allow Verizon IndyCar Series teams to test Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers, nearly all of the field that raced full-time in 2016 had at least one test day in an IndyCar last year. The list of those:

  • RC Enerson (testing and three 2016 races, Dale Coyne Racing)
  • Ed Jones (Watkins Glen test, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing)
  • Santiago Urrutia (Sonoma test, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports)
  • Zach Veach (Sonoma test, Ed Carpenter Racing)
  • Dean Stoneman (Watkins Glen test, Andretti Autosport)
  • Felix Serralles (Sebring test, Andretti Autosport)
  • Andre Negrao (Sonoma test, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports)
  • Shelby Blackstock (Watkins Glen test, Andretti Autosport)
  • Zachary Claman De Melo (Mid-Ohio test, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports)
  • Dalton Kellett (Watkins Glen test, Andretti Autosport)
  • Felix Rosenqvist (Mid-Ohio test, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Additionally, there’s past Indy Lights race winners Jack Harvey and Sean Rayhall, who’ve tested for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing, respectively. Both have the talent and chops to be considered IndyCar-level talent. Robin Frijns tested for Andretti at Mid-Ohio and if my MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith pegs it right again as he did with Frijns, perhaps Antonio Felix da Costa could emulate his Amlin Andretti FIA Formula E teammate in a test later this year.

Despite three star races in 2016, Enerson was left on outside looking in for 2017. Photo: IndyCar
Despite three star races in 2016, Enerson was left on outside looking in for 2017. Photo: IndyCar

Enerson realistically should be in a car full-time this season thanks to his performances at the tail end of last year, although over the winter was the victim of bad timing for multiple would-be seats. Rather bizarrely, he’s not been an IndyCar since Sonoma while some of these other surprise names have. Other recent drivers with no more than three full-time seasons in IndyCar, Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves, Jack Hawksworth, Matty Brabham and Stefan Wilson, are along with Enerson the list of this year’s “we wish they were in a car, but there’s not enough seats” drivers.

Might Kaiser be the next Indy Lights driver we see arrive in IndyCar? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Might Kaiser be the next Indy Lights driver we see arrive in IndyCar? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Anyway, it leaves just Kyle Kaiser, Neil Alberico and Juan Piedrahita as the three full-time Indy Lights drivers returning in 2017 who are yet to have their first day in an IndyCar, and it would not be a surprise to see at least one of those three sooner rather than later. Indy Lights rookies such as Aaron Telitz, Garth Rickards, Nico Jamin or Nico Dapero could be this year’s next batch of drivers making their test debuts as the year goes into the summer and fall.

Consider also Scott Hargrove’s ability and he’d probably be exciting to watch in an IndyCar test as well. The Canadian’s full-time open-wheel career stalled out after losing the Pro Mazda title to Spencer Pigot in 2014. Consider how different history might look had Hargrove, not Pigot won that title… is Pigot an IndyCar driver and Juncos Racing an IndyCar team now if that doesn’t happen? It’s hard to fully say.

Hargrove’s midseason replacement at Team Pelfrey last year, Garett Grist, may well be interested in an IndyCar test program of his own this year if he can gather enough funding to make it happen. The diminutive, talented Canadian has a wealth of Mazda Road to Indy experience and is at the critical point in his career where he needs to step up or explore alternative forms of motorsport.

Given his ability in prototypes and his open-wheel background, Dane Cameron would be a natural if he'd get shot to test an IndyCar. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Given his ability in prototypes and his open-wheel background, Dane Cameron would be a natural if he’d get shot to test an IndyCar. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Meanwhile it’s tantalizing to think about those talents in the sports car world who like either Taylor or Derani could do well in an IndyCar. The “lost generation” of Atlantic drivers such as Dane Cameron, Jonathan Bomarito, John Edwards, Daniel Morad, Bryan Sellers, Joey Hand or Jon Fogarty come to mind; Mazda prototype driver Tristan Nunez is young and fast; Audi driver Connor De Phillippi was destined for open-wheel success but hit a glitch in what could have been a title-winning Star Mazda season in 2012; Dutch drivers Jeroen Bleekemolen and Renger van der Zande themselves have past open-wheel backgrounds on their glittering resumes before moving fully into sports cars.

Will any of those other names mentioned above ever get their day in an IndyCar? It seems doubtful, but then again, we didn’t think we’d get the run on names announced in the last week or so either.

It really gets you thinking about the level of talent that exists in open-wheel and sports car racing worldwide, how many of them were open-wheel first, and how many you wish you could see racing full-time to add to the incredible 1-21 depth that already exists in IndyCar.

Michael Andretti looking forward to new Australian Supercars venture

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If it seems like Michael Andretti is out to conquer the world, he is – kind of.

The former IndyCar star turned prolific team owner has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s and five overall, second only to Roger Penske’s 16 Indy 500 triumphs.

Along the way, in addition to expanding his own IndyCar and Indy Lights operation, the son of Mario Andretti and the primary shareholder of Andretti Autosport has also branched out into Global RallyCross and Formula E racing in recent years.

And now, Andretti has further expanded his brand internationally, following Penske to the world down under — as in the world of Australian V8 Supercars.

Andretti has teamed with Supercars team owner Ryan Walkinshaw, along with veteran motorsports marketer and executive director of McLaren Technology Group and United Autosports owner and chairman, Zak Brown.

Together, the three have formed Walkinshaw Andretti United, based in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The new team kicks off the new season with the Adelaide 500 from March 1-4.

“It’s just extending our brand and putting it out there,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “The Supercars are such a great series.

“It all started with Zach Brown calling me and said ‘You have to talk to Ryan Walkinshaw. He’s got something interesting to talk to you about.’

“We talked and literally in like a half-hour, we said, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this work.’ And then Zack was like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ And then Zack came in as a partner and it’s cool now that we have the Walkinshaw Andretti United team.

“I’m really excited about that program, the guys at the shop are excited about it, we’ve been doing a lot of things to try and help it because it’s such a cool series and the cars are so cool.

“I went down there to Bathurst, which was to me one of the coolest tracks in the world. I wish I could have driven it, I really do. It looks like a blast.

“It’s amazing how big that series is when you go down there. It’s one of the biggest sports in Australia. It was just a great opportunity for us to extend our portfolio.”

Admittedly, Andretti had some extra incentive to want to get involved in the Supercars world: Penske joined forces with legendary Dick Johnson Racing in September 2014.

The organization came together quickly and the rebranded DJR Team Penske went on to win the 2017 V8 Supercars championship.

“Roger was down there the last few years,” Andretti said, adding that fact as incentive to get his own organization into the series. “So it’s cool to go race head-to-head with Roger. That was also in the back of our minds.”

This is no start-up venture for Andretti. The roots of the new venture began in 1990 as the Holden Racing Team, which went on to become one of the most successful organizations in Australian V8 Supercar racing, having won the drivers’ championship six times and the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship’s top race, the Bathurst 1000 (essentially Australia’s version of the Indy 500), seven times.

Last season, Holden Racing team morphed into Triple Eight Race Engineering and was renamed Mobil 1 HSV Racing.

And now the company has been renamed once again for the 2018 campaign under the Walkinshaw Andretti United banner.

The team will be composed of two Holden ZB Commodores with drivers James Courtney and Scott Pye, as well as a Porsche 911 GT3-R in the Australian GT championship.

What’s next for Andretti’s motorsports portfolio? Right now, it’s pretty full, but you can bet running for championships from Australia (Supercars) to globally (GRC) to Indianapolis (Indy 500) to the U.S. (Verizon IndyCar Series) are at the top of this year’s list.