MotorSportsTalk’s 2015 Stories of the Year

Getty Images

It was an interesting year to say the least across the board for MotorSportsTalk, our third season since joining the family in 2013.

We split off our NASCAR content into the new NASCAR Talk site back in February and in September, just after the Verizon IndyCar Series season concluded, the full complement of Talk sites on got a face lift.

Still, with more than 13 million reads over the year, we’re thankful for all your reading and support.

Here’s some of the stories, good and bad, that stood out over the course of the year, either via read count on MST or magnitude on the motorsports scale, in no particular order:

August: Justin Wilson succumbs to his injuries at Pocono

The benevolent badass, gentle giant and friendly face in the IndyCar paddock died from head injuries sustained at Pocono Raceway in August at age 37. Words could never fully encapsulate the measure of the man Wilson was, although I gave it a shot immediately afterwards. Robin Miller did a better job of it. The racing community came together to support the Wilson Children’s Fund thereafter, Oriol Servia did the No. 25 car proud at Sonoma under trying circumstances, several cars went across the Golden Gate Bridge in tribute, and Stefan Wilson grew by leaps and bounds from his already mature-beyond-his-years state to carry on the torch for the family from there. We miss you, J-Dub, but we’ll never forget you – and we’ll seek to live in the manner you did.

July: Jules Bianchi dies after his Suzuka 2014 accident

While Wilson’s death came within 24 hours of his accident at Pocono, young Bianchi perished in July at age 25, nine months after his accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. It was always going to be a struggle for Bianchi to recover from the savage injuries sustained when his car went under a crane during that race. But while Bianchi’s loss stings, and was the first F1 fatality for more than 20 years, he still made an undeniable impact on the sport. The morale boost he provided to Marussia, with that team’s first points, was indescribable. He had such a bright future ahead of him – he was destined for Ferrari – and he even had his No. 17 retired (although not without some debate with my MST partner-in-crime, our lead F1 writer Luke Smith).

January: NASCAR’s offseason gets weird, then gets sentimental as Jeff Gordon announces his retirement

Before we had the NT/MST break off earlier this year, one of the areas I noted was how the Busch brothers – and what seems like an eternity ago when Patricia Driscoll was still a name being written frequently – and other items took the NASCAR offseason and turned it into a soap opera of weirdness.

All those “first world problems” topics though took a back seat once NASCAR’s biggest stories of the year emerged in January, just before media week in Charlotte, that Jeff Gordon would be retiring at year’s end. It spawned a litany of Gordon-related stories throughout the season, and even re-entered the “bigger than NASCAR” world by his final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, when Lewis Hamilton and Mario Andretti wanted to make sure to see the 24 one last time.

May: James Hinchcliffe’s savage accident and incredible recovery

James Hinchcliffe needed a miracle to survive a violent, vicious accident the Monday before the Indianapolis 500. He did, and his recovery following the efforts of the Holmatro Safety Team and Trauma Pit Crew were recognized. By late September, he was back in an IndyCar – testing at Road America – and feeling eternally grateful for the opportunity.

May: A month of controversy, drama and finally success at Indianapolis

The month of May, 2015, was weird. Prior to the series of aerial acrobatics that took center stage after the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the Grand Prix itself had a bit of controversy with the first lap, first turn crash that saw Helio Castroneves’ points penalty change from an eight-point hit to only a three-point hit. From there, we had Simona de Silvestro’s fire, Castroneves’, Josef Newgarden’s and Ed Carpenter’s respective flips, much consternation about qualifying, and finally Juan Pablo Montoya emerging ahead of Will Power to score the Indianapolis 500 win.

June: Porsche’s upstart trio wins 24 Hours of Le Mans

The thinking was that this was Porsche’s year to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The thinking was not that it would be the trio of Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg that did it. Yet Porsche’s third car, with three LMP1 rookies, the latter two in their first ever starts at La Sarthe, pulled it off courtesy of a flawless, trouble-free drive in a great race. Their reward… is Tandy and Bamber getting split off into separate GTE-Pro cars, provided their entries are accepted by the ACO (as it should be), and Hulkenberg not getting any chance to defend courtesy of the rather stupid Baku F1/Le Mans date clash.

June-July: IndyCar has a great Fontana race, then controversial Rule 9.3.8 gets introduced

The teeth-clenching race of the year for me in the Verizon IndyCar Series came at Auto Club Speedway, and this was only via watching from a hotel room at another event. A few drivers didn’t like how the race went off, with the closest thing to pack racing. Then Rule 9.3.8 – which wasn’t officially a “gag order” but was referred to by some as such – got introduced. The punchy quotes seemed to fall off as the year went on, intentional or not.

August: Spencer Massey released by Don Schumacher Racing, effective immediately

My colleague Jerry Bonkowski did a bang-up job on the NHRA beat for the majority of the season but neither he nor I really saw this one coming. Surprisingly, this was our top-viewed drag racing story of the season, when Massey violated a Don Schumacher Racing policy and was released effective immediately. Considering this came in-season, and didn’t have the season-long storyline of a switch, as John Force’s team’s move from Castrol and Ford to Peak and Chevrolet was, it generated a lot of attention.

November: Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross completes comeback for Red Bull GRC title

Scott Speed and Tanner Foust were out of it in the early stages of 2015, but through a dynamic comeback (recapped in first and second parts of a two-part feature) managed to deliver the Red Bull Global Rallycross title for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross.

It was a great triumph for Speed; even better for Michael Andretti, whose team endured a tough season with the dissolving of his Andretti Sports Marketing company (reincarnated as LST Marketing), failed to mount a serious IndyCar title challenge, and saw its new FIA Formula E chassis fail to turn much of a wheel in testing before reverting back to its old car.

Year-round F1: Mercedes’ dominance, Ferrari’s rise, Red Bull and Renault’s saga, McLaren-Honda’s woes

Without picking out any specific posts that stood out, these were arguably the stories of the season in F1. As for 2016, the next step in these respective topics include: does Merc’s dominance continue? Can Ferrari mount a full-season challenge? How will the Red Bull and rebranded Renault-as-TAG go off? Will McLaren-Honda get any better or will it get even worse? Stay tuned…

Year-round IndyCar: Aero kits change the game, even as the title contenders remain the same

The much-ballyhooed aero kits made their race debut. They brought controversy. They brought competition (sort of). They brought copious amounts of debris cautions.

What they did not bring was a new champion; Scott Dixon earned it at year’s end, although he might have double points slightly to thank for the opportunity. Juan Pablo Montoya had a dynamic year but lost his title hopes at the final race. For Dixon, his fourth series title was one of typical resilience, yet cool, for one of this generation’s finest drivers.

Year-round Sports Cars: Corvette stars early, Porsche and Nick Tandy star throughout

Excluding the more background topics such as BoP or driver ratings (we don’t have enough energy to stomach or put together the umpteenth article about either of these topics), Corvette and Porsche were without question the two manufacturer stars of the year. Corvette Racing captured a rare endurance triple crown, winning at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans, while Porsche won just about everything else – Le Mans overall, FIA WEC overall and GTE championships (Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley took driver’s World Championship, Richard Lietz won GTE), IMSA GTE (Patrick Pilet).

And then there was the aforementioned Tandy, who won at Le Mans and Petit Le Mans overall in two separate cars (Porsche 919 Hybrid and Porsche 911 RSR), three other GT Le Mans class races in IMSA and an FIA WEC race in LMP2 with the KCMG Oreca 05 Nissan. The likable Englishman was easily the sports car driver of the year.

Year-round NHRA: Changes to some teams, business side, Peter Clifford’s introduction

It was a year of changing of the guard in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. John Force Racing went from Ford to Chevrolet. The TV coverage had its final year on ESPN before it will move to FOX. Gary Gerould hung up his microphone and reflected on 37 phenomenal years. Peter Clifford became the new president replacing Tom Compton, and instantly became a story over the year (ideas, major changes posts linked here).

IndyCar Preseason, Day 1: Simon Pagenaud on why he likes teasing Josef Newgarden

Newgarden Pagenaud feud
Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — A roundup of nuggets from the opening day of preseason IndyCar Content Days for media that lead into two days of preseason testing Thursday and Friday at The Thermal Club, starting with a playful “feud” between former teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud:

After making a point to needle Newgarden during the Rolex 24 at Daytona (when he was warned for being deemed to have caused a spin by the car driven by Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), Pagenaud laughed about why he likes poking at his ex-teammate at Team Penske.

“I just love to press the button with Josef,” Pagenaud said. “I just love it. I’m being very open about it. I think he knows it, too. It’s funny to see him unsettled a little bit. I like when he gets aggressive. I don’t know why. It’s funny.”

They scrapped a few times as Penske teammates. Pagenaud notably was hot after a 2017 incident at Gateway during Newgarden’s first season with the team, but he later backtracked and blamed it on his French blood.

Pagenaud says all is good between now – though he also admits with a devilish grin that he’s taking advantage of the freedom from leaving Penske last year.

“Absolutely, yeah. I couldn’t do that before,” he said with a laugh about teasing Newgarden. “I would get in trouble.

“Yeah, I can be myself. I can say what I want to say. Nobody is upset about it. I love Josef. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy.

“Do I love the driver? Not always, but I enjoy pressing the button with him because he seems like such a confident person. Yeah, I like to just go press it a little bit.”

When he was informed of the sardonic comments (Pagenaud asked reporters to make sure they relayed that he enjoyed passing Newgarden in the race) after his first stint at Daytona last weekend, Newgarden took a shot back.

“He doesn’t get many opportunities these days, so I’m sure he enjoyed that,” Newgarden said. “Take them when you can get them. There’s so much happening I don’t even remember half the stuff that happened when I was out there. Hey, he’s a big note-keeper, that guy.”

Pagenaud, who is winless since 2020, conceded that point Tuesday at IndyCar’s media session.

“I will do better this year,” he said. “But I got to build my team up, put myself in that situation. We were not there yet. I hope we can be there this year.

“But certainly not being teammates, you race differently. Now, the driver that he is, I have a huge amount of respect for him. He’s tremendous. I mean, he’s one of the best at what he does. So beating him is even a better reward. But I like my résumé better than his.”

For the record, Newgarden has one more IndyCar championship than Pagenaud but is empty in the Indy 500 win column compared to the 2019 winner at the Brickyard.

During his Rolex 24 availability, Pagenaud also took playful aim at the “Bus Bros,” the branded social and digital content that Newgarden and teammate and buddy Scott McLaughlin have been producing for nearly a year.

“Apparently they hang out together all the time,” Pagenaud cracked. “They’re ‘Bus Bros.’ Do you guys know what this is, the ‘Bus Bros’ thing? Have you watched it? I should start watching it.”

Newgarden and McLaughlin are scheduled to appear together on the second day of the preseason media event at the Palm Springs Convention Center, so stay tuned for the next round of snark.

Pagenaud is among many drivers enthused to get acclimated to The Thermal Club, which is a $275 million motorsports country club of sorts.

But for the Frenchman, Thermal represents more than just a chance to tune up for the 2023 season. Pagenaud, who made his first visit to the desert track three years ago after winning the Indy 500, is thinking about his long-term future.

“It’s actually something I’m really interested in for my future but in another life,” he said. “I love the concept. Actually before my IndyCar career, I was on a project like that myself in France. I was going to build something similar. I had the backing, I had everything going on, but my career took off. I had to give up on the project.

“But it is something I’ve always been interested in. My dad used to run my home racetrack. I had access to it, so I could see how that was going.

“I always had a passion for it because it’s a way to allow the fans to get closer to the car, allow the sport to be more known to the general public. There’s so many things that you can do with a racetrack, not only for races, but so many people that can come to bicycle races, you can have runners do a marathon. It doesn’t have to be just racing. It can be events. I’m into that. I’ve always been. Certainly when it’s time to stop driving, it will be something that I’m interested in, yes. That’s maybe 20 years from now.”

Felix Rosenqvist returns for his third consecutive season at McLaren, the longest stint with one team for the Swede since 2014 in F3.

But he finds himself somewhat in a similar position to last season when his return was uncertain for months during the Alex Palou-Chip Ganassi Racing saga. Palou is back with Ganassi but still expected to join the team in 2024, and with Rossi and O’Ward on long-term deals, Rosenqvist would be unable to stay unless the team added a fourth car.

He is taking it all in stride with the same grace in which he managed last season’s uncertainty.

“I think I handled it probably as good as I could,” Rosenqvist said of last year. “That’s probably a reason why I’m here this year. I think it’s a massive opportunity for me to be back for a third year. I feel like I have all the tools I need to perform, feeling very good with everyone at the car. As I said, there’s so many things happening last year on and off the track. I think as a team, we just really learned a lot from that that we can bring into this season.

“I think we’ll be tough this year. We have a lot of things in the bag to try early this season. A couple of things here at Thermal we want to try. Going into the season, we have pinpointed some areas where we feel we were lacking a little bit, like the short ovals, for example. I feel like we’ve done the best we can to attack all those areas and bring the best possible package we can.”

Rosenqvist is winless since his breakthrough victory over O’Ward at Road America in 2020. Ending that skid certainly would improve his prospects, but he isn’t worried.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “That’s a long time until next year. I think it’s a great opportunity for me. I’m in a good spot. I’m in a well-performing team. I feel well with everyone around me. I feel like I have a good support from the team. I don’t really think too much about that stuff. I just try to do what I can do, which is go fast forward and try to win races.”

After being frozen out of remote access to team data last year, Palou said his working relationship at Ganassi is “back to 100% like it was before from both sides.” The 2021 series champion said he had full privileges restored after he closed the season by winning the finale at Laguna Seca Raceway and then settled on staying with Ganassi a day later.

He is allowed to continue his F1 testing with McLaren, too, though IndyCar will be the priority in-season.

“It was a tough year,” said Palou, whose contract dispute lasted for two months. “Could have been a lot worse, for sure, than what we had but also could have been a little bit better if we didn’t have anything around in our minds. It’s a part of racing.

“I’m just happy that now we know that even with things in our minds, we were able to be successful. Hopefully, we can be back to 2021 things during this season. Yeah, obviously there’s always some moments (in 2022) where you’re like, ‘Oh, no, my God, this is not going the direction I wanted.’ But there was things that were out of my control, obviously. Some things that I could control, as well. But at the end of the day I had all the information from my side, from other sides. I knew that everything could be settled, and it did.”

Pato O’Ward unplugged from the racing world for six weeks during the offseason, ensuring he was fully recharged when the new year arrived.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to do it in the past few years,” said O’Ward, who tested an F1 car in 2021 and then went right into preparing and racing (then winning) the 2022 Rolex 24 at Daytona. “I said, ‘I want at least six weeks. Don’t talk to me, don’t text me, I don’t want to hear anything.’ It’s healing. It’s very healing.

“As much as you love what you do, you need to find a balance of just doing something else. I always tell people, there’s a huge difference between relaxing and recharging. How I recharge is doing things I don’t normally do during the year. Just being at the beach to me is my favorite thing to do after driving race cars. I made sure that I had that kind of time to just enjoy my loved ones. After I was finished with that, I was like, ‘OK, race cars now.’ ”

Marcus Ericsson is planning on a long future with Chip Ganassi Racing, and the 2022 Indy 500 winner seems well-positioned to become the team’s anchor driver if he can maintain last season’s consistency.

Jimmie Johnson has been replaced by the Marcus Armstrong-Takuma Sato combination, and Alex Palou is leaving after this year.

Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, 42, is Ganassi’s unquestioned dean until his retirement, but Ericsson clearly is interested in the mantle after that.

“I’m feeling very much at home in the team,” said Ericsson, the Formula One who is entering his fourth season with CGR. “I’m super happy about that. I wish to stay for a very long time, as well. There is some uncertainty with other places maybe in the future, but Dixon seems to be just getting better and better. He might be here for another 10 years or so, who knows.

“But that’s great. Me and Scott, we work really well together. I can still learn a lot from him. I want to be here for a long time and win races and championships together.”

The Swede had a droll response when asked if no longer being the only Marcus will get confusing in Ganassi debriefs. “Yeah, it is; I’m angry,” Ericsson deadpanned. “I think we’re OK. He seems like a good kid. He has a good name.”

Following in the footsteps of Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard from F2 to IndyCar, Armstrong is OK with deferring his F1 dreams to run road and street courses as a rookie in 2023. The New Zealander grew up as an IndyCar fan rooting for Dixon, his boyhood idol and fellow countryman.

“I’ve been watching him on TV since I was a kid,” Armstrong, 22, said. “It’s cool because IndyCar is massive where I’m from because of him. I’ve always been so attracted to this championship. Of course, I spent my entire life chasing F1. You can never say ‘never.’ If I’m honest with you, I’m happy where I am now. It’s a dream come true.”

Armstrong hopes to move to full time in 2024 and believes being aligned with a powerhouse such as Ganassi will give him an opportunity to post strong results immediately (just as Ilott and Lundgaard had flashes as rookies last year).

“I’ve been genuinely impressed by the organization, just the strategic point of view that Chip Ganassi Racing has, it’s really quite remarkable,” he said. “I can understand why they’ve had so much success. I think fundamentally I need to get on it straightaway. I have all the information in the world, really. I just need to hit the ground running, do well immediately.”

In among the wildest stories of the offseason, rookie Sting Ray Robb revealed he landed his ride at Dale Coyne Racing because he ran into Indy Lights champion Linus Lundqvist at PitFit Training, a physical fitness and performance center used by many drivers in Indianapolis.

Lundqvist was the presumptive favorite for the DCR No. 51 Dallara-Honda, which was the last open seat heading into the 2022 season. Because of his Indy Lights title (since rebranded as “IndyNXT”) with HMD Motorsports, Lundqvist had a six-figure sponsorship to bring to an IndyCar team, and DCR is partnered with HMD.

“There was a few teams that we were talking to, and Dale’s team was not the one that was at the top of the list because we thought they already had a driver,” Robb said. “Obviously with Linus winning the championship, we assumed with the HMD association there that there would be a straight shoe-in for him.

“But I actually was at PitFit Training one day with Linus and discovered that was not the case. That created an opportunity for us that allowed me to call up my manager, Pieter Rossi, and get him on the phone, and he immediately called Dale and said, ‘Hey, we’re available.’ I think there was a mutual understanding of what availability was for either one of us. That’s when conversations began. Then we had a really good test in 2023 right at the beginning of January, and I think that was kind of the one that set the tone that allowed me to get in the seat.

“I think there’s been some opportunities that were miraculously created that we couldn’t have done on our own.”

Robb, who finished second in last year’s Indy Lights standings, hasn’t talked to Lundqvist since their PitFit meeting.

“Linus does deserve a seat” in IndyCar, Robb said. “His on-track performance was incredible. But it takes more than just a driver to get into IndyCar. You’ve got to have a village around you that supports you, and so I think that that is where my group made a difference. It wasn’t just in my performance, but it was the people around me.

“I feel bad for Linus because as a driver I can feel that way towards him because I could be in that seat if I didn’t have those same people around me. So there you go.”