IndyCar 2018 grid starting to become significantly clearer (VIDEO)

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SONOMA, Calif. – The rumors are starting to turn into releases about the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series grid, as the 2017 season draws to a conclusion this weekend at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

With the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit coming to teams and with teams going to be testing over the fall, following the completion of INDYCAR-run testing at Sebring on Sept. 26, it’s become significantly more important for teams to finalize their programs earlier than ever.

Here’s a look at how the grid is shaping up, in a Sonoma update (post-Mid-Ohio update here):

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1, Honda): Graham Rahal
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

New here in the last few weeks or so have been the quartet of young Americans, with Rossi (just before Watkins Glen), Pigot and Veach (just before Sonoma) all locked up. That means of the 13 officially confirmed driver/team combinations, nine of them are American drivers. Another new inclusion is Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser, who will also have at least three races in IndyCar thanks to the Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship valued at $1 million.

Additionally, both Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have re-upped with Honda for multi-year agreements. The Andretti new contract with Honda put a stop to any potential other engine movement dominos.

On Friday at Sonoma, Honda Performance Development President Art St. Cyr confirmed as much when he said all five of its teams from 2017 are under contract for 2018. Contracts are staggered, he said, that all five teams will not be up for renewal simultaneously.

PROGRESSING, CLOSE, OR ALL BUT OFFICIALLY CONFIRMED 

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (1, Honda): James Hinchcliffe
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1, Honda): Takuma Sato
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet), Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Ed Jones
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet), Gabby Chaves

Based on reports primarily from RACER and Motorsport.com as well as our own investigating over the last few weeks since our post-Mid-Ohio update, these entries seem close-ish if not outright official yet.

The plan has appeared to shift for Castroneves from his potential sports car shift for Penske’s Acura ARX-05 DPi program to a fourth Team Penske IndyCar after all (first reported from Motorsport.com here). While no formal announcement about his future will be made until after this weekend, Castroneves in a Penske IndyCar now seems a more viable possibility than it did for most of the summer – and may mean this won’t be his final bow as a full-time driver after all.

Hinchcliffe’s options to move away from SPM have seemed to close in recent weeks, and he realistically has nowhere else at a similar caliber top team he can go. As of mid-week no contract had yet been signed, but all signs point to a return here.

Meanwhile Sato will be jumping ship from Andretti to RLL – even though neither party can confirm it until after Sonoma – and Kanaan’s four-year run at Ganassi ends so he is set to become the veteran with Foyt, after their year with a pair of young guns.

Jones appears close to a renewal with Dale Coyne Racing and Coyne told NBC Sports in the paddock today that he is hoping to finalize the second car “within a couple weeks.” The Dubai-based Brit is known to have some funding, but will need to find enough to offset the loss of the Indy Lights championship scholarship, valued at $1 million from Mazda, he brought this year.

While Chaves and Harding are all-but-a-lock, there’s always a tinge of doubt with new programs. The team could theoretically add a second driver with budget as the team has two cars.

QUESTION MARKS 

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (seats 2 and/or 3)
  • Carlin (seats 1 and/or 2)
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (seat 2)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (seat 2)
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (seat 2, road/street courses)
  • Juncos Racing (seat 1)

Ganassi’s non-Dixon trio of Max Chilton, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball has been anticipated to leave over the last couple months. While RACER linked Porsche LMP1 driver Brendon Hartley to Ganassi’s second seat, eRacing365 reported on the same day that Hartley said he was looking at a Formula E seat. If the latter scenario developed, it’d leave Hartley in the same spot as Felix Rosenqvist, locked into a Formula E contract.

Chilton is expected to head to Carlin, the Trevor Carlin-run team which is owned by Chilton’s father Grahame. The identity of his teammate, provided Carlin enters into the series with two cars, is less clear. Kimball makes sense although his degree of budget with longtime partner Novo Nordisk could be reduced. Carlin could be in the frame for an Indianapolis shop if it steps up; the team’s Indy Lights operation is based in Delray Beach, Fla. And with Ed Carpenter Racing confirming it will be moving shops at year’s end, this provides a potential entry point for Carlin into Speedway if a deal is struck.

SPM co-owner Sam Schmidt has told multiple outlets a “short list” of some “28 drivers” are under consideration for his second seat. All the while, the team delivered a rather random third car announcement for next year’s Indianapolis 500, for French sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy with the Calmels Sport team. Drivers ranging from sports car veterans to Hinchcliffe’s Canadian countryman Robert Wickens to SPM’s 2016 Indy Lights driver, Santiago Urrutia, are among the contenders for the highly coveted seat.

Foyt is known to be evaluating both Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz for the second seat there, alongside at least one or two other young guns with recent IndyCar experience.

Quite who lands in Carpenter’s second seat for road and street course races is less clear. A reflective JR Hildebrand won’t be a candidate following Pigot’s promotion into the full-time No. 21 car.

Ricardo Juncos is set for anywhere from three to five races at the least as he steps up further beyond his pair of MRTI programs. Graduating with Kaiser would be a natural, but that’s not to say Kaiser might not be looking elsewhere – he is here at Sonoma and making the rounds this weekend.

DRIVERS LOOKING TO FIND A SEAT 

The list of 2017 drivers without a ride confirmed yet includes those already mentioned in the first few categories: Hildebrand, Daly, Munoz, Chilton, Kimball, and Jones.

Jack Harvey joined Veach in the “Indy Lights graduates making limited 2017 starts” club and worked to push through some issues that hampered his weekends. He’s known to be looking at a couple different team situations.

Then there’s Esteban Gutierrez and Sebastian Saavedra to consider. Gutierrez’s budget amount seems to vary depending on who you talk to, but if the series adds a Mexico City round, Gutierrez is a must-have for the field, certainly for that race and preferably the full season. Talk though that he might be with one of the top teams has cooled, and with Michael Andretti now unlikely to run a fifth car full-season beyond the Indianapolis 500, he may not wind up there as was possible.  Saavedra was his usual serviceable self in a handful of races with Juncos and SPM that put his name back on the map.

Recent veteran drivers that raced once or twice in 2017 include Oriol Servia, Sage Karam, Tristan Vautier and James Davison, but none seems to be on the real radar of a full-time seat. Servia’s development savvy – particularly given his work on the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit – and guidance to a young gun is once again being overlooked.

We ran through the Indy Lights contenders a week or so ago, with Urrutia and Zachary Claman DeMelo both making the most noise about their desire to graduate. Claman DeMelo makes his IndyCar debut at Sonoma in RLL Racing’s second car and wants to step up in 2018, although wouldn’t rule out an Indy Lights return. Meanwhile Urrutia and Matheus Leist are among the young guns here this weekend in a visiting role.

RC Enerson and Matthew Brabham have had the unfortunate distinction of impressing in limited 2016 starts but failing to secure a follow-up opportunity this year, although both have made sporadic appearances at races throughout the year, including Enerson here at Sonoma this weekend.

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500