As ever, there’s more talent in wings than available IndyCar seats

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We got an early run on driver announcements in the Verizon IndyCar Series offseason with Simon Pagenaud going to Team Penske, James Hinchcliffe replacing him at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Jack Hawksworth switching to A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

But come the holidays, things have slowed, and as always the glut of available talent will be larger than the number of available seats.

With news Davide Valsecchi will be testing for SPM next month, it got me thinking a bit about all the potential drivers in play that could fill the remainder of the grid.

While this isn’t a silly season breakdown per se, here’s the list of seats we expect to be announced before the season opener in Brazil in March 8:

  • Chip Ganassi Racing, fourth car (along with a formal confirmation of the full lineup)
  • Andretti Autosport, fourth car (plus a possible fifth)
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, second car
  • KV Racing Technology, second car
  • CFH Racing, No. 20 road and street course driver alongside Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • Dale Coyne Racing, both cars
  • Bryan Herta Autosport, first car

So that leaves eight seats, as many as seven of them full-time, remaining to be filled. And here’s who is currently on the outside looking in:

2014 DRIVERS WITHOUT CONFIRMED PLANS

  • Ryan Briscoe, Justin Wilson, Mikhail Aleshin, Carlos Huertas, Sebastian Saavedra, Mike Conway, Oriol Servia, JR Hildebrand, Sage Karam, Luca Filippi, plus additional month of May drivers.

As we’ve already chronicled this offseason on MST, either Briscoe or Karam is potentially in a no-win situation when it comes to how CGR puts its fourth car together, Wilson is unsure of his plans even though many want him to move up, Conway is weighing a move to Toyota full-time in the WEC and Hildebrand or Filippi would be good to see in full-time efforts. It’s hard to see more than three or four from this batch making their way into full-time rides, and Aleshin’s seat should be one to watch if he either chooses not to return or his funding falls through.

2013 DRIVERS WHO FELL THROUGH THE CRACKS

  • Simona de Silvestro, E.J. Viso, James Jakes, Tristan Vautier, plus additional month of May drivers.

Out of sight, out of mind, right? De Silvestro is starting to make the media rounds wanting to make a comeback after her F1 dreams have ended; Viso at least kept his face present with good fill-in work for an injured James Hinchcliffe during Indianapolis 500 practice; Vautier, the 2013 rookie-of-the-year, drove several sports car races for Mazda’s LMP2 program and became a TV star for Road to Indy TV; and Jakes may have reverted to actually being The Stig. While it would be nice for any of these drivers to return, they’re mostly lacking for full-time seat time in the last 12 months and would need to shake off the cobwebs upon a return.

YOUNG GUNS IN WAITING WHO HAVEN’T HAD A FULL-TIME CRACK

  • Conor Daly, James Davison, Stefan Wilson, Sam Bird, Davide Valsecchi, Daniel Abt, Gabby Chaves, Peter Dempsey, Jack Harvey, Zach Veach, Matthew Brabham, Ryan Phinny, Rodolfo Gonzalez, etc.

You could also add Karam and Filippi from the 2014 group to this list. This group is essentially a paella of drivers from around the world, some who’ve had an IndyCar test and/or some starts, some who are Indy Lights drivers waiting in the wings, and some who would be coming over from Europe. And this likely leaves out several drivers who would be interested but their names haven’t come up yet.

The problem, as always, is that there’s at least 20-30 drivers listed above in either of these three segments, and nowhere near enough seats to provide for the opportunity. In most cases, the drivers listed above will need to provide for themselves in the form of budget to make that chance happen.

Even with half the purse and no fans, Indy 500 still has major team value

Indy 500 purse fans
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Even with reportedly half the purse and no fans in attendance, NTT IndyCar Series driver-owner Ed Carpenter believes it remains “absolutely critical” to hold the 104th Indy 500.

“Far and away it’s what makes and breaks our season as teams,” the Ed Carpenter Racing namesake told reporters during a Zoom media availability last week. “It’s the most important event to our partners. It 100 percent sucks not having fans there and not even being able to have the experience with our partners in full being there. But it’s necessary.

“We’ve got to look at all the hard decisions now of what we have to do to be in a position to have fans in 2021. It’s critical for the health of the teams that we have this race to make sure we have teams back here next year. That sounds a little dramatic, but that’s the reality.

HOW TO WATCH THE INDY 500 ON NBCDetails for the Aug. 23 race

DAILY INDY 500 SCHEDULEClick here for all on-track activity in August at Indy

“We live in not only a very volatile world right now, but our industry and motorsport in general, it’s not an easy business to operate. When you lose your marquee event, it’s a lot different than looking at losing Portland on the schedule or Barber. They’re in totally different atmospheres as far as the importance to us and our partners.”

Robin Miller reported on RACER.com that IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske told team owners last week the purse for the postponed Indianapolis 500 was slashed from $15 to $7.5 million. Miller reported holding the Aug. 23 race (1 p.m. ET, NBC) would be a $20 million hit to the bottom line.

Carpenter still is supportive of Penske’s “outstanding job” of leading the series through the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Even with a 50 percent purse reduction, the Indy 500 remains the linchpin of teams’ economic viability.

NASCAR CROSSOVER: Cole Pearn already fitting in with ECR

The schedule has taken many hits with the cancellation of races at Barber Motorsports Park, Circuit of the Americas, Detroit, Portland International Raceway, Laguna Seca and Toronto, and another race weekend doubleheader at Mid-Ohio has been indefinitely postponed.

That leaves the 2020 slate at 12 confirmed races of an original 17, which has raised questions about how many races teams need to fulfill sponsor obligations.

“It’s a moving target,” said Carpenter, who announced the U.S. Space Force as a new sponsor for the Indy 500. “I think we’ve been pretty blessed as a team with the level of commitment of our partners and their understanding of COVID-19 and the impact on our schedule, our contracts.

“All of it is out of our control, out of the series’ control, the promoter’s control. At the end of the day is there a firm number (of races) I can give? No. But definitely every one that we lose, it does make it harder to continue having those conversations.

I think everyone’s as confident as you can be right now with what we have in front of us with what’s remaining on the schedule. Things are so fluid, it changes day-to-day, let alone week-to-week. We just have to take it as it comes. Right now the focus is on the 500 and maximizing this month to the best we possibly can given the situation.”

That’ll be hard this month for Carpenter, who grew up in Indianapolis and is the stepson of Tony George, whose family owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway for decades.

Having spent a lifetime around the Brickyard, Carpenter will feel the ache of missing fans as he races in his 17th Indy 500.

Ed Carpenter, shown racing his No. 20 Dallara-Chevrolet at Iowa Speedway last month, led a race-high 65 laps and finished second in the 2018 Indy 500 (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

“Over that time you develop relationships that are centered around standing outside of your garage in Gasoline Alley,” he said. “It stinks, it sucks that we don’t get to share that passion we all have that is the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately it’s the reality we’re in right now.

I think this is the best that we can do unfortunately. Without a doubt it’s going to be a different environment. You’re going to be missing the sounds and a lot of the sights and colors. For sure I’ve thought about it. It’s going to be a different morning, different lead-in to the race. After 16 of them, you have a cadence and anticipation for the buildup. That’s all going to be different this year.

“I’m confident it’s not going to affect the type of show we put on or the excitement and how aggressive we are fighting for an Indy 500 win. It’s still going to mean the same thing. We’re just not going to have our fans to celebrate with after the fact. But it’s going to be historic.”