IndyCar Season In Review: Top 10 stories of 2018

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With 2019 right around the corner, it’s fitting to end the year with a recap of the top 10 stories of the Verizon 2018 IndyCar Series season (plus a few more additional mentions):

1. Scott Dixon wins fifth IndyCar championship. The outstanding New Zealand native moved into second place on the all-time championship list with his fifth title, including three in the last six seasons. Only A.J. Foyt has won more titles (seven). Dixon also moved into third place on the IndyCar all-time race wins list (44 victories), behind only Foyt’s 67 wins and Mario Andretti’s 52 triumphs.

Will Power wins the Indianapolis 500 (Getty Images)

2. Will Power wins 2018 Indianapolis 500. Power is no stranger to success at Indianapolis, having won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis three times (2015, 2017 and 2018). But he had never finished better than second (2015) in the biggest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500. That is, until 2018, when the Australian native roared to the front late in the race and finally captured what he had chased for his entire career.

3. Robert Wickens critically injured in crash at Pocono. The plucky Canadian IndyCar rookie was involved in one of the worst crashes the series has seen in many years, suffering several injuries – including a spinal cord fracture that left him a paraplegic – in a horrendous wreck at Pocono Raceway on August 19. Prior to that injury, Wickens had enjoyed an outstanding debut season. Even with missing the final three races of the season due to his Pocono injuries, Wickens still managed to earn Rookie of the Year honors, he was so dominating prior to his fateful crash.

4. James Hinchcliffe fails to qualify for Indy 500. Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been a vexing place for the Mayor of Hinchtown. The Canadian driver suffered the most serious crash of his racing career while practicing for the 2015 500, came back to earn the pole in the 2016 edition of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, and then failed to qualify for the 2018 500, running out of time to make one last effort on Bump Day. But Hinchcliffe vowed to come back stronger than ever in the 2019 500. A win would definitely be in order, given all he’s endured at IMS.

5. Emergence of Alexander Rossi as bonafide championship contender. Rossi came out of virtually nowhere to win the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 as an IndyCar rookie. But he would prove not be a one-hit wonder. He’d finish 11th in 2016, improve to seventh in 2017 and finished runner-up to Scott Dixon in the 2018 season, including earning three wins. The Dixon-Rossi rivalry will likely be one of the most-watched in 2019.

6. NBC to air all IndyCar races in 2019, including the Indy 500. There was major news off-track on March 21, 2018, when IndyCar signed a three-year media rights deal with NBC Sports Group to televise all IndyCar races starting in 2019, including the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, the first time the Greatest Spectacle In Racing has been televised on anything but ABC/ESPN in more than a half-century.

Danica Patrick’s final race of her overall racing career was the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 (Getty Images).

7. Danica Patrick’s final IndyCar race. Both ends of Danica Patrick’s “Danica Double” – her final races in both NASCAR Cup and IndyCar – ended with less than stellar finishes. Patrick wrecked in her final Cup race, the Daytona 500, and finished 35th. Then, three months later, Patrick again made an early exit, crashing out on Lap 67 of her final Indianapolis 500. And with that, Patrick’s two-plus decade racing career, dating back to when she first began piloting go-karts, came to an end.

8. Resurgence of Ryan Hunter-Reay. After several difficult seasons, the Andretti Autosport driver had a huge comeback campaign in 2018. Not only did RHR finish the highest (fourth) since he won the IndyCar championship in 2012, he also broke a two-year winless streak, earning victories at Belle Isle 2 and the season finale at Sonoma. He also finished second four times (Birmingham, Belle Isle 1, Road America and Portland). Given the year he had in 2018, Hunter-Reay is already among potential contenders for the 2019 IndyCar title.

9. Harding Racing takes some big steps. After a part-time dabble in IndyCar racing in 2017, Harding Racing began a quick climb toward prominence in its first full season in 2018. It started the season with two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. hired as a “consultant.” But Little Al proved to be so much more by wearing numerous hats, from strategist to advisor to driving coach. He further showed his commitment to the organization by moving from his lifelong home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Harding’s base in Indianapolis. But Unser was only part of the puzzle. The team hired two of the most promising young drivers at season’s end – 2018 Indy Lights champ Patricio O’Ward and runner-up Colton Herta – to lead their two-car operation in 2019. And shortly after the 2018 season ended, the organization changed its name to Harding-Steinbrenner Racing with the addition of George Steinbrenner IV as a full partner going forward.

10. Tony Kanaan endures worst season of IndyCar career. This was not the kind of season the Brazilian native had hoped for when he joined AJ Foyt Racing for 2018. More than anything, Kanaan had hoped for a resurgence in his career. But the opposite happened, as the 43-year-old Kanaan – who turns 44 on New Years Eve – struggled to his worst campaign in 17 seasons on the IndyCar circuit, finishing 16th overall. He managed just four top-10 finishes, with a top showing of sixth at Toronto, seventh at Belle Isle 2 and eighth at both Phoenix and Long Beach. But while the season was rough, there were still some highlights: Kanaan ran his 300th consecutive IndyCar race (at Sonoma), and he and wife Lauren welcomed their first daughter, Nina, to go along with three sons.

Newly promoted IndyCar President Jay Frye. (IndyCar)

And a few others worth mentioning:

A. Last week’s announcement of the promotion of Jay Frye to President of IndyCar.

B. The introduction of the new-style Indy car body not only brought about great racing, it was a big hit in terms of popularity with fans.

C. The addition of Portland Raceway back to the IndyCar schedule for the first time since 2007.

D. The end of a 14-year run at Sonoma Raceway (to be replaced in 2019 as the IndyCar season-ending venue by WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway)

E. Losing ISM Raceway (formerly Phoenix Raceway) for the foreseeable future. However, the Phoenix area’s loss will become Austin, Texas’ gain as IndyCar announced a few months ago that it will race for the first time ever at Circuit of the Americas in 2019.

F. Sebastien Bourdais winning the season-opening race at St. Petersburg for the second straight year.

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Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500