There are new faces on the starting grid. There’s a new cockpit that will house them (and keep them safer) on track. There’s new ownership that will be guiding the long-term future of the series and its crown jewel event.
A new season will begin this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, for the IndyCar NTT Data Series, and for a crop of IndyCar newcomers (there are 13 full-time drivers under the age of 30 on the circuit), there will be much to navigate in an already pressure-packed environment.
It took defending series champion Josef Newgarden more than three seasons and 50 races before he broke through to reach victory lane.
Given the current level of churn in IndyCar leaving veterans unceremoniously dismissed throughout recent months, there might be a much shorter leash for first-year drivers than there was for the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet for Team Penske.
“It’s hard to give the magic answer for what do you do to stay in IndyCar as a rookie,” Newgarden said. “I think the most important thing is to showcase that you have the qualities necessary to continue to compete and elevate a certain group or situation.
“Nowadays, it’s so much more than just being fast. Being fast is a critical element, but it’s so much more. It’s everything around it. How do we develop the cars year after year? How do we get on top of small tire differences or car changes? Are you able to drive the team forward continuously or problem-solve on weekends? Can you complete a full weekend? It’s really just displaying those qualities. We all go through different rookie years. I know mine was not great, but I learned a lot from it.”
A trio of sterling 2019 rookies – Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist and Santino Ferrucci — proved they were up to the task, setting a higher bar for the freshmen in 2020 amid a resurgence that is attracting champions from around the globe.
Ferrucci, who suddenly has been thrust into the role of “dean” of Dale Coyne Racing at the tender age of 21, said the current IndyCar driver falls into three archetypes.
“You have the veterans who have been there since I was born,” Ferrucci said. “You have a bunch of European drivers who have come over from European racing cars, and then you have a bunch of drivers coming up through the IndyCar ranks. The diversity on the grid is massive. You have different attitudes, different personalities, different driving styles. Just makes the racing incredible.”
It leaves the series in an interesting position, though – teetering on the dichotomous edge of fresh-faced Gen Z exuberance and exhausting Gen X identity crisis. Former series champions and well-spoken ambassadors Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais were forced into partial schedules for 2020 by team-driven financial decisions, and that could make for a sharp transition if respected veterans leave the stage before the next wave fully is groomed.
But it’s possible to make a case that the IndyCar field is as deep among drivers and teams as it has been in two decades.
Though there are fewer weekly entries than the Cup Series, the NTT Data Series is approaching a level of rivaling the talent pool in NASCAR’s premier circuit (which effectively will attempt to mimic the IndyCar business model with the NextGen car).
IndyCar has tried to seize upon this changing of the guard with a new marketing campaign (“A Different Breed”) that promotes groups of drivers instead of individual stars for the first time.
“You have a lot of guys that have been in the series that are just iconic, and it’s really hard to lose those guys because they’re such household names,” Ferrucci said. “For (younger drivers), we have to do something a little extra and above with the fans being at the track to try and be friendly. You have Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Will Power, those are names in the sport so long they’re like Earnhardt in NASCAR.
“The sport will be really connected to those names, but with the young drivers coming through, I think we put a different spin on how we drive. We’re a little more aggressive. Probably getting to be as smart. We’re still all learning, clearly. But I think it’ll be a good movement in the next couple of years.”
Newgarden, who will be trying to win his third championship in four seasons, believes “the parity is better than it’s ever been. Really, you can get plopped into any situation it seems like right now and have a good, fighting chance. There’s such a depth and talent not just from the drivers but the teams. You have good engineers, good mechanics everywhere. There’s really not any bad seats anymore. That’s certainly to the benefit of the rookies coming in now to the series.”
The rookies are the starting point for NBCSports.com’s Five Things to Watch during the 2020 IndyCar Season:
–A time for youth … : It started with the emergence of Ferrucci (who dazzled at the Indy 500 and throughout his rookie season), Rosenqvist (who nearly won his debut) and Herta (who became the youngest winner in IndyCar history last season).
This year ups the ante for youth with Pato O’Ward, Rinus VeeKay, Oliver Askew, Alex Palou, Dalton Kellett,
“Colton already is a young star,” Newgarden said. “There’s a lot of guys you have to watch out for, try and be better than. That’s a good thing. The young guys push the old guys, and that’s what it’s all about.”
The team placing the largest bet on being green behind the wheel is Arrow McLaren SP, which will field Dallara-Chevrolets for Askew and O’Ward. The duo has a combined eight career starts in IndyCar (all by O’Ward).
“I’ve been thrown in the deep end for real this time, but the team has a lot of experience in IndyCar,” said Askew, who captured the 2019 Indy Lights championship with seven victories. “To have Pato as a teammate, we can really push each other, and I think we can bring the best out of each other as well.
“It’s a steep learning curve for me. We have to look toward the people around us in the garage and engineering room and also we’re going to have Robert Wickens (recovering from injuries in his August 2018 crash at Pocono Raceway) as well who’s going to be a great resource for us. He’s driven a car recently and is willing to share as much of that as possible.”
Still, it still likely will be a while before any of the new drivers make an impact on the title race. Despite two victories last year, Herta still finished sixth in the standings – five points behind Rosenqvist, the 2019 Rookie of the Year who was more than 150 points behind five-time champion Scott Dixon.
“I think the young talent coming in is going to be pretty stout; it’s just added to the depth of the field again,” Dixon said. “Championship-wise, I don’t know. Even last year, I think the top four were quite a breakaway from the rest of the field.”
–… and experience: That breakaway of Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi and Dixon were the only legitimate championship contenders entering the 2019 season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway.
There is virtually no reason that same group won’t challenge for the title again in 2020. They are with the trio of powerhouses (Penske, Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing) that have enjoyed continuity and stability in the offseason (aside from the usual personnel changes). And they all still have much to play for this year.
“If anything, the whole team is hungrier,” said Rossi, who described the “buffering” of his championship roadmap as nearly complete. “There is zero complacency. The whole team is motivated to try to figure out how to get it done. But you don’t want to get caught in the trap of trying too hard. That’s a slippery slope.”
Former champions Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power also could be added to the list. After “mentally making a couple of mistakes,” Power closed strong last year with wins in two of the last four races and has a new strategist this year. Hunter-Reay went winless in 2019 but still saw positives with 10 top 10s after 11 top 10s in a 2018 season he said was one of his best.
“We never really got on stride” last year, Hunter-Reay said. “It was always something. I feel fresh as ever, ready to go. It’s definitely going to be a challenging season. The series somehow keeps getting more competitive. Every year you think it’s the most competitive series in the world, and then it betters itself.”
Newgarden said Herta and Rosenqvist also could enter the 2020 title discussion. “I think the pressure’s going to be similar to what you saw last year,” Newgarden said. “That top-six group has been pretty stable. I think you might have some new additions to jump into that. I know my teammates are always very, very strong. Then Dixon is always a consistent threat. I think Rossi has established himself in the conversation consistently.”
–Through a new lens: After 10 months of development and testing, IndyCar will introduce its aeroscreen – a canopy-esque upgrade to the cockpit that should afford more protection from debris. The PPG-manufactured ballistic screen weighs 17.3 pounds and can withstand a two-pound object striking it at more than 220 mph, and its 27.8-pound titanium frame can withstand 34,000 pounds of load.
Drivers naturally love the upgrade (which Newgarden says is the largest safety advancement of the last 25 years and “probably the last frontier for the open-wheel car“), but there will be some adapting and adjustments to how their Dallaras handle.
“It’s very different,” said Newgarden, who has tested at Richmond, Circuit of the Americas and Sebring. “It’s reacting differently to different tracks so far. You get these small characteristic differences everywhere. It’s going to want certain things from a setup standpoint, certain things from a driving standpoint.”
With drivers accustomed to using visor tearoffs in the wet, the aeroscreen could provide challenges, and it will be a significant change on superspeedways.
“The way it reacts with the rear wing and being in traffic may be a little different than what we have seen in the past,” Dixon said. “We expect on the road courses, it will add more weight to the car and higher center of gravity. It will take its toll at times. It’s the same for everybody. It’s not going to alter too much. At places like Indy when you are on the finite edge, it’s going to catch some people out. It’s going to be difficult to wrap your head around it on a mechanical standpoint.
There probably will be more chatter about how drivers stay cool and get airflow. Teams probably will add vents through tubing and ducting into a once-open cockpit that becomes significantly enclosed – though it’s worth the tradeoff.
“We’re the fastest, closest cars in the world, and we’re the only series in the world left with our heads completely exposed,” said Hunter-Reay, who tested several venting configurations at Barber. “So this was a natural step.”
Said Kanaan: “I think it’s very innovative. Like everything that is new, you get positive and bad feedback but IndyCar, look what we started, from the HANS to the SAFER barrier. The aeroscreen is a huge step. I’m fully in support of it. I couldn’t honestly in the way care less if it looks good or bad. This is not a fashion show. This is a racing series. And for the numbers and the data we got on safety. That’s going to make the series safer. I think it’s extremely positive.”
–Moonlighting champs: It probably isn’t a coincidence that as IndyCar progressively gets safer, the interest level from other series continues to rise.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has cited the aeroscreen as a factor in his renewed interest in IndyCar (though he and his wife have ruled out high-speed ovals). Johnson will be testing a McLaren at Barber Motorsports Park next month with an eye toward a partial schedule in 2021.
Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin also will be crossing with Team Penske for the IndyCar Grand Prix and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso will make his return to the Indianapolis 500.
It feels as if IndyCar is becoming a destination again like it was nearly 30 years ago when Nigel Mansell won the 1992 title in F1 and then moved directly into Champ Car and won the 1993 title as a rookie with Newman/Haas Racing.
While no one is suggesting that F1 is under siege for global supremacy (if anything IndyCar is as focused domestically as ever), it bodes well that IndyCar is appealing to champions around the world.
“Having champions come from other series for IndyCar is really good,” said Pagenaud, one of many foreign-born drivers to leave his native country to become an Indy 500 winner. “It just shows the interest. It just shows that the series is on the upward trend.
“I think it’s great for IndyCar for a champion of Supercars to say his dream is to drive Indy cars. It’s phenomenal for us. It would be great for other champions to do the same.”
McLaughlin, who has won the past two Supercars titles and the 2019 Bathurst 1000, has wowed in preseason testing, and he might have motivation for making a full-time leap. His new wife is a California native, and McLaughlin also seemed to tire of politics in Supercars on the way to his second title.
The New Zealand native, 26, has idolized fellow countryman Scott Dixon since childhood. “I just fell in love with (IndyCar) and fell in love with the cars,” McLaughlin said. “The cars are cool. I watch everything from American football, IndyCar, NASCAR, everything. Just enjoy it. I’ve always said I’d love to have a crack at something else. My goal was always to win the championship in Bathurst and Australia. I ticked those boxes, and then opportunities arise over time.”
McLaughlin has an in through Penske, and Alonso and Johnson are leveraging their McLaren connections. But the relative cost of IndyCar vs. other series also is an allure. Roger Penske estimated last year it costs about $10 million to field a championship-caliber car, a third of the current price tag in NASCAR and reasonable when compared with European series.
“I think that’s why (IndyCar) is appealing,” Dixon said. “An entry to buy is not that much more than F2 or Super Formula or even some of these sports car deals. So that’s why you’re seeing a lot of crossover. If you can string together about $3 million, an Indy Lights team to do a year is like $1.5 million. So it’s not that much more to bridge it, and for some of these wealthy families, it just becomes a no-brainer.”
–Under new ownership: Though St. Petersburg officially christens the Penske Era of IndyCar, don’t expect many outward signs that The Captain now essentially has the final say in everything IndyCar. His presence will become more visible in May when he rechristens Indianapolis Motor Speedway under his banner with millions in enhanced amenities for fans.
Until then, he likely will stay low key and behind the scenes around the series.
Penske notably removed himself as strategist from Power’s pit box to avoid any potential conflicts of interest, though competitors have seemed largely happy with having a rival team owner run the series.
“No concerns,” Rossi said. “I haven’t had any conversations with other drivers other than Simon Pagenaud and James Hinchcliffe. We all have very high hopes and expectations. The Hulman-George Family did a phenomenal job getting the Indy 500 to where they did. I think it was time for a fresh set of eyes and fresh input and a group or a person or both that was ready to take it to the next level. If you look at what RP has done in his career and life whether it’s motorsports or not, and everything is exceptional. We are all expecting nothing less.
“Of course, nothing happens overnight. We are all aware of that. We are all excited for the future. The fact someone has such a history in the sport and the knowledge and capability to make it better, but also the passion to make it better, is very cool.”
Dixon also has no qualms about Penske in charge, though he notes the optics could be problematic for a new manufacturer or team.
“I don’t think it’s going to alter how we’ve raced in the past or how he’s raced,” Dixon said. “It’s harder on (Penske). If you’re looking at (IndyCar) as a manufacturer and (saying) ‘OK, this guy owns a team, he races in the series he owns and he’s an engine supplier. Uhhh, do we want to get involved here?’ “But then he has so much influence on a lot of these manufacturers, that they’re going to be like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s go!’ So I don’t know how it’s going to really work. I think it’s definitely an interesting situation.”
One major positive: It should increase the likelihood of a doubleheader weekend with NASCAR, which still is formulating its 2021 schedule.
“It’s going to be getting the foundation right and making sure the races we currently have are bigger and better,” Dixon said. “I think it’s going to be huge for the speedway, for its longevity, for everything about it. You couldn’t have a better guy doing it. For IndyCar, there are some TBDs, but who else would you want? It’s Roger. It’s all extremely positive.”