INDIANAPOLIS – New cars, new teams and a new TV deal have highlighted what’s already been a wild Verizon IndyCar Series season. Just beyond the midway point of the season, there surely has been no shortage of story lines. Some good. Some not so good, and some yet to unfold. This is the first in a three-part series outlining what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong and what’s still to come in a 2018 season that’s lining up for a thrilling finish.
Future of the series secure
Helio Castroneves’ departure from the series was a sobering reminder that no matter how great a driver and ambassador, everyone’s time in IndyCar eventually comes to an end. And while that day has not come for Scott Dixon, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay or Sebastien Bourdais — who’ve shown the young guns a thing or two by winning six of nine races this season — it won’t be long before they, too, join Castroneves in a post-IndyCar life.
It should please them — and IndyCar fans, too — to know they will leave the series in capable, star-studded hands. Following in the footsteps of 2017 breakout star and reigning series champion Josef Newgarden is 2018 standout Alexander Rossi.
At times this season — Long Beach, Phoenix and Indianapolis to name a few — the Andretti Autosport driver has looked as though he’s on a different planet than his comrades, whipping his rocket ship into the smallest of openings and attempting maneuvers others dare not try. He stole the show at Phoenix with 53 on-track passes before zooming up from the last row to fourth at Indianapolis with an incredible combination of bravery and artistry.
Rossi’s series-leading five podiums and two poles have him in second place behind Dixon and on the cusp of his first championship.
Of course, IndyCar’s rich young blood runs deeper than just Rossi. Not far behind him in headline-swiping performances is Schmidt Peterson Motorsports super-rookie Robert Wickens. The 29-year-old former European touring car star has taken to Indy cars like few others before him.
Despite making his debut at nearly every track the series visits, Wickens has emerged as a legitimate threat to win at all of them. Following a pole run, he was robbed of the victory to match at the season opener in St. Petersburg. A few weeks later, wise Penske strategy forced him to settle for runner-up at Phoenix, and from there he’s continued to flourish. He earned rookie of the year honors at the 500 and has finished outside the top 10 only when he’s dealt with car issues (Long Beach) or been wiped out by another driver (St. Petersburg, Texas). It is that consistency that has him in the championship hunt and caused Power to vow: “He’s definitely a guy that will be a champion in IndyCar. I have no doubt in my mind.”
Meanwhile, Newgarden, 27, has backed up his championship campaign with a pair of early victories and Graham Rahal, 29, has consistently produced top-10s to stay in the title fight. Last year’s rookie of the year Ed Jones is one of just seven drivers to nab multiple podiums this year. The 23-year-old rebounded from a tough May to post three consecutive top-10 finishes – including a podium at Detroit – and has the future at Chip Ganassi Racing looking bright.
Andretti’s Zach Veach looks as if he’s only going to keep getting better, while Matheus Leist, Gabby Chaves, Zachary Claman De Melo, Kyle Kaiser and Jordan King have each proved they belong in an Indy car cockpit with impressive runs throughout the season. Remember, too, that talented Dale Coyne Racing rookie Pietro Fittipaldi is due back from injury – perhaps at Mid-Ohio – and IndyCar’s young depth has been something to behold so far this season.
But instead of drowning in that fear, Carlin Racing rose above it. Charlie Kimball qualified in Row 5 and Max Chilton in Row 7. While each endured a bit of bad luck mid-race and finished in the back of the field (Kimball 18th, Chilton 22nd), they completed 398 of 400 laps in what can only be seen as a successful 500 debut for Carlin Racing.
And things have only gotten better from there. Chilton picked up his first top 12 of the season at Detroit and followed it up with another in Texas. Kimball, meanwhile, recorded his second and third top-10 finishes of the season at the same events.
Carlin isn’t the only team enjoying a promising debut. While Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have yet to see the fruits of their labors result in a top 10, they’ve completed 1,186 of 2,000 laps this season — sixth in the series behind only Dixon, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, Newgarden and Marco Andretti. While results are what the team ultimately wants, Chaves’ steady hand has given Harding meaningful information to study and carry into next season.
Debut part-time teams, too, have fared well. In Jack Harvey’s three races with Meyer Shank Racing, he’s finished in the top half of the field twice, at Long Beach and Indianapolis. And at Indy, the team’s alternate strategy nearly yielded a runner-up finish. Finally, Kyle Kaiser’s qualifying on Row 6 at Indy was a huge confidence boost for Juncos Racing as it looks to build a full-time program.
IndyCar has worked tirelessly the past few years to inject new blood into the series. Not only did it aim to relieve some of the pressure from those owners who have carried it for years, but it also wanted to boost the competition. With the emergence of these four teams – and more on the horizon – there’s no doubt IndyCar’s expansion project has been a great success.
New car, no problems
Scott Dixon, of New Zealand, heads into Turn 1 during the IndyCar auto race Saturday, June 9, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. Dixon won the race. (AP Photo/Larry Papke) (Photo: Larry Papke, AP)
IndyCar President of Competition Jay Frye often likes to talk of checking boxes. Safe to say that halfway through the season, the new 2018 Indy car has hit most, if not all, of its marks.
At road and street course circuits, there seems little doubt the racing has taken a big step forward. Drivers have found the cars easier to maneuver in traffic and therefore generate more passes.
“They built a car that looks awesome and does everything they set out for it to do,” Power said. “It really is better racing and a better car. It’s more in the drivers’ hands.”
On ovals, there is a split among interested parties about whether the new kits are a step forward or backward. While there was not as much passing at Indianapolis or Texas as in the past, both races generated exciting moments and appear to have rewarded the teams that submitted the best combination of skilled driver, smart setup and sound strategy.
Is it the kind of heart-stopping racing some fans have become accustomed to? No, but that doesn’t mean 1) the series didn’t put on a good show; and 2) the racing won’t improve. Frye has noted repeatedly that this is Year 1 of these aero kits. Everyone will take what they’ve learned this year and apply it to next year’s race and be better for it.
On the topic of the new cars, it should also be mentioned that no driver has suffered serious injury during an IndyCar race, practice or qualifying session this season. Of course, IndyCar racing is inherently dangerous, and injuries will happen. But these cars have crashed every which way at incredible speeds and so far, every driver has walked away.
It should also be mentioned that despite recent success in preventing concussions, IndyCar revealed in May that it is at the forefront of professional sports in testing its athletes for head injuries. It also continues to take strides toward the adoption of the windscreen, which will enhance the safety of the sport.
A new home
From left, Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi and Mark Miles prepare for the 2017 ticket design unveiling at Cummins distribution headquarters on East Market Street in downtown Indianapolis, Feb. 16, 2017. (Photo: Jenna Watson/IndyStar)
Heading into the season, IndyCar’s growth looked promising. There were more teams, more sponsors, and more optimism surrounding the series than there had been in years. However, Graham Rahal wisely warned, if that fragile growth was not accompanied by a better TV deal, it would all go for naught.
Over the past decade IndyCar was in broadcasting purgatory, partnered with both ABC and NBC. It had no one place to call home and no one partner to help shoulder the responsibility of growing the series. But that’s all in the past now. IndyCar CEO Mark Miles and Co. announced in March a multi-year agreement with NBC that will not only bring all of IndyCar under one roof, but places eight of its championship races on network TV.
Along with the increased exposure for the series, IndyCar secured a partner that will put forth the full might of its considerable resources to help the series succeed.
“IndyCar just skyrocketed to the top of the properties you could be a title sponsor of because of all the continuity, the marketing, all the promotion that will be associated with it,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “An advertiser that’s looking to put their name and brand on this kind of environment would have to seriously consider looking at IndyCar.”
Winner of the102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 Will Power poses for photos with the Borg-Warner Trophy and the front page of the Indianapolis Star at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Monday, May 28, 2018. (Photo: Matt Kryger/IndyStar)
Despite four categories covering a lot of ground, there’s still plenty more that’s gone well. Here’s a brief look at some other positives from the first half of the season:
Will Power’s elusive victory: After years of chasing the 500 and coming up short, one of IndyCar’s greatest drivers began to believe he might one day walk away from the series without knowing what it would it feel like to drink the milk, wear the wreath and scream his head off in the winner’s circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But Power never let that doubt get the best of him, as he finally achieved immortality at Indy. Before his win, there was little question Power was one of the all-time greats, but his victory on Memorial Day weekend left no doubt.
The resurgent A.J. Foyt Racing: “They knew we were here.” That A.J. Foyt quote after the 500 says it all. It’s been years since the Foyt team fielded a legitimate contender at the place “that made A.J. Foyt,” but everyone knew his team was there this time. Tony Kanaan was fast and appeared poised to contend with Ed Carpenter and Power for the win before a tire puncture derailed his day. Kanaan would later crash, but the impressive run by his rookie teammate, Leist (13th), in his debut salvaged the day. As for the championship, Foyt still isn’t where it wants to be, but there’s little doubt the team is trending in the right direction.
Bourdais bounces back
Not only did the four-time Indy car champion return from a horrific accident at last year’s 500 in time to finish the season, he’s come back this year as if it had no ill effect on him whatsoever. The Frenchman kicked off the season with his second straight win at St. Petersburg. He followed that up with a fearless pole run on the oval at Phoenix and carried the flag for Honda during qualifying by earning a spot on the second row.
He also might be able to boast of both of the highlights of the year on and off the track. At Long Beach, his racing wizardry was a sight to behold, as he slithered around three cars, including Scott Dixon in an astounding flourish. The move was nullified by a penalty, which in part, led to Bourdais’ post-race rant for the ages, in which he called out just about everyone for being “idiots.” For those who didn’t evoke his wrath, it’s right up there with James Hinchcliffe’s wet suit for best off-track moment of the season.
Follow IndyStar Motor Sports Insider Jim Ayello on Twitter and Facebook: @jimayello.