Friday, September 29, 2023

Best of the Month: September 2023

Summer has become Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. Days are growing shorter. Nighttime is overtaking daylight. Simultaneously, championships are wrapping up. Some have already put a bow on 2023. We are getting 2024 calendars at a regular rate. Before we get to the future, let's stay in the past for one more moment.

IndyCar Tidbits
It has only been a few weeks, but it feels like the IndyCar season has been over for quite some time. It is amazing how quickly September moves. We have had a few minutes to process this past season, and we ave even had a few minutes to process next season, but we close this September taking the time to comb over what happened in 2023.

We take a look at some of the finer details to the season and place them into historical context. 

The Champion
Álex Palou had a historic IndyCar season. Palou became the first driver to win a championship with races in hand since Sébastien Bourdais' 2007 championship. Palou won five times. He had ten podium finishes with 14 top five results. His worst finish was eighth.

That alone should be enough to tell us how great Palou's season was, but let's go deeper than that. 

Palou scored 656 points, 78 points more than his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon in second. There were a maximum 929 points on the table this season, 54 points in 16 events with a maximum of 65 points available in the Indianapolis 500, 50 for victory, one for leading a lap, two for leading the most laps and 12 points for pole position. 

Palou scored 70.613% of the maximum possible points. Palou was the first driver to score more than 70% of the maximum points since Scott Dixon in 2008. Breaking 70% of maximum points was common in both the Indy Racing League and CART/Champ Car during the split, it happened ten times over the 24 seasons that took place during the split. In the first 17 seasons of CART, it only happened twice, Johnny Rutherford in 1980 and Rick Mears in 1981.

Five victories do not sound like many, but it is a tougher total to reach than you would think. Palou became just the fourth champion since reunifcation in 2008 to have at least five victories. His 29.411% winning percentage was the best since Dario Franchitti had the same in 2009. Palou's ten podium finishes were the most for a champion since Franchitti in 2010. 

Fourteen top five finishes were the most since Dixon's 14 in 2008. With a top five finish percentage of 82.352%, this was just the tenth time the champion finished in the top five in at least 80% of a season since 1979. 

But standing out even more is Palou finished in the top ten of every race. Since 1979, Palou is only the fourth champion to finish in the top ten of every race. Other include Rick Mears (1979), Rick Mears (1981) and Tony Kanaan (2004). 

The Locals
This was a strange year for the Americans. 

Americans combined for six victories, the seventh consecutive season American drivers have combined for at least five victories, but there were only two American winners. For all the American drivers in the series, it has been a long time since there was a great variety of American winners. 

This was the 13th consecutive season where at least two American drivers but no more than three American drivers won an IndyCar race. The last season with at least four American winners remains the 2003 Indy Racing League season when five American drivers won a race. 

Josef Newgarden led the way in victories with four and he was the top American in the championship in fifth. Americans did take three spots in the championship top ten, but two of those drivers did not win a race, Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta. Kyle Kirkwood won twice, and ended up 11th in the championship. 

Graham Rahal's best finish was second in the second Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race, the only winless American to finish second, but seven of the eight full-time American drivers finished on the podium this season. 

Newgarden's Race to 30
Though the season ended on a bit of down note, Josef Newgarden had a strong season in 2023. Newgarden won four races, including the Indianapolis 500. This was the fifth time in the last seven seasons Newgarden has won at least four races. Just doing the math, at least four victories in five seasons is a minimum of 20 victories. That is pretty good, and it is better than that. 

Newgarden ended 2023 with 29 career victories. How historic is that? He is tied with Rick Mears for 13th all-time. One more victory and Newgarden will be just the 12th driver to reach 30 victories in IndyCar history. Three more victories and Newgarden will take over sole possession of tenth all-time. 

For a driver who debuted in 2012, it is remarkable that in 12 seasons he is on the verge of entering the top ten all-time in victories, and he only turns 33 years old this December. He easily has another 12 seasons in him. 

As Newgarden approaches 30 career victories, he is approaching another milestone. The Tennesseean ended this season on 198 starts, two starts away from becoming the 29th driver to reach 200 IndyCar starts. With these two milestones in sight, it must be asked, how many drivers had 30 victories by their 200th start? Well...

Career victories at 200 IndyCar starts:
A.J. Foyt - 43
Sébastien Bourdais - 37 
Will Power - 35 
Al Unser - 34
Mario Andretti - 33 
Michael Andretti - 31

That's it. That's the list. Newgarden will have two shots to join this group.

Dixon's Unprecedented Accomplishment
Scott Dixon has accomplished a lot in his IndyCar career. 

Some things Dixon has done no one had ever done before. It is no longer surprise, but it is still remarkable nonetheless. This season was no exception. 

Through the first 13 races, Dixon had only led 13 laps this season. Then Dixon pulled off one of the most stunning fuel conservation drives after being caught in an opening lap accident in the second Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race to hold off Graham Rahal for victory. Lost in that victory was Dixon started 15th. This wasn't a case of Dixon clearly had a stellar car and had the pace to overcome the incident. He was solidly in the middle of the field at the start and still pulled off a mind-boggling strategy to win. 

At the next race, Dixon had to take a nine-spot grid penalty, knocking him down to 16th on the grid for Gateway. This car might have been better than his IMS road course car, but it would be difficult to comeback from the middle of the grid at Gateway. Yet, Dixon did it again! He again ran a three-stop race, conserving fuel and making time with one fewer pit stop. 

Forget winning consecutive races through pit strategy, Dixon won consecutive races while starting both from outside the top ten. 

How many times has a driver done that? 

The answer would be zero! It had never been done before! And of course, Scott Dixon was the first to accomplish it. 

However! Dixon wasn't done yet! He won Laguna Seca from 11th starting position, his third time winning from outside the top ten and his eighth time winning from outside the top ten in his career. No other driver has won from outside a top ten starting position more than four times, and Dixon has won double that total! 

But, not everything Scott Dixon does is historic. You may be thinking if no other has won more than four times when starting outside the top ten then nobody must have won three times from outside the top ten in a single season.

You would be wrong! 

Dixon is the second driver in IndyCar history to win three times from outside the top ten in a single season. Who was the first?

Dan Wheldon!

Wheldon won three times in 2005 when starting outisde the top ten. He opened the season with a victory from 11th at Homestead. Then he won from 16th in the Indianapolis 500 and the third was winning from 11th at Pikes Peak!

How many other times has a driver won at least two races in a season?

Johnny Aitken - 1916 (Cincinnati and Sheepshead Bay)
Jimmy Bryan - 1955 (DuQuoin and Phoenix)
Alex Zanardi - 1998 (Long Beach and Gateway)
Adrián Fernández - 2000 (Rio de Janiero and Surfers Paradise)
Ryan Hunter-Reay - 2014 (Indianapolis and Iowa)
Mike Conway - 2014 (Long Beach and Toronto)
Graham Rahal - 2015 (Fontana and Mid-Ohio)
Marcus Ericsson - 2021 (Belle Isle and Nashville)

Eight other times, plus Wheldon and Dixon, means on ten occasions in IndyCar history has a driver won multiple races from outside a top ten starting position in a season.

Power's 5,000 Laps Led
Laps led can be lost in the clutter of the season, especially because those milestones can be exceeded easily. A driver could enter a race six laps from a milestone, lead 200 laps at Iowa and then it doesn't look like he was ever close to that milestone mark.

In the case of Will Power, he surpassed the 5,000 laps led milestone in the second Iowa race. 

That makes Power the seventh driver to reach 5,000 laps led joining Mario Andretti, Scott Dixon, Michael Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Hélio Castroneves and Al Unser. 

I thought it would be fun to look at when Power reached certain laps led milestones on his way to 5,000 laps led. 

First lap led: 2006 Surfers Paradise Lap 1
100th lap led: 2007 Toronto Lap 67
500th lap led: 2010 Iowa Lap 20
1000th lap led: 2011 São Paulo Lap 52
2000th lap led: 2013 Fontana Lap 241
2500th lap led: 2014 Milwaukee Lap 154
3000th lap led: 2016 Toronto Lap 76
4000th lap led: 2019 Mid-Ohio Lap 7
5000th lap led: 2023 Iowa Lap 20

Quite interesting that Will Power's 500th lap led and his 5,000th lap led both occurred at Iowa on lap 20 of an Iowa race over 13 years apart. That's something.

Two Victories, Two Top Five Finishes
Kyle Kirkwood made his only little bit of IndyCar history with his first career victory at Long Beach. 

As touched upon in June, Kirkwood joined Buddy Lazier as the only drivers to have their first career IndyCar victory come in their 20th career start or later and have zero top five finishes prior to that victory. 

You would think that would be the only bit of history Kirkwood would make this season, but then he won at Nashville. Ten races after he stood on the top step of the podium in California, Kirkwood was on the top step of the podium in Tennessee, but the history was not made because of what Kirkwood did in the Music City. The history was what he did not do in that nine-race interim. 

After his victory in Long Beach, Kirkwood did not finish in the top five against until he won at Nashville.

Which begs the question, how many drivers have their first two top five finishes be race victories? 

Unlike the exclusive company Kirkwood joined with Lazier, there are a few more members of this club, but it is still an eclectic group nonetheless. 

Harvey Herrick
Dario Resta
Jack McGrath
Jim Hurtubise
Juan Pablo Montoya
Sébastien Bourdais

How about that for a collection of drivers?

Herrick won his first two career starts. He won on July 4, 1911 in Bakersfield, California. His next start was just over three months later. Herrick won on October 14, 1911 on the Santa Monica road course.

Just under four years later, Resta won his first two career starts. These races were held a week apart, both in San Francisco. Resta won the American Grand Prix on February 27, 1915. A week later, he won the Vanderbilt Cup race.

It would then be another 35 years until a driver had both his first two top five finishes be victories. McGrath won at Langhorne on June 25, 1950, his eighth career start. Two starts later, on September 9, 1950, McGrath picked up his second career top five finish, a victory in Syracuse. 

Almost a decade later, Hurtubise became the fourth driver to accomplish this. He won the 1959 season finale at Sacramento on October 25. It was Hurtubise' third career start. However, it would be nearly another eight months until that second top five finish, another victory occurred. This one was at Langhorne on June 19, 1960. 

It would be nearly 39 years until the fifth driver achieved this. Montoya did many historic things in his first stint in IndyCar, but he upped the game even here, because not only did Montoya have each of his first two top five finishes be victories, Montoya's first three top five finishes were victories, and they were consecutive victories at that. 

After finishing tenth and 13th in the first two races of his career, Montoya won at Long Beach, Nazareth and Rio de Janiero. In less than a month, from April 18 to May 15, Montoya did something no driver had ever done before in IndyCar history. 

Remarkable, right? How could anyone follow that?

Well... just over four years later, Bourdais had his first three top five finishes be victories. The Frenchman had a feast or famine start to his IndyCar career. After finishing no better than 11th in his first three career starts, Bourdais won at Brands Hatch and the Lausitzring. First two victories and first two top five finishes. In the next three races, Bourdais was ninth, 17th and 14th. What did he do on the night of July 5, 2003 from Cleveland? Bourdais won the race, his third career victory and his third career top five finish.

Kirkwood has another level of history he could make, and we should keep it in mind when the 2024 season commences.

Castroneves' Teammates
There was something that caught my attention when Linus Lundqvist made his IndyCar debut. Hélio Castroneves did have that many teammates in his IndyCar career. I didn't know the number when Lundqvist was announced as the driver of the #60 Meyer Shank Racing Honda at Nashville, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized Castroneves did not have many teammates, and Lundqvist was about to become his third new teammate in as many races. 

Driver turnaround was not a big thing during Castroneves' time at Team Penske. Counting in my head, there weren't many drivers who were his teammate, but I figured I would go through Castroneves' career, especially as he entered his second retirement from full-time IndyCar competition. How many teammates did Castroneves have in a career that dated back to 1998? 


Who were they?

Luiz Garcia, Jr. (1999)
Castroneves' first teammate came in his sophomore season at Hogan Racing in 1999. They were teammates for five races, only three of which Garcia, Jr. started. Those three races were Mid-Ohio, Vancourve and Laguna Seca. Garcia, Jr. did not join his fellow Brazilian on the grid at Chicago and Houston. 

Gil de Ferran (2000-03)
Switching to Team Penske for the 2000 season, Castroneves got another Brazilian teammate. This time it was Gil de Ferran, who joined Team Penske in 2000 from Walker Racing. For four seasons, de Ferran and Castroneves were teammates, starting 71 races together. 

Max Papis (2002)
Though de Ferran was Castroneves' teammate for four years, de Ferran did miss the 2002 Indy Racing League finale at Texas Motor Speedway after suffering a concussion at Chicagoland Speedway. Not cleared to race, Team Penske put Papis in the #6 Dallara-Chevrolet for the Texas finale. Papis suffered an engine failure and was classified in 21st.

Alex Barron (2003)
Another thing you may have forgotten happened in IndyCar history. Alex Barron raced for Team Penske. He made two starts during the ill-fated 1999 season, Michigan and Fontana, but Barron's final Penske start was at Twin Ring Motegi in 2003 after de Ferran suffered a back injury in practice. Barron was 17th after an accident. 

Sam Hornish, Jr. (2004-07)
After de Ferran retired, Team Penske did what Team Penske could do and hired the best driver on the grid not employed by Team Penske. Hornish was already a two-time champion when Penske hired him. In his four seasons as Castroneves' teammate, Hornish won another championship and Indianapolis 500, two things Castroneves did not do during that 64-race timeframe.

Ryan Briscoe (2008-12)
When Hornish, Jr. moved to NASCAR, Briscoe moved from the Porsche Penske American Le Mans Series program back to IndyCar. Briscoe and Castroneves would be teammates in 82 races.

Will Power (2009-20)
If it wasn't for Castroneves' tax problems, he and Power may have never been teammate. Power drove the #3 Penske entry for one race. Once Castroneves was acquitted, Castroneves moved back into the #3 entry while Power moved to the #12 entry. Power would become Castroneves' most frequent teammate, starting 144 races together. 

A.J. Allmendinger (2013)
After being left without of a NASCAR Cup ride when he was suspended for a failed drug test, Allmendinger got a chance to return to open-wheel racing. Allmendinger made six starts as Castroneves' teammate with his best finish being seventh in the Indianapolis 500.

Juan Pablo Montoya (2014-17)
In a stunning hire, Team Penske expanded back to three cars as Montoya returned to IndyCar for the first time in 14 years. The Colombian-Brazilian pair were teammates for 52 races. 

Simon Pagenud (2015-20, 22-23)
The only driver to be teammates with Castroneves at multiple teams, Pagenaud joined Team Penske in 2015. After three seasons together as full-time teammates, Castroneves was a one-off for three more years. After one season not together, Pagenaud and Castroneves reunited at Meyer Shank Racing, as Castroneves returned to full-time IndyCar competition. However, due to Pagenaud's injury at Mid-Ohio this year, their partnership was cut shots at 79 races together. 

Oriol Servià (2016)
Yep! Servià and Castroneves were teammates. Remember that race Will Power missed St. Petersburg due to an inner ear condition, and possibly also a concussion? Servià was the replacement for that one race. 

Josef Newgarden (2017-20)
Team Penske wasn't going to wait another moment and signed Newgarden to replace Montoya for the 2017 season. It paid off as Newgarden immediately won the championship. It was the only full season where Newgarden and Castroneves were full-time teammates. They spent 22 races together. 

Patricio O'Ward (2020)
Another one you may be going "oh, yeah!" about is Patricio O'Ward. Because Castroneves' first race after Team Penske was not his 2021 Indianapolis 500 victory with Meyer Shank Racing. It was the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October 2020. Castroneves filled in for an injured/mishandled Oliver Askew. Castroneves topped O'Ward in the first race, 20th to 22nd, but O'Ward was fifth in the second race while Castroneves was 21st. 

Jack Harvey (2021)
Now, onto Meyer Shank Racing. Harvey was waiting for Castroneves as Castroneves took a part-time role. Their partnership lasted six races. 

Conor Daly (2023) 
The first of three new teammates Castroneves had in 2023. Daly's first start was at Mid-Oho, the day after Pagenaud's accident. Daly returned for the Iowa doubleheader. 

Tom Blomqvist (2023)
Blomqvist made his IndyCar debut in Toronto, and in doing so, he became the first driver to make his IndyCar debut while teammates with Castroneves. Blomqvist would be back for two more races, Portland and Laguna Seca.

Linus Lundqvist (2023)
Three races after Blomqvist made his IndyCar debut as Castroneves' teammate, Lundqvist became the second driver to do it at Nashville. Lundqvist would run at the second IMS road course race and Gateway as Castroneves' teammate.

Castroneves may be stepping back from full-time IndyCar competition again, but he will still be making new teammates. Felix Rosenqvist is lined up to be #18 next May. 

Debutant Fastest Lap
Speaking of Linus Lundqvist, he made quite an impression in his first cameo in IndyCar race. Those three races earned him a ride with Chip Ganassi Racing for 2024. Before he even makes his first start with Ganassi, Lundqvist already has a piece of history. 

The Swede's first IndyCar start at Nashville edid not go the distant, but prior to Lundqvist hitting the barrier on exit of the final corner of the track, he ran a lap quick enough to earn him fastest lap on debut.

Who was the last driver to win fastest lap on debut?

Would you believe it was Hideki Mutoh in the 2007 Chicagoland Indy Racing League season finale, the final IRL race before reunification? Because that is the answer. Mutoh did it driving the #60 Formula Dream Dallara-Honda for Panther Racing. Mutoh skipped the Indy Pro Series finale at Chicagoland to run the IRL race because he was miles behind champion Alex Lloyd but could not be caught for second.  

How many other drivers have scored fastest lap on debut? Well, despite being a category that is listed in every box score and something that is promoted as being important, fastest lap is one of those things where record keeping is spotty. IndyCar doesn't even acknowledge who has the most fastest laps all-time. There isn't a fastest lap category in the record book to keep track of who stands where all-time. 

The best I could do was look through and find fastest lap for every race since the start of the 1993 season, and this is what the last 30 years tells us when it comes to debutant fastest laps.

Nigel Mansell - Surfers Paradise 1993
Buzz Calkins - Orlando 1996
Greg Moore - Homestead 1996
Sébastien Bourdais - St. Petersburg 2003
Hideki Mutoh - Chicagoland 2007
Linus Lundqivst - Nashville 2023

So the list of drivers to do it is Nigel Mansell, the winner of the inaugural Indy Racing League race, Greg Moore in the first CART race after the split, the only driver to win four consecutive IndyCar championships, Mutoh and Lundqvist. 

Talk about a selection of drivers. But do you know what Lundqvist has on all of them? Two starts later, he had fastest lap again! This time at Gateway. That is a category that belongs to Lundqvist on his own. However, Lundqvist's historic standing is going to face its first test early in 2024.

Tomas Scheckter didn't get his first fastest lap until the third start of his career, but Scheckter had three fastest laps in his first five starts. Scheckter had seven fastest laps in his first 12 career starts. That is the next measuring stick for Lundqvist. 

Good luck!

No Repeat Finishes?
Last year, I went all-in focusing on whether or not somebody could have a different finishing position in every race of the season, and it happened. Alexander Rossi had 17 different finishing positions in 17 races last season. 

In June, through the first eight races, six drivers had yet to repeat a finish:

Scott McLaughlin (13th, sixth, tenth, first, 16th, 14th, seventh, eighth)
Kyle Kirkwood (15th, 27th, first, 12th, 14th, 28th, sixth, ninth)
Felix Rosenqvist (19th, 26th, seventh, ninth, fifth, 27th, third, 20th)
Rinus VeeKay (21st, 11th, 26th, 16th, 13th, tenth, 18th, 12th)
Graham Rahal (sixth, 24th, 12th, 17th, tenth, 22nd, 25th, 11th)
David Malukas (tenth, fourth, 20th, 19th, 26th, 29th, 23rd, 27th)

How did it turn out? 

They all made it through nine races, but we lost three in Toronto. McLaughlin was sixth, VeeKay was 13th and Malukas was 20th. 

That left Kirkwood, Rosenqvist and Rahal. 

They all made it through Iowa, but Kirkwood then had to go out and win Nashville as we covered earlier and that took him out. That left Rosenqvist and Rahal standing with four races remaining. 

In the next race, Rosenqvist was 27th on the IMS road course. The Swede had been 27th at Indianapolis in May, but in the Indianapolis 500. 

Rahal was the last driver standing as second in that August IMS road course race was his 13th different finish. So how much longer could he go? 

Well, Rahal was 20th in the next race at Gateway, matching his 20th in the second Iowa race.

Nobody went 17-for-17 in 2023, but Rahal went the furthest, going 13 races without a repeat finish.

Guess Who Didn't Win? 
There are only 17 chances to win in an IndyCar season. With 27 drivers competing in each race, at best only ten or so drivers will end the season disappointed, but it isn't practical to think we will get 17 different winners. A vast majority of the drivers that compete in any given season will end winless. 

This year, there were a few notable names. But we aren't here to talk about them. We aren't here to speak about Will Power's first winless season since 2006 or Alexander Rossi or Colton Herta falling short. This isn't about Graham Rahal not over six years removed from his most recent victory and this isn't about what Romain Grosjean didn't do this season.

Did you notice who else didn't win this season? Look close at the record book. You are probably looking for a driver, maybe even a team. You are racking your brain trying to think of a strategist, chief mechanic or sponsors, but it is none of those things. 

But the answer is right there. 

Last season, the second starting position produced seven race winners, the most in the 2022 IndyCar season. How many winners started second this season?


We went from second being the most prolific position on the grid to one of 23 different starting positions that didn't win this season. But how did second go from on top to not even registering on the scoresheet? 

There isn't an obvious answer. It is not uncommon. Second didn't produce any winners in the 2015 season either, a year where the front row won only one race and the final 11 races of that season saw the winner never start better than eighth. Heck, second on the grid didn't produce any winners in 2014 either. 

The second starting position had a 52-race winless streak from the middle of 2013 through July 2016. Fittingly, Iowa was the location of the victory of second's last victory in 2013 before its next victory in 2016. 

Entering 2024, second will be 20 races removed from its most recent victory, a long way from that 52-race drought, but it will inch closer the longer this drought continues. 

October Preview
The IMSA GTP class has its top three cars covered by five points entering the Petit Le Mans season finale from Road Atlanta on October 14. Thirty-eight points cover the top four. Seventy-three points cover the top five, and 139 points cover the top seven teams. With 385 points on the table, all seven teams have a shot of winning the championship. 

The #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac of Pipo Derani and Alexander Sims leads the championship despite having only won the 12 Hours of Sebring and having only three podium finishes this season. The #31 Cadillac has 2,460 points, three more than the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport Acura, which has yet to win this season and has only three podium finishes. Winning the most recent IMSA race at Indianapolis has the #6 Porsche Penske Motorsport entry of Nick Tandy and Mathieu Jaminet in third, five points off. The #6 Porsche is one of two cars to win multiple races this season. 

The #25 BMW Team RLLR entry of Connor De Phillippi and Nick Yelloly has the most podium finishes this season, five with a victory at Watkins Glen, but the #25 BMW is 38 points back. The #7 Porsche Penske Motorsport entry of Matt Campbell and Felipe Nasr has finished on the podium in the last two races, and it won at Road America, but Campbell and Nasr are 73 points back. 

Meyer Shank Racing is the other team with multiple victories this season, but the team's 200-point penalty for data manipulation found after the #60 Acura's victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona has Colin Braun and Tom Blomqvist sixth in the championship, 127 points off the championship lead. The #60 Acura's four podium finishes is also second most this season. Without the 200-point penalty, the #60 Acura would be leading the championship by 73 points entering the Petit Le Mans season finale.

Chip Ganassi Racing has an outside chance at the championship. The #01 Cadillac of Sébastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande is 139 points back. The highlight for the team is a Laguna Seca victory, but that is the team's most recent podium finish and it happened five races ago. 

GTP isn't the only close championship in IMSA. 

In LMP2, Mikkel Jensen and Steven Thomas have a 20-point lead over Paul-Loup Chatin and Ben Keating. Ben Hanley and George Kurtz are 100-points back in third. 

However, some championships are decided or practically decided already.

Gar Robinson should clinch his second LMP3 championship by simply starting Petit Le Mans. 

Due to the lack of GTD Pro entries, the #14 Lexus of Ben Barnicoat and Jack Hawksworth will clinch that championship once the green flag waves at Road Atlanta. The #14 Lexus has two victories, nine podium finishes and its worse finish is fourth this season. 

Paul Miller Racing has already clinched the GTD championship. Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow has a 405-point lead over Roman De Angelis and Marcos Sørensen with one race remaining. Sellers and Snow have won five races this season.

Other events of note in October:
Formula One will make a stop in Qatar before visiting North America. 
MotoGP continues hoping around the Asia-Pacific region.
Petit Le Mans isn't the only endurance race. There is the Indianapolis 8 Hours, Bathurst 1000 and a pair of European Le Mans Series races from Portimão to close that season. 
The World Superbike title will be decided at the end of the month. 
At the end of this month, we will know which four drivers could win the NASCAR Cup Series championship. 

Thursday, September 28, 2023

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Dale Coyne Racing's 2023 Season

Our fourth 2023 IndyCar Wrap-Up takes us to everyone's favorite plucky underdog, Dale Coyne Racing. Illinois' only IndyCar team again provided us with some inspiring results and showed the little guys can fight with the big boys on any given day. However, the results showed it is still far from competing with the bigs on every damn day. With the youngest driver lineup on the grid, Coyne's two drivers experienced hardship, but one significantly more than the other.

David Malukas
For his sophomore season, Malukas returned to Dale Coyne Racing with firm expectations on competitiveness. It might not have been as rosy as his rookie season, but Malukas displayed flashes of skill and others noticed, including top-tier teams. However, there were greater rough patches than 2022 that cannot be ignored.

What objectively was his best race?
Malukas has a fondness for Gateway, and in what was his second IndyCar start around the 1.25-mile oval this summer, Malukas earned his second podium finish at the circuit. It was a spot worse than last season, but third ended up being the Illinoian's best result of the season. Malukas went on a charge late to third, but he spent much of this race in the top ten and top five. 

What subjectively was his best race?
Gateway is the answer, but a few other races deserve recognition. Malukas was fourth at the Texas race, and he spent a good portion of that race in the top ten and the top five. He didn't quite look capable of winning, but he was holding his own against some top teams, and it was only his second visit to Texas. His oval experience is still less than most, but he never looked out of place.

Besides Texas, Mid-Ohio deserves a mention because he finished sixth in that race after being on a slump since Texas. His best finish in the prior six races was 19th. At Mid-Ohio, he went forward, finishing sixth, six spots better than where he started. It was a solid drive.

Iowa should also be mentioned, specifically the second Iowa race. He spent the entire race in the top ten, and got a few spots on the last restart to finish eighth.

What objectively was his worst race?
Minor contact took Malukas out of the Indianapolis 500, leaving him 29th, but it was not a standout day prior to the contact either.

What subjectively was his worst race?
This isn't on Malukas, but the engine fire at Nashville that caused a rear wing failure at Nashville ended a promising day right when it was getting started. Malukas started fifth and hopes were high before the car let him down.

David Malukas' 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 17th (265 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 6
Laps Led: 4
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 15.765
Average Finish: 16.353

Sting Ray Robb
After spending six seasons on the Road to Indy, Robb turned his vice-championship Indy Lights season in 2022 into a full-time rookie IndyCar season in 2023. For a driver who historically takes a few seasons to develop in a race car, Robb's rookie season matched that trend and leaves him with a lot of room for growth if he has an IndyCar future.

What objectively was his best race?
That would be the final race of Robb's rookie season. As many other drivers were caught in accidents, Laguna Seca was the one race Robb kept his nose clean and avoided any trouble. That earned the Idahoan 12th to end his rookie season on a high note. 

What subjectively was his best race?
It is by far Laguna Seca. Nobody would have batted an eye if Robb had clipped somebody in that race and ended up finishing 18th. It wasn't a spectacular 12th-place finish. It was more "oh, Robb's in 12th" kind of finish and it didn't really impress anyone, but it is still his best finish. 

Also consider prior to this weekend, his best finish was 16th, and that was at St. Petersburg, where he suffered damaged from the opening lap accident after contact with Simon Pagenaud, spent much of the race multiple laps down and then pulled off the track with four laps remaining. 

Lead lap finishes were infrequent for Robb. First was Road America, where he finished 18th, and then at Nashville, where he finished 17th before Laguna Seca. I guess the days he went the distance are the bright spots.

What objectively was his worst race?
An accident on lap 90 of the Indianapolis left him classified in 31st. It was the first caution of the race. Robb had not been competitive up to that point, and he was caught on the outside of turn one when Graham Rahal was passing him. Robb was caught in the marbles and hit the barrier. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
Indianapolis deserves a special mention because Robb opened his mouth and sounded like a fool after the accident. He heaped the blame on Rahal, but after watching the replays, it was clear Rahal made a good pass and Robb got caught on the outside. Robb wasn't forced up due to a questionable move. Robb put himself there and then looked to pin blame on someone else. 

This one isn't on Robb, but the pit crew blunder in the second Iowa race letting Robb go on track when they knew a wheel nut was not secured on a tire was indefensible. It led to a rightful disqualification, but frankly there should have been a greater penalty to the team. That was a massive safety hazard created when it shouldn't have been the case. 

Sting Ray Robb's 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 30th (53 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Laps Led: 1
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 24.235
Average Finish: 22.176

An Early Look Ahead
Malukas is heading to Arrow McLaren and Robb's future remains uncertain, and yet there are no concerns over Coyne's 2024 season. 

Dale Coyne Racing lives in fluctuation, and it finds a way to keep its head above water. The team knows drivers are only hanging around for a short-time, and it would prefer a driver only staying for a year or two. Coyne doesn't have the money to keep a promising talent nor does it have the funds to make a splashy hire. It is IndyCar's moneyball team, IndyCar's Oakland Athletics. 

Engineering changes might have set the team back this year, but Coyne's guys develop. It has regularly experienced shakeups over the last few seasons and yet it has at least one podium finish in eight consecutive seasons and it has had at least one top five result in 14 consecutive seasons. Prior to 2009, the team had ten total top five finishes in its first 25 seasons of competition. 

The one rumor is Romain Grosjean may return. Grosjean had his best IndyCar success at Dale Coyne Racing. The team is different than his previous season with DCR in 2021, but perhaps it is the right combination for both driver and team. Perhaps it is the unlikely partnership that sparks success neither could achieve with anyone else. It isn't certain that is happening, it might not happen at all, but it would be an exciting development this IndyCar offseason. 

However, Coyne is open to anybody with a budget. Grosjean isn't bring much of anything. It worked in 2021, but it could be the deciding factor. 

Moving on from Robb would surprise no one. The results were bad. There wasn't a redeeming race in 2023 that warranted another chance in 2024. 

Of course, if the money is good enough, the partnership will continue, but Coyne knows there are plenty of talented drivers out there who could get more of those cars. It could be someone from Europe. It could be Danial Frost. It could be somebody we have never heard of. With Dale Coyne Racing, nobody can be entirely crossed off.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Juncos Hollinger Racing's 2023 Season

The third 2023 IndyCar Wrap-Up looks at a pleasantly exciting team from the 2022 season, Juncos Hollinger Racing, and JHR had more to be excited about this season. The team expanded to two cars for 2023, keeping Callum Ilott after a notable rookie season, but it brought in a new driver from a pathway that has no history of producing any IndyCar drivers. One of the biggest question marks of the season turned out to be another exciting outcome for JHR, but pace was still lacking.

Callum Ilott
After flashes of speed last season, Ilott returned for a sophomore season looking to make more headway to the front of the grid and translating good qualifying results into good finishes. The flashes were non-existent in 2023, but Ilott still drew respectable results for one of the smallest and newest teams on the grid.

What objectively was his best rottace?
In the St. Petersburg season opener, Ilott started 22nd, but he avoided the mess and climbed his way to a top five finish, the first of his career. That is how Ilott started his season. 

How did he finish his season? He was fifth at Laguna Seca in a race where he missed the mess and he was the mess, spinning on his own entering the pit lane and having some contact with others, and he still finished fifth! 

What subjectively was his best race?
The Indianapolis 500 was in question for Ilott for most of practice and into qualifying. Juncos Hollinger Racing could not quite get the car dialed in and it looked like Ilott would be in danger of missing the race. The team proactively changed to the backup car, and it was the right move, as Ilott ended up qualifying 27th, which had more speed than his primary car had shown throughout the entire practice week.

During the race, Ilott kept moving forward, and he benefitted from some of the late accidents, but Ilott ended up finishing 12th, completing all 200 laps.

What objectively was his worst race?
Ilott ran into the back of Kyle Kirkwood at the start of the Detroit race and his race was over after one lap, placing him 27th, but Detroit wasn't his only 27th-place finish of the season. Ilott was 27th at Gateway after a brushing the wall. It felt like Ilott was going to finish in the top fifteen and had an outside shot of slipping into the top ten.

What subjectively was his worst race?
It does not get much worse than Detroit, but besides that one incident, Ilott's biggest issue, and JHR's issue in general, was the team's general lack of pace. Unlike 2022, where JHR had a few breakout weekends, JHR did not have that. Ilott was starting toward the rear of the field on a regular basis. He made up positions in most races, but he was not breaking into the top ten. It was good to be gaining seven to nine positions a race, but that was just getting him into the top fifteen.

Callum Ilott's 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 16th (266 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 3
Laps Led: 5
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 19
Average Finish: 15.294

Agustín Canapino
A veteran driver from the domestic Argentina motorsports scene, everyone had an eye on Canapino wondering how he would adapt and expecting him to be a liability. He was far from that, holding his own in his first real open-wheel experience against drivers who have spent their entire racing careers in single-seater cars. It wasn't a great season but it was better than almost anyone imagined.

What objectively was his best race?
Canapino had three finishes of 12th, including two in the first two races at St. Petersburg and Texas. The next one was at Detroit. 

What subjectively was his best race?
All three of those races were worthy of being mentioned. St. Petersburg was his first IndyCar race and only the second weekend in an open-wheel race. Expectations were low and he was on pace, keeping the car out of the barriers. But Texas was his first oval race and he was in his element despite such an unordinary setting. He made it to the checkered flag and never put a wheel wrong. 

The Indianapolis 500 should be mentioned because Canapino was the top running rookie for a good portion of the race and looked set to potentially take Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors before he ran into the back of Simon Pagenaud while the field was slowing for the Patricio O'Ward accident. This ended Canapino's race.

What objectively was his worst race?
Along with 26th at Indianapolis, he was 26th at Barber Motorsports Park, in the second Iowa race and Portland. He did finish on the lead lap at Barber, but he brushed the barrier in the Iowa race and ended up 14 laps down. A mechanical failure spin Canapino off course at Portland and ended his day. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
Indianapolis was a missed opportunity. It is really Canapino's only major mistake this season. The entire end of the "500" was messy and incoherent, but a slight lapse of concentration took him out of the race and ended what was a great day otherwise.

Agustín Canapino's 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 21st (180 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Laps Led: 3
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 22.235
Average Finish: 19.706

An Early Look Ahead
For all the excitement behind this team, next month's Argentine general election will be the most important Argentine general election in IndyCar history. 

Questions loom over whether the Argentine tourism money will continue with the team for next year. This also factors into whether or not IndyCar has a race in Argentina, which has been rumored for the last year. One domino falling in Buenos Aires will set off a reaction in Indianapolis. 

As much praise as Canapino earned for his rookie season in IndyCar, we must remember he scored only 180 points from 17 starts, about 10.588 points per start. His average finish was 22.235. He did well for a driver who never raced full-time in an single-seater car prior and was moving to a new series in a new country at 33 years old, but Canapino is far from being a top ten contender. I don't know if IndyCar is the best way to draw tourists to Argentina, but it would be an easy expense to pull the plug on.

If that is the case, where does it leave JHR? 

The team sounds set with Ilott for another season, but that Argentina money was helping the team across the board. The Brit should be safe, but the second seat will remain in question, and if the Argentina money does not return, Ilott may also be in jeopardy. It is difficult to see Canapino raising the funds to remain if Argentina pulls out. Ricardo Juncos was fond of bringing his fellow Argentine to America. If Canapino is out of a ride, will Juncos decide it is best for the team to turn its focus to one car or will he try and keep two cars on the grid.

Two cars did not yield substantially better results. Qualifying results did take a dip. One car might still be the right number for JHR. 

Ilott is likely heading into his final year with JHR. He has done well with the organization, but thinking he is going to stick around for a fourth season in 2025 is difficult to fathom. His stock didn't fall after the 2023 season, but it was high after 2022 and with the likes of Chip Ganassi Racing expanding to five cars with three drivers 24 years or younger, David Malukas moving to Arrow McLaren, Andretti Autosport possibly downsizing to three cars and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing possibly set with Christian Lundgaard, Graham Rahal and Jüri Vips as the clubhouse leader for the #30 entry, Ilott might have missed an opportunity for a promotion to a top tier team. 

Unanswered questions are always present for a small team, but the ones facing JHR entering 2024 are uncomfortable to answer, and they may become an even greater challenge as we get deeper into the offseason. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

2024 IndyCar Schedule Response

Yesterday, IndyCar's 2024 calendar was released to the world, and it was met with... well... it was not welcomed with open arms. There were changes, some people have long professed to want, but it comes with a loss and a few shifting pieces. 

It has been nearly a day since the 2024 schedule was released, and after having some time to think about it, the time has come to look over every bit of the schedule. 

We will go round-by-round.

Round One - St. Petersburg - March 10
Usual stomping grounds for the season opener, St. Petersburg host the first race of 2024 as Northern Hemisphere is on the verge of spring. We will get our familiar sights of warmth while most the Northern Hemisphere begins to thaw out. We have been doing it for 20 years. St. Petersburg will be embraced after such a lengthy break.

Exhibition - The Thermal Club - March 24
Not a championship race, but something to fill the early spring gap that has plagued the IndyCar schedule for years, the $1 million exhibition race from The Thermal Club in Palm Springs, California will be something different but keeps IndyCar on the scene. 

The question is will a $1 million race draw viewers who do are already not watching the same drivers competing in IndyCar when the prize money is a fraction but the results count toward the championship and record book? 

If people are not watching these races and these drivers now, why will a $1 million prize be the difference? 

Round Two - Long Beach - April 21
There might be an event in late March, but there will be 42 days between championship races for IndyCar. Even with the Thermal Club exhibition race, there will still be 28 days between IndyCar events at two venues that are only about two and a half hours apart. It is difficult to call that progress.

Round Three - Barber Motorsports Park - April 28
Things start to get moving in late April as Barber Motorsports Park follows Long Beach immediately, the first of four occasions where races are run on consecutive races weekends.

Round Four - Grand Prix of Indianapolis - May 11
The Grand Prix of Indianapolis remains in its traditional spot 15 days before the Indianapolis 500. It should be noted here that this will be the lone IndyCar race around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. This feels like the better date for an IMS road course race. It is a great way to kick off the month of May, and it has turned into an event with a healthy turnout as well.

Round Five - Indianapolis 500 - May 26
Memorial Day weekend Sunday. No changes. Makes sense.

Round Six - Detroit - June 2
Detroit remains the weekend after the Indianapolis 500, a familiar thing for the last decade-plus now. This will be the second year on this iteration of the downtown road course.

Round Seven - Road America - June 9
Moving up a few weeks is Road America, and this is likely done to accommodate other shifts in the schedule, one of them likely being the Olympic break that will occur in late July and into August. It is not that big of a shift, but it does create a three-consecutive week stretch of races and five consecutive weekends at the racetrack when Indianapolis 500 practice and qualifying is taken into considering. This date does allow IndyCar to be off on 24 Hours of Le Mans weekend, which will be the week after.

Round Eight - Laguna Seca - June 23
After four seasons in September, Laguna Seca moves to the start of June as Nashville becomes the season finale. It is a leap for Laguna Seca, and after the lack of a crowd when the race was the season finale, what kind of audience will it draw smack-dab in the middle of the IndyCar season? 

For those nervous about the weather considering this race will be held in California in the early days of summer, have no concerns. Laguna Seca's location in relation to the Pacific coast will keep the conditions rather marvelous for a day at the track. We will still likely see the marine layer delay prevent the medical helicopter from arriving at the circuit for the morning warm-up. 

Round Nine - Mid-Ohio - July 7
Mid-Ohio keeps its Independence Day weekend date, those Independence Day is a Wednesday next year. Either way, it is a trip to central Ohio for IndyCar at the start of July.

Round Ten & Eleven - Iowa Speedway - July 13-14
Iowa flips forward a few weeks to avoid the Olympics, but this weekend will look different as the Saturday Iowa race is said to be a night race while the Sunday race will remain in the afternoon. 

There are a few questions that will be answered in due time. 

For starters, what time is this Saturday night race? Is it truly night or is it actually a dusk race due to the time zone? The Saturday Iowa race is said to be broadcasted on NBC. I doubt NBC is giving IndyCar a 9:00 p.m. Eastern start time. The 11:00 p.m. local news will not want to be delayed. Perhaps it is 8:00 p.m. Eastern. Either way, those start times would mean the actually race would hardly take place after dark. Sunset on July 13 this year was 8:46 p.m. local. 

Even if it is a night race, it will likely mean a tight turnaround for the teams. Let's say the race is finished at 9:30 p.m. local time. A Sunday race will likely start between 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. local the next day. That is 16-17 hours later, but that isn't taking into consideration all the work the teams have to do post-race, from inspection to repairs to tearing a sponsor wrap off a car to packing the thing up for the night and then driving back to the hotels. It will likely be closer to 12:30 a.m. by the times the crews get back to their rooms, and they aren't going to immediately fall asleep. 

Everyone wanted Iowa to have a night race. Be careful of what you wish for.

Round 12 - Toronto - July 21
The final race before the Olympic break is Toronto, the fourth race in a 14-day period. It will be an exhausting summer stretch for the teams, but they will at least have 27 days until they have to race against.

Round 13 - Gateway - August 17
After the Olympic break, IndyCar returns for its second of two night races of the season, with Gateway returning to a Saturday night window.

Round 14 - Portland - August 25
The season finale shakeup doesn't disrupt Portland too much. It does get moved up a week to the final weekend of August instead of Labor Day weekend. I don't know how much moving from the holiday weekend could help or hurt the event. 

The season finale change does have Portland sticking out like a sore thumb as the second of three consecutive race weekends, between two oval tracks that are in Illinois and Wisconsin. Portland, Oregon is certainly a detour to get from the outskirts of St. Louis to the outskirts of Milwaukee.

Round 15 & 16 - Milwaukee Mile - August 31-September 1
And here is the unkept secret! Milwaukee will return to the IndyCar schedule for the first time in nine seasons, and it will be a doubleheader race weekend. It will be the penultimate weekend of the season. It will round out a four-race in 15-day stretch for IndyCar.

Round 17 - Nashville - September 15
Finally, the season finale, which we have known about for a few weeks. Nashville caps off the season on a new street course as the finish line shifts to the other side of the Cumberland River while the track will run on a section of the famed Broadway that cuts through the heart of the city. 

The Elephant Not in the Room
There was some belief IndyCar and Texas Motor Speedway would find a date on the 2024 calendar. At 9:00 a.m. Eastern on Monday, though there were days of preparing for this outcome, it was still rather stunning to see the 1.5-mile oval omitted from the IndyCar calendar after being a fixture since 1997. 

It is a significant change for IndyCar, even if attendance had cratered for the event in the last few years. Once considered a dependable race on the IndyCar schedule, Texas' absence is a shock and will require an adjustment to a series that has become familiar with visiting the Dallas-area at least once a year. 

It is a very odd spot for IndyCar to be in. It is no longer racing in the state that has four of top ten largest cities in the United States. Texas is the second most populous state. Texas was the go-to test track for teams during the offseason, especially when a driver needed to be approved to run ovals. With Texas gone, it doesn't have a fallback that isn't Indianapolis, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn't an ideal testing grounds in February or March. 

This will be the first time since 1964 the only oval on the schedule at least 1.5 miles in length will be Indianapolis. 

However, would it really have been better to run Texas in the weekend between Milwaukee and Nashville? It would have been the opening weekend of the NFL season. NASCAR raced at Texas this past weekend and it was pushing 100º F. IndyCar running September 8, even if the temperatures were 15º F cooler would not change much in terms of the attendance we saw the last few years when the race was held in the comfortable conditions of spring. 

It is difficult to imagine this is just a one-year thing. This feels like the Band-Aid has been torn away and cannot be reapplied. If there wasn't enough of an appetite to figure out how IndyCar and Texas could remain together in 2024, will there really be any juice to get back together in 2025? 

The Crazy Thing
Two months ago, if you had told the IndyCar fanbase there would be six oval races on the 2024 calendar, a  great percentage would be thrilled. 

There will be six oval races on the 2024 IndyCar schedule, and yet most are angry at the race that isn't there. It is understandable and frustrating that IndyCar cannot have notable growth. It is always an exchange. Phoenix for Fontana. Gateway for Milwaukee. Milwaukee for Texas. 

There hasn't really been any growth in IndyCar in nearly 30 years. The Split gave the false impression of growth. The Indy Racing League needed tracks and so Richmond, Kentucky, Pikes Peak, Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta and even Texas hosted events, but truth be told none were ever really going to host IndyCar without the fracturing of the series. We had two series and over 30 races, but nearly half of those events were deadweight. 

As we get closer to the middle of the 2020s, IndyCar is in the same spot it was in the middle of the 1990s. It isn't all old. There are a few new pieces around, but for the most part, the landscape looks exactly the same. The only difference is there is no sight of any new location on the horizon. 

The Harsh Reality About IndyCar's Oval Problem
Even if Texas had found a spot on the calendar at the beginning of September, it likely would not have been a successful event beyond the heat and football conflict. If IndyCar went to Texas in September, it likely would have been just IndyCar competing. The NASCAR Truck Series race likely would not have continued on that weekend. Not that the NASCAR Truck/IndyCar combination was bringing out the masses, but IndyCar running on its own would have been a disaster of a weekend. 

I remember when at Pocono over a seven-and-a-half-hour period on Saturday was two hours of practice and single-car qualifying with some historic cars turning hot laps were the only thing on the schedule followed by a race day schedule that included those same historic cars doing more hot laps before just the IndyCar race. 

An IndyCar oval weekend lacks a lot to draw people out. Texas would have been the same as Pocono and drawn about 300 fans on Saturday. It is not worth it, and it is one of the many reasons why IndyCar oval weekends do not make it. 

Iowa and Milwaukee are doubleheaders to make the weekend worth it. Throw in some concerts in Iowa, and I bet we will see something similar at Milwaukee as well, and then the weekend becomes worth it to race fans and non-race fans. Throw in some Indy Lights and you get a little more racing variety into your weekend.

That is what it takes in the 2020s to have a respectable oval weekend worthy of a spectator's time and money. IndyCar cannot just show on its own and think three hours of track activity mixed in with five hours of nothing will be good enough on a Saturday. Road and street courses do not have this problem because they are constantly filled with action. IndyCar has been struggling to come up with an answer for this void on oval weekends for quite some time. The series needs its own traveling circus to fill the bill.

Concerts are one solution but a weekend like Iowa is hard, and expensive to replicate, but when it comes to motorsports there is Indy Lights that can help. I thought for years IndyCar should make a deal with Stadium Super Trucks to its support series at every oval weekend. Maybe IndyCar should call Tony Stewart and work to get SRX to run a pair of races during some of its IndyCar weekends. 

There is a lack of great oval options though. ARCA is poor quality. USAC doesn't quite have the following to draw people out. Stadium Super Trucks competes far less than it did five years ago. It has only run two events this year, Long Beach and Nashville. However, an IndyCar oval weekend needs at least three support series to keep the track busy. Either that or an oval weekend must be a doubleheader like we have with Iowa and will get with Milwaukee. 

The Lack of Larger Ovals
The hard thing to get my head around is IndyCar has the Indianapolis 500, and in the DW12-era we have seen spectacular races at Indianapolis with an unseen number of passes and close finishes in the first 100 years of the Indianapolis 500. It is hard for IndyCar to put on a race like that as its big showcase event every year and then never do it again all season. 

If you got hooked on the speed and precision driving at 220 miles per hour well, you will have to wait until next year to see it. 

That is a problem for IndyCar. 

IndyCar loves to sell speed. You have likely seen the souvenir "Speed Limit 241 MPH" t-shirt sold and worn at IndyCar events for the last 20-25 years. That type of race only happens once a season now. It is hard for IndyCar to use those breathtaking speed as the spine to its identity when you only see it for one race a year. 

There aren't going to be 12 races like Indianapolis each year, nor should there be that many, but the number must be greater than one. 

It is not as easy as going to a big track and just having people show up or tune in. If it was that simple, we wouldn't have lost Texas after years of a steady decline in attendance. I went to Pocono every year during its recent stint on the calendar. Attendance was never awe-inspiring, but I saw it go from great year one, fluctuating years two and three, but rising once it settled in late August put on some staggering races. 

There is also the uncomfortable part about Pocono where Justin Wilson lost his life and in consecutive years there was a lengthy red flag for an accident in the opening laps after a car got in the catchfence, and one of those accidents left Robert Wickens paralyzed and significantly altered his racing career, effectively ending his full-time stint as an IndyCar driver after only 14 races. 

Speed is intoxicating and exciting and pulls an emotion out of a person that only a rush of adrenaline can produce. And yet, speed also kills, making us reconsider everything we love and enjoy in our lives. 

IndyCar cannot afford to be killing or seriously injuring drivers. The 21st century does not have a taste for watching people they love, even if it is only as a bystander and not someone with a shared tangible relationship, die. 

The series is always making adjustments to prevent fatalities and injuries. Neither will ever be completely eliminated from motorsports, but even one fatality every five years is too many in this day and age. 

How can IndyCar increase its large ovals beyond its biggest race of the year and providing the audience with enough of a hit so they are full without overdoing it and increasing the odds someone will have to watch their favorite driver have their career cut short? 

There is a right number out there. I thought the Indianapolis-Fontana-Pocono combination with the inclusion of Texas was right on the money but with room for one more. But just showing up does not guarantee success for IndyCar and the series must put in the work to make any new event, especially larger ovals, a success. 

Along with the announcement of 17-race calendar, the television networks were released for each race. Start times will come at a later date.

Everyone picked up on a decrease of network NBC races for the 2024 season, dropping to nine from 13 in 2023. USA will show six races, up from three, and Peacock will have two exclusive races, the Toronto race for a third consecutive year and the first Milwaukee race.

However, I think people are missing the strategy behind some of these decisions. IndyCar did have 13 network NBC races, but think about the number of races that went head-to-head with NASCAR Cup races on USA. 

What we are likely going to see if IndyCar races packaged with NASCAR events on USA. Gateway will likely run after a NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Saturday August 17. The second Milwaukee race will be the same day as the Southern 500. It will create a window of racing on USA from about 2:00 p.m. Eastern through almost 11:00 p.m. ET. Heck, the Laguna Seca race on June 23 will likely even be a lead-in to whatever the first race of the NBC portion of the NASCAR season is next year, likely Nashville. 

It is easy to see less NBC races and think the sky is falling, but I think people are missing the strategy being used and are neglecting that these changes could help IndyCar. 

In Conclusion
It is understandable to feel a little disappointed over this calendar. Any time a race is lost and it is not to make way for a clearly more successful race will be a bummer. Even with all the changes to the IndyCar calendar and the new events that will come in 2024, there are still a lot of flaws in the schedule that it feels like the series is not addressing. It isn't even papering over the cracks. In a way, it feels like the series plan to address the holes in the schedule is by creating new ones to distract you from the ones that already exist. 

That is a terrible strategy. 

The series is not blind to the problems in its schedule, but this feels like a missed opportunity to make improvements even if it was only making improvements with the races that already existed on the schedule. 

This is another case of kicking the can a little further down the road and hoping 2025 will be better, and it really should be better. There will not be a forced month off due to the Olympics. There will be another year to figure out what the hell the series is doing in early spring. It will be a chance to iron out the calendar, and yet, IndyCar's recent history tells us we will just end up hoping for better come 2026.

For all the gloom around this calendar, I still think it is a fine collection of races. Once the series gets to Long Beach, it will be a whirlwind of races. There will be IndyCar competing on track for seven of eight weekends starting April 21. IndyCar will have a weekend even in 11 of 14 weekends prior to the Olympic break. Then after the Olympic break, IndyCar is competing on four of five weekends to close the season. 

There will not be a Texas race but there will still be six oval races, more than 2023, and Milwaukee is back, which as much as people resent it now they were clamoring for constantly for the last year since Roger Penske started publicly flirting with the Wisconsin State Fair board of directors. 

The schedule still has Road America. It still has Laguna Seca, which has produced some fantastic races since it returned to the calendar. There will be two night races where people were demanding, and the season finale finally feels like it is a big event with Nashville capping off the season. 

It is ok to be disappointed and wanting more, but anger should not blind you for the positives that exist. 

Monday, September 25, 2023

Musings From the Weekend: There is Room for Texas

Here is a rundown of what got me thinking...

MotoGP had an eventful first trip to India, on and off the track.  Formula One returned to its regular outcomes in Suzuka. The Red Bull game of musical chairs is just beginning. It was scorching in Texas as a milestone was reached. There were some technical infractions in Sebring. A new champion was crowned after an all too common occurrence in 2023. Chip Ganassi Racing is expanding to five cars because of money. However, it was the unexpected news that caught my attention and must be addressed, as we are hours away from 2024 IndyCar schedule being released. 

There is Room for Texas
There are 52 weekends a year. IndyCar only races on 16 weekends. There is no explicable reason why Texas Motor Speedway should not be on the 2024 IndyCar calendar, but last week we found IndyCar was on the verge of seeing the event fall off the schedule because neither side could find a weekend that works. 

In a stunning turn of events, word of the NASCAR Cup event from Texas moving from mid-September to mid-April forced IndyCar into a corner. Plans to race on April 7 were thrown out the window as Texas and NASCAR looked to have its Cup weekend on April 14. Instead of running two premier events on consecutive weekends, Texas was floating out other weekends for the IndyCar race. 

We will find out if the two parties came up with a suitable date soon, but this predicament should never have happened.

There might be 52 weekends, but some do not work. Texas cannot move up a week because Easter is March 31 in 2014. IndyCar is quite busy in May... and June... and July. Next year is an Olympic-year and it sounds like IndyCar will take three weeks off to accommodate NBC's Olympic television schedule. Then there is football. Anything after Labor Day weekend is foolish to race on. There is a reason why IndyCar has tried to limit its number of races during football season to one. 

In all actuality, there are about 30 weekends for IndyCar to use in a normal year. Minus three for the Olympics, take out one for Easter and then clear four for the month of May, and that leaves 22 weekends. But that is still 22 weekends for 14 race weekends not taking place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

There must be a way to fit Texas into the schedule. Move it to the middle of March. Who cares if it is the same weekend as the 12 Hours of Sebring? They are different series with different interests, and IMSA only gets together with IndyCar when it is most convenient. Run it the first weekend in May and create a non-stop two-month swing at the racetrack. Hell, run in September and have five consecutive race weekends to close the season. It would only be a one-year thing anyway. Once the Olympics pass the schedule will open up and create a few extra weekends for next year. 

The truth is Texas honestly isn't worth fighting for. It is a race where maybe 5,000 people show up because some schmuck thought an 11:30 a.m. local green flag on a Sunday was a good idea. The race and Texas Motor Speedway has been poorly run for years. It is a facility that has seen every event shrink despite taking place in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, an area with nearly eight million people and has more than doubled in size since Texas Motor Speedway open its doors in 1997. 

We should be ok moving on from Texas Motor Speedway because it hasn't done a damn thing for anyone in over a decade, but in a landscape where oval races are scarce in IndyCar, no tracks are lining up to host the championship and Texas was once considered a staple of the IndyCar calendar, the race falling off in this fashion is a deflating outcome. 

This wouldn't be IndyCar moving on from Texas because a better option was presented. This would have been two sides unable to find room for one another, and this late in the game, it likely meant IndyCar would have one fewer race in 2024. While every other major championship is growing or at least going to new and different markets, IndyCar shrinks just a little bit more. 

It is exasperating that IndyCar gets in its own way. For a series that preaches date equity, it does a bad job of it. Texas had a date in June for 23 years. Then it moved to early May. Then early April. The entire IndyCar schedule will likely be flipped upside down next year. Nashville is moving from early August to mid-September, but it is becoming the season finale. That is understandable. Unfortunately, that means Laguna Seca is looking to move up three months to June, a month that didn't really need another race. Portland will likely shift off Labor Day weekend despite holding the September date since it returned to the calendar in 2018. Other dates could also move around as the pieces move about. 

It is a rarity for any IndyCar race to make a massive date shift and stick around. Look at what happened to Fontana, Kentucky, and Milwaukee the last time around. Nearly a quarter of the IndyCar tracks will leap around the 2024 calendar. How will this play out in two to four years time? History points to other races struggling in their new dates and eventually other races falling off the schedule.

For the last decade, IndyCar has made responsible choices when it comes to scheduling and has not attempted to bite off more than it can chew. However, the "keep head above water" business philosophy does not produce a true identity, or at least not an identity anyone wants to be associated with. IndyCar wants to be known for racing all these track disciplines, ovals, road courses and street courses, but money talks, and IndyCar will race where it makes fiscal sense. 

IndyCar isn't going to just add five oval races to have more oval races, even if you think that is the simple solution. It isn't. Adding five poorly attended races are still five poorly attended races. We shouldn't be confident Milwaukee will work this time around, the same way we should not believe just showing up at Richmond, Homestead, Kentucky, Chicagoland, Kansas, Michigan, Pocono and/or Phoenix will draw a respectable crowd. 

I want IndyCar to have more oval races as much as the next guy but we know they aren't going to work. We know the demand for IndyCar is nonexistent. We know wherever IndyCar goes, it is going to draw at best 20,000 people, which looks abysmal with 40,000 to 60,000 capacity grandstands. This has been the truth for the last decade. 

Any growth must include methodical promotion and expansion. 

IndyCar must target markets and work with racetracks to make its race weekend a community gathering that brings out 40,000 people from a local market. It is what Supercross does so well. It might not be the largest motorsports series in the country. Supercross' ratings have been rather stable for the last ten to 15 years, but it can draw a healthy crowd in a number of football and baseball stadiums across the country. IndyCar is in that same boat, except it has a race that draws over 300,000 attendees and over five million television viewers each year. IndyCar has a higher pedestal, and yet it takes a considerable fall from that one day in May.

Outside of its home race, IndyCar does not do more outreach than using an outdated playbook and thinking one or two drivers doing media hits and appearances three weeks before a race is enough to draw a crowd. 

Maybe this will finally be the wakeup call for IndyCar. It won't be. IndyCar has been living in a coma for quite sometime. Formula One's boom after the pandemic surely didn't wakeup IndyCar to all the chances it didn't take to draw in viewers, but seeing a tentpole race teetered on falling off the schedule simply because one weekend out of 30 realistically weekends could not be found to host the event should shakeup the series to say never again.

We are long beyond the point where IndyCar needs to set out a long-term plan and work toward what it truly wants to be. For years it has felt like IndyCar has been dancing around committing to a bigger identity. It has yet to do that. This should be the breaking point. Punt on 2024 and focus on 2025. What does IndyCar really want to be? 

Dragging its feet is only costing the series. This is the chance to draw that line in the sand and act toward what it wants to be. There has been too much hemming and hawing. Time is up. Draw up the schedule that says, "This is IndyCar" and commit to it for five or six seasons, money be damned. There is no point delaying it any longer.

Champion From the Weekend

Jett Lawrence won the SuperMotocross championship after sweeping the finaround races from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Jett Lawrence, but did you know...

Max Verstappen won the Japanese Grand Prix, his 13th victory of the season.

Marco Bezzecchi won MotoGP's Indian Grand Prix, his third victory of the season. Jorge Martín won the sprint race. Pedro Acosta won the Moto2 race, his sixth vctory of the season. Jaume Masià won the Moto3 race, his second victory of the season.

William Byron won the NASCAR Cup race from Texas, his sixth victory of the season. John Hunter Nemechek won the Grand National Series race, his seventh victory of the season. 

Michael Ruben Rinaldi (race one) and Álvaro Bautista (Superpole race and race two) split the World Superbike races from Aragón. Nicolò Bulega swept the World Supersport races.

The #25 Algarve Pro Racing Oreca-Gibson of Alex Lynn, James Allen and Kyffin Simpson won the 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps. The #17 COOL Racing Ligier-Nissan of Adrien Chila, Marcos Siebert and Alejandro García won in LMP3. The #60 Iron Lynx Porsche of Matteo Cressoi, Matteo Cairoli and Claudio Schiavoni won in  GTE.

Kelvin van der Linde and René Rast split the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters races from the Red Bull Ring.

The #1 Wright Motorsports Porsche of Madison Snow and Jan Heylen swept the GT World Challenge America races from Sebring. Wright Motorsoprts won the second race after the #38 ST Racing BMW failed technical inspection. Memo Gidley and Jason Daskalos split the GT America race. The #92 Randon Vandals Racing BMW of Kenton Koch and Kevin Boehm and the #34 Conquest Racing/JMF Motorsport Mercedes-AMG of Michai Stephens and Jesse Webb split the GT4 America races.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP keeps Japan busy.
The GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup season concludes in Barcelona.
NASCAR is at Talladega.
The penultimate World Superbike round at Portimão. 
The second Rally Chile, over four years after the first. 

Friday, September 22, 2023

IndyCar Wrap-Up: A.J. Foyt Racing's 2023 Season

The second 2023 IndyCar Wrap-Up brings us to the team that normally goes first for being the worst team on the grid. It was marginal, but A.J. Foyt Racing got off the very bottom. Things were only slightly better for the Foyt organization in 2023, and one great day in May is really the only thing that saved it from being the first reviewed again. As has become the usual for A.J. Foyt Racing, the team had two new drivers, one of which with minimal Road to Indy success.

Santino Ferrucci
After spending the past two seasons as a part-time IndyCar competitor while dabbling in NASCAR, Ferrucci returned to full-time IndyCar participation in 2023. A driver remembered for his oval performances, Ferrucci again proved to have the touch at Indianapolis, and it nearly ended with one of the most stunning victories in the last decade. Results remained mostly uninspired on road and street courses. 

What objectively was his best race?
Ferrucci was third in the Indianapolis 500 from fourth on the grid. It was the best finish of Ferrucci's IndyCar career, and he spent 158 laps in the top five, 178 laps in the top ten, and his average running position was 5.72.

What subjectively was his best race?
It is clearly Indianapolis. This could have been a flash in the pan, A.J. Foyt Racing showing blistering pace in qualifying only for it to disappear in the race, but Ferrucci remained at the front. He led 11 laps and was genuinely in it through the closing laps. There was a near pit stop error that cost him, but the team had a practically flawless race.

What objectively was his worst race?
It came at another oval, as Ferrucci and the Foyt team struggled mightily at Iowa. In the first race, Ferrucci was classified in 26th, nine laps down, but part of that deficit was after being trapped in his pit box after his Foyt teammate Benajmin Pedersen had an unsafe release and hit Devlin DeFrancesco. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
Ferrucci was caught in the opening lap accident at St. Petersburg and did not complete a lap in the season opener. That wasn't his fault, but it is not how anyone wants to start a season. Laguna Seca was probably the only race he made a bad error, running over Tom Blomqvist coming to a restart after Ferrucci was running in the top ten. The Iowa weekend was particularly tough, especially off the wave of Indianapolis momentum. They are two different ovals but to go from knocking on the door of victory to the worst team on the grid was startling. 

Santino Ferrucci's 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 19th (214 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 1
Laps Led: 11
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 3
Average Start: 20.588
Average Finish: 18.529

Benjamin Pedersen
After two seasons in Indy Lights, Pedersen made the move to IndyCar with little signs he was ready to take on the increased competition. The Dane had only one Indy Lights victory, and he had dropped from fourth to fifth in the Indy Lights championship from 2021 to 2022. His IndyCar results showed that multiple top five championship finishes in Indy Lights does not really mean a driver is ready for IndyCar.

What objectively was his best race?
In his oval debut, second IndyCar start, Pedersen qualified 13th and spent much of the race in the middle of the field at Texas. He did finish two laps down, but it earned him a 15th-place result.

What subjectively was his best race?
Pedersen was caught in an accident late in the Indianapolis 500, but he qualified 11th, as both Foyt cars made the Fast 12. During the race, Pedersen lost some positions, but was running respectively, and was holding onto the lead lap until that accident when Ed Carpenter got into Pedersen on the main straightaway, setting up the final red flag and the one-lap dash to decide the race..

What objectively was his worst race?
Pedersen was run over at the start of the Gateway race, and again Ed Carpenter had a lapse in judgment. This sent Pedersen into the wall in turn one and ending his day before he even completed a corner. He was classified 28th.

What subjectively was his worst race?
The Dane was 27th in three races this season: St. Petersburg and both Iowa races. Two of the three are particularly bad. Pedersen started last in St. Petersburg, but completely failed to slow down coming up on the opening lap accident and slammed into Devlin DeFrancesco, launching DeFrancesco into the air. It was a terrible first impression. 

In the second Iowa race, after being off the pace in the first one, Pedersen was black-flagged for being too slow 57 laps from the finish.

Being disqualified is bad, but the race everyone will remember from Pedersen's season is Mid-Ohio, where he finished 26th, and he was a lap down for a good portion of the race. Then got in everyone's way. He balked leader Álex Palou. He gave Scott McLaughlin fits. When the field reconvened at Toronto, Pedersen apologized for his driving. There aren't many bright spots from this rookie season but plenty of blemishes.

Benjamin Pedersen's 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 27th (129 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 22.353
Average Finish: 23.294

An Early Look Ahead
On-track results do not give anyone a reason to be optimistic, but off the track, there is a major reason to be excited about A.J. Foyt Racing's 2024 season. 

Announced in August, A.J. Foyt Racing and Team Penske formed a technical alliance, which will see the Foyt cars have access to the Penske dampers as well as technical support. Team Penske crew members and engineering staff will be loaned to the Foyt organization through this partnership. 

Foyt hasn't been in the ballpark for the most part. The most basic help from Team Penske should make the team moderately more competitive, especially with a competent driver. That little bit of help could see Foyt at least competing for top ten finishes, something the team really has not done since pre-reunification. 

The team already found something at Indianapolis. Ferrucci was one of the best drivers at Indianapolis this year and the team showed staggering pace. Single-car pace is one thing, but Ferrucci showed the speed carried into the race. Pedersen did not quite have it, but he did not drop immediately to the bottom. 

IndyCar is greater than the Indianapolis 500 though, and other than Texas, which might not be on the schedule next ear, the Foyt cars were not close to being in the discussion at any other race. This partnership points to the team knowing it needs more than being in the conversation one race a year. However, Foyt has never been a top team when IndyCar has been at this level. The team's greatest success came when A.J. Foyt himself was driving and in the early days of the Indy Racing League. IndyCar is not going to fracture again and create a void that A.J. Foyt Racing can exploit. Success must come beating the best the series has to offer. 

Ferrucci has a seat based on his oval ability alone. He has been good on road and street courses, but never quite pushed into the top tier of drivers. Perhaps with better equipment he can make a leap forward, but he has yet to rub elbows with those top drivers, and it is tight at the top. 

Pedersen is not going to be the long-term future of A.J. Foyt Racing. Whether his money keeps being deposited in a Houston-area bank remains to be seen, but even with Penske dampers and technical support, it would not turn the Dane into a threat for the top fifteen in the championship. 

With the influx of improvement, the two Foyt cars could be a glorious opportunity for a driver to showcase his or her talent, a foot in the door most would relish, something Foyt has not been for quite sometime. It has already been theorized Foyt could become a talent pipeline for young drivers into IndyCar, especially those coming from Indy Lights. 

That might not be true in 2024, but it feels practical for 2025 onward. 

For all this excitement, it must be remembered this is A.J. Foyt Racing. A decade ago, the team had ABC Supply Co. funding a seat, which would soon expand to two fully-funded seats. It had Honda's favorite driver, Takuma Sato. Everyone talked about Foyt as a sleeping giant, and all it had to show for that hype was one victory at Long Beach and a second at São Paulo, both now over a decade in the rearview mirror. 

Foyt wasn't able to turn all the resources it had, more than other teams, into any regular success. Compared to Dale Coyne Racing, Foyt had the world and squandered it. 

There is a chance Foyt does it again with the Team Penske alliance. With Penske involved, it likely does not turn out that way, but we cannot rule it out. Perhaps it is best to remain cautiously optimistic, but things are pointing in the right direction for A.J. Foyt Racing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Meyer Shank Racing's 2023 Season

We have completed another IndyCar season, and 37 drivers started a race this season. In our traditional format, each IndyCar team will be reviewed, looking at the best and the worst from each driver. Unlike past seasons, we start with a different team. New to the cellar, Meyer Shank Racing entered 2023 with concerns, and the year ended with plenty of disappointment. Two of IndyCar's most successful drivers in the 21st century were not enough to produce respectable results for MSR. An accident forced a change midseason, and now the team is set for a significant shakeup.

Hélio Castroneves
Castroneves returned to full-time IndyCar competition last season, and it was a rude-awakening compared to when the Brazilian was last full-time driving for Team Penske. Things did not get better in year two with MSR. In what was his 26th season of competition and 22nd as a full-time driver, Castroneves had the worst results of his career. His second IndyCar exit does not have the same joy as the first one six years ago.

What objectively was his best race?
It was a tenth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway. Castroneves benefitted from a late wavearound to gain a few more positions and Romain Grosjean's accident on the penultimate lap did give Castroneves an extra spot.

What subjectively was his best race?
This was not a great season for Meyer Shank Racing, and Castroneves did not have many standout days. Texas was good and the only other race where he was a notably gaining ground was Nashville, moving from 17th to 11th.

What objectively was his worst race?
Castroneves was caught in the opening lap accident at St. Petersburg and did not complete a lap. He barely completed three corners, finishing 23rd. He was also 23rd in an unremarkable day at Gateway.

What subjectively was his worst race?
It was tough to watch Castroneves be regularly uncompetitive this season. Each race it felt like you could chalk Castroneves to be somewhere between 16th and 22nd on the starting grid and not finishing much better than that. The Indianapolis 500 was probably the one hope that Castroneves could be toward the front, but he was stuck in the middle of the field all race and was 15th.

Hélio Castroneves' 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 18th (217 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 1
Laps Led: 1
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 18.706
Average Finish: 17.294

Simon Pagenaud
One of the cleanest drivers in IndyCar, Pagenaud's ability to bring a car home was not enough to produce results. It was not for a lack of trying, but the Frenchman was out of reach from a top ten spot he once regularly occupied. Just as things were getting better, Pagenaud's season, and possibly even his entire career, was thrown for a loop.

What objectively was his best race?
At Detroit, Pagenaud qualified eighth, his best starting position of the season, but then he lost some ground during the pit cycles and then finished 13th.

What subjectively was his best race?
It was Detroit. It was the only strong race of the season.

What objectively was his worst race?
Pagenaud's worst finish was St. Petersburg, where he was 26th after being caught in the opening lap accident, and that was foreshadowing for his season, because it got worse from here. Ultimately, the worst race of the season is the one he did not get to participate in, Mid-Ohio.

What subjectively was his worst race?
His accident during Mid-Ohio practice took him out of a race and took Pagenaud out for the reminder of the season. He walked away but the physical toll of rolling six times in the air took him out for multiple months. Missing Mid-Ohio made sense but when it became Toronto and Iowa and then Nashville, it stunned most of us considering Pagenaud never showed any distress or anguish from the accident. Pagenaud did not return to competition this season after the Mid-Ohio accident. His IndyCar career remains a massive question mark.

Simon Pagenaud's 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 28th (88 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 18.25
Average Finish: 19.75

Conor Daly
With Pagenaud out of the car, MSR called upon Conor Daly, who had been released from Ed Carpenter Racing after Detroit in June, to fill-in for the Mid-Ohio round. As Pagenaud remained sidelined, Daly was called upon once more for Iowa.

What objectively was his best race?
In Daly's third start for MSR, he was 17th in the second Iowa race, only finishing two laps down and only one position behind his teammate Castroneves.

What subjectively was his best race?
It was Mid-Ohio. To jump into the car on Sunday just for the morning warm-up and the race and finish 20th, one position ahead of Castroneves, was a good outing and a good rebound after being booted from Ed Carpenter Racing less than a month prior.

What objectively was his worst race?
In the first Iowa race, Daly was 21st, five laps down.

What subjectively was his worst race?
In reality, none of these three races were all that spectacular, but it was an accurate showing of MSR's capabilities in 2023.

Conor Daly's 2023 Statistics with Meyer Shank Racing
Championship Position: 25th (32 of his 134 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 21.333
Average Finish: 19.333

Linus Lundqvist
As the #60 Honda needed a driver, MSR rotated through a selection of drivers in place of Pagenaud. The 2022 Indy Lights champion Lundqvist was unable to secure a full-time ride at the start of the season. Without receiving offers from anyone else, Lundqvist ran a few races as a substitute at MSR, and the Swede produced some of MSR's best results.

What objectively was his best race?
In his second career start, Lundqvist started and finished 12th in the August IMS road course race.

What subjectively was his best race?
Though the better finish came at Indianapolis, Nashville was a stout debut drive for Lundqvist. He made the second round of qualifying on debut. He was solidly in the top half of the field before he brushed the barrier on exit of the final corner. He also picked up fastest lap on debut.

The IMS road course race deserves a mention because Lundqvist was on the edge of the top ten for a portion of the race, but then settle back in 12th. He didn't really run lower than 12th for the entire race. 

Since he only made three starts, Gateway should not be ignored. Lundqvist was faster than Castroneves the entire weekend, the first oval weekend for Lundqvist in IndyCar. The Swede faded late in the race but was running in the middle of the field for most of it. He was 18th, but picked up his second fastest lap in three appearances.

What objectively was his worst race?
That accident at Nashville meant Lundqvist was 25th with 69 laps completed. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
Lundqvist was hard on himself after the Nashville accident, which is understandable. He was slightly off line and the marbles tripped him up, but he showed over the first 69 laps of the race that he fits in IndyCar and the moment was not too big for him. Chip Ganassi apparently agreed in that assessment.

Linus Lundqvist's 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 31st (35 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 11.667
Average Finish: 18.333

Tom Blomqvist
MSR did not have to look far to find a fill-in for the #60 Honda. It didn't even have to look further than its own building. Called up at Toronto, MSR took its sports car driver Blomqvist and gave him his IndyCar debut after having tested the Briton earlier in the year. This turned out to be more than just a substitution. It was the start of an entire change of scenery.

What objectively was his best race?
At Portland, Blomqvist completed 109 of 110 laps and finished 24th.

What subjectively was his best race?
Portland is not much to write home about, but Blomqvist did make it to the end of the race in his second career start, which is much further than he got on debut, but that wasn't on him.

What objectively was his worst race?
Blomqvist was 26th at Laguna Seca after contact with Santino Ferrucci on a restart ended his race. The Briton's day was not going great up to that point, but his race ended after completing only 61 laps.

What subjectively was his worst race?
That would be his debut in Toronto, where Blomqvist was collected in the opening lap accident exiting turn one and he failed to complete a lap, placing him in 25th. This was not Blomqvist's fault. He was caught on the outside and got bumped into the barrier. There was nothing he could do and it was a harsh welcoming to IndyCar.

Tom Blomqvist's 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 34th (16 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 22.667
Average Finish: 25

An Early Look Ahead
Meyer Shank Racing will flip the lineup for the 2024 season. Tom Blomqvist will move over from the sports car program to run IndyCar full-time. Joining him will be Felix Rosenqvist, who is leaving Arrow McLaren, and will be joining his third team in six seasons. 

The issues are greater than the drivers. Castroneves was in his mid-40s and spent a handful of seasons out of full-time IndyCar racing prior to his stint with MSR. The results were not going to be great for this second act of his career. However, Pagenaud joined the team only three years removed from winning the Indianapolis 500 and he had finished in the top ten of the championship in six consecutive seasons and in nine of the previous ten seasons. 

Something happened in July 2022 that sent MSR in a downward spiral it has not gotten itself out of. After Toronto 2022, Pagenaud was ranked tenth in the championship and he had six top ten finishes in the first ten races of that season. Since the 2022 Toronto weekend, Pagenaud had one top ten finishes. In that same timespan, Castroneves had one top ten finishes. Out of 48 entries, MSR had two top ten finishes. The bottom fell out on MSR in July 2022 and the team has not figured out how to correct the issue. 

The team will now bring together a quick but inconsistent IndyCar veteran and a successful sports car driver whose only single-seater experience in the previous nine years is Formula E. 

Rosenqvist left us impressed as a rookie in 2019, but he has yet to run at the level again outside a few races over the last four seasons. Blomqvist showed he has a lot of work to do in his three appearances this season. Nothing shouts that this is going to work in 2024. Of all the moves MSR could have done, this feels like one of the more riskier ones. 

Pagenaud's health forced the team's hand, but the steadiness of a veteran is not there. Rosenqvist is unproven to be a driver to build around. He is primed for a second seat, not a lead seat at this time, especially with a teammate that is behind a learning curve. 

The hope is MSR improves because IndyCar needs MSR around. Mike Shank is a young car owner with an interest in IndyCar. It wasn't long ago IndyCar was drawing 21 cars to a race and it had gone over five years since a new team appeared on the grid. MSR slowly got into the IndyCar waters and won an Indianapolis 500 with a one-off entry in its second season as a full-time competitor. 

MSR can be a competitive team but it has lost its way. In the right hands, MSR could re-establish itself as a regular top ten finisher while occasionally showing the pace to push for the podium. That rise feels unlikely to come in 2024.