With the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season set to begin today, a viewer’s guide to key storylines when the green flag drops on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock):
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – Hate sells.
It’s the key to any rivalry in racing. If you want to gain new fans and keep their attention, your stars regularly need to lock horns and occasionally throw fire at each other when the cameras and recorders are running.
Petty vs. Pearson. Lewis vs. Max.
Josef vs. Simon?
As the NTT IndyCar Series prepares to launch a new docuseries (“100 Days to Indy”) squarely aimed at capturing the zeitgeist the way that Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” did for Formula One, the biggest question is how real can it get for a series that has very affable and appealing stars but often has lacked the feuding that has fueled the growth of NASCAR and Formula One?
There are some budding rivalries among IndyCar’s diverse driver lineup. But its collection of stars also can be chummy in public and often decline to take the gloves off during the periods with peak eyeballs when the audience demands drama to stem from the on-track scuffles that stoke emotions in every race.
Conor Daly has encouraged aggression of access from the CW/VICE docuseries that will follow IndyCar through the 107th Indy 500.
“I told the producers and the director, ‘Really get in our faces right after the races,’” Daly said. “That’s kind of when we really will be honest about what happened or who did what to who. There are really a lot of us, for sure, who do get along. On track a lot of those friendships go out the window. Talk about that! Talk about who you trust and talk about who you don’t. I think that’s something people would really want to see.
“It’s uncomfortable to be generating that type of chatter between drivers because there are some fans and people that support some drivers more than others, and if there is something said about that driver that they support, then they will come after you.
“But honestly, good. What’s happening on F1 and NASCAR Twitter is very aggressive and very angry and very crazy at times, but it is people talking about it, so that’s good. The more talk the better.”
The Ed Carpenter Racing driver would be an obvious candidate for more conflict given his many run-ins with the brash Santino Ferrucci, who returns to IndyCar full time this year with AJ Foyt Racing.
Meyer Shank Racing’s Simon Pagenaud has spent much of the preseason throwing darts at former Penske teammate Josef Newgarden, and it’s been hard to tell if the potshots are playful or rooted in anger.
“I don’t think punching is his style,” Newgarden cracked about the Frenchman. “He’s like throwing crepes or something. But yeah, I love me some Pagenaud.”
Newgarden openly is wondering when (not if) he and teammate Scott McLaughlin won’t see eye to eye. Even though they have celebrated their tight-knit friendship with an irreverent video series called “Bus Bros”, Newgarden was joking before the season opener at St. Petersburg about preemptively attacking McLaughlin to slow his rapid development into IndyCar championship contender.
“I kind of just want to break Scott’s leg at some point and get it over with,” Newgarden said. “We’ve not had a big moment yet. I think it’s inevitable we’re going to have a scrap at some point.
“It’s a hard balance. He’s probably the first teammate I’ve had that’s really understood the dynamic of look I want to beat him terribly badly, and he feels the same about me. But we’re professional about it. He respects my craft, and I respect his. There’s no one I hold higher than McLaughlin. There’s respect between us that makes it work right now. I think it’s inevitable that we have a scrap. When that happens, I don’t know the outcome, but we’ll have to work it out.”
Rivalries can be tricky in racing because of many underlying factors.
Teams are largely funded by the support of corporate sponsors that tend to frown upon outspoken personalities who skirt the edge of controversy and can drum up publicity that might be perceived as negative.
“The world nowadays, you’ve got to be so careful what you say, what you do, how people are judging you,” 2004 champion and 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan said. “Social media just hammers you all the time.
“Yeah, to be a good one I think we’re going to have to just be honest, and I think we’ve seen other examples of other reality shows that — you can still show controversy. You can still show that we don’t all love each other. Some guys out there, we definitely don’t like each other, and it’s fine.
“It will be really important for the series, but also I think it’s on the producers as well, to put the pressure saying, ‘Guys, this is not a movie. This is a reality show, so be real.’ ”
Alexander Rossi already has gotten a taste of it with a “100 Days to Indy” sitdown in which he discussed his altercation last year at Mid-Ohio with former Andretti Autosport teammate Romain Grosjean. On his “Off Track” podcast, Rossi said IndyCar drivers will need to get outside their comfort zone by getting outspoken about their competition.
“I hate when we go back to ‘Drive to Survive’ because it’s different, but like you look at the honesty of not only drivers but the team owners, that’s what made the show,” Rossi said. “The real, “if that guy doesn’t perform, he’s fired.”-type thing. So I think you’ve got to have a level of that.”
Some other storylines and teams to watch entering the season opener:
–With pole-sitter Grosjean and Colton Herta sweeping the front row, Andretti Autosport has backed up the promise that the team has shown in strong preseason testing performances.
There’s much at stake for Herta, who signed a contract extension last year and believes he is ready to win a championship, and Grosjean, who is entering a contract year with the team after a disappointing 2022. New addition Kyle Kirkwood, who qualified fifth, could be pushing both of them after learning the lessons of a wreck-filled rookie season at AJ Foyt Racing.
–Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has overhauled its engineering department by bringing in Formula One veteran Stefano Sordo as its new technical director. Graham Rahal, who remains in the cockpit of the No. 15 Dallara-Honda but naturally is transitioning into a management role, said the team is in the midst of a “cultural shift” from top to the bottom.
–Kirkwood has taken the spot of 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, who left for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar Team after seven seasons with Andretti. Ferrucci will be teamed at Foyt with rookie Benjamin Pedersen. Sting Ray Robb
–In adding a third car for Rossi to pair with Felix Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren has been part of an expansion to a track-record 27 cars for the season opener. Juncos Hollinger Racing also has added a second car for Argentine rookie Agustin Canapino.