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A Fascinating Final Three Races – Tony DiZinno handicaps the 2021 championship fight

By Tony DiZinno

An NTT INDYCAR SERIES season the likes of which we haven’t seen in ages is nearing its final act. 

The word age has been one of the defining words of this 2021 season. A pair of drivers in their second full seasons, both under 25 years old, stand ready to capture their maiden championship. To get there, either will need to dethrone the last two drivers who won an IndyCar crown under age 30 and who combined have locked out the last four titles. And if all four of these falter, a fifth driver in his third year who few would have forecast as a championship contender preseason could swoop in.

The fab five, as you were, are points leader Pato O’Ward, most-of-season points leader Alex Palou, two-time champion Josef Newgarden, six-time champ Scott Dixon and stealthy Marcus Ericsson. 

Add in the variable that O’Ward, Palou and Ericsson have a combined zero IndyCar starts at Portland, one at Monterey and two at Long Beach – the final three West Coast races – and the degree of unpredictability continues to increase.

It all adds up to a fascinating finish that will test the mature beyond their years, but still youthful, trio of title contending newcomers against the tried-and-true Newgarden and Dixon, who will look to capture the crown once more.


Pato

The enthusiastic and energetic O’Ward, just 22, has the potential to be the first driver outside of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport to win a title since the last full Champ Car season in 2007 (Sebastien Bourdais, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing). If you want to go back even further, he’d be the first to do so outside those three in the series known as IndyCar since 2002, when Sam Hornish Jr. doubled up for Panther Racing. 

Arrow McLaren SP, under the direction of team president and O’Ward’s strategist Taylor Kiel, is as close as any team to breaking into the proverbial “big three” stranglehold based primarily on O’Ward’s recent finishing consistency to match his unbridled pace. He had a pair of 15th or worse finishes in the first five races, but has finished worse than ninth just once in the last eight. When he hasn’t had the qualifying pace, he’s maximized his finishes, and what those string of fourth-to-ninth place results lack in glamour they make up for in points gold.

That consistency word, though, is the potential poison pill I fear could rear its ugly head in these last three races. Three sub 16th-place starts this year have left O’Ward a bit of work to do. He’s pulled out some rabbits in coordination with the rapid No. 5 Chevrolet pit crew and his own on-track passing prowess, turning those poor starts into first, eighth and 15th place finishes. He’s had his mulligans and simply can’t afford those in the last three races, but he’s had a pair of strong tests at both Portland and Monterey. His odds are good for the title if he can just keep doing what he’s doing.


Palou

Palou’s effervescent attitude has been tested by two brutal races in a row at the worst time, through no fault of his own. Each year one drivers bears the brunt of unreliability and Palou’s luck with powerplants this year has been ill-timed. Setting aside the results issues, he’s also had grid penalties to deal with, and that remains a looming concern in the back end if any further gremlins arise in the final trio of events.

You could argue though that he’s not nearly in as bad a position as back-to-back 27th and 20th place results would indicate. Despite losing a 40-plus points advantage, he’s still only 10 back of O’Ward. That’s easily achievable to overcome with a win or just putting O’Ward a few spots down. He generally always seemed happy in the lead. Now, chasing, he actually has less to lose because he’s already been through a rough patch. Yes, his margin for error is gone but combined with the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing crew, he has nowhere to go but up as he heads to three tracks he’s never raced on before. How fast he learns and rolls off the trailer will be key to his success and whether he can recapture the points lead.

The always smiling pilot of the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda, Álex Palou (Photo Courtesy of Penske Entertainment – Chris Jones)

Newgarden

Newgarden has spent the year digging out of a near last place hole in the points standings after his rare, unforced error in the Barber season opener. Where Newgarden, now 30, may have held back to score points earlier in the year – I think he could have potentially gone for the win versus Colton Herta at St. Petersburg, for instance – he’s now in the position of playing with house money and that beautiful late-season word: momentum.

After the loss of two surefire wins at Detroit 2 and Road America, Newgarden sat 88 points behind then-leader Palou with nine races complete and at the time, eight races to go. Then that become seven when Toronto fell off the calendar. Now, he’s just 12 points behind Palou and 22 behind O’Ward. It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet, usually adorned in Hitachi colors, and the crew featuring master strategist Tim Cindric and ace engineer Gavin Ward. The championship-tested ringer he’s gone through the last four years will play to his benefit. If there’s one weird outlier, it’s that the driver who now has 20 career wins hasn’t yet won at any of the final three West Coast venues. One or more wins to erase that stat could go a long way towards securing a third, and perhaps most unexpected, title.

Josef Newgarden leads championship rival Álex Palou at Road America before a mechanical issue cost the two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champ a sure win Photo Courtesy of Penske Entertainment – James Black)

Dixon

Dixon, who famously rallied from more than 40 points down in the last race of 2015 at Sonoma to win his fourth crown won’t have the benefit of a double points finale to do so likewise this year. And bizarre as this might be to say, on pure recent form of the five title contenders, Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda has not been as competitive as any of his four rivals. 

Dixon has had just one podium finish (second at Nashville) in the last 10 races. That contrasts to Palou’s five, O’Ward’s four, Newgarden’s four and Ericsson’s three in the same period. Sure, there have been three fourth places in that time frame (Texas 2, Road America, Mid-Ohio) but even so those have featured some combination of those other four that have finished ahead of him, and key points lost.

It adds up to a highly unusual position for Dixon, now 41, to be in. He’s not out of it, but at 43 points back, he has to jump three cars rather than one or two. But this is Dixon and the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing team we’re talking about. The moment you underestimate them, or write them off at your own peril, they go full “Wolfpack” on you and win another title. 


Ericsson

Ericsson, at 60 points back, has the longest odds of the five still in within remaining shouting distance. The sneaky, stealthy Swede has been incredibly consistent all season. He’s only finished worse than 12th once, and he’s riding a hot streak of seven straight top-10 finishes. Together with strategist Mike O’Gara and engineer Brad Goldberg, two key assets to Ganassi’s former Ford GT IMSA program, Ericsson and the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda have been a persistent thorn in the side of many throughout the year. 

Marcus Ericsson is focussed on winning his first championship since the taking the top spot in the Japanese Formula 3 Championship in 2009 (Photo Courtesy of Penske Entertainment – Chris Owens)

Similar to Palou, Ericsson can enter these last three races without much reservation. O’Gara and Goldberg’s roles on the pit box are massively instrumental from a results-gaining standpoint. Portland has thrown up two rather wacky races since its return to the calendar in 2018, and may afford an off-sequence gamble to pay dividends. Ericsson’s never raced there, and only has a recent test to go off of for his weekend experience. Portland alone should make or break his title hopes, but if he can gain in the 15 to 20-point ballpark on some if not all of his rivals, he’s still in with a great shot to keep a shock championship challenge alive. 


Who blinks first?

What fascinates me about the five title combatants is that it features three drivers in with their first real shot at trying to win a title in IndyCar, against two who know how to do it. Making the leap from contender to champ doesn’t come without pitfalls.

Sometimes you have to lose a title first before you can win one. Most famously, Will Power lost three straight from 2010-‘12 before finally breaking through in 2014. Americans Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal have come close yet remain without one in their careers. Ryan Briscoe’s pit lane faux pas at Motegi, Japan undid a year where he looked poised to secure a title and he never got close again. And then Helio Castroneves was in contention so many times but the cards never fell his way. 

Dixon and Newgarden realistically won their first title shots, and that cements them as the two standard-bearers in the series. Dixon did so in the all-oval 2003 IRL season, emerging on top of a five-horse race that also featured Castroneves, Hornish, Gil de Ferran, and Tony Kanaan at the top. Newgarden was mathematically but not realistically alive for the 2015 finale. So his first real shot to win the title came in the last race of his first Penske season, 2017, and he brought it home.

O’Ward, Palou and Ericsson are the first three of a generation of future IndyCar stars who may become annual championship contenders. Others will follow, most notably Colton Herta and Rinus VeeKay as soon as they can string full seasons together given their already race-winning prowess.


Boiling it all down

Of the three, I like O’Ward’s moxie the most. He knows these three circuits better than Palou and Ericsson and he knows how to win an open-wheel championship in North America, having had two very different cracks at titles during his Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires career. 

He was admittedly raw at just 17 years old when battling Team Pelfrey teammate Aaron Telitz for the 2016 Pro Mazda title in Monterey. A scuffling weekend included contact with Telitz and an ultimate defeat that’s looked greater on the Birchwood, Wis. native’s resume over time.

Where O’Ward grew from a confidence standpoint was a year later, during his first of two “career wilderness” years in 2017. Out of Indy Lights after just a handful of races, O’Ward took up an IMSA LMPC prototype seat with Brent O’Neill’s Performance Tech operation, where he flourished in the Florida-based, family atmosphere team. O’Ward’s race craft improved to match his pace and he won all the races but one that season en route to the title.

It made a remarkable difference in his stature when he went back to Indy Lights in 2018. Beating Herta straight-up as teammates at Andretti Autosport grew from those two previous years. The moves he made when he needed to – including an epic battle at Portland that propelled him to the crown – were the sign of a driver who’d developed even faster than anticipated. 

Pato O’Ward celebrates winning the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship at Portland International Raceway in 2018 (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

Those learnings and surviving his hardship, roller coaster 2019 racing IndyCar, Super Formula and F2 all while having a sip of a Red Bull Junior contract continued to help mold and embolden the young Mexican for 2020, a highly unusual first full-time season in IndyCar with Arrow McLaren SP. 

There’s a funny subplot to O’Ward versus Newgarden and the Ganassi trio battle. His teammate Felix Rosenqvist may yet play a bit role as a supporting act. What better motivation for him to help his current team than to deny his old one, Ganassi, yet another title? 

So O’Ward is the driver I like among the trio of first-time title contenders. Of Newgarden and Dixon, I’ll take Newgarden as my other title rival down to the wire. For Newgarden to gain more than 30 points on the championship lead in one race is highly unusual at this stage in the season, so at only 22 back with three to play means he’s in a great position.

The other factor I think plays to both O’Ward and Newgarden’s benefits? They can have the full resources of their teams dedicated to just their championship battles. 

Ganassi has been the best team in IndyCar this season. But paradoxically, because the team has three title contenders, perhaps Palou, Dixon and Ericsson take points off each other in the final three races. 

Picking a champion? That’s tougher still. 

The preseason testing talk centered around O’Ward as a strong contender to win this year’s championship. If he does, at 22, he’ll be younger than a driver who scored his first title at 23 and the youngest driver to do so since that time.

That guy? Dixon in 2003. O’Ward was 4 at the time. 

A just turned 23-year-old Scott Dixon celebrates his first INDYCAR Championship in 2003 (Photo Courtesy of Penske Entertainment)

A big, big part of me thinks Newgarden will ride the momentum wave to steal the crown away.

But it feels like the right capper to this changing of the guard year would be a changing of the guard driver and team to win the title. 

O’Ward and Arrow McLaren SP’s title-winning moment has arrived. Now, they have to seize it. 

Embracing ‘the kid’ – remembering Robin by Tony DiZinno

Embracing “the kid”

By Tony DiZinno

Robin Miller left no doubt about where you stood when you entered the media center for the first time. If you were newer, you had to work just that little bit harder to establish yourself and see that the scribe who’d seen, written and commented on it all knew you weren’t just a flash-in-the-pan, one-off entry like the type he’d seen on track for years. The good thing was, he was there to help.

As any young IndyCar fan would do, I read Robin’s work online and watched his commentary on ESPN and SPEED Channel. The Wind Tunnel days where Robin guest hosted alongside Dave Despain were generally riots and a perfect end to the weekends before for me, the school week restarted.

The first Champ Car race I covered with credentials at Road America in 2007 was meant to be where I met Robin for the first time. Except there was a catch. If I remember correctly, he’d gotten his own credential pulled for writing a scathing commentary about Champ Car’s impending demise on Champ Car’s website, or something of that ilk. Champ Car didn’t last past April of 2008.

Robin broke the unification story in February of that year to indicate the end of the bitter, divisive 12-year split. The point there, obviously, was that Robin knew what was happening better than most and generally outlasted so many other series and sanctioning bodies through his work.

May 2008 was a welcome month to attend my first Indy 500. There was Robin, holding court during the race with the fellow journalists that delivered the stories for the masses to read.

Photo Courtesy of Tony DiZinno

There was almost a passing of the torch at that point I immediately noticed. The late Chris Economaki was at one of his last ‘500s, if not his last, that year as his trademark typewriter was in one of the front rows. After Economaki, Robin always seemed heir to the throne as the new dean of the press room.

Meanwhile, I was 18 and wondering what I’d need to do for my own career to begin to even scratch the surface of measuring up. But both welcomed me with open arms; they knew the importance of finding young writers to cover this sport they loved so dearly. Economaki gave me my first journalistic opportunity, and Robin was the first journalist who made me feel like I knew what I was doing.

The occasional check-ins at the races I covered throughout my time in college indicated to Robin I wasn’t just a one-off writer at the time and there was a sign I just felt that I was starting to belong (Milwaukee Mile in 2009, below).

Photo Courtesy of Tony DiZinno

I joined RACER Magazine in late summer of 2011 and it felt as though I’d gained access to the club, fully. While there was a personal rocky period in my life as the magazine’s circumstances changed into 2012, Robin never lost faith in “the kid” even as my own work status changed.

The 2013 season was a make-or-break year for me in the sport. Post-RACER, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in racing. A lifeline for me came from NBC Sports of all places with a new blog they’d started. Ironically, RACER absorbed the SPEED.com crew of Robin, his colleague Marshall Pruett and their audience once SPEED transitioned to FOX Sports 1 in August 2013.

So in a roundabout way, Robin and I were both colleagues and competitors simultaneously. We worked together – albeit more adjacent than directly – at NBC since I was on the digital side and he was on the TV side. But he was also my competition on the .com side, and I was always a little intimidated because I knew he was so hard to beat to any scoops. He’d covered the sport almost double the time I’d been alive!

To me, he never saw me as competition. If he did, I never felt it. He was far more of a mentor and guide to help me continue to grow in my career. We exchanged messages and thoughts regularly and when I joined NBC full-time in 2016 after splitting my time for three years, there was a real recognition of how far I’d come. Getting included as the youngest member of the media he pinged for emails, his Indy legends sweatshirts or being mentioned in his trademark Mailbag or silly season columns were among my career highlights.

There were a couple trips to Rusty’s at Barber along the way, and most memorably, a hilarious roast he led of me for my 28th birthday on the Friday of Road America, 2017, saying I’d transformed from a “shy kid who might get eaten alive in this paddock” into someone that “doesn’t take s— from anyone and has even learned to cuss a few times.” The capper was a cake delivered in the media center filled with Milwaukee cultural references and an homage to some inside jokes Robin had had with me over the years.

Photo Courtesy of Tony DiZinno

The 2017 season was my last covering IndyCar full-time for NBC after five seasons, as different opportunities have emerged elsewhere along the way. I remember he and I had a chat at Sonoma, on the eve of Josef Newgarden winning his first title, where he pulled me aside in the paddock and told me, “Son, you’ve come a long way in this business. You’ll keep going as long as you want to. I’m proud of you, kid.”  


As I’ve contributed off-and-on to TSO for the better part of 6 years, I’ve always felt at home when I came back, and Robin was always there with open arms. I remember chronicling the roast of Bobby Unser he led in 2018; that was a night that will forever live on in laughter. 

I know he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea and I certainly didn’t agree with every one of his takes. But man, he was an original. 


His passing Wednesday felt like a gut punch, even if it still was expected based on his health. 
But from the first time he called me “kid,” as that was his go-to phrase for most folks, he made me feel like I belonged even if my career has now taken me to different places. And for me, it always felt literal as badge of honor.
I’ll forever be thankful that he embraced “the kid.” 

Ed Note: Thanks so much to our friend Tony for trusting us with his remembrance of Robin. Steve is working on his own words that will come at a later time.

A Midseason Catch-Up with Chevrolet’s Rob Buckner

By Tony DiZinno

The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship is set to go down the wire with a mix of emerging young stars up against the talented, experienced veterans who are more hardened and battle-tested.

Similarly, the manufacturer’s championship is closer than it may appear at first glance too. Through nine races, Honda leads Chevrolet by only 28 points – 738 to 710 – at the conclusion of last Sunday’s Rev Group Grand Prix from Road America.

Chevrolet’s Rob Buckner. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – Joe Skibinski

TSO was among a handful of media members who caught up Friday with Rob Buckner, Chevrolet Racing Engineering Program Manager for IndyCar, to reflect on the manufacturer’s season so far and also discuss the road ahead as it is also preparing for INDYCAR’s new 2023 engine formula that will see displacement increase from the 2.2-liter twin-turbocharged Chevrolet Indy V6 up to 2.4 liters.

To summarize the year to this point, Buckner had a simple message: Chevrolet has been good, but not great. Yet.

“Across our whole program, I wouldn’t say we’re satisfied; the results and struggles during May speaks very clearly that there’s a lot of work to be done,” he explained.

“We’re trying to custom tailor our support package to each of our teams to make sure in some instances that we turn things around and in others keep them going in the right direction. There’s a lot to be working on at the moment.”

In 2021, Honda holds the edge in victories (6 to 3) while Chevrolet has more pole positions (4 to 3) in sessions where qualifying has occurred. Chevrolet has won the last three poles with Pato O’Ward in Detroit I, then Josef Newgarden in Detroit II and Road America.

In their second full seasons, Pato O’Ward (Arrow McLaren SP) and Rinus VeeKay (Ed Carpenter Racing) have won their first races and entered the championship picture sitting in second and sixth place, respectively.

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud also hold top-10 spots in fourth and fifth, with Will Power in 11th and just two points outside the top 10.


Penske’s Season So Far

The glaring statistic through nine races that jumps out is Team Penske’s lack of race wins to this point. As Steve has noted throughout the year, this run is the longest to start a season since Team Penske’s last winless campaign in 1999.

But with Penske having been oh so close to winning the last three races – Power and Newgarden have combined to lead 136 of 195 laps before either electrical gremlins or well-worn tires proved their undoing – Buckner noted it’s just been a freaky run of unfortunate circumstances all hitting at once.

Team Penske’s led plenty of laps, just not the right ones. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – Chris Owens

“The good news is over the last few events is we’ve shown up with quick race cars,” Buckner said. “Having been involved in motorsports for such a long time, if you keep showing up with fast race cars, eventually it’s going to be your day. So especially leaving Road America; I wish we weren’t coming up to an off weekend! I wish we were going to Mid-Ohio today to keep plugging away at it. We’re so close to getting a win with them; it just seems like the last few events haven’t unfolded in our favor.

“I don’t know how I could task the Chevrolet group with preparing for Detroit or Road America any differently. It’s just circumstance, and eventually we’re going to get there. Both camps are operating that way. Chevrolet, we’re going to help them the best we can and I know from talking to Tim Cindric and Ron Ruzewski, that side is putting in the most effort possible to make sure we can close out the year strong. So far it’s all been very positive dialogue with them. One, if we keep showing up with fast race cars and no one’s style is out of control, we’ll get some wins.”


Chevrolet’s Strength in Depth of Teams

The good news for the Chevrolet camp is that where Team Penske is yet to win a race, two of its other teams have, and those are the first non-Penske Chevrolet winners in five years. In fact it was Scott Dixon, in Chip Ganassi Racing’s second-to-last race with Chevrolet before switching to Honda, that was the last non-Penske Chevrolet win in IndyCar at Watkins Glen in 2016.

Pato O’Ward celebrates Detroit II win with General Motors President Mark Reuss. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – Joe Skibinski

Arrow McLaren SP has hit its stride with O’Ward’s No. 5 entry, hitting the jackpot on two occasions in Texas and at Newgarden’s expense in Detroit II.

The latter’s importance can’t be understated considering how pivotal the races are on Belle Isle to the brass watching from GM’s corporate headquarters at the Renaissance Center up the road, and who make it out to the track over the course of the weekend. That marked AMSP’s first win as the newly named entry since James Hinchcliffe’s Iowa win in 2018.

Ed Carpenter Racing’s winless drought ran even further back to 2016, Newgarden’s last year with the team, when he delivered a gritty and dominant drive at Iowa. That VeeKay’s win occurred for Carpenter at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the No. 21 Sonax machine also wasn’t lost on Buckner and Chevrolet.

“That’s an area we have worked hard to address is the depth of the Chevy program,” Buckner explained. “VeeKay in the 21 car and everyone at Ed Carpenter Racing have had their heads down and been digging the last couple years, so it’s been great to see them get some results with the 21 car.

“That was a really big win – seeing an Ed Carpenter Racing win at Indianapolis was really special for all of us being involved with him since 2012, Tim Broyles and that whole group. Really happy for them; their month of May performance wasn’t just great for them but it was great from the Chevrolet perspective.

Rinus VeeKay’s victory celebration matched the IMS wings. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – Joe Skibinski

“You mentioned Arrow McLaren SP, and that program has turned out to be pretty much everything we had hoped for when we laid that out a couple of years ago and where we could go. We’ve always been excited to have Pato in a Chevy in IndyCar; he’s a remarkable talent, and we’re hoping we can keep him in the Chevy family for a long time.”

Buckner also stressed the importance of “custom tailoring” solutions to ensure the continued progression of the manufacturer’s other full-time teams, A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Carlin Racing. Sebastien Bourdais opened the year with a solid fifth and 10th but has since been stuck 16th or worse in six of the last seven races aboard the No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet. Carlin’s Max Chilton got a result he’s been due for a while, with a top-10 coming last time out at Road America in his No. 59 Match Fit Pass entry.


Adapting to Driver Changes… and Extra Cars?

Chevrolet has had 11 full-time entries this year but not all of them have had the same drivers in each. To wit, Conor Daly has reprised his role as Carpenter’s primary road and street course driver in the No. 20 U.S. Air Force machine, then shifting to Carlin’s No. 59 car at Texas once Carpenter resumed his usual oval running and then back to Carpenter’s third car, the No. 47, at the Indianapolis 500.

Two other cars have had unplanned changes, with injuries sidelining VeeKay and Felix Rosenqvist in the last two races. It’s provided opportunities for Oliver Askew, who’s filled in admirably for both on short notice, and also for Kevin Magnussen, who made his IndyCar debut in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP car at Road America. And although the Dane, the first to run in IndyCar since Ronnie Bremer in Champ Car in 2005, had track experience from testing his Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R in May he was still thrown in at the deep end in an IndyCar.

Kevin Magnussen with Arrow McLaren SP and Chevrolet crew members pre-race at Road America. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – James Black

“I feel for Kevin because his seat fit was in the middle of last week and then Road America is a tough place to go into without a test,” Buckner explained. “A 45-minute session, you might get 2-3 representative laps. He was drinking from a firehose all weekend. The team really enjoyed working with him.

“His engine feedback was interesting. He had a lot of similarities to others; he said our package can be a little difficult to drive, nothing too surprising. It’s very impressive he drove the car for 45 minutes and basically gave us the same summary of strengths and weaknesses like guys like Bourdais and Pagenaud, who have driven this package on-and-off since 2012. That speaks to the talent he is.”

Buckner also said there has been a “lot of interest” regarding extra entries running one-off races later this year.

While it’s not his news to announce, he said he would not be surprised if Nashville, Long Beach and potentially other races have bumper grids thanks to returning teams fielding extra cars.

“For us, leaving the Indy 500, we have quite a few low-mileage engines due to our car count at Indy, so doing one-off entries later in the season is pretty easy for us from an engine perspective. We just need the people to be able to support that,” he said.

Extra cars would add another wrinkle to the championship battles, given the car count has already been a solid 23 to 25 in each race thus far.


Preparing for the Home Stretch

Keeping cars to four engines or less ensures they don’t go to a fifth, and therefore become ineligible to score manufacturer points. Through nine races, Bourdais’ No. 14 car is the only Chevrolet on its fourth engine. Honda has two on its fourth, and one of them is the championship leader, Alex Palou in his No. 10 NTT Data entry for Chip Ganassi Racing. Meyer Shank’s Jack Harvey is also on a fourth.

“The best thing we can do on our side is keep our entries to four engines or less for the year, because that keeps them points eligible,” Buckner said. “So there’s a big focus on making sure the 11 full-time entries are eligible to score points, particularly for the West Coast swing towards the end of the year. Because if some are on engine five, the situation could be close enough where that’s the deciding factor.

“The easiest way to ensure it is to go 1-2 and sit on the pole, and score the maximum 96 points. Focus on winning races and the manufacturer’s stuff will take care of itself!” Buckner laughed.

Special 10th season signage on the Chevrolet Indy V6 engine. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – Joe Skibinski

Chevrolet’s focus on reliability, performance and efficiency has served it well in its 10th season of competition since returning to the series in 2012.

The manufacturer achieved its 100th pole in that time frame with O’Ward in the Barber season opener. It’s at 92 wins with the three scored this year, so the 100th win will have to wait until at least 2022 even if Chevrolet swept the remaining seven races of 2021.

Chevrolet won six consecutive manufacturer’s championships from 2012 through 2017, but seeks to wrest the title back from Honda after three straight for the California-based arm of the Japanese company. They’re still in good position to do so depending on Mid-Ohio’s result, and then into the pair of tripleheaders in August and September that cap off the season.

And for proof of how far the engine development has come over 10 years, Buckner noted that a 2012 Chevrolet Indy V6 wouldn’t be near the competitive level it is now in 2021.

“You’d be making a 2012 engine, probably in the neighborhood of 100 horsepower down to current race engines, while being massively inefficient in comparison with poor drivability. It’s not a very refined package. I think if you could take a 2021 race engine and race it against a field of 2012 cars, it could probably lap the field! It would be unbelievable, and that would be a remarkable performance difference.

“But that shows how both suppliers have really pushed each other in development and have to continuously be getting better.”

It’s going to be an interesting road ahead to the rest of this season’s manufacturer battle and then into the final season of this formula in 2022.

TSO will have more on Buckner’s thoughts about how Chevrolet is preparing for 2022 and then 2023 in a further feature.

Will Power is NOT happy with INDYCAR race control

By Steve Wittich

After the 70-lap race, an emotional and upset Will Power from Team Penske talked to Kevin Lee from NBC Sports, saying:

I’m mad at INDYCAR. Because I’m the first car in, and they wait until the last car to come to get a fan on that car, and it roasted the ECU (Electronic Control Unit).

And, just going to a red flag, for starters. The guys up there in race control never listen to any drivers. They never listen; they don’t care. We’ve given them so many suggestions, and they don’t care.

I drove my ASS off today to have this happen!

I was screaming on the radio, ‘we need a fan, get a fan.” (from Lee, it wasn’t for you, it was for the car?). Yeah, because the ECU always overheats. They wait for everyone. These guys (behind me) still had air coming in the car.

You work your ass off in this sport. So much money goes into it and doesn’t, and it has dumb decisions like that.

Man, if it’s not a yellow they throw, it’s some stupid idea like this – a red flag. Gah.

The No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske crew was able to his power plant going again, but he finished 20th, three laps behind winner Marcus Ericsson. The Aussie was the dominant driver on the day, leading the most laps (37 years), turning the second quickest lap of the race and the fastest leader lap. Power had built over a one-second lead over Ericsson when Grosjean hit the wall in Turn 9.

Resend: Butch Welsh’s in-depth preview of the 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge

Note from Steve: Butch Welsch is a long-time friend and subscriber of TSO, and his Indianapolis 500 thoughts and predictions have become one of our favorite “Month Of May” traditions. He does such a great job of previewing this year’s race, I’m afraid I might find myself replaced on the “preview beat.” 

Note from Tony: We’d originally shipped Butch’s comprehensive preview earlier this week but due to a technical glitch, some of our subscribers may not have received it. So, to ensure we continue one of TSO’s longest standing “Month of May” traditions, and now with Carb Day complete, it’s just as good a time to ensure Butch’s preview hits your inboxes once more just to be safe.

Spoiler Alert! I always wanted to say that, but nothing I have ever written was that noteworthy. However, this spoiler is to protect TSO and the writer. While I do my very best in presenting my opinions of the upcoming 500, these opinions are not being presented to encourage you to bet your hard earned wages on my suggestions. With so many on-line betting options available now, I want you to know that these predictions are for purposes of discussion only. Therefore approach any parlor, bookie or on-line betting service at your own risk.

What makes the above statement even more important is how difficult it is to predict a winner for this 105th running of the race. As previous readers will know, I typically divide the field approximately in thirds. The first group consists of those drivers who are most likely to drink the milk. The second group is those who have a possibility of winning if misfortune befalls several in group one. The last group is those who help make up the field of 33, but for a number of reasons they are very unlikely to be the first to pull into victory lane.

The problem this year is that there seems to be a real “changing of the guard” in Indy Car. In the first races of the season, a number of youngsters have stolen the spotlight from the traditional veterans. There have been three first time winners (Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Rinus Veekay) in the first five races, with 21 year old Colton Herta winning one and the fifth by veteran, Scott Dixon. The question is whether or not these young speedsters will be able to translate their aggressive driving style into an Indy 500 win. To quote four time winner, Rick Mears: “To finish first, you must first finish”. Rick always coaches his drivers to drive conservatively to be around for the last 50 -100 miles. Will the young guns have that patience?

Enough about the excuses as to why this task is going to be difficult. Here are my thoughts on the possibilities of this year’s 33 fastest qualifiers. 

I’m going to cheat slightly on my “groups of three” predictions. This year I am adding a Group 1A. The reason is that one driver stands out from the crowd and appears to be more likely than any of the other 32 to take home the big prize. That is Scott Dixon and his Chip Ganassi entered PNC Bank car. Scott captured his sixth season championship last year and is one of the five winners this year. Perhaps the only minor hole in his resume is that he has “only” one Indy 500 win, that back in 2008. However, he nearly won last year and seems to be getting better with age. I know he would like to add another Baby Borg to his trophy cabinet, and seems to be ready this year. Another stat that might make Scotty more likely to win is that Chip Ganassi’s last win at the Speedway was in 2012. You know that no one would like to take home a bunch of Roger Penske’s money than Chip. Keep an eye on number 9.

Next comes group number 1- those most likely to drink the milk if something happens to Dixon. That group starts with drivers from the Andretti Autosports team. Surprisingly, the most likely from Michael’s team is the youngest, Colton Herta. He already has Indy Car wins in his resume and came within a blink of the eye of being the youngest pole sitter in 500 history last Sunday. There is no doubt he will be fast. If his dad, Bryan, can coach him to control his aggression, it would not be surprising at all to see Colton in victory lane. Michael’s teams have certainly proven that they are capable.

Next from the Andretti stable is 7th starting Ryan Hunter Reay. A previous winner in 2014, and with top-tens in each of the last three years, if this popular driver can find a little more speed at the end, he could challenge for the victory. 

Normally, Alexander Rossi would be higher on the list of likely winners. After his 2016 win, he had finishes of 7th, 4th, 2nd and then last year was battling Scott Dixon for the lead when a pit error relegated him to the back of a pack where passing was nearly impossible. Thus every year he has been competitive at the Speedway. However, this year, in addition to qualifying only 10th fastest in the field, his record in the first five races has given the impression that all is not right in the Rossi camp. His past Speedway record means he has to be considered a favorite, but will his recent record of mistakes take him out of contention as it did in 2020? 

Ed Carpenter will start on the inside of row 2, on Sunday. He has three pole wins at the Speedway and a second and sixth in 2018 and 2019 respectively. His cars have always had speed but that qualifying speed has not always translated into fast cars in traffic.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      A win by Ed would be extremely popular as he is a hometown boy who is well-liked by fans at the track.  If he can stay in the hunt and get into the lead near the end this could be his year.    

A very popular previous winner with a good shot this year is veteran Tony Kanaan. Tony finally won the Borg Warner trophy in 2013 for KV Racing. While he has moved around since then and has only competed in oval events recently, the fact that he is part of the Chip Ganassi racing team gives him his best chance in years. I can still remember the cheer that erupted when he won 8 years ago. I can only imagine the roar there would be if TK would win in this, what may be his final year in Indy Car. It would be sad to see this popular champion hang up his helmet without another 500 win.  

It seems unusual to see Helio Castroneves in anything but a Penske car. However he has shown real speed in this one off run with Meyer Shank Racing. Helio continues to show the same spirit and enthusiasm he exuded when he first came to the Speedway and won as a rookie in 2001. The fans would be delighted to see “Spiderman” climb the fence a fourth time to join Foyt, Mears and Unser, Sr. in the Four Winner’s Club.

Perhaps a surprise addition to my Likely category is Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward. This youngster has been fast since he first joined Indy Car. After a couple of near misses, he won the only pre-Indy oval race at Texas earlier this May. Arrow McLaren has seemed to turn their program around and appear to be competitive. If Pato can control his aggression and the team gives him the proper pit stops, I know he is fast enough to challenge for the top spot. In any cases I think he will be exciting to watch.

Most surprisingly, the last additions to my Likely group come from Team Penske. Their performance was certainly the surprise of qualifying. The fact that Will Power had to survive the back row shootout is one of the biggest stories of qualifying in recent years.

However, it wasn’t just Will. Josef Newgarden, two time series champion, only managed a 21st starting spot, while 2019 winner, Simon Pagenaud, could do no better than 26th. It is difficult to explain the Penske team’s inability to be near the front this year. While Hondas dominated the top nine, there are two Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolets in the top four. The engine doesn’t seem to be the problem. 

Prior to the month of May, with Newgarden’s known speed and the pedigree of two championships, I would have considered him up there with Dixon as a very likely winner. His average finish record at the Speedway over the last three years of 5.7 is the best of all competitors. Since his win in 2019, Pagenaud has seemed re-invigorated and with an average finish of less than 10 the last three years would normally be considered likely.

For some reason, however, the Penske cars never could find the speed in qualifications. Penske’s record at the Speedway indicates that they can find ways to win. As a result, with some differing race strategies and cars that have race pace, you can never count out a Penske team. Therefore, I have to include Newgarden, Pagenaud, and Power in my Likely group.

It was extremely hard to draw a line between the Likely group and the Possible group this year, so I won’t be surprised if many of you have differing opinions. But after all, this is an exercise in drawing attention to this weekend’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing. 

Rinus Veekay from Ed Carpenter Racing was a surprise two weekends in a row. First he won the GMR Race on the Indy road course and then followed that up with a qualifying run on the oval which puts him outside the front row. We know the Ed Carpenter Racing team is fast and if they can provide efficiency in the pits, Rinus could be a surprise winner. 

Also from Ed Carpenter Racing is Conor Daly. Conor was near the top of the speed charts in practice before qualifying and even in the post qualifying practice. He indicated that they made some adjustments which just didn’t work out, which is why he is only starting in 19th position. Conor feels extremely confident in his chances this year and he would be a very popular winner. Not only because of his own popularity but also because of his car owner. In any case it should be very interesting to see Conor and Josef Newgarden moving through the field from their 7th row starting positions.

Continuing the Possibility group, we are back to the Chip Ganassi Racing team. With Dixon and Kanaan in the top group, it is not surprising that Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson would be in group 2. Palou, who won the opening race of the season at Barber is starting on the outside of row #2. The fact he took that spot after pancaking the wall near the end of the day on Saturday says a lot about this young man. Chip, like Roger Penske, has always had an eye for talent. The fact that Chip plucked him after just one year in the series, is an indication of the confidence the team has in this young driver.

Finally, the fourth driver in the Chip Ganassi stable is Marcus Ericsson. He rather quietly managed to make the fast nine and with the Ganassi team backing could be a surprise top finisher on race day.

It may seem surprising for me to move last year’s winner and 2017 champion only in the Possible group. The reason is that except for his wins, Takuma Sato’s results at the Speedway have not been all that impressive. In addition we have to take into consideration the likelihood of ANYONE having back-to -back wins at the Speedway. The last time it happened was Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002. From there you have to go all the way to 1970 and 1971 when Al Unser, Sr. captured back–to-back wins. A Sato win, while not impossible would be a real surprise. 

A more likely probability is Sato’s teammate at Rahal Letterman Racing. That is Graham Rahal. Graham has a decent 13.3 average finish the last three years and seems to have matured into a good, steady driver. So far he seems to be one of those drivers whom bad luck seems to follow. If this is the year when everything falls into place, then Graham could easily find himself in victory lane. 

James Hinchcliffe falls into the Possible group not only because he is fast and would be a popular winner, but also because this year he has a full time ride with Andretti Autosports. If the Andretti pedigree and not the curse follow Hinch, then there would be a gigantic roar from the crowd if he crossed the line first. 

It was difficult to not put Rookie Scott McLaughlin in the Likely group. Scott has shown speed since he first entered Indy Car and has been quick all month. In fact, he was the highest qualifying of all of the Penske drivers. However, rookies, especially those with very little experience in the series, are not usually able to do everything it takes to finish first after 500 miles. Alexander Rossi was in a similar role and did it in 2016, so it isn’t’ impossible, however I’ll stick with Possible as opposed to Likely despite the Penske backing.

There are two “sleepers” in this field, either one of which could be a big surprise on race day. The first is Juan Pablo Montoya. He already has two Indy wins to his credit separated by 15 years (2000 – 2015) which in itself is amazing. It proves he knows how to be around at the end. This time he is with Arrow McLaren, and their ability to compete for 500 miles with Ganassi, Andretti and Penske comes in question. If you are looking for a dark horse, Juan just might be your choice. 

The second sleeper is Sebastien Bourdais, driving for A.J. Foyt racing. Sebastien’s record of CART Championships is amazing so he definitely is familiar with winning. Whether the Foyt team can provide him with the car and the timely pitstops will determine whether or not Likely would have been more appropriate for him.

Next we come to the group which for a number of reasons is very unlikely to be the first one to victory lane. The major obstacle this year is the depth of the field and the extremely strong list of both Likely and Possible teams. The fact that there is so little difference in times and speeds, means that everything has to be perfectly in place for a top finish. With so many teams excelling in so many areas, those top finishes are that much more difficult. So here is the remainder of the field.

We will start with Ed Jones and Pietro Fittipaldi. Ed Jones has driven quickly enough that he might have been included in the Possible category, however, while Dale Coyne’s team has had some success in Indy Car, the ability to perform 8 – 10 pit stops flawlessly and to keep up with the changing track conditions is very difficult for a small team. As a result, I believe a top-ten finish for Ed would be a good result. The situation is similar for Pietro Fitipaldi, the other Dale Coyne entry. He has the extra handicap of being an oval-only driver for the team. There is so much to be said for the establishment of team chemistry and consistency which goes along with not only a full time ride, but a multi-year ride as well. Hopefully Pietro can keep it clean and end up in the top 20.

Felix Rosenquist is with Arrow McLaren this year in a move from Ganassi. Unfortunately, Felix has not seemed to live up to his original potential as emphasized by the fact that he was replaced at Ganassi. While Arrow McLaren definitely seems to be improved and on the upswing, it is hard to imagine that someone who couldn’t make the top ten with Ganassi is going to fare very much better with Arrow McLaren.

I had some trouble making a decision with regard to Jack Harvey. Although he has seemed to pick up his game this year and show more speed, his record of 16th, 21st, and 9th in the last 3 years does not send a message that this is someone who is ready to land on the podium. While he might be a surprise, I believe a 9th place finish similar to last year would be a good outcome for Jack and his Meyer Shank Racing team. 

Santonio Ferrucci is making this start with Team Rahal. Santonio showed some promise with Dale Coyne racing, but once released decided to try a full time ride in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Therefore, this ride in the 500 is just a one-off ride for him and the team. It would have been interesting to see how Santonio progressed in Indy Cars given a more extended training period and perhaps a more seasoned crew. One-off rides typically do not end up being very successful in the 500, so he is another that should  probably be pleased with a top 15 finish and a car in one piece.

Two cars from the A.J. Foyt stable are, unfortunately, ones destined for 10th to 20th place finishes. J.R. Hildebrand is driving a beautiful #1 patterned after the car A.J. drove to his first 500 victory in 1961. There are many fans who would love to see J.R. enjoy a successful day at the Speedway. Those of us who remember him standing alongside his wrecked car in turn #1 after hitting the wall less than a mile away from victory in 2011, will not soon forget him looking to the sky apparently saying, “Why me?”

Unfortunately he is not likely to be in that position this year.

The other A.J. Foyt entry is Dalton Kellett. He is in his second year with Foyt Racing and managed to squeeze into the field on Saturday and thus avoid the pressure cooker of the last row shootout. This youngster has potential but given that he has only one race, finishing 31st last year and given the team’s recent lack of success, I would think he should be very happy with a top 20 and a car which could be driven onto the hauler.

It seems unusual that I am this far along before getting to the 2020 pole sitter, Marco Andretti. However, Marco is only doing the 500 this year. Given his average finish of 18 the last three years as a full time driver for Andretti Autosports, it is very hard to imagine that this third generation driver can be near the front at the end. A top 10 wouldn’t be out of the question, but much higher is unlikely.

The final driver from the Andretti stable is Stefan Wilson. This is another one-off ride and it is very hard to accomplish much from the 28th starting position, especially without a lot of seat time. I am hopeful that Stefan will have a steady safe day and should be proud to be in the top 20 at the end.

Next comes 29th starter Max Chilton with Carlin Racing. In all honesty, it has been surprising that, given Carlin’s success in Europe, that they have not progressed further up the Indy Car ladder. Max seems to be a steady driver, but for whatever reason the team has not achieved the same level of success to which they had been accustomed. Probably a top 15 is the best that Max can hope to achieve.

Sage Karam is again back with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Hats off to Dennis Reinbold for his continuing support of the 500. It is local 500 enthusiasts, like him, which help insure that we have a 33 car starting field. Sage’s recent 3 year average finish of 23rd probably indicates that this team would be delighted with a top 15 result.

Finally there is Simona de Silvestro, back for her sixth start at Indy after being away since 2015. She is driving for the mostly female Paretta Autosport Team and the fan enthusiasm for her participation has been amazing. She managed to beat out veteran Charlie Kimball and rookie R.C. Enerson to take a pressure filled 33rd starting position. Many fans, both male and female are going to be watching to see Simona progress from that last row starting spot. I would think that a top 20 for this new team would seem like a podium.

There you have it. This is one fan’s predictions/guesses for a race which is virtually impossible to handicap. Hopefully I have given you some food for thought and fodder for discussion with your fellow race fans.

Mainly we are all wishing for a safe and exciting race on Sunday. Enjoy this year’s version of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Butch Welsh’s in-depth preview of the 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge

Note from Steve: Butch Welsch is a long-time friend and subscriber of TSO, and his Indianapolis 500 thoughts and predictions have become one of our favorite “Month Of May” traditions. He does such a great job of previewing this year’s race, I’m afraid I might find myself replaced on the “preview beat.” 

Spoiler Alert! I always wanted to say that, but nothing I have ever written was that noteworthy. However, this spoiler is to protect TSO and the writer. While I do my very best in presenting my opinions of the upcoming 500, these opinions are not being presented to encourage you to bet your hard earned wages on my suggestions. With so many on-line betting options available now, I want you to know that these predictions are for purposes of discussion only. Therefore approach any parlor, bookie or on-line betting service at your own risk.

What makes the above statement even more important is how difficult it is to predict a winner for this 105th running of the race. As previous readers will know, I typically divide the field approximately in thirds. The first group consists of those drivers who are most likely to drink the milk. The second group is those who have a possibility of winning if misfortune befalls several in group one. The last group is those who help make up the field of 33, but for a number of reasons they are very unlikely to be the first to pull into victory lane.

The problem this year is that there seems to be a real “changing of the guard” in Indy Car. In the first races of the season, a number of youngsters have stolen the spotlight from the traditional veterans. There have been three first time winners (Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Rinus Veekay) in the first five races, with 21 year old Colton Herta winning one and the fifth by veteran, Scott Dixon. The question is whether or not these young speedsters will be able to translate their aggressive driving style into an Indy 500 win. To quote four time winner, Rick Mears: “To finish first, you must first finish”. Rick always coaches his drivers to drive conservatively to be around for the last 50 -100 miles. Will the young guns have that patience?

Enough about the excuses as to why this task is going to be difficult. Here are my thoughts on the possibilities of this year’s 33 fastest qualifiers. 

I’m going to cheat slightly on my “groups of three” predictions. This year I am adding a Group 1A. The reason is that one driver stands out from the crowd and appears to be more likely than any of the other 32 to take home the big prize. That is Scott Dixon and his Chip Ganassi entered PNC Bank car. Scott captured his sixth season championship last year and is one of the five winners this year. Perhaps the only minor hole in his resume is that he has “only” one Indy 500 win, that back in 2008. However, he nearly won last year and seems to be getting better with age. I know he would like to add another Baby Borg to his trophy cabinet, and seems to be ready this year. Another stat that might make Scotty more likely to win is that Chip Ganassi’s last win at the Speedway was in 2012. You know that no one would like to take home a bunch of Roger Penske’s money than Chip. Keep an eye on number 9.

Next comes group number 1- those most likely to drink the milk if something happens to Dixon. That group starts with drivers from the Andretti Autosports team. Surprisingly, the most likely from Michael’s team is the youngest, Colton Herta. He already has Indy Car wins in his resume and came within a blink of the eye of being the youngest pole sitter in 500 history last Sunday. There is no doubt he will be fast. If his dad, Bryan, can coach him to control his aggression, it would not be surprising at all to see Colton in victory lane. Michael’s teams have certainly proven that they are capable.

Next from the Andretti stable is 7th starting Ryan Hunter Reay. A previous winner in 2014, and with top-tens in each of the last three years, if this popular driver can find a little more speed at the end, he could challenge for the victory. 

Normally, Alexander Rossi would be higher on the list of likely winners. After his 2016 win, he had finishes of 7th, 4th, 2nd and then last year was battling Scott Dixon for the lead when a pit error relegated him to the back of a pack where passing was nearly impossible. Thus every year he has been competitive at the Speedway. However, this year, in addition to qualifying only 10th fastest in the field, his record in the first five races has given the impression that all is not right in the Rossi camp. His past Speedway record means he has to be considered a favorite, but will his recent record of mistakes take him out of contention as it did in 2020? 

Ed Carpenter will start on the inside of row 2, on Sunday. He has three pole wins at the Speedway and a second and sixth in 2018 and 2019 respectively. His cars have always had speed but that qualifying speed has not always translated into fast cars in traffic.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    A win by Ed would be extremely popular as he is a hometown boy who is well-liked by fans at the track.  If he can stay in the hunt and get into the lead near the end this could be his year.    

A very popular previous winner with a good shot this year is veteran Tony Kanaan. Tony finally won the Borg Warner trophy in 2013 for KV Racing. While he has moved around since then and has only competed in oval events recently, the fact that he is part of the Chip Ganassi racing team gives him his best chance in years. I can still remember the cheer that erupted when he won 8 years ago. I can only imagine the roar there would be if TK would win in this, what may be his final year in Indy Car. It would be sad to see this popular champion hang up his helmet without another 500 win.  

It seems unusual to see Helio Castroneves in anything but a Penske car. However he has shown real speed in this one off run with Meyer Shank racing. Helio continues to show the same spirit and enthusiasm he exuded when he first came to the Speedway and won as a rookie in 2001. The fans would be delighted to see “Spiderman” climb the fence a fourth time to join Foyt, Mears and Unser, Sr. in the Four Winner’s Club.

Perhaps a surprise addition to my Likely category is Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward. This youngster has been fast since he first joined Indy Car. After a couple of near misses, he won the only pre-Indy oval race at Texas earlier this May. Arrow McLaren has seemed to turn their program around and appear to be competitive. If Pato can control his aggression and the team gives him the proper pit stops, I know he is fast enough to challenge for the top spot. In any cases I think he will be exciting to watch.

Most surprisingly, the last additions to my Likely group come from Team Penske. Their performance was certainly the surprise of qualifying. The fact that Will Power had to survive the back row shootout is one of the biggest stories of qualifying in recent years.

However, it wasn’t just Will. Josef Newgarden, two time series champion, only managed a 21st starting spot, while 2019 winner, Simon Pagenaud, could do no better than 26th. It is difficult to explain the Penske team’s inability to be near the front this year. While Hondas dominated the top nine, there are two Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolets in the top four. The engine doesn’t seem to be the problem. 

Prior to the month of May, with Newgarden’s known speed and the pedigree of two championships, I would have considered him up there with Dixon as a very likely winner. His average finish record at the Speedway over the last three years of 5.7 is the best of all competitors. Since his win in 2019, Pagenaud has seemed re-invigorated and with an average finish of less than 10 the last three years would normally be considered likely.

For some reason, however, the Penske cars never could find the speed in qualifications. Penske’s record at the Speedway indicates that they can find ways to win. As a result, with some differing race strategies and cars that have race pace, you can never count out a Penske team. Therefore, I have to include Newgarden, Pagenaud, and Power in my Likely group.

It was extremely hard to draw a line between the Likely group and the Possible group this year, so I won’t be surprised if many of you have differing opinions. But after all, this is an exercise in drawing attention to this weekend’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing. 

Rinus Veekay from Ed Carpenter Racing was a surprise two weekends in a row. First he won the GMR Race on the Indy road course and then followed that up with a qualifying run on the oval which puts him outside the front row. We know the Ed Carpenter Racing team is fast and if they can provide efficiency in the pits, Rinus could be a surprise winner. 

Also from Ed Carpenter Racing is Conor Daly. Conor was near the top of the speed charts in practice before qualifying and even in the post qualifying practice. He indicated that they made some adjustments which just didn’t work out, which is why he is only starting in 19th position. Conor feels extremely confident in his chances this year and he would be a very popular winner. Not only because of his own popularity but also because of his car owner. In any case it should be very interesting to see Conor and Josef Newgarden moving through the field from their 7th row starting positions.

Continuing the Possibility group, we are back to the Chip Ganassi Racing team. With Dixon and Kanaan in the top group, it is not surprising that Alex Palou and Marcus Ericson would be in group 2. Palou, who won the opening race of the season at Barber is starting on the outside of row #2. The fact he took that spot after pancaking the wall near the end of the day on Saturday says a lot about this young man. Chip, like Roger Penske, has always had an eye for talent. The fact that Chip plucked him after just one year in the series, is an indication of the confidence the team has in this young driver.

Finally, the fourth driver in the Chip Ganassi stable is Marcus Ericsson. He rather quietly managed to make the fast nine and with the Ganassi team backing could be a surprise top finisher on race day.

It may seem surprising for me to move last year’s winner and 2017 champion only in the Possible group. The reason is that except for his wins, Takuma Sato’s results at the Speedway have not been all that impressive. In addition we have to take into consideration the likelihood of ANYONE having back-to -back wins at the Speedway. The last time it happened was Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002. From there you have to go all the way to 1970 and 1971 when Al Unser, Sr. captured back–to-back wins. A Sato win, while not impossible would be a real surprise. 

A more likely probability is Sato’s teammate at Rahal Letterman Racing. That is Graham Rahal. Graham has a decent 13.3 average finish the last three years and seems to have matured into a good, steady driver. So far he seems to be one of those drivers whom bad luck seems to follow. If this is the year when everything falls into place, then Graham could easily find himself in victory lane. 

James Hinchcliffe falls into the Possible group not only because he is fast and would be a popular winner, but also because this year he has a full time ride with Andretti Autosports. If the Andretti pedigree and not the curse follow Hinch, then there would be a gigantic roar from the crowd if he crossed the line first. 

It was difficult to not put Rookie Scott McLaughlin in the Likely group. Scott has shown speed since he first entered Indy Car and has been quick all month. In fact, he was the highest qualifying of all of the Penske drivers. However, rookies, especially those with very little experience in the series, are not usually able to do everything it takes to finish first after 500 miles. Alexander Rossi was in a similar role and did it in 2016, so it isn’t’ impossible, however I’ll stick with Possible as opposed to Likely despite the Penske backing.

There are two “sleepers” in this field, either one of which could be a big surprise on race day. The first is Juan Pablo Montoya. He already has two Indy wins to his credit separated by 15 years (2000 – 2015) which in itself is amazing. It proves he knows how to be around at the end. This time he is with Arrow McLaren, and their ability to compete for 500 miles with Ganassi, Andretti and Penske comes in question. If you are looking for a dark horse, Juan just might be your choice. 

The second sleeper is Sebastien Bourdais, driving for A.J. Foyt racing. Sebastien’s record of CART Championships is amazing so he definitely is familiar with winning. Whether the Foyt team can provide him with the car and the timely pitstops will determine whether or not Likely would have been more appropriate for him.

Next we come to the group which for a number of reasons is very unlikely to be the first one to victory lane. The major obstacle this year is the depth of the field and the extremely strong list of both Likely and Possible teams. The fact that there is so little difference in times and speeds, means that everything has to be perfectly in place for a top finish. With so many teams excelling in so many areas, those top finishes are that much more difficult. So here is the remainder of the field.

We will start with Ed Jones and Pietro Fittipaldi. Ed Jones has driven quickly enough that he might have been included in the Possible category, however, while Dale Coyne’s team has had some success in Indy Car, the ability to perform 8 – 10 pit stops flawlessly and to keep up with the changing track conditions is very difficult for a small team. As a result, I believe a top-ten finish for Ed would be a good result. The situation is similar for Pietro Fitipaldi, the other Dale Coyne entry. He has the extra handicap of being an oval-only driver for the team. There is so much to be said for the establishment of team chemistry and consistency which goes along with not only a full time ride, but a multi-year ride as well. Hopefully Pietro can keep it clean and end up in the top 20.

Felix Rosenquist is with Arrow McLaren this year in a move from Ganassi. Unfortunately, Felix has not seemed to live up to his original potential as emphasized by the fact that he was replaced at Ganassi. While Arrow McLaren definitely seems to be improved and on the upswing, it is hard to imagine that someone who couldn’t make the top ten with Ganassi is going to fare very much better with Arrow McLaren.

I had some trouble making a decision with regard to Jack Harvey. Although he has seemed to pick up his game this year and show more speed, his record of 16th, 21st, and 9th in the last 3 years does not send a message that this is someone who is ready to land on the podium. While he might be a surprise, I believe a 9th place finish similar to last year would be a good outcome for Jack and his Meyer Shank Racing team. 

Santonio Ferrucci is making this start with Team Rahal. Santonio showed some promise with Dale Coyne racing, but once released decided to try a full time ride in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Therefore, this ride in the 500 is just a one-off ride for him and the team. It would have been interesting to see how Santonio progressed in Indy Cars given a more extended training period and perhaps a more seasoned crew. One-off rides typically do not end up being very successful in the 500, so he is another that should  probably be pleased with a top 15 finish and a car in one piece.

Two cars from the A.J. Foyt stable are, unfortunately, ones destined for 10th to 20th place finishes. J.R. Hildebrand is driving a beautiful #1 patterned after the car A.J. drove to his first 500 victory in 1961. There are many fans who would love to see J.R. enjoy a successful day at the Speedway. Those of us who remember him standing alongside his wrecked car in turn #1 after hitting the wall less than a mile away from victory in 2011, will not soon forget him looking to the sky apparently saying, “Why me?”

Unfortunately he is not likely to be in that position this year.

The other A.J. Foyt entry is Dalton Kellett. He is in his second year with Foyt Racing and managed to squeeze into the field on Saturday and thus avoid the pressure cooker of the last row shootout. This youngster has potential but given that he has only one race, finishing 31st last year and given the team’s recent lack of success, I would think he should be very happy with a top 20 and a car which could be driven onto the hauler.

It seems unusual that I am this far along before getting to the 2020 pole sitter, Marco Andretti. However, Marco is only doing the 500 this year. Given his average finish of 18 the last three years as a full time driver for Andretti Autosports, it is very hard to imagine that this third generation driver can be near the front at the end. A top 10 wouldn’t be out of the question, but much higher is unlikely.

The final driver from the Andretti stable is Stefan Wilson. This is another one-off ride and it is very hard to accomplish much from the 28th starting position, especially without a lot of seat time. I am hopeful that Stefan will have a steady safe day and should be proud to be in the top 20 at the end.

Next comes 29th starter Max Chilton with Carlin Racing. In all honesty, it has been surprising that, given Carlin’s success in Europe, that they have not progressed further up the Indy Car ladder. Max seems to be a steady driver, but for whatever reason the team has not achieved the same level of success to which they had been accustomed. Probably a top 15 is the best that Max can hope to achieve.

Sage Karem is again back with Dreyer Reinbold Racing. Hats off to Dennis Reinbold for his continuing support of the 500. It is local 500 enthusiasts, like him, which help insure that we have a 33 car starting field. Sage’s recent 3 year average finish of 23rd probably indicates that this team would be delighted with a top 15 result.

Finally there is Simona de Silvestro, back for her sixth start at Indy after being away since 2015. She is driving for the mostly female Paretta Autosport Team and the fan enthusiasm for her participation has been amazing. She managed to beat out veteran Charlie Kimball and rookie R.C. Enerson to take a pressure filled 33rd starting position. Many fans, both male and female are going to be watching to see Simona progress from that last row starting spot. I would think that a top 20 for this new team would seem like a podium.

There you have it. This is one fan’s predictions/guesses for a race which is virtually impossible to handicap. Hopefully I have given you some food for thought and fodder for discussion with your fellow race fans.

Mainly we are all wishing for a safe and exciting race on Sunday. Enjoy this year’s version of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Michael Andretti provides path for Wheldon boys

By Brant James

The image is poignant a decade later.

Dan Wheldon, the former IndyCar champion, having just become a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, cradling his toddler son, Sebastian, while his wife, Susie, holds newborn Oliver at the yard of bricks. Dan Wheldon, as usual, beaming.

Dan, Susie, Oliver & Sebastian Wheldon pose with the Borg-Warner Trophy the day after Wheldon won his second Indianapolis 500 in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

On that May afternoon in Indianapolis, the charismatic Brit, who’d grown from a sometimes brash but always charismatic upstart to the doting family man, had taken advantage of a late mistake by JR Hildebrand to win open-wheel racing’s most significant event in a darkhorse Bryan Herta/Curb Agajanian entry. 

Dan Wheldon celebrates his 2011 Indianapolis 500 win (Photo Courtesy of LAT Photo USA /Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

He would race just one more time that season before going to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the season’s final race. That weekend, he would sign a deal to rejoin the Andretti Autosport team that launched his career in North America. The next hard-earned phase for the new Dan Wheldon was about to begin at 33.

Wheldon died after being involved in a multi-car crash on Lap 13 at Las Vegas, leaving pictures instead of memories for boys who were so young.

The Wheldon’s took a new picture on Saturday at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, at the course where Dan won the first installment in 2005, and in the city where the family still lives all these years later.

There was Sebastian, 12, and Oliver, 10, and Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti in front of the plaque commemorating Wheldon’s life and career near Turn 10 as the boys were brought into the fold through a mentorship program.

The goal: to eventually put them back on the Yard of Bricks with their own Borg-Warner Trophy.

The plan: The Wheldon’s will brandish Andretti marks in the Rok Cup USA, Super Karts USA, and the United States Pro Kart Series with JC Karting and extensive support from an Andretti program with a history of developing talent.

Andretti, who saw Wheldon claim the first nine of his 16 career wins, and the 2005 title and Indianapolis 500 with his team before leaving for Ganassi Racing in 2006, said it was incomprehensible ten years had passed, even with the boys – themselves national-level winners – standing there as proof.

“It seems like it was just yesterday,” said the team owner.

Sebastian began racing at age 5, two years before Oliver finally asked to try. Sebastian’s leading of the field to green in media/celebrity races preceding the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg over the years had long been a hint at where this could be going.

Susie Wheldon has sacrificed to make this come true for her boys. She’s not remarried, so the job was her’s alone despite valuable help from the IndyCar community, including Scott Dixon, Andretti, and Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull, who also lives in St. Petersburg. She’s gone from a mother indulging a child in a passion to learning another side of the game that her previous roles as a media relations rep and wife of a driver couldn’t illuminate.

She closed the niche clothing boutique she opened in St. Petersburg in 2017 because her sons’ travel, racing, and online school became too time-consuming.

“That girl has really given up her life for her kids,” Andretti said. “I love what she’s doing.”

Once the boys advanced to national-series racing with success – they’re back to New Castle, Ind., on Wednesday to prep for another event – the mother conferred with her husband’s former manager, Adrian Sussman, to formulate a strategy to bring on more help. She and Andretti began working on the eventual deal eight months ago. Initial plans will have the boys remain in Florida to further their kart careers as the minimum age to enter the Road to Indy Series is 14.

Susie Wheldon wish son Sebastian good luck Photo Courtesy of INDYCAR – James Black)

Drivers aren’t often comfortable reconciling their mortality against the dangerous job they chose and the families that can only be supportive. But a grieving IndyCar community enveloped Susie Wheldon in the years after her husband’s death, and Sebastian and Oliver found mentors and unofficial uncles throughout the paddock.

Dan Wheldon often joked about how quickly he would get Sebastian into a go-kart. He could only stand it for 18 months, taking laps with his boy at Andersen RacePark South of St. Petersburg. 

Sebastian’s first ride of his own came at age 4½ when Top Kart gave him one as a gift. His first ride alone was at the same track where his father had shown him the thrill of it all.

Through this journey, Susie Wheldon said she remains realistic. “I’m not naive enough to think that just because they’re Dan Wheldon’s kids, they’re going to be great race car drivers,” she said.

Sebastian bears a strong resemblance to his mother; Oliver looks more like his father. Both already exhibit the type of poise that allows children to undertake a media session at a professional auto race with hardly a bobble. The polish required to charm sponsors and woo media is already developing after just a few years slogging around the high-level kart circuits in the Southeast and Midwest.

The more interesting stuff – the budding Wheldon joy of conversation – bubbles out when they recall racing each other.

“Not good,” Oliver said of his experience battling big brother. “There was one race in Orlando when I was winning, and he tried to pass me and put me in the grass, and I didn’t win the championship because of that.” Sebastian quickly interjected, “But the next race, we helped each other.”

Sebastian’s only brief stumble came when enunciating the source of the talent. “I think it all comes from our blood ……. and it helps us be better drivers,” he said.

And their favorite memory from watching a video of their father’s races?

“I think it was in the Indy 500; I think it was 2005 when he won it,” Oliver said. And Sebastian? “My favorite was when he won the one in 2011. He never gave up, and he won.”

Susie Wheldon undoubtedly understands that bad things can happen to loved ones in race cars. But still, they push on.

“Obviously, that thought is there,” she said. “But it’s not something I dwell on or think about a lot. Everything has kind of happened naturally, and I’ve just kind of kept going with it. I can’t deny them that.

“I would not want them to come to me when they’re 16 or 17 and say, ‘Mom, I want to have a go,’ and it’s too late.

“If they came to me in two, three, five years and said ‘This is not what we want to do,’ OK, we can walk away knowing this is something we tried.”

As a member of a multi-generation racing family, Andretti appreciates the quest. His 7-year-old son Rio, as in “Mario,” is currently racing karts, too. Susie Wheldon values “the passing down of the baton that runs deep in racing.” And in the Wheldon boys. 

“He was a good driver,” Sebastian said of his father. “And I want to be a little bit better than him.”

Today, as his mother said, “We found the path.”

Susie, Sebastian, and Oliver Wheldon with Michael Andretti in front of the Dan Wheldon memorial in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Photo Courtesy of INDYCAR – Chris Owens)

Penske Entertainment Corp. Provides Race for Equality & Change Update

INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020 – Penske Entertainment Corp. announced several significant steps this morning related to its ongoing Race for Equality & Change initiative. This includes a major expansion of its relationship with NXG Youth Motorsports Inc. (NXG), a 501c3 that introduces minority students to motorsports.

NXG uses the world of motorsports to provide students access to STEM curriculum, career pathways and valuable life lessons,” said Penske Entertainment Corp. President & CEO Mark Miles. “We’re thrilled to partner with Coach Rod Reid to support his tremendous work and the expansion of his program.”

In addition, Jimmie McMillian was named Chief Diversity Officer for Penske Entertainment Corp. McMillian has been Senior Corporate Counsel for IMS and INDYCAR since 2016 and is nationally recognized as a strong and consistent voice for diversity in the legal profession. He is charged with leading the ongoing implementation of vital Race for Equality & Change pillars.

“Jimmie is an impactful leader and a strong voice for inclusivity and diversity,” Miles said. “His experience, perspectives and community relationships will be a tremendous asset in this role. We’re grateful to have him guiding this significant and important effort for us.”

NXG Expansion 

Penske Entertainment Corp., owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) and INDYCAR, has teamed up with several corporate partners to provide increased funding and resources to NXG. More than half a million dollars in funds and in-kind contributions have been raised, with key donations coming from program title sponsor Lucas Oil, Penske Entertainment Corp., LifeSecure Insurance Company and Snap-on Incorporated.

NXG will also be provided a permanent garage at IMS with brand-new tools from Snap-on.

The increased funding and infrastructure further the program in several important ways, including allowing for a yearlong curriculum, increasing the number of students participating and enhancing the depth and quality of student experience.

“The support from partners new and long-term, including LifeSecure Insurance, Snap-on, Penske Entertainment Corp. and Lucas Oil, will help us build upon the strong foundation we’ve established,” said Coach Reid. “Ultimately, we’ll be able to ensure more students have access to opportunities that teach vital life and career skills on a year-long basis.”

Since its inception in 2006, NXG has introduced more than 1,000 boys and girls ages 11 to 16 to the educational benefits that can be derived from performance driving. It utilizes racing as a training tool for life-skill development, engaging participants in classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction. Participants are introduced to motorsports career opportunities such as engineering, marketing, management, food service, and health and fitness while being inspired to become safe, responsible future drivers.

The announcement coincides with NXG’s season finale taking place this week at IMS as part of the INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR.

Race for Equality & Change

Race for Equality & Change was unveiled during this year’s Brickyard 400 weekend and represents a major effort to support diversity and inclusivity across the INDYCAR industry.

Key goals include:

  • Recruiting and developing a diverse workforce throughout all levels of INDYCAR and IMS
  • Diversifying the competitive driver field at the grassroots, Road to Indy and NTT INDYCAR SERIES levels
  • Supporting impactful grassroots youth motorsports programs, like NXG
  • Diversifying employment, leadership and ownership within the SERIES and with INDYCAR promoters
  • Investment in minority communities to encourage greater engagement with INDYCAR and IMS
  • Establishing a procurement program to meaningfully increase the number of minority-owned businesses that contract with INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway each year

“I’m honored to take on this role and ready to help fuel change and inclusivity in our sport,” McMillian said. “Penske Entertainment Corp. is committed to making a difference, and today’s announcements are just the beginning of the important work and progress to come.”

Butch Welsch: Observations from the strangest Indy 500 ever!

Special to TSO by Butch Welsch: 2020 was to be my 73rd Indy 500 in a row. When the announcement was made August 4th that the race would be run with no fans, while I was understanding of their situation, I was also determined to find a way to not end my consecutive streak. That…

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Conquer Paralysis Now #StandWithSam 20th Anniversary Gala goes virtual – set for August 20th

#StandWithSam 20th Anniversary Gala celebrates Conquer Paralysis Now milestone

Popular fundraiser on Aug. 20 during Indy 500 week goes virtual but retains exciting components

INDIANAPOLIS (July 29, 2020) – It will be a night to remember when Conquer Paralysis Now (CPN) hosts a special, virtual #StandWithSam 20th Anniversary Gala on Thursday, Aug. 20 beginning at 7 p.m. EDT. The Gala celebrates CPN founder and INDYCAR team owner Sam Schmidt’s dedication to finding a cure for spinal cord injuries. Once again, the popular event coincides with activities leading up to the world-famous Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.

CPN and its predecessor, the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, have hosted an in-person fundraiser Gala in Indianapolis each May at the traditional time of the Indy 500, with the racing community providing extensive support. While the event takes on a new form in 2020 – this year’s #StandWithSam 20th Anniversary Gala will be an online virtual experience – it will still contain many of the highlights that have made it a mainstay of Indianapolis 500 race week. 

Fans from across the country may sign up for free to virtually attend the event individually and there is an option to host a watch party as well. VIP virtual cocktail party packages are available that include bottles of Pianetta Special Label wine, CPN 20th anniversary wine glasses and Bloomin’ Brands gift cards for two ($150 for the VIP package), six ($450) or 12 people ($900), but they are limited in quantity and must be secured by Monday, Aug. 3. A variety of event sponsorship levels remain available as well.

Celebrity guests from the motorsports world will be on hand during the virtual event, live and silent auctions featuring unique prizes will be available to bidders along with “live” music. CPN is asking the community to #StandWithSam and support this year’s milestone event.

“I wouldn’t be here today, period, without the support of the motorsports community,” Schmidt says. “The community has always provided an incredible amount of encouragement and motivation, in addition to tremendous financial support, which has always kept our foundation going. It really is a family.

“This being the 20th anniversary of the Gala, I never certainly thought I’d live this long, let alone be able to continue my pursuit of winning on the racetrack. To also be able to make an impact in the lives of so many individuals with disabilities these past 20 years is just a blessing.”

Schmidt will host the #StandWithSam 20th Anniversary Gala. Dave Calabro, Indianapolis TV personality and Indianapolis Motor Speedway track announcer, and veteran motorsports pit reporter Jamie Little will emcee the event from a private club inside the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Dignitaries scheduled to attend virtually include new track owner and legendary racing magnate Roger Penske, racing great Mario Andretti, two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, reigning Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud and more.

“The more I’m getting into this virtual event production, it’s pretty cool,” Schmidt says. “The ability to bring in the guest appearances from a number of people that could not have participated live is fantastic, and to be able to tell our story in an organized fashion and what we have accomplished over the last 20 years. To have the Gala combined with watch parties around the country, it literally opens it up to so many more supporters who have wanted to attend past Galas but could never physically attend. I’m pretty excited about it. Hopefully, it reaches an even bigger market than we did with our in-person events in the past.”

For more information about how to participate in the #StandWithSam online virtual experience, visit www.storybook.link/standwithsam. Sponsors of the #StandWithSam 20th Anniversary Gala are Arrow, BraunAbility, Amish Country Gazebos and Firestone.

Schmidt started CPN in 2000, shortly after his IndyCar driving career ended when a testing accident left him a quadriplegic. His dogged determination has helped CPN raise nearly $18 million for spinal cord injury research and treatment. It also funded the DRIVEN NeuroRecovery Center, an accessible fitness facility that opened in Schmidt’s hometown of Las Vegas in 2018 and allows individuals with disabilities to improve their physical, mental and emotional health.

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