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Offseason recap: Verizon IndyCar Series

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Everyone likes to say the offseason feels shorter than it actually is, and the winter of 2016 was a case study in that for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Few seasons in recent history have seen as much movement among drivers and teams from the top of the grid all the way to the bottom, although a lot of it happened in the early stages of the offseason.

Ahead of the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, here’s a look at what happened in this whirlwind of an offseason.

  • October 5: Josef Newgarden joins Team Penske, replacing Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya will pilot a fifth entry for Team Penske at the Indianapolis 500 (announced on October 31).
  • October 7: Chip Ganassi Racing announces it will run Honda engines and aero kits after running Chevrolet engines and aero kits since 2014 (the aero kit was introduced in 2015).
  • October 11: Tony Kanaan re-signs with Chip Ganassi Racing.
  • October 12: Dale Coyne Racing signs Sebastien Bourdais to replace the outgoing Conor Daly. They also beef up their engineering staff, adding Craig Hampson as Bourdais’ engineer.
  • October 13: Larry Foyt announces that A.J. Foyt Racing will become a Chevrolet team in 2017. (The announcement is made official in January of 2017).
  • November 4: JR Hildebrand fills the seat Newgarden vacated at Ed Carpenter Racing after racing a part-time entry for the team since 2014. Spencer Pigot returns as his teammate for the road/street races, formally announced in January, and may pilot a third entry at the Indy 500. Ed Carpenter returns to run the oval races.
  • November 14: Dale Coyne Racing completes its driver lineup before Thanksgiving arrive. The team signs 2016 Indy Lights champion Ed Jones to partner Bourdais.
  • November 15: A.J. Foyt Racing completes a massive overhaul. Gone are incumbent drivers Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth and in are young guns Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly. Will Phillips, George Klotz, and Daniele Cucchiarroni highlight the team’s structural overhaul as well.
  • December 2: Andretti Autosport formally signs Takuma Sato to replace the outgoing Carlos Munoz.
  • January 16: Rumors begin circulating that Mikhail Aleshin’s 2017 sponsorship is in jeopardy due to political conflicts with the United States and Russia.
  • January 21: Word arrives that KV Racing Technology is on the verge of closing, and won’t make the grid for 2017.
  • February 1: Aleshin’s sponsorship situation is seemingly sorted out and he formally rejoins Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. However, rumors persist that politics will impact his funding. In separate news, the team announces they will test test IMSA ace Luís Felipe “Pipo”Derani and former Auto GP champion Luis Michael Dörrbecker at Sebring in March.
  • February 2: Another of the one-off Indy 500 entries is announced. Sage Karam and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing confirm they will again partner for the 101st running of the Indy 500.
  • February 21: Unfortunately, KV Racing Technology shuttered its doors over the winter. However, their assets, including a pair of chassis, have been acquired by Mazda Road to Indy team owner Ricardo Juncos, whose teams have been a staple of the MRTI ladder for years. He is expected to field two cars at the Indy 500 and may run additional races this year.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).