Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Another New Face on The Grid

There's no other way to say it, this year's IndyCar rookie class is stacked. 

It features a diverse set of drivers: some came up through the Road to Indy ladder, others have European experience, including in the F1 feeder series. They come from all over the world, and represent a new class of young drivers who could make up the backbone of IndyCar at some point.

Pretty stout, right? Let's add one more name to that impressive rookie lineup.

After a solid test at Mid-Ohio last July, AJ Foyt Racing was so impressed with Tatiana Calderon that they have tabbed her to pilot the No. 11 car on road and street courses for 2022, acting as a teammate to Indy Lights champ Kyle Kirkwood, who will carry the famous No. 14 in a full-season effort. 

The 28-year-old Colombian spent last year driving Super Formula races in Japan (the same series that gave us Alex Palou three years ago) while competing in sports cars and acting as a test driver for Alfa Romeo in F1. Calderon may also be familiar to some Road to Indy fans, as she drove for two seasons (2010-11) with Juncos Racing in the Star Mazda series.

This is a really exciting hire. Calderon has experience in several types of cars, competed with some of the best drivers in the world, and has ample testing experience. Plus it's another (pretty much) full-time AJFR entry, which will be a huge help to Kirkwood as he now has a teammate to work with and exchange ideas. They will get their first chance to collaborate tomorrow when they test at Sebring.

I'm not sure how Calderon will fare this season, but if anything she will definitely hold her own. As we discovered with drivers like Palou and Robert Wickens recently that drivers with experience in many disciplines helps. While Calderon didn't have the success those two guys did, the background she brings to the table will be an asset.

And, yeah, I'll admit it, it's great to have a female driver back on the grid again. Between its drivers and tracks, IndyCar is the most diverse series in the world, and this just reflects it even more. Given Calderon's background, who knows, maybe it will inspire other women who are grinding away in Europe to think about giving IndyCar a try.

So the question becomes, if Calderon isn't driving the ovals, who does? Given his history with the team, I'd have to figure Charlie Kimball for Indy, and possibly JR Hildebrand in a third car.

Other than that, you know who I think they should call for the ovals? Sage Karam.

Yeah I beat the drum for Sage and I'm gonna keep doing it. He's tied up for the 500, of course, but he's had success at Iowa, has raced Texas before in 2015 and would probably run at Gateway. For the love of all that is holy, can someone give him a solid chance?

Back for one more (and maybe one more after that, you never know)

Chip Ganassi Racing confirmed today that 2013 Indy 500 winner and 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan will be back in the saddle for the team at the 500, carrying sponsorship from the American Legion. Kanaan finished 10th in last year's race and should he qualify this year (which of course he will) it will be his 21st start, tying him with Gary Bettenhausen for the eighth most career starts by a driver.

(Editor's note: His countryman, Helio Castroneves, goes on his drive for five and will make his 22nd start, tying him with the greatest pinch hitter and Bump Day driver ever, George Snider. Don't know much about Ziggy? Read my post on him from 2011.)

Also confirming he will be on track in May was Ed Carpenter. Carpenter will be looking to make start No. 19, which ties him with Al Unser Jr., Bobby Unser, and, as of this writing, Scott Dixon, who is likely to earn his spot in the 20-time club in May.

The Rumble Strip Podcast

Speaking of Kyle Kirkwood, I discussed my thoughts on his ride with AJ Foyt Racing, as well as what I think of his prospects for 2022. You can listen here. 

An updated episode will be dropping tomorrow!

Thursday, January 13, 2022

JPM and Sage Are Back

 As we move into 2022, the Indy 500 car count continues to grow.

Several one-off efforts have been announced, and of those, there are two entries that I'm really excited about: two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya making another run with Arrow McLaren, and Sage Karam giving it a go in attempt to make his ninth start at Indy (and 25th overall IndyCar start) in a Dreyer & Reinbold machine.

You know why I'm so excited for these two guys? Because I think either of them has a legitimate chance to win the race. And that matters, for both JPM and Karam.

The reasons are totally different between the two, but winning the race would change everything, for either one of those guys.

As far as JPM goes, his resume speaks for itself. Flat out, he's won in everything he's ever driven, but I feel like the respect he deserves isn't there. And I think it's for two reasons: NASCAR and the jet dryer.

Somehow, a guy who has won Indy twice, won endurance races at both Daytona and LeMans, and in Formula 1 was victorious at places like Monaco, Monza, Hockenheimring and Silverstone, still struggles to find respect.

I think that's because of his stint in Cup, where he only won twice in 255 races and never finished better than 8th in the season standings while racing for Chip Ganassi. But let's be honest, CGR was never a top NASCAR team, and while drivers in their stable won some big races, they were never title contenders. 

I mean, look at Kyle Larson. The guy who is the flavor of the week for "Best Driver in The World", ran 219 races with CGR, won six times and had a best finish in points of 6th. He moves to the Hendrick camp in 2021, wins 10 times and captures his first Cup title. That coming from a guy who came up racing stock cars and where, yes, he is the best stock car driver on the planet. 

Given their backgrounds, their careers at CGR were pretty much a wash.

Then there is the jet dryer incident, where, as we remember, in 2012 JPM had a mechanical issue at Daytona with 100 miles to go and hit a jet dryer that was cleaning the track. Somehow, many see that as the highlight of JPM's career. Was it a bit embarrassing? Maybe. You know what is more embarrassing? Crashing at the front of the field at Daytona or Talladega and taking out 25 other cars. Yet, we never hear that incident being discussed in the careers of other Cup drivers, it's just one of "them racing things".

Somehow, to many, JPM's legacy begins and ends in Cup, and that's a bunch of bullcrap.

So here's where I say I hope he wins in May, because if he does, it broadens his legacy. A three-time winner at Indy speaks volumes, just ask the few guys that have made it to that rarefied air. I think a win at the 500 -- especially at this time of his life and career at age 46 -- reminds people how freaking good he is, especially if he heads there after picking up a win at the Rolex 24, which is a very good possibility.

I think Montoya is one of the best drivers I've seen in my lifetime, and he is certainly the best all-around wheelman of this century. It just seems like some people need a reminder of that face.

What helps are two factors: one, he running with Arrow McLaren, which put two cars in the Top 10 a year ago -- JPM finished ninth -- and saw Pato O'Ward win twice and finish third in the championship standings, and two, it's obvious the Speedway fits his eye. Other than his 33rd-place finish in 2016, JPM has an average finish of 4.4 in his five other starts and while other than 2000 he hasn't qualified well but has always raced his way to the front.

Then there is Karam. Eight years ago, when he finished ninth at Indy in his first start at age 19, it looked like the start to a long, successful career. After winning the USF 2000 title in 2010, and an Indy Lights title in 2013, he was a guy on the rise, and his finish in 2014 was an indicator that he could be something special.

Then came 2015. Karam competed in 12 races for Chip Ganassi and earned a 5th at Fontana and a 3rd at Iowa, the latter coming in a spirited battle with Ed Carpenter down the stretch. He also had solid 12th-place finishes at Detroit and Texas, and was on his way to winning at Pocono before he was sidelined by an accident late in the race.

But for some reason, he's only run 11 IndyCar races since. Why is one of the most baffling questions I can think of, and while I know funding has been an issue, talent is not.

Admittedly, Sage in the past hasn't helped his own cause, carrying a little bit too big of a chip on his shoulder and perhaps alienating people who matter in the sport. 

What's aggravating to me as a fan of his, is that while he has shown a lot of maturity over the last couple of years, he's still being judged on his past. I've had several discussions with Sage since 2019, and I've found that he's way more mature than he was in his younger days, and just wants an opportunity to prove himself.

That chance is now. In 2019, he made it clear in an interview with myself and Mike Joachim of Pit Lane Parley was determined to finish the race. After his stellar rookie run, he posted four straight DNFs in a row, with all of them involving crashes, some of which were by his own volition. But three years ago, he did finish the race in P19, then followed with a P24 the next year.

Last year, it finally came to him, as he drove from his P31 starting spot to finish P7, his best finish in seven years. 

This year? Let's call it a harmonic convergence. In his past experiences with DRR, he has raced as a single-car entry, which left him at a huge disadvantage as he had no one to compare data with and no one to push him on track.

He's definitely found someone to push him, as hard-charging Santino Ferrucci will be joining him in 2022. I'm not going to lie, my feelings on Ferrucci are a bit mixed, but one thing's for sure, he knows the fast way around IMS and has finished P7, P4 and P6 in his three 500 starts.

He's going to push Karam for sure, and the two will be a formidable team, both from an information standpoint and a competitive one. The latter might be the most important, because both have shown that their competitive streaks are off the charts.

The big question I see is whether or not they can co-exist, but if it happens, either one can be a contender on race day.

Why do I want to see Karam win? Redemption, for one. I want him to prove that he's in a great place in his life and is ready for the opportunity at another full-time seat. The other, I want him in IndyCar, because IndyCar is better with him in it.

The latter statement is in jeopardy, unfortunately. Karam was pretty busy last year between rallycross and the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and this year he has already committed to several races in Xfinity in 2022. It seems like, for many reasons, stock cars may be in his future, which if he went that way and ultimately moved into some Cup events, he might be lost to stock cars for the rest of his career.

Which is sad. He's an open wheel guy and I think he wants to be an open wheel guy. But if the opportunities aren't there, no one can blame him for looking elsewhere. Winning the Indy 500? Yeah, not only would it change his life, it would finally give him the chance to shake his past and hopefully pick up a full-time IndyCar ride in the future.

All he needs is the chance to prove himself, and if everything falls into place, that can come sooner rather than later.

The Rumble Strip Podcast

First-time reader? Long-time reader who didn't know I had a podcast? Either way, check out my pod on Soundcloud. I've talked a lot of racing over the past couple of years, and I know you will find an episode that you will like. Look for a new episode to drop later this week!