Friday, November 29, 2019

The Biggest Stories in IndyCar

Photo credit: Arrow McLaren SP

It looks like we have reached that point in the year where it's time to start taking a look back. Over the next few week's we will all see more than our share of "Best of 2019" lists, and I actually have two "Best of" lists that I would like to share.

When the IndyCar season started, it really seemed like off-track news would be kind of quiet. After all, only one big-name driver was potentially going on the free agent market, the IndyCar season as a whole is as stable as it's been in a long time, so it appeared the biggest news would be what happened on the track as the field competed for the 2019 championship.

Man, we were wrong, weren't we? All of that did happen, but so did a lot more. Here are six of the biggest stories in IndyCar this year.

1) Roger Penske's purchase of, well, everything. The biggest bomb of the 2019 season dropped well after it was over, as on Nov. 4 it was announced that Roger Penske had made an agreement to buy the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series, and IMS Productions. As if winning the Indy 500 and the championship wasn't enough, Penske just bought up everything else and took it home too. Seriously, though, this is a great more that will resonate positively in the sport for years to come. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Penske and the IndyCar team has in store for 2020.

2) Silly season got out of hand. It was kind of understood that a little havoc would happen had Alexander Rossi decided to move on from Andretti Autosport to another team. While most of us expected him to stay (spoiler alert: he did), nobody could see what was coming in the aftermath. One team and driver (Colton Herta and Harding Steinbrenner Racing) merged with another (Andretti Autosport), another team joined the grid in Arrow McLaren SP,  leaving an established driver in James Hinchcliffe on the outside looking in, and in the latest stunning move, Sebastien Bourdais began his Thanksgiving week by discovering he didn't have a ride next year. I could go on, but you get the drift.

3) McLaren joins IndyCar. The rumblings had been going on since Fernando Alonso competed in the 2017 Indy 500, and Zak Brown said as far back as Long Beach that joining IndyCar was what the McLaren shareholders wanted. The hangup was McLaren was looking to form a partnership with an existing team, but they finally found a willing party in Arrow Schmidt Peterson Racing, forming Arrow McLaren SP. Needless to say, it's been a rough season for the group both on and off the track, but 2020 is a new day, and I think this team will be ready from the jump. Because lost in a lot of other news is the fact that they have a young driver in Pato O'Ward who's already gotten his feet wet in IndyCar, and another in Oliver Askew, who won 16 races and two championships in three years while climbing up the Road to Indy ladder. You can't go wrong building a team around these two young talents.

4) Speaking of young. The series welcomed one of the more highly-touted rookie classes in recent memory this year, and they didn't disappoint. Colton Herta won two races and three poles in his age 19 season, and next year will be competing under the Andretti Autosport banner. Santino Ferrucci, just 21, won the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year award and had a chance to win at Gateway before a late caution came. He was also incredibly consistent, completing all but one lap through the season's first 15 races, and finished with three Top 5 and seven total Top 10 finishes. While a bit older and more experienced, Felix Rosenqvist finished sixth in points and showed why Chip Ganassi took a chance on him. With many of the top drivers in the series looking at finishing up their careers in the next five years or so, it's important that the next crop of drivers is ready to be next. So far it's looking good.

5) The championship fight. I'll throw an editor's note in here that these aren't in order, except for the first one of course, which sits next to the series reuniting in 2008 as the top stories of the millennium. Anyway, as always, the championship battle went right down to the final laps of the year, with Joseph Newgarden picking up his second series title in four years. Still, there were storylines all over the place: with Newgarden and Rossi going nose-to-nose all summer, Simon Pagenaud barging his way back into the discussion by sweeping the Month of May and dominating the weekend at Toronto, while past champions Scott Dixon and Will Power battled through all sorts of adversity all season long to stay in it for as long as they could.

6) The aeroscreen becomes a reality. For all of the safety innovations that we have seen in racing over the years, there was still one area in an open wheel car where a driver was vulnerable: their head. We got a grim reminder of that with the death of Justin Wilson at Pocono in 2015, and over the last couple of years Formula 1 and other FIA series have adopted the halo device, which has already proven itself on more than one occasion. IndyCar decided to go with an aeroscreen setup, and it has been in heavy testing since late summer. So far it seems to be getting solid reviews from the drivers and the potential issues or fears many had about it seems to have been alleviated. It looks good to go for the 2020 season, and while it may take a while to get used to, I think it will be a beneficial piece of safety for the drivers.

It was a fun summer, and I'm glad that I joined the circus this year and was able to cover 12 of the races. Look for my annual "Best of" awards post Monday.

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