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…
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
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
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.