DiZinno: IndyCar’s 2018 New Year’s Wish List

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Happy Friday, folks. You’ve likely had your rounds of egg nog, batch of presents and hopefully good time with family and friends this holiday season. And unless you’re in California, Arizona or Florida, you’re likely freezing your keister off.

The sounds of race cars coming into your living room on TV, laptop or mobile device are but a few short weeks away. Testing for the Verizon IndyCar Series resumes in mid-January with the beginning of team testing, the series’ open test is in Phoenix in February, the season opener is in St. Petersburg in March and the series’ return to NBCSN is back at Phoenix in April, for what will be the first open-wheel race at the renamed ISM Raceway and the last ever race for the track with the start/finish line where it currently sits, before it’s moved.

With that, we thought we’d offer up a few new year’s resolutions and perhaps wishes for the 2018 season.

A RESHUFFLED DECK IN THE PLAYING FIELD

With a new car – in this case the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit adorning all bodies rather than the manufacturer-specific aero kits used the last three seasons – comes a new opportunity to see the field inverted or at least shaken up.

IndyCar has rarely lacked for parity, particularly since the introduction of the base Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012. Indeed all five of Honda’s teams won races in 2017 while only one of Chevrolet’s (Team Penske) did.

Still though by the end of the year, it’s largely come down to Team Penske teammates going for the title. This is not a bad thing whatsoever, but if the new kit upsets the apple cart a bit and drivers or teams you may not have expected wind up fighting for wins and staying in championship contention over the year, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.

AN APPRECIATION OF THE MID-30-YEAR-OLD GREATS WHILE WE STILL CAN…

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda greets fans as he is introduced to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Helio Castroneves’ being shifted over to Team Penske’s sports car program wasn’t necessarily a surprise – it seemed to be something of an open secret in the paddock as summer shifted to fall. The way it was handled wasn’t the best, unfortunately, for a driver who’d spent 18 years with Penske’s IndyCar program and 20 overall in IndyCar.

IndyCar’s new champion, teammate Josef Newgarden, is 27 – and at the leading edge of a tidal wave of young talent that’s poised to take over in the series’ changing of the guard over the next three to five years.

As Newgarden was the first sub-30-year-old champion since Scott Dixon in 2008, then 28, it’s worth noting Dixon and others likely have less of their career ahead of them than behind them at this point.

What we can’t do now is ignore the greats as they potentially begin to wind down their careers.

To wit, here’s the group of those 35-plus and their debut year:

  • Tony Kanaan, 43 on Sunday, 1998
  • Takuma Sato, 40, 2010
  • Sebastien Bourdais, 38, 2003
  • Scott Dixon, 37, 2001
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay, 37, 2003
  • Will Power, 36, 2005
  • Ed Carpenter, 36, 2003

Those seven drivers will become this generation’s version of Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Mears, Sullivan, Rahal, Fittipaldi, Tracy, Vasser and so on and so forth over the next couple years – the venerable superstars who are nearing the end of the road.

These seven listed above all have at least one IndyCar championship, one Indianapolis 500 win, one Indianapolis 500 pole, or perhaps some combination. They’re the clearly established star veterans of the sport at this juncture.

With Castroneves gone, and Juan Pablo Montoya also having been out of IndyCar full-time for more than a year now, it’s worth appreciating the greats and their presence while we still can.

… BUT ALSO GETTING TO KNOW THE NEW KIDS

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Excluding the batch of Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and Charlie Kimball – all of whom debuted between 2006 and 2011 and are now mid-range in their careers both in age (anywhere from Rahal at still only 28 to Pagenaud at 33) – IndyCar has its first real wave of young guns since the 2008 merger of IndyCar and Champ Car set to break through starting in 2018.

Newgarden, the 2017 champion and Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner, have laid the groundwork these last two years. But with the new car and a significant number of Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires graduates not only getting to IndyCar but starting to stick, it’s about time we get to know the future studs of the sport.

Newgarden is 27 and Rossi 26, and both easily have a decade or more ahead of them at this level, and may well establish a rivalry between them depending on how their careers evolve. Here’s who else we can get excited about from 2018 and beyond:

  • Ed Jones, 22, 2017 rookie-of-the-year, 2016 Indy Lights champion
  • Zach Veach, 23, 2017 part-time debutante, several-time Indy Lights race winner
  • Robert Wickens, 28, 2018 rookie, DTM winner, successful junior open-wheel pedigree
  • Spencer Pigot, 24, two years in the sport, 2014 Pro Mazda champion, 2015 Indy Lights champion
  • Matheus Leist, 19, 2018 rookie, several-time Indy Lights race winner
  • Max Chilton, 26, two years in the sport, led most laps at Indy 500, Indy Lights race winner
  • Gabby Chaves, 24, three years in the sport, 2015 IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year, 2014 Indy Lights champion
  • Kyle Kaiser, 21, 2018 rookie, 2017 Indy Lights champion
  • Jack Harvey, 24, 2017 part-time debutante, several-time Indy Lights race winner

That’s nine additional drivers right there, all of whom have 33 or fewer starts and who haven’t completed more than two full seasons in the series, who will eventually become regulars at the front of the field in IndyCar.

And this batch doesn’t include Carlos Munoz or his 2017 teammate, fan favorite Conor Daly, who as of this moment sits a free agent but will be getting national TV exposure next month on CBS’ “The Amazing Race.” Then there are young guns such as Matthew Brabham, Sage Karam, RC Enerson, Zachary Claman DeMelo and Santiago Urrutia who have either been up to IndyCar for a cup of coffee or are awaiting their first shot. Factor in the wave of other talents coming through the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires now such as Colton Herta, Victor Franzoni, Nico Jamin, Aaron Telitz, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay among others and you know IndyCar’s future is bright.

A RESOLVING OF INDYCAR’S TITLE SPONSOR AND TV DEALS

SONOMA, CA – SEPTEMBER 15: Josef Newgarden, driver of the #2 hum by Verizon Chevrolet is interviewed following practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 15, 2017 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)

It used to be a case where angst populated IndyCar offseasons in terms of the driver lineup and sponsorships. But with most seats filled as of this writing – only two outstanding seats are known (second Dale Coyne Racing Honda and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Chevrolet for road and street courses) – the two biggest question marks for IndyCar’s future revolve around its title sponsorship and TV contract.

Both Verizon, as title sponsor and the current NBCSN/ABC outlay, as TV partners, contracts’ are up at the end of 2018. Verizon has stated it will continue in a partner sponsorship role with Team Penske. Less clear is exactly what form the TV deal will take for 2019 and beyond, following the end of a 10-year deal where ABC has held exclusive network rights while NBCSN has been the exclusive cable home (first as VERSUS through 2011 before brand change prior to 2012).

One needs to come with the other, so you’d think, to end the question marks and uncertainty over either for 2019. You likely need a year to sell and promote what the future will look like for either element. Without either being set – or at least publicly revealed – it leaves the new year coming without two key tentpole items known beyond the last year of the current contracts. It seems obvious, but the sooner these elements are determined and revealed, the better for IndyCar from a long-term standpoint.

FEWER BLUE AND WHITE CARS, AND A 500 WITHOUT A SINGLE FOCUS ON ONE DRIVER

This doesn’t need to be a long subsection.

Dear IndyCar livery designers: figure out a way to be more imaginative than just going blue and white on your cars. And if you must go blue and white, make it pop on the new canvas of the new car.

And at the Indianapolis 500, provided Danica Patrick does return, I’ll repeat a plea I’ve said before when previous guest stars Kurt Busch and Fernando Alonso came to the race. They can be a story but not the story of the month. Whereas Busch and Alonso were new to IndyCar from their respective NASCAR and Formula 1 disciplines, Patrick’s homecoming is a story enough in itself – even as the waiting game lingers wondering which team she’ll drive for.

A FINAL THOUGHT

IndyCar heads into the 2018 season some 10 years on after the merger that brought to an end the ugly, divisive, brutal 12-year split that created a tailspin which took years to recover. The last six seasons with the new Dallara DW12 and a return of manufacturer competition have brought relative stability, and outside of a rocky and turbulent 2015 season, more positive momentum than not for the series’ future.

The landscape in the sports and media worlds are changing. IndyCar stopped the bleeding after the split ended, but it took time for the scars to heal. Most have.

As IndyCar heads into 2018 and beyond, it has a mix of an exciting new look to its cars, a fresh generation of stars ready to emerge and a number of legends still to carry the torch for the old guard.

The key now is how IndyCar continues to push forward with its good elements and not fall back into its somewhat perpetual “one step forward, two steps backward” routine that seems to plague it just when things are going well. That will be the telltale for 2018 and beyond in what will be a pivotal, but exciting year ahead.

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series chassis in a Honda livery. Photo: IndyCar

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:


Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”