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.

‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits still chasing drag racing records, more innovation at 86

All photos courtesy NHRA/National Dragster
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At 86 years old, legendary drag racer “Big Daddy” Don Garlits has found the fountain of youth:

Batteries.

No, we’re not talking about batteries for a heart pacemaker or the kind you put in your TV remote control.

Rather, the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history is still attacking the quarter-mile just like he did when he got into the sport more than six decades ago.

The difference for the Ocala, Florida, resident is rather than using nitromethane, which powers the Top Fuel dragsters he used to drive to countless wins and championships, Garlits is now piloting dragsters that are battery powered.

Or as many refer to them as “electric dragsters.”

Garlits has been working on electric dragsters for about four years now, and he’s just as competitive now as he was back in his hey-day.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is still going fast at the age of 86. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

He holds the world record for electric dragsters at 185.6 mph at 7.25 seconds. He actually has gone quicker – 7.05 seconds – but it was not recognized as a record.

Garlits has done all that with a former Top Fuel dragster that was converted to battery power. He calls it Swamp Rat 37, which continues the long line of innovations and technological advancements that Garlits has been know for his whole career.

“It’s all batteries now,” Garlits said when interviewed by MotorSportsTalk recently at Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago.

MORE: ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits, 82, sets yet another national drag racing speed/elapsed time record

The electric dragsters have definitely helped “Big Daddy” in many ways, but most notable is his look and demeanor. He could easily pass for early-to-mid 60s, and his drive and desire to be the best pioneer of the battery-powered cars is just like it was when he was racing in Top Fuel.

“I feel good, real good,” Garlits said. “Well, of course, developing the electric dragster has been a big part of that.

“A man doesn’t really go to seed, so to speak, until he has nothing to do. You’ve gotta have goals, no matter how old you are.

“It’s as important to exercise your mind as it is to exercise your body, because your mind can get stiff and out of whack, too.”

At an age where most individuals would be enjoying retirement to the fullest, Garlits refuses to retire. Instead, he keeps busy with a schedule that someone half his age would have a hard time keeping up with.

In addition to constant tinkering on his electric dragster – with the goal of becoming the first person to break the 200 mph barrier – he also spends every day (except when he’s traveling on business) at the Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, which he founded in 1976.

And then there’s his latest project.

“Now I’m building Swamp Rat 38 that is designed around all that I’ve learned about electronic dragsters over the last four years,” Garlits said. “My goal is to reach 200 mph on batteries and to have a car that’s consistent and simple to operate so that a group of people can have dragsters and not cost a fortune to do it. It’s not very expensive.

“It’s going to take about 1,300 to 1,400 horsepower in about a 1,500 pound car. And I have the electric motor to do that.”

Garlits’ milestones in drag racing history are truly legendary. He was the first Top Fuel racer to break speed barriers of 170 mph, 180 mph, 200 mph, 240 mph, 250 mph and 270 mph – all in the quarter-mile – as well as was the first driver to exceed 200 mph in the one-eighth-mile.

Each of those milestones came because Garlits has spent his entire life tinkering, tweaking and strategizing. He got his mechanical curiosity from his father, an engineer for Westinghouse, who was on a team that invented a number of significant appliances, including the electric fan and the electric iron.

“That’s one reason I’ve gotten so excited about this electric dragster is because those genes are coming out,” Garlits said with a laugh.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits back in the early stages of his drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

But seriously, innovation and the desire to never give up and always strive to be the best has been Garlits’ mantra since he first started drag racing in the late 1950s.

“The biggest difference in drag racing today vs. my era in Top Fuel is definitely the cost,” Garlits said. “I’ll never forget when I showed up at Bakersfield (California) with my car, Swamp Rat 1, in 1959 for the U.S. Fuel and Gas championships, the first real big drag race in the world.

“The total price of my car and the trailer it was on cost less than $1,000 to make. Nitro was $1.50 per gallon and it used less than a gallon per run. That’s all the cost there was. I ran a whole year on the same engine, same clutch, same tires, same everything. It was very inexpensive.

“That’s why drag racing appealed back then to so many youngsters because it was something they could dream about and actually do. Now, they’ve made this maybe as expensive as NASCAR and other types of racing.

The Swamp Rat that started it all for “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Swamp Rat 1. Photo: Museum of Drag Racing.

“The biggest cost was the engine. It came out of a wrecking yard and out of a ’57 Chrysler. It cost $450 bucks. The chassis was out of a ’31 Chevrolet and I just used the side rails, that was $35. And then the rear end out of an old Ford was $10, and the transmission and front wheels, everything was out of wrecking yards – and you made it yourself.”

Electric dragsters today are among the least expensive vehicles in motorsports, Garlits said.

“It’s probably $150,000 to get to the track with the car and truck, but that’s the last of the big costs,” Garlits said. “It costs about 7 or 8 cents a run after that.

“That’s compared to some of the Top Fuel dragster runs today, where it can cost up to $25,000 per run. Nobody can afford that.”

Garlits was forced to retire from racing in 1992 – at the age of 60 – due to a detached retina in his eye. He made two brief comebacks in 1998 and again in 2003, attaining a personal best of 323 mph in 4.7 seconds (on a quarter-mile, before NHRA scaled back Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars to 1,000-foot lanes).

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

While Top Fuel dragsters are routinely hitting 330 mph and faster these days, Garlits demurs when asked if he’d like to pilot one of the current nitro dragsters.

“I wouldn’t jump into one of the 300-plus mph cars today, it’s too hard on your body,” he said. “You get hit with 8 Gs when you step on it and that’s instant, and that hurts you when you get up to my age.”

But, he adds with a caveat and another smile on his face, “Our bones and joints are not as good as they used to be – but I’d love it if I could.”

There are only a handful of electric dragsters in competition today, but Garlits is optimistic that current numbers will continue to grow. While electric drag racing is overseen by the National Electric Drag Racing Association, Garlits has had talks with the National Hot Rod Association about potential exhibition runs in the future.

But that’s just part of it.

Even though he’ll turn 87 in January, Garlits wants to get back to racing competitively in a structured series or league. It’s just a matter of having more cars out there.

“Oh yeah, I’d get right back in it,” he said emphatically. “That’s why I’m pioneering this, because I’m trying to get it going.

“Right now, there’s about four teams all fighting to reach 200 mph first, and there’s a couple of teams in Europe. We’re all taking different approaches and one of us is going to come up with the best idea, which is the most feasible, the least expensive and the one that gets the job done – and that’s the way the dragster will probably go.”

The biggest obstacle to electric dragsters continues to be consistency, particularly of the batteries that power them. Remember, these four-wheeled beasts do not run on conventional fuel, just the power produced by the batteries.

But Garlits is optimistic that further technical advances will soon come faster and more frequent, adding that “I’m in a totally different battery than what I started with. The technology in four years has leapfrogged.”

Another exmple of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits back during the most successful part of his lengthy drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

In addition to trying to get the NHRA onboard when it comes to promoting and exhibiting electric dragsters, Garlits has also had discussions with noted innovator/entrepreneur Elon Musk and Tesla.

“The most important technology that I’m paying attention to and I’m trying to get them involved with my team is Tesla, because they have some nice induction motors that make 450 horsepower, and they’re small,” Garlits said. “I could put four of them in my car and I might be better off than one motor in my car. That would not only give me 1,800 horses, but also maybe 230 mph. I’m really trying to convince (Tesla to get involved with him).”

When asked what has been the greatest accomplishment of his career, Garlits is quick to answer.

“Building the revolutionary championship-winning rear-engine dragster,” he said. “There had been rear-engine dragsters, but they didn’t do well. This put the driver out-front of the motor where they were safer.”

Ironically, it was an incident on March 8, 1970 at fabled Lions Dragway in Long Beach, California, one of the worst of Garlits’ career, when the transmission on Swamp Rat 13 exploded, ultimately costing Garlits part of his right foot, as well as saw a spectator also injured.

 

But a lot of good came out of the incident, as well. While recuperating in a nearby hospital, Garlits came up with the rear-engine dragster, which revolutionized the sport.

“They had killed, I think it was six people in about a two-to-three year people prior to my big accident in Long Beach,” he said. “And they haven’t killed six since in the last 47 years.

“I’m also very proud of the Drag Racing Museum, where I’ve captured the history of the sport all the way back to the 40s’ and have all these artifacts before they became collectibles.

“Everybody laughed at me when I started the Museum in 1976 because you could go to a guy’s garage and he’d give you all that stuff, they were just trying to get rid of it, and today it’s worth a fortune. We don’t sell anything and we’ve got it there for future generations as a non-profit, so my family isn’t going to be selling anything. It’s there for America.”

And right there smack dab in the middle of all of it is the man and the legend, Big Daddy.

When asked what his life is like these days, given everything that keeps him busy, he looks straight at the questioner, broadly smiles and says matter-of-factly, “I’m having more fun right now than I ever had in my entire life, if you can believe that.”

Yes, Don, we can believe it. And with you leading the charge, that 200 mph barrier will soon be broken.

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