Season Review: What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been- Part I

Photo: Joe Skibinski, Indycar

It feels good to say that it’s time to review the 2020 Indycar season. It’s great that there was a season. All was in doubt for Roger Penske’s first year as owner of the NTT Indycar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after the opening race at St. Pete was cancelled in March. After six schedule revisions, renegotiated deals, and guidance from state and local health officials, the season took place. Three race had no fans in attendance, and the other races had a limited number of fans allowed. Fans owe a huge amount of thanks to Penske, Indycar, and IMS for getting a credible schedule together for this year. Also a thank you to NBC Sports for working out broadcast windows for all the races

It was not too bad a season. There could have been more passing on the ovals, but the racing on the road and street courses was really good. Here are the things that stood out to me in 2020. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about individual teams and drivers.

Dixon, Power Move Closer to Career Leaders

Scott Dixon won his 50th career race at World Wide technology Raceway in August. He began the season winning the first three races. After a driver has won three in a season, the odds of winning a fourth go down dramatically. I expected we would have to wait until 2021 to see Dixon win number 50. He accomplished the feat the week after the Indianapolis 500, where he was the favorite and finished second. The nice thing is he won his 50th with fans present. Dixon is just two wins behind Mario Andretti in total victories. He should at least tie Andretti next season.

Will Power last year thought that reaching Andretti’s mark of 67 poles would be a difficult task. Power didn’t think it possible to win more than three poles a year with the competition as close as it is. He took five poles this season to end up within five of the career record. I can’t see A.J. Foyt’s mark of 67 wins ever being topped, but I can see Power going past Andretti for career poles.

Indycar’s Youth Movement Shows Talent

Drivers with less than two years of experience coming into the season had some brilliant moments. Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay each won a pole, Felix Rosenqvist and Colton Herta each won a race , and six podiums shared by eight of the youngest drivers in the series means Indycar has some talent waiting to get their due. This season belonged mainly to the veterans, but this talented group will be near the front consistently soon.

Dixon vs. Newgarden

Is this the new Foyt vs. Andretti rivalry? Six time champion Dixon and two time champion Newgarden have split the last four titles. It’s nice that they have alternated years. Until Dixon chooses to retire, this will be the matchup to watch. Most people, including me, thought the rivalry of the future would be Newgarden and Alexander Rossi. Rossi may enter the picture again, but he will need to come back strong next season if he wants to join this battle.

Aeroscreen Proves Its Need

A frightening crash in race 1 at Iowa proved that Indycar made the right call going with the aeroscreen instead of a halo. As the field was set to go green. Colton Herta’s car hit the car in front of him and became airborne. He landed nearly on top of Rinus VeeKay. The nose of Herta’s car hit the op of th aeroscreen. The screen also prevented a piece of debris from entering the cockpit of Marcus Ericsson’s car.

While the aeroscreen is not aesthetically pleasing, it is a great advance in safety. I think it will have a better appearance on the new chassis in 2023, wher it will be built into the design.

Best Races

Strictly my opinion, but the best races of the year were The Harvest Grand Prix Race 1, Iowa race 1, both races at Road America, and The finale Sunday at St. Pete.

The Indianapolis 500 was better than I expected, but it was not as good as it has been the last few years. Not having fans in attendance detracted from the event.

Look for Part 2 tomorrow. Weather permitting I will be at IMS Thursday for the test. The weather forecast looks dicey for running.

Race 2 Quick Thoughts-A Sense of Normalcy

Photo of Will Power by Chris Jones, Indycar

Will Power takes the pole and dominates the race. Team Penske sweeps the weekend. with two wins and two front row starts. Power and Josef Newgarden combined to lead 109 of the 160 laps. This weekend brought a sense of normalcy back. This how the IMS road course works.

A victory at St. Pete would make Power a 40 race winner. It has been more than 20 years since two 40 race winners were active in the series.

Not every race can be as great as Friday’s, and I wasn’t expecting today’s race to be that good. It is quite a feat to lead every lap in a race, especially one with such a long pit stop delta.

It was nice to see Simon Pagenaud move up to the top 10 after an awful friday. He still hasn’t figured out qualifying. Pagenaud’s struggles in qualifying have been one of the most puzzling things about this season.

Colton Herta made an impressive late charge to close in on Power. It made the last few laps interesting.

Alexander Rossi had his best weekend of the year with two podium finishes.

Jack Harvey has three top 10s and one podium in four races on the IMS road course.

Scott Dixon’s struggles continue. His lead over Newgarden is just 32 points heading to St. Pete. The Florida street course is not one of Dixon’s better tracks. He just needs to keep Newgarden in sight during the race.

I don’t know how Indycar determines race distances, but I think 5 more laps might have made the race more intriguing.

If the fans had a vote, the Harvest Grand Prix would be an annual event.

Finally, huge thanks to Roger Penske, Doug Boles, and the entire staff at IMS for their efforts to create a safe environment for fans to be to attend the races this weekend. The fans who live in Indianapolis needed this, and they will remember and appreciate this weekend for a long time.

Revised Schedule: Thoughts on a Historic Route to the Championship

Who thought a jigsaw puzzle could be put together a different way? The NTT Indycar Series revised schedule is impressive on several fronts. To change a race date involves many moving pieces- sponsors, promoters, television networks, vendors- all to agree. To move three races to accommodate one big is a feat only Roger Penske could accomplish. Here some of my mostly incoherent thoughts about yesterday’s events.

Could anyone besides Roger Penske pulled this off? Not likely. His connections across auto racing greatly aided everything coming together. Penske and the series took full advantage of the gap left by the postponement of the Olympics to work in the complete Indianapolis 500 program minus one practice day. My thought was when the race was rescheduled that there would be a day of practice, a day of qualifying, a day off then the race. I’m glad the entire schedule stays intact.

There is still some historic tradition left despite how much of the new schedule enters unfamiliar territory. The season starts May 30. 22 times in the past the Indianapolis 500 was the first race of the year. The last time it opened the season was 1957. The 500 has never been run outside of the month of May before. I’m not sure how to deal with May 24 yet.

The inevitable Indycar/NASCAR double header has become a reality a couple of years earlier than I expected. The GMR Grand Prix will run on July 4, the day before the Brickyard 400. The Xfinity series will have the first stock car road race at IMS following the Indycar race. I think this will be the model for future doubleheaders. I don’t think it’s to NASCAR’s advantage to run on an oval after Indycar runs a race the day before on that same track.

If you like all types of racing, the first five days of July will be heaven. Midgets, Indycar, Road to Indy, and NASCAR all at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s the type of race meet Carl Fisher dreamed of.

Could this  be the new date for the GMR Grand Prix in the future? I don’t think so. The May lead in is important to the Speedway. If it is successful, who knows? I think it is worth the consideration. Add the two days in May back to the practice schedule for the Indianapolis 500.

Will the 500 lose another practice day going forward? When the series sees that the cars can get along fine with just three days, I could see the May schedule shrink again. I would hate to see it happen, bet I’m not going to bet against it.

I hope the race at World Wide Technology Raceway the week after the 500 can be moved to NBC. The move would help continue momentum from the 500. I love that the 500 is followed by a short oval. It will be just like the old days when Milwaukee followed Indianapolis.

I’m impressed that  Indycar still has 14 races scheduled. I originally thought 12 was the most that could get in, if any racing occurred at all in 2020. Keep in mind, that nothing is certain as we are still at the mercy of the coronavirus.

Seeing St. Pete at the end of the schedule was a huge surprise. Green Savoree has worked hard to keep this event on the calendar. I know Mayor Kriseman is a big advocate for the race. October is a good time to hold a race in St. Pete. It is before the snowbirds arrive in great numbers. It will also relieve some of the economic hit caused by the abbreviated Spring Break.

Now that an October race is on the schedule, can we keep at least one there in future years? Maybe two?

The thing that doesn’t thrill me about St. Pete is ending the season on a street course. Qualifying is key there, although St. Pete usually jumbles the order with yellows at some point. It really bothers me to award double points for a street race.

Let’s hope that this schedule can run in its entirety. Everyone stay safe and be well.

Penske Gives IMS a Valentine

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I came away from the announcement at Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more impressed with Roger Penske and what he can accomplish. It was just 100 days ago that he purchased the Speedway and the NTT Indycar Series.  There is a lot of information to digest from the press conference. Here are some thoughts about the major areas discussed today.

For a detailed list of the improvements at IMS, click or paste this link:

https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/90591962/posts/2589662794

Increased Purse

Adding $2 million to the purse for a total of $15 million is a step in the right direction. It’s an increase of about $60,000 per starter. The winner is guaranteed $2 million. I hope the winning driver’s total reaches $3 million with other prizes. Could this be just a first step? Penske seemed to dodge the question about adding a title sponsor to raise the purse even further.

Qualifying

I like the multiple attempts on Bump Day for those trying to get in the field. One of the issues with the 2019 format was that a driver couldn’t defend by going out again. Expanding  the time to 75 minutes is okay. I would prefer two hours for this. I will save my annual qualifying rant for May.

The turbocharger boost to 45 horsepower for qualifying should see speeds increase. There are many other factors that may prevent this- weather, time of day, the effect of the aeroscreen.  Fast Friday will be interesting.

NBC expanded coverage on both qualifying days may lead to higher race day ratings. Some coverage will be on NBCSN, but it sounds as if the main segements- the Fast Nine and the  Last Row Shootout- will be on NBC. Again, more about this in May.

New Sponsors

The new sponsors announced today show the power of Roger Penske. Several are associate sponsors of Penske’s race team. The more the merrier in this department.

Fan Experience

Penske has said from the first day he would invest in the fan experience. He is doing that. The improvements to the video boards alone would have been a big enough enhancement for one year. However he is not stopping there. Moving the west side fence into Georgetown Road will greatly help the congestion there.

Refurbishing 125 restrooms with fresh paint and new sinks has been needed for some time. No mention today of the famous (infamous?) troughs.

I’m excited to see the lighted signs at the main gate and at Gate 2.

Victory Podium

The one thing that concerns me is raising the winning car to the podium. It’s a nice idea and I understand why they want to do this, but I think this will take some excitement away from the celebration. I thought this practice was stopped because the moment lost spontaneity. I would prefer the celebration be on ground level, where there is actually more room, then lift the car and have the driver and team come up to the podium. Maybe IMS can practice this during the GMR Grand Prix and the Freedom 100 to work out any possible kinks in the new procedure.

Today was a very positive day for the future of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s always a nervous time when anew owner comes to a place. I felt at the time Penske was the best person to take over the Speedway. Today showed that so far my feeling was correct.

Checkers for Hulman- George; Green for Penske- Some Thoughts

What has seemed surreal for the last 63 days is now real. The purchase of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Indycar, and IMS Productions is now complete. While my head has been spinning since November4, the rotations are much slower now. The sale is like losing that oldest relative you’ve known since birth. I have mixed feelings of optimism and trepidation about the Penske years ahead. There are things about both the Speedway and the series I would like to see done differently.

IMS

For the fans, better Wi-Fi, bigger and better video boards, and more and better concessions are my top priorities. I would love to get a clearer signal from my seat in G Stand and be able to view the video board without the sun causing a glare on it. I’m not a frequent purchaser of concessions at the track, partly for price, but also I don’t like the limited selection. A wider variety is needed, including some healthier choices.

I think it’s time for newer, more modern garages. The current garages are nearly 40 years old. They aren’t bad, but a touch up might be in order.

More suites are a possibility. They do enhance revenue. My concern is where to put them so that they don’t detract from the experience of the average fan. I don’t think it would be a good look for the track for it to be completely enclosed by suites and grandstands. There are some open areas between grandstands that are available.

What I don’t want to see is a ban on fans bringing coolers into the track. Roger Penske said he wanted to respect traditions of the place. This is one that would definitely hurt attendance.

Another concern I have is the track going to electronic tickets. I value my tickets from past races. I have one from every race I have attended and a few I did not attend. No, I do not have my 1911 ticket. Thanks for asking. These pieces of pasteboard are works of art. I would hate to see them discarded in favor of an image on a phone screen or a print at home generic looking paper with a bar code. Perhaps the Speedway could offer fans a choice.  I would opt for the traditional ticket. I would even pay a fee for it.

My biggest concern, though, is a possible reduction of on track time. I already think the schedule is too short. It’s barely the Fortnight of May anymore. Thank goodness for the grand prix. Without it, we have an extended weekend. Increasing the purse to make the teams’ time at IMS more worthwhile would help.

The Indycar Series

I like the new procedures that have come out in the last few days. I think they make sense. I hope Jay Frye continues to revise things to be as fair as possible to all competitors.

While the new rule about reordering the field should help shorten yellows, what would really help shorten a caution period is not giving everyone a chance to pit. Either pit or don’t. but be aware the race could go green at any time. Yellows almost seem staged at times.

I don’t want to see a guaranteed spot rule for the Indianapolis 500.  This is perhaps a topic to include in my qualifying discussion in May, but there are other ways to protect teams. First, get rid of double points. Missing the race will not be the huge points penalty it is now. Second, give full time teams that miss the race last place points minus 1 for every spot below 33rd that they qualified. Teams and drivers don’t walk away empty, even though they are not racing. Giving points for every place is another post.

Make it clear to fans at what point on the track the race begins. Many times it looks as if the drivers begin racing too soon. I think fans aren’t aware of the start zone. Just make sure there is good field alignment when the front row reaches that area.

 

This is an exciting time for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT Indycar Series, and the Indianapolis 500. I wish Roger Penske the best as he begins stewardship of these entities. Fans will like some changes and not like others. Like anything new, we must wait and see what develops.

Indycar’s Top Stories of 2019

Photo: Indycar

From the NTT Indycar Series:

Top INDYCAR Stories of 2019

INDIANAPOLIS (Dec. 18, 2019) — While INDYCAR enjoyed several intriguing stories during this year’s NTT IndyCar Series season, the blockbuster came after the season when Roger Penske announced that Penske Corporation would be acquiring Indianapolis Motor Speedway, INDYCAR and additional Hulman & Company holdings.

The November announcement was no doubt the most captivating story of 2019 for INDYCAR, but it also ranked among the top stories in all of motorsports with its worldwide interest.

Tony Hulman purchased the Speedway in dilapidated condition in November 1945 and turned it into one of the world’s most iconic sporting venues. Over the past 75 years, Hulman and his family have reshaped the facility and hosted Indy cars, NASCAR, Formula One, MotoGP, major golf tournaments and concerts, among other events.

The official sale is scheduled for early January and most expect the impact Penske will have on the sport and the famed track in the future could be even greater than his record 18 Indianapolis 500 victories.

With the Penske acquisition news leading the way, here’s a look at INDYCAR’s top stories of the year:

  1. Penske acquires IMS, INDYCAR: Tony George, Hulman & Company’s Chairman of the Board, said he first approached Roger Penske about buying the company’s assets on the final day of the NTT IndyCar Series season, which was Sept. 22 in Monterey, Calif., at the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. Private, highly confidential meetings were held over the next six weeks, with only a handful of executives included in the negotiations. Penske seemed genuinely pleased that one of the biggest secrets in motorsports history held until the deal was formally announced Monday, Nov. 4, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
  2. NBC airs its first Indianapolis 500, becomes exclusive home of the NTT IndyCar Series: The 500 had been on ABC since 1965, so that alone made the switch to NBC newsworthy. But NBC also significantly increased exposure for the NTT IndyCar Series through its first of a multiyear deal. Eight races were shown live on network television, three more than in 2018, and fans enjoyed action of all on-track activity via NBC Sports Gold, a leading direct-to-consumer product. Another positive was the inclusion of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in NBC’s “Championship Season” marketing campaign.
  3. NTT joins as the series’ title sponsor: The signing of a multiyear agreement with the global information technology and communications leader was executed in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The agreement affords INDYCAR the opportunity to benefit from NTT’s digital innovations, including the evolution of the INDYCAR Mobile App and integration of NTT’s proprietary Smart Platform.
  4. INDYCAR introduces Aeroscreen, hybrid technology: INDYCAR announced a partnership with Red Bull Advanced Technologies during the Indy 500 race weekend for the development and implementation of an Aeroscreen for enhanced driver cockpit protection. The safety innovation, which will make its competition debut at the outset of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, consists of a ballistic Aeroscreen anchored by titanium framework that encompasses the cockpit. The Aeroscreen had its first on-track test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Team Penske’s Will Power, who both considered the initial outing a success. Other tests followed at Barber Motorsports Park, Richmond Raceway and Sebring International Raceway. The Aeroscreen has been described by INDYCAR President Jay Frye as “a game-changer.” For 2022, INDYCAR, in partnership with Chevrolet and Honda, will implement a single-source hybrid system in its race cars. In keeping with INDYCAR’s history of integrating innovation into the sport, the hybrid powertrain will mark the first time that vehicles will depart from the traditional, manual hand-held electric starters to a hybrid component that can be activated by the driver from the cockpit. Additionally, engines are targeted to exceed 900 horsepower.
  5. Pagenaud has a history-making Month of May in Indianapolis: For the first time, the same driver won all three major Indianapolis Motor Speedway events in May: the INDYCAR Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 pole and the 500 itself. In the 500, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud led 116 of the 200 laps and outdueled Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport in the final laps to become the first Frenchman to win the race since Rene Thomas in 1914. Pagenaud also became the first pole winner to win the 500 since Helio Castroneves in 2009.
  6. Juncos/Kaiser bump McLaren/Alonso from Indianapolis 500 field: Who imagined Fernando Alonso, a two-time Formula One World Champion who ran so well in the 500 in 2017, failing to earn a spot in his return? Or revered McLaren, which came to Indy with its own program for the first time in this era of the sport, also going home early with Alonso? But the orange No. 66 Chevrolet was in a precarious position in the final minutes of qualifying, and Kyle Kaiser, driving for the small, part-time Juncos Racing team, ran four laps fast enough to make the show in a thrilling David-vs.-Goliath matchup.
  7. Newgarden wins four races, captures second series championship: Josef Newgarden won a season-high four races en route to his second series crown in three years with Team Penske. He also joined Sam Hornish Jr. as the only Americans to win multiple series crowns since Al Unser Jr. in 1994. Newgarden jumped to the top spot in the standings by winning the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and relinquished the position only once – after Simon Pagenaud won the 500 – to effectively go wire-to-wire against a strong field.
  8. History-setting Herta leads stout rookie class: Colton Herta of Harding Steinbrenner Racing made the first emphatic statement by winning the season’s second race, the inaugural INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas, to become the youngest race winner in INDYCAR history at 18 years, 11 months, 25 days. Herta added another victory in the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing won the season’s Rookie-of-the-Year Award on the strength of two top-three and six top-five finishes while the Indianapolis 500’s top-finishing rookie, Santino Ferrucci of Dale Coyne Racing, produced three fourth-place finishes in addition to a seventh at Indy. Marcus Ericsson of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports finished second in the second Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix race while Carlin’s Pato O’Ward put on a show at COTA in finishing eighth. Ben Hanley of DragonSpeed, a part-time team making only its third INDYCAR start, delivered a strong effort at the 500, qualifying 27th.
  9. McLaren, SPM merge, hire O’Ward and Askew: McLaren, with its Formula One pedigree and rich history, announced in August its full-time return to Indy car competition in a partnership with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The team was rebranded Arrow McLaren Racing SP and also announced a partnership with Chevrolet. More change followed with the 2019 driving tandem of James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson being replaced by Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, the two most recent series champions of Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires. At 23 and 20 years, respectively, Askew, the 2019 champion, and O’Ward, the ’18 champ, form the youngest pairing in the series.
  10. Rossi re-signs with Andretti Autosport: The 28-year-old Alexander Rossi could have become a highly sought-after free agent with a number of enticing options, but he decided to re-sign with Andretti Autosport in July. In addition to announcing a multi-year deal with Rossi, Andretti Autosport also announced a renewal with Honda. The Rossi-Honda tandem was strong in 2019, with the Californian finishing third in the NTT IndyCar Series championship, which was the top finish for the engine manufacturer. He also delivered dominating wins at Long Beach and Road America, leading an impressive 134 of the combined 140 laps, and a runner-up finish in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Thoughts

I have no argument that these afre the top stories. I would have put the Herta story 5th and moved the Pagenaud story to 7th. The others I think are appropriately ranked. Let’s face it. The top story should have been 1, 2,and 3.

A Word of Thanks

I have  a few words of thanks to those who made 2019 such an amazing year.  While writing this column annually seems like a trite exercise, I enjoy expressing my appreciation for those who helped the sport and also those who helped me get through the season.

Thank you to:

The Hulman-George family for their 74 years of stewardship and building the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway into the great event and facility it is today. Thanks also for handing the track to someone intent on preserving the traditions of the place.

Roger Penske for buying IMS, The NTT Indycar Series, and IMS Productions. If the track had to be sold, I’m glad it was to someone who understands what this is all about

Fellow media members for their help and advice. In particular, Eric Smith of Race Review Online, George Phillips of Oilpressure, and Mike Joachim of Pit Lane Parley.

The communications staff at Indycar and IMS.

Track PR and communications directors for their assistance in facilitating onsite coverage.

Everyone on “Team Silver” headquartered in G Stand on Race Day.

The wonderful people in my writing class at the Life Enrichment Center in Tampa. They continue to be a huge inspiration in writing this humble column.

Finally, certainly not least, each one of you who take the time to read The Pit Window. I am humbled by your loyalty and very much appreciate it.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.