IndyCar’s offseason may be long, but still should feature a ton of news

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In the week since the checkered flag flew last Saturday night at the MAVTV 500, I’ve read a lot of kvetching both from IndyCar media and fans lamenting the long offseason and questioning what IndyCar could do to stay relevant between now and when its 2015 season opens up.

However, there’s still going to be plenty to talk about this offseason.

So, with that in mind, here’s what you need to look for and keep your eyes on from an IndyCar perspective this fall, winter and into spring:

  • The schedule. It’s the biggest item on the to-do list and should be out mid-September, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Derrick Walker told me at Fontana. Many of the pieces are set but trying to find dates for races given the planned Labor Day end time is proving the biggest hang-up at the moment. If the planned international races come to fruition – which so far have only been spoken about publicly by DHL, which could serve as a logical, logistical partner – you should see the first two races from mid-February to early March before the domestic season opener at St. Petersburg March 29.
  • Champion promotion. Will Power made the rounds in New York last week and is set to go home to Australia before testing resumes, likely in October. Will this be the only major round of promotion for champ? I hope not.
  • Verizon promotion and activation. Guess what IndyCar has this offseason that it didn’t this time last year: a willing and able entitlement sponsor able to hash out a game plan for the offseason and further promotion/activation for the new year. Last year IZOD bailed just before the end of the 2013 season, which was in late September. Now, in early September, Verizon is on board and can work with IndyCar to get the word out. The Verizon deal wasn’t done until late March last year, just before the St.Petersburg opener. Perhaps it’s a fanciful thought, but with Verizon also a key partner for the NFL, could we see some IndyCar ads and signage during this NFL season? We shall see.
  • Silly season. Roughly half the 2015 field is set as of this writing; a fuller “where we stand” post on the grid will come either this week or next week to MotorSportsTalk. Simon Pagenaud is the key domino to the silly season, with drivers like James Hinchcliffe and Justin Wilson potentially on the move if Pagenaud leaves Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with other youngsters trying to break in. Pagenaud expects to reveal his decision later this month.
  • Aero kits. Between October 6 and January 18, the two manufacturers, Chevrolet and Honda, will each have six total days of on-track testing. It’s not much to work with, as HPD’s Steve Eriksen told assembled media at Fontana. But they will be the most interesting six days of the offseason.
  • Cosworth’s decision. MotorSportsTalk has reported extensively on whether Cosworth, led by CEO Hal Reisiger and Kevin Kalkhoven, will be able to re-enter North American open-wheel racing as a third engine manufacturer, if paired with an OEM and an aero kit partner. Reisiger told me heading into Fontana to expect a decision shortly; to plan for 2016, news of a yes/no would realistically need to be reached within the next month.
  • Indy Lights’ new car, and direction. Initial reviews of the new Dallara IL15 Indy Lights chassis, so far tested by Conor Daly, Tristan Vautier, 2014 champion Gabby Chaves and IndyCar stars Scott Dixon and Hinchcliffe, have been positive. But while words and reviews are one thing, action is another. There need to be orders placed on chassis so that the new car isn’t part of an 8-10 car grid, but ideally a 14-16 car grid. Anything above that mid-level target would be outstanding for 2015. Testing continues next weekend with Josef Newgarden behind the wheel of the IL15 at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
  • The kids are alright. Seeing where champions Chaves (Indy Lights), Spencer Pigot (Pro Mazda) and Florian Latorre (USF2000) land on the next step of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder is one thing to watch. Additionally, with the Team USA Scholarship shootout on Monday and Team Canada Scholarship also upcoming, there’s a host of young drivers looking for their next big break.
  • Racing! Just because IndyCar isn’t racing doesn’t mean that its drivers aren’t. Look out for the Dan Wheldon Memorial go-kart race at the RoboPong 200 at New Castle Motorsports Park Sept. 19-21 (event schedule here) as a race where both current and affiliated IndyCar drivers will be in action. Expect a handful of IndyCar drivers in action at Petit Le Mans Oct. 4, reprising their roles as third or fourth drivers from the Rolex 24 at Daytona and/or Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. And there’s also drivers with past IndyCar experience (Oriol Servia, Katherine Legge among others) racing in the new FIA Formula E Championship, which premieres this upcoming weekend in China.
  • Race director replacement. This ideally shouldn’t be news, but due to the departure of Beaux Barfield Friday afternoon for IMSA, IndyCar now has a void to fill in Race Control. While initially, past race director Brian Barnhart would be a logical candidate, it could behoove the series to put in a fresh face with competition experience. Either way, it’s the among the most thankless jobs in racing, so good luck to whoever has to take on this role.
  • TBA. Anything else that could or potentially pop that I’m overlooking. Or, simply, the identity of Dale Coyne’s second car.

Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.