NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series’ lone race trip outside the United States, to Exhibition Place for the Honda Indy Toronto (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC).
The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode as the series makes its final street course visit, and first since Detroit’s doubleheader the start of June.
Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see below.
On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Iowa winner Helio Castroneves, Detroit double winner Graham Rahal and past Toronto Indy Lights winner Spencer Pigot.
As the lone doubleheader event on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar, the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear presents one of the most unique challenges of any event on the calendar.
And with a full slate of points on the line in both races, finishing well in both is imperative in the overall championship picture.
With that in mind, some drivers enjoyed successful outings in Detroit, while others will need to rebound in the coming races.
Graham Rahal: Most obviously, Rahal had, by far, the best results of anyone. The 28-year-old won Race 1 from the pole, won Race 2 from third, and collected 107 of a possible 108 points. That performance vaulted Rahal from 15th in the championship to sixth.
What’s more, prior to this weekend, Rahal sat 101 points behind then championship leader Helio Castroneves. Leaving Detroit, Rahal now sits 52 points adrift of new championship leader Scott Dixon. Having cut his championship deficit nearly in half, Rahal is in prime position to make a championship push.
Josef Newgarden: Newgarden may not have been in victory lane in Detroit, but he did have one of the strongest weekends out of anyone on the grid. Newgarden’s finishes of fourth (Race 1) and second (Race 2) are his best since his victory at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, and were a welcome change after a tough 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, in which he qualified 22nd and finished 19th after a lap 183 crash.
Takuma Sato: Race 1 was solid, but unspectacular for Sato, who finished eighth. However, Race 2 was a little bit of a different story, as the Andretti Autosport driver started from the pole and drove a strong race to finish fourth.
Sitting in third position in the championship before the weekend started, Sato remains in third and trails leader Scott Dixon by 11 points (coincidentally, that’s the same gap he was down at the start of the weekend, though to Helio Castroneves). In so doing, Sato has firmly entrenched himself in the championship battle.
Scott Dixon-Every time you leave a race weekend as the championship leader, you know it has been a strong weekend. If you do it while nursing an injury, then it could be described as a great weekend.
Dixon may not have won either of the Detroit races, but with finishes of second (Race 1) and sixth (Race 2), he did more than enough to take the championship lead at the end of the weekend, albeit by a scant eight points over Helio Castroneves.
Regardless, given that he is still nursing an injured ankle, contested two races on a notoriously bumpy street circuit, scored strong finishes of second and sixth, and took over the championship lead, one could argue that Dixon may have had the best weekend of everyone.
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Ryan Hunter-Reay entered Detroit in need of points after a blown engine at the Indy 500 left him 27th in the race and 12th in the championship, 93 points out of the lead.
Detroit wasn’t much better for the 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner. He languished back in 13th at the end of Race 1, and while things looked much better for Race 2 after he qualified second, things quickly soured on lap 10 after contact with Helio Castroneves damaged Hunter-Reay’s front wing. Hunter-Reay could do no better than 17th in Race 2.
Through eight races, Hunter-Reay only has two finishes inside the top 10 (fourth at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and third at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course), and now sits 13th in the standings, 120 points out of the lead.
JR Hildebrand: Hildebrand has endured a difficult season with Ed Carpenter Racing. A third-place finish at the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix Raceway is his best finish of the 2017 season, but it is his only finish inside the top 10 this year.
Detroit was more of the same for Hildebrand. A penalty late in Race 1 for crossing the pit exit line too early after his final pit stop dropped him to 17th, and a cut tire while battling Ed Jones in Race 2 meant he could do no better than 18th.
While he had enough pace to finish in the top ten in both races and is showing improved form at every race, the finishing results continue to leave he and Ed Carpenter Racing wanting for more.
Spencer Pigot: On driving prowess, Pigot has been one of the shining stars this year and has demonstrated a big improvement on form over last year. However, he has also suffered two of the most dramatic mechanical failures of the season.
His brakes exploded while entering his pit stall in St. Petersburg and his engine expired in a billowing cloud of smoke in Race 2 at Detroit. While he finished a solid tenth in Race 1, the engine failure in Race 2 saw a disappointing end to the weekend.
With Ed Carpenter getting back behind the wheel of the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet at Texas Motor Speedway, Pigot’s next race will be the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (June 25 at 12:30 p.m. at NBCSN).
Despite qualifying well and showing impressive speed in practice, Ed Carpenter Racing endured a difficult race day at the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Both Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand suffered somewhat of a downturn in outright pace as well as some ill-timed cautions and bad luck that kept both from finishing inside the top ten. Carpenter came home in 11th while Hildebrand took the checkered flag in 16th after incurring a penalty late in the race for jumping a restart (he was running fifth at the time).
Even Spencer Pigot, ECR’s road and street course driver for the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, endured a difficult race, albeit with newcomers Juncos Racing. Pigot suffered a crash in practice and admitted after the race that something wasn’t quite right with the car, despite the best of efforts from he and the team. He soldiered home in 18th, six laps down.
With Indianapolis behind them, the focus shifts toward the rest of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, beginning this weekend at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear, the lone doubleheader of the year.
For Pigot, who has been nothing short of impressive on the other road and street courses, this marks his one-year anniversary with Ed Carpenter’s team. The 23-year-old joined them after running with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing on a part-time basis to open the 2016 season, and he contested the remaining road and street courses with ECR.
This weekend’s races also represent something of a milestone for Pigot. For the first time in his IndyCar career, he will contest an IndyCar event in a team with whom he previously raced at the same event. This fact is lost on the Californian.
“Last year, Detroit was my first race with Ed Carpenter Racing so it will be nice to get back to a track we’ve raced at together,” he detailed. “I enjoy the challenges of Belle Isle and I’m excited to race there again. It’s going to be a tough weekend with two races coming off a busy month of May, but I know the Fuzzy’s Vodka crew is up for it!”
Teammate Hildebrand, meanwhile, will encounter several unknowns this weekend. Given that he and Panther Racing parted ways just before the 2013 event, Hildebrand has only raced at Detroit once in 2012, a race held on an old layout. That year, there was only a short chute between turns two and three. One year later, that stretch was lengthened to a half-mile, which altered the rest of the track’s layout as well and saw an entire section removed.
Further, Hildebrand has never raced a double-header weekend in IndyCar. But, the new challenges do not appear to phase the 29-year-old.
“I am really looking forward to getting back to Detroit, I haven’t raced at Belle Isle since 2012 and never in the double header! I’ve always enjoyed the city and the whole vibe up there. It’s also the home race for Chevrolet so we’re looking to get a good result for them in both races in the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy,” he explained.
Currently, Pigot sits 21st in the championship (albeit while not running a full season campaign) while Hildebrand sits 13th, 22 points behind tenth place James Hinchcliffe.
This year more than any other in the last four or five years, there are more Indianapolis-only entries than normal as the full-season field is only 21 cars, leaving more than a third of the field for the Indianapolis 500 comprised of likely single-race entries. Once Sebastien Bourdais was hurt, it provided an opportunity in one of those cars as well.
Within these 13 drivers, there’s two past Indianapolis 500 champions (Juan Pablo Montoya, Buddy Lazier), three of the four rookies including that one (Fernando Alonso, Jack Harvey, Zach Veach), the eternally savvy Oriol Servia, fan favorite Pippa Mann, young guns Spencer Pigot, Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam, and the driver making a comeback after six years in Jay Howard. And then, there was James Davison who got the call as Bourdais’ injury replacement.
All of them have different goals and objectives for this year’s race, given their respective team scenarios.
Here’s a look at the dozen drivers who are competing either part-time this year or only at Indianapolis who look to play spoiler on Sunday. The best speeds for all except Davison were done with qualifying level boost (he only drove on Monday) and the lap counts are totaled prior to Friday’s Carb Day activity.
Engineer: Eric Bretzman
Strategist: Michael Andretti
Best Speed this month: 231.827 (5th)
Total Laps: 452
Starts: 5th (231.300)
Indy 500 Record: Rookie
The man who has dominated the headlines this month since his shock announcement, Alonso’s taken to the Brickyard rather well in all phases. On paper for the race, he’s well positioned because he has been provided an all-star crew around him for a one-off entry. In Bretzman, he has the engineer who guided Scott Dixon to most of his career success; in Michael Andretti, he has a guy calling his race who is renowned for his calls; in Gil de Ferran, he has Andretti’s answer to Rick Mears (Penske) and Dario Franchitti (Ganassi) as an Indianapolis driving sherpa of sorts.
Yet it will be things such as the rolling start, being in the middle of a three-wide launch, coming in for yellow flag pit stops, and aggression on restarts that will define his race. Quoting the old axiom, practice and qualifying is one thing, but how Alonso handles the magic – and the pressure – that comes with race day is his ultimate test, and the primary reason he signed up for this odyssey in the first place.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Engineer: Tom German
Strategist: Tom German
Best Speed This Month: 230.997 (17th)
Starts: 12th (230.309)
Indy 500 Record: 4th (2012) best finish in 8 prior starts
It seems we write this every year, but Servia is the safest and most consistent bet among the one-off entries. Yet in recent years, he hasn’t had a result to show for it. Servia enters this year with the defending race-winning engineer in Tom German, and the team enters with the determination of bouncing back after a miserable month of May last year and a rough start to 2017. Other than an engine failure on Monday, it’s been a typically smooth, under-the-radar month from the Catalan, who will be one to watch Sunday in his 200th career race start.
22-Juan Pablo Montoya
Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet
Engineer: Raul Prados
Strategist: Ron Ruzewski
Best Speed This Month: 231.682 (7th)
Total Laps: 216
Starts: 18th (229.565)
Indy 500 Record: 2 wins (2000, 2015) from 4 prior starts
Going into the month, JPM was arguably the best positioned of the one-off entries, as this was announced late in 2016, with a driver who has nothing to lose in now his second start of the year. Additionally, unlike in each of the past three years, there were not multiple extra entries in the INDYCAR Grand Prix – this year, Montoya was the only extra car entered. That gave his crew a leg up among the other one-off crews, having had one extra race to get ready for Indy. While the usual “Penske perfect” and “effort equals results” mantras haven’t yet produced big results, it’d be a shock if Penske – and JPM – aren’t better on race day in traffic.
Lucas Oil/Team One Cure Honda
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Team One Cure
Engineer: Chris Finch
Strategist: Chris Finch
Best Speed this month: 231.255 (11th)
Starts: 20th (229.414)
Indy 500 Record: 30th (2011) best finish in 1 prior start
For Howard, coming back to the Speedway has gone respectably well to this point. SPM has again prepared a decent third car and Howard, despite being out of the game for six years, has reacclimatized better than perhaps anticipated. He’s a longshot, but has impressed with both speed and patience to this point. Quite possibly, his first career IndyCar top-10 is an achievable result in the car that features Team One Cure support, and NASCAR and IndyCar legend Tony Stewart as part of the entry.
DRR Mecum Auctions Chevrolet
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
Engineer: Jeff Britton
Strategist: Dennis Reinbold
Best Speed this month: 230.134 (In Qualifying; Best Practice 228.159, 27th)
Total Laps: 317
Starts: 21st (229.380)
Indy 500 Record: 9th (2014) best finish in 3 prior starts
Perhaps the most polarizing driver in the field who could be IndyCar’s version of Roy McAvoy, “Tin Cup,” Karam boasts the combination of brash fearlessness, pure speed, and determination that often produces either big results or big repair bills. In 2014 he was lucky to get away with a spin on Carb Day without damage, then promptly starred in the pit stop competition and stormed from 31st to ninth in the race. He should have been at least co-rookie of the year, if not outright. But a devastating first lap crash followed in 2015 in a full Chip Ganassi Racing entry, and last year out of the spotlight back at DRR he carved from 23rd to fourth before colliding with another car and crashing out again. The team has opted to focus on race trim this year and Karam’s car appears a rocket in traffic. He’s more relaxed now, yet behind the wheel is so much fun to watch because of his unquestioned tenacity.
Harding Racing Chevrolet
Engineer: Matt Curry
Strategist: Larry Curry
Best Speed this month: 229.033 (26th)
Total Laps: 322
Starts: 25th (226.921)
Indy 500 Record: 16th (2015) best finish in 2 prior starts
Chaves has a great chance this year that he didn’t quite have last year. Whereas last year he was dumped from a ride he thought he had a fortnight before the season opener and was left scrambling to put a deal together for May with Dale Coyne Racing, Chaves has been working on this program for months and is the focal point around a new team that seems to have greater ambitions beyond just this May. Armed with a crew that includes team manager/competition director Larry Curry and son Matt Curry as engineer and two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr. as team driving instructor, the sky is the limit here. As Harding is one of several teams making its Indianapolis 500 debut, finishing in one piece is the main goal but with nothing to lose. Chaves is a sneaky good, clean driver who will look to re-establish himself as a force within this series.
Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport Honda
Engineer: Zach Eakin
Strategist: Tim Keene
Best Speed this month: 231.433
Total Laps: 379
Starts: 27th (225.742)
Indy 500 Record: Rookie
Andretti’s “other rookie” has his own point to prove after a month where he has had nearly all but the kitchen sink thrown at him with contact, engine failure, and an almost-crash in qualifying he got away with. Harvey’s got a past win on his resume at Indianapolis, with the Freedom 100 victory in 2015, and he knows enough now from the drafting practice he’s had to get comfortable in an IndyCar. Paired with Indy debutantes Shank, the Englishman’s big question is whether he’s race rusty, having not raced anything since his final start in Indy Lights in September 2015, and not having been in an oval race since Iowa in July of the same year. If Alonso is Andretti’s Kurt Busch, that would make Harvey hope to be Andretti’s Alexander Rossi – or at the very minimum, a Carlos Munoz – at Indianapolis.
Susan G. Komen Honda
Dale Coyne Racing
Engineer: Rob Ridgely
Strategist: Rob Ridgely
Best Speed This Month: 230.103 (25th)
Total Laps: 247
Starts: 28th (225.008)
Indy 500 Record: 18th (2016) best finish in 5 prior starts
Mann’s sustained Indianapolis 500 presence owes to her tireless work ethic year-round to make opportunities happen. Her fifth straight run with Coyne was set to feature no in-month changes in the driver lineup, but following Sebastien Bourdais’ accident it saw the lead car’s switch. Fortunately for Mann, she’s paired with an engineer she knows and works with well in Ridgely. It’s not been the easiest of months for her but as a consistent 500-mile race finisher in recent years, doing so again will be her now-annual typically solid performance.
Oceanfront Recovery Chevrolet
Engineer: Steve Newey
Strategist: Tom Brown
Best Speed This Month: 226.140 (32ndd)
Total Laps: 246
Starts: 29th (224.052)
Indy 500 Record: 25th (2016) best finish in 1 prior start
Pigot’s Indianapolis 500 slot in 2017 wasn’t meant to be here but winds up here nonetheless in a fortuitous, last minute reunion. The thinking when he signed on again to be Ed Carpenter Racing’s road and street course driver for a second straight year was that Carpenter would run him in an extra car for the Indianapolis 500, as the team did for JR Hildebrand the last three years. But it was not to be, with Carpenter citing budgetary restrictions. Pigot, however, will get a one-off reunion with Ricardo Juncos as the two will now be on the grid together for Juncos’ IndyCar debut. Pigot won two straight championships with Juncos on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda in 2014 followed by Indy Lights in 2015, but winning is far from the goal this race. For Juncos, simply staying out of trouble will be key in its IndyCar race debut, and in Pigot, he has a usually safe pair of hands.
Lazier Racing-Stalk It-Tivoli Chevrolet
Lazier Racing Partners
Engineer: Mitch Davis
Strategist: Mitch Davis
Best Speed This Month: 225.198 (33rd)
Total Laps: 85
Starts: 30th (223.417)
Indy 500 Record: 1 wins (1996) from 19 prior starts
The now-annual story of Buddy Lazier’s family-run, shoestring budget, Indianapolis 500-only entry rolls on for a fifth straight year. This makes him both a throwback and the last link to a past generation, which is fun to write about. The 1996 Indianapolis 500 champion is racing against 12 drivers who were born in the 1990s in this year’s field. Lazier is yet to finish a race since this team began in 2013, with early retirements in 2013 and 2014 before last year’s pre-race failure to start then ceding to a loose tire while running dozens of laps down in the final 40 laps, setting up a caution that produced Alexander Rossi’s magical run to the flag. It shouldn’t be as simple as setting the goal of finishing the race, but for the likable, still fit, now-49-year-old, that’s about the only realistic goal he and this small, Vail, Col.-based team can hope to achieve, with anything beyond that a bonus.
Engineer: David Cripps
Strategist: David Cripps
Best Speed This Month: 227.889 (29th)
Total Laps: 236
Starts: 31st (221.142)
Indy 500 Record: 15th (2014) best finish in 5 prior starts
The likable Colombian with the spiky hair makes his sixth Indianapolis 500 start, with series debutantes Juncos joining Ganassi, KV, Dragon, Andretti and Herta as teams Saavedra has raced the ‘500 with – and this doesn’t include Conquest, with whom he failed to qualify in 2011. The Herta parallel is an interesting one because that was a debut team as well. Saavedra is race experienced and as such will draw on that for a safe 500 miles of running.
Indy Women in Tech Championship presented by Guggenheim Chevrolet
AJ Foyt Racing
Engineer: Andy Brown
Strategist: Andy O’Gara
Best Speed this month: 227.082 (31st)
Total Laps: 293
Starts: 32nd (221.081)
Indy 500 Record: Rookie
Veach enters with an unexpected extra race under his belt thanks to his fill-in role for JR Hildebrand at Barber, but while that taught him pit stop practice and got him race ready, Barber and Indy could not be further apart as race tracks. And unfortunately, the same is true for these two events for how Veach has gone. After impressing at Barber, it’s been a tough month for the 22-year-old from Stockdale, Ohio with a heavy pre-qualifying crash in practice providing a setback. Veach never starred in the Freedom 100; he made a mistake with a potential winning car here last year with Belardi Auto Racing and had two midfield finishes prior to that with Andretti Autosport. Realistically, a solid top-20 finish would be an excellent result for him, working with veteran engineer Andy Brown and Josef Newgarden’s old strategist, Andy O’Gara.
Dale Coyne Racing
Engineers: Craig Hampson/Olivier Boisson
Strategist: Darren Crouser
Best Speed This Month: 223.670 (34th)
Total Laps: 88
Starts: 33rd (No Speed)
Indy 500 Record: 16th (2014) best finish in 2 prior starts
In a last-minute call-up under less than ideal circumstances, Davison will make his third Indianapolis 500 start for Coyne. Davison’s been full-time in sports cars the last several seasons, but doesn’t have a full-time opportunity this year. If he can stay out of trouble both he and his car have enough speed to move up the order.
INDIANAPOLIS – With the current crop of established veteran Verizon IndyCar Series drivers in their early 30s to early 40s, it’s worth asking when the next generation of drivers will properly emerge in a “changing of the guard.”
It took time for IndyCar to move on from the Andretti, Unser, Rahal, Foyt, Mears, Fittipaldi, Sullivan and more group of names, as most retired into the 1990s. In their place have come the Castroneves, Kanaan, Montoya, Dixon, Power, Hunter-Reay, Bourdais and Pagenauds of the world, having debuted between the late 1990s and mid-2000s.
There’s a distinct feel this Indianapolis 500 though that the next verge of talent is on the horizon, if not this year then in the next two to three years to come.
The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires presence in this year’s Indianapolis 500 is deep and detailed. Some 14 of the 33 drivers have raced in the series since its formal 2010 introduction, and others have raced in previous American open-wheel ladder championships (namely Formula Atlantic or Indy Lights in its prior iteration) and 24 Mazda Road to Indy alumni in the field all told.
It might, in fact, be easier to count the drivers racing Sunday who don’t have any North American open-wheel ladder experience.
It’s the recent grads though who have a good chance in this race, which for the moment is their only confirmed race of 2017, who otherwise have nothing to lose.
Five of the last six Indy Lights champions are in the field, dating to 2011. Josef Newgarden and Ed Jones are the two full-time drivers, Spencer Pigot races most events as road/street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing while he’s since switched to Juncos Racing for this race only, while past teammates and back-to-back champions Sage Karam and Gabby Chaves are looking to re-establish themselves as full-time IndyCar competitors after only having parts of one full season.
The others who’ve raced in the Road to Indy and graduated from 2010 to 2016 and are in this year’s field include two rookies, Zach Veach and Jack Harvey, A.J. Foyt Enterprises teammates Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, several-time IndyCar race winner James Hinchcliffe, Ganassi’s Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball, Juncos’ Sebastian Saavedra, and Dale Coyne Racing’s Pippa Mann.
This list doesn’t include two other notables in Matthew Brabham and RC Enerson, who impressed in limited 2016 IndyCar starts, but aren’t in this year’s Indianapolis 500 owing to lack of finances, not lack of talent.
ED JONES AND COYNE LEAD THE WAY FROM P11
It’s been Jones who’s been the underrated, and under-appreciated, star of the month. The Dubai-based Brit may be this year’s only full-season rookie, but has been impressive from the off at Dale Coyne Racing. With several laps turned over 230 mph and both pace and patience in traffic, the defending Indy Lights champion and Mazda scholarship recipient is arguably the top darkhorse Sunday from P11 in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda. And it’s not like a rookie started 11th and won last year’s race or anything… (Alexander Rossi did, hence the setup).
“I guess the heat made the car a bit more difficult to drive because this morning in practice we rolled out and did four laps and were like ‘let’s park it, that’s the perfect car,'” Jones said after qualifying. “But nonetheless, it was a great job by the guys who made some changes from yesterday. Thanks to the team, Dale, my engineers.
“Obviously, it was a tough day yesterday, but the team spirit is so strong. It’s great to be a part of this team. It’s tough, like they say with racing you’re always up and down. Especially around here, a place where you’ve got to treat it with respect. Any tiny mistake or any small difference can cost you a huge amount. I’m just proud to be representing this team, hopefully we can move further up in the race.”
TWO MRTI LEGACY STARS REUNITE; PIGOT AND JUNCOS BACK TOGETHER
Rising Star Racing-supported driver Pigot, inadvertently, gets his start in this year’s ‘500 with a MRTI graduate team in Juncos Racing, thus completing the journey for Argentine team owner Ricardo Juncos into IndyCar. Rarely, if ever, has a story been written where a driver began with a team in karting and the two grew together simultaneously to where now he’s driving for Juncos in its debut. Despite a crash in practice, the spirit of the Juncos team shone through with a rebuild overnight, and Pigot’s return in qualifying spoke volumes.
“I just got a little loose. I exited Turn 1. It was a shame, because we had a decent run going,” Pigot said. “It might have been high-20s, which from Friday, I would’ve been all right with after that crash. All that matters is we’re in the race, and I was able to save the car there in Turn 1. I’ve got to thank the guys. They’ve worked a lot of long hours to get me back out here.”
“It’s crazy! So 15 years ago, coming from Argentina, in karts and he’s 9 years old,” Juncos reflected. “Now we’re living this dream. Without losing the focus on the task, we need to enjoy this, because it’s a great story of the team, of Spencer, and of both of them together. For whatever reason, it’s happening.”
RECENT INDY LIGHTS CHAMPS, WINNERS LOOK TO MOVE UP FULLY
Chaves has the most official success in IndyCar among the champions from the last few years. The Colombian American parlayed the 2014 Indy Lights title into both the series and Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year honors in 2015, and might have won at Pocono had it not been for an engine issue driving on a shoestring budget for Bryan Herta Autosport. But financial pitfalls hit before 2016, leaving him scrambling for a ride and then left to watch as Alexander Rossi won the Indy 500.
“It’s huge… it’s what it’s all about, right?” Chaves said. “It’s about keeping the sport going, getting some new faces in it. There are definitely a lot of guys who can stick around and be here for a while.”
Veach, one of Chaves’ closer friends and fellow IndyCar two-seater driver, makes his Indianapolis 500 debut in a third car for Foyt. The journey’s been harder for him and Harvey, perhaps, as they didn’t win an Indy Lights title and the Mazda advancement scholarship that goes with it. But it hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his dream.
“When I talked to AJ Foyt Racing, one of the first things they mentioned was my drive at Road America last year, when I won with a car that wasn’t handling that great, and my dominant win at Watkins Glen,” Veach explained. “I think that showed them a spark of what I can do and that’s what the Mazda Road to Indy has made easy. You have the confidence to walk up to teams because they’re familiar with your past and your lifestyle.”
Harvey, like Veach, came up just short of an Indy Lights title. Chaves beat him to the 2014 title on a tiebreak and then in 2015, Harvey’s fast start faded down the stretch as Pigot and Jones closed stronger. Nonetheless, he’s happy to be back in a seat after it’s been nearly two years since his last start, in Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport’s car.
“The ladder we all know rewards winning,” Harvey said. “For people like Zach and I especially, we did everything right to win, but the cards didn’t fall our way. It reflects on us as people, how hard we’ve worked to get here. We’ve kept grinding and got the opportunities we have.”
THE FACTORY SPORTS CAR STAR AND YOUNG CHARGER BACK AGAIN
Karam won both the USF2000 and Indy Lights titles and has been trying to stick full-time in IndyCar for four years. Now a factory driver for the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Indianapolis is always a welcome comeback for the 22-year-old out of Nazareth, who prepares for his fourth ‘500 as the youngest driver in the field, with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
“It feels good to have some races under my belt with Lexus and Scott this year including the Daytona 24, Sebring, Long Beach and COTA,” said Karam. “I feel that doing those races has made me more relaxed behind the wheel coming to Indy. Last year, without some racing before Indy, I thought I got too anxious in the 500 when I was towards the front. I really wanted to lead the race.”
Many of the names mentioned in this piece aren’t household names yet. But they are all drivers in their 20s who have potential staying power for years to come.
Supplanting the veterans isn’t something that comes easily, but given what Josef Newgarden has accomplished with time, breaking into the top-five in points and winning multiple races as he’s into his sixth season now, and has arrived at Team Penske at age 26.
None of the other recent graduates have more than three years experience in IndyCar. But they’re working towards that point, and Sunday’s race provides a great shot where an unheralded name or two emerges on a national stage.