For IndyCar, it’s out with the old and in with the new: car, champion and season

Photos: IndyCar
0 Comments

There was a time when Americans dominated the Verizon IndyCar Series.

When the originally named Indy Racing League began in 1996, seven of the first eight champions (including co-champions Scott Sharp and Buzz Calkins in the first season) and eight of the first 12 champs were from the U.S.

But since Ohio native Sam Hornish Jr. captured his third Indy car title in 2006, there was been only one other U.S.-born driver that earned an IndyCar title over the following 10 seasons: Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014.

That is, until 2017 when Tennessee native Josef Newgarden, in his first season with Team Penske, earned a series-high four wins en route to capturing the championship.

It marked Team Penske’s third IndyCar crown in the last four seasons.

Last season was a storybook campaign for Newgarden. But that’s all past history as the new season starts Sunday in St. Petersburg. (Photo: IndyCar)

Now, as the IndyCar world prepares for Sunday’s 2018 IndyCar season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, one of the biggest questions is whether the 27-year-old Newgarden can earn his second straight title.

Things are somewhat different this season than last, not only for Newgarden but also for all the returning veterans as well as the nearly 10 full- and part-time rookies on the circuit.

First and foremost is a brand new race car, one that has been dramatically improved with significantly lower downforce. The last few seasons, the downforce and aero packages on what is now the former IndyCar body became the bane for many, if not most drivers.

The design of this year’s new car and its more vibrant aero package that has reduced downforce places more control back in drivers’ hands, while they pilot one of the sexiest and bold-looking open-wheel cars in at least the last two decades.

The new Dallara looks like a race car should: sleek and most importantly, racy. It’s would not be an overstatement to say that Formula One has nothing on IndyCar’s new ride for 2018.

And while F1 and NASCAR have continued to lose at-track attendees and TV viewers over the last several seasons, IndyCar at the same time has been on an upswing.

With the new car and a defending U.S. driver as champion, that upswing is likely to continue this season, starting on this weekend’s traditional temporary street course along St. Pete’s bayfront.

Newgarden says he could get used to this kind of moment a lot more often. (Photo: IndyCar)

Without question or rival, Newgarden and his Team Penske counterparts were the best organization in the series last season, capturing 10 of the 17 races, led by Newgarden (4 wins), Will Power (3 wins), 2016 champ Simon Pagenaud (2 wins) and Helio Castroneves (1 win).

But Team Penske has downsized this season, going from four to three teams. Castroneves has joined former IndyCar driver Juan Pablo Montoya as the leaders of the new Penske IMSA sports car effort.

However, Castroneves won’t be a complete stranger to the IndyCar ranks. He’s the Grand Marshal for Sunday’s race, and will rejoin the team for a single-race effort in the Indianapolis 500 on May 27.

Penske’s No. 1 nemesis in IndyCar, Chip Ganassi Racing, has also downsized, going from three to two cars.

Several other teams are likely to once again be contenders this season, including Andretti Autosport, which has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with Graham Rahal and 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato, who was lured away from the Andretti camp after last season.

As if that isn’t enough, there will be three new teams on the circuit this season, including full-time efforts from Carlin Racing and Harding Racing, and a part-time effort from Juncos Racing.

“I do think it will equalize things,” Rahal said of the new race car and how the dynamic of some teams has changed for 2018. “If you do your job and you nail the setup, you will be right there contending for wins.

“Before, there were certainly cases and tracks where that wasn’t the way it was for us, and it is nice now to feel like we can be rewarded for lots of hard work.”

Rahal could very easily have spoken for many, if not all IndyCar drivers when asked his thoughts about this weekend’s race.

“We are all refreshed,” he said. “We are all anxious and excited for what’s to come.”

**************************************

Let’s get back to Newgarden more specifically.

He knows he has a target on his back; that all 20-plus fellow competitors will be gunning to dethrone him.

Can Newgarden make it 2 championships in a row this season? (Photo: IndyCar)

Heck, even Newgarden still has a hard time believing he comes into this weekend as the series’ defending champion.

“I still have to pinch myself when I think about going to St. Pete as the Verizon IndyCar Series champion,” he said. “Any driver that gets an opportunity, like the one I got with Team Penske, will tell you they expect to win right away.

“I certainly did as well, but I think we were all surprised at how quickly we gelled together and made it happen. But that is last year. The drive for the 2018 championship starts at St. Pete, and it’s a track where I’ve never won before. That is our only thought this weekend: going to Victory Lane.”

But at the same time, having a brand new car could present a bit of a challenge getting used to, especially at St. Pete.

“I think street courses will be the biggest change,” Newgarden said. “Short ovals I would say will probably be right behind that. Those are the two biggest places.

“There’s a lot going to be different. You have to look out for the cars differently, you have to drive the car different.”

Newgarden is ready for the green flag to wave for the first time in 2018 on Sunday. (Photo: IndyCar)

But that doesn’t mean Newgarden expects neither he nor many of his fellow competitors will need long learning curves to get used to the new ride.

“I think with the good drivers, they do it pretty fast,” he said. “You’re always sort of evolving your style, whether it’s the tire that’s changing or the engine just changing.

“This year, it’s a big change, quite a big change. … (It) really depends on the circuit. So street circuits and certain places you go, I think your driving style will change a lot, but you adjust very quickly.

“I’ve always told people, too, when they ask about the car, you can’t just watch St. Pete and see where everyone stacks up, get a snapshot for the year. I think you’re going to have to watch all year to see how it evolves because people are going to be figuring things out as the year goes on, getting better and better.

“It will be fun to watch who figures it out the quickest. As far as like the broad strokes, figuring out driving style, yeah, really quick, then it’s just down to the little details throughout the year, refining. Whoever gets those little details quicker is the one who is better at the end of the year.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Three-time W Series champ Jamie Chadwick joining Andretti in Indy NXT Series for 2023

3 Comments

Jamie Chadwick, the three-time W Series champion, will drive for Andretti Autosport in the Indy NXT Series next season.

Chadwick will make her debut in an American racing series in March, driving the No. 28 for Andretti Autosport with sponsorship from DHL. The 24-year-old will become the first female driver in 13 years to compete full time in the Indy NXT championship.

Chadwick joined the female free-to-enter W Series in its inaugural 2019 season, winning two races and the first of three consecutive championships. She has been a reserve driver for the Williams Formula One team and will continue in that role in 2023. She also has driven in the Extreme E Series.

Despite her success, Chadwick hasn’t landed a bigger ride in F3 or F2, and her break didn’t come until Michael Andretti contacted her and offered a test in an Indy NXT car.

The final three races of this year’s W Series schedule were canceled when funding fell through, but Chadwick still believes the all-female series was the right path for her.

“W Series has always been and will continue to be an opportunity to be racing for every female driver, so for my side, I looked at it while perhaps I would have liked to step up maybe earlier, at the same time being able to have that chance to race, get that experience, have that development, seat time… I was constantly learning,” Chadwick told The Associated Press.

“In that sense, I wasn’t frustrated at all. But on the flip side of it, now I’ve had that experience testing in the United States in Indy NXT and this is something I’m really excited about.”

Chadwick also is expected to have an enhanced role as a development driver next season with Williams, which chose American driver Logan Sargeant to fill its open seat on next year’s F1 grid.

“Andretti Autosport is proud to be supporting Jamie alongside DHL,” said Michael Andretti. “Jamie’s successful career speaks for itself, but Indy NXT gives Jamie the opportunity to continue her development in a new type of racing.

“We’ve turned out five Indy NXT champions over the years and look forward to continuing our role in developing new talent.”

Indy NXT is the new name of the rebranded Indy Lights Series, the final step on the ladder system before IndyCar.

Andretti will field two drivers next season in IndyCar that were developed in Indy NXT: Kyle Kirkwood, the 2021 champion, will return to Andretti after one season in IndyCar driving for A.J. Foyt Racing, and Devlin DeFrancesco is back for a second season.

Chadwick will be teammates in Indy NXT with Hunter McElrea and Louis Foster. She becomes Andretti’s second full-time female driver alongside Catie Munnings, who competes for Andretti United in the Extreme E Series.