ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — IndyCar finally has its own television program, a refocused marketing plan, aggressive sustainability efforts and a whopping 27 full-time entrants as the season begins this weekend on the streets of downtown St. Petersburg, Florida.
Is it enough to finally give IndyCar the respect its drivers have been demanding?
That's the hope as IndyCar attempts to showcase some of the closest racing in motorsports. The series boasted nine different winners last year and the championship race came down to the season finale for the 15th consecutive year, a five-driver fight won by Will Power.
IndyCar has three former Formula One drivers in its field, including reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson, and continues to be a destination series for drivers frustrated by the European ladder system. This year's field features three drivers who advanced to F2 — the series right below F1 — including rookie Marcus Armstrong, who becomes the third New Zealander on the grid.
In an effort to prove IndyCar is just as sexy as F1 but more competitive and has personalities that outshine the superstars of NASCAR, Penske Entertainment and VICE Media Group partnered on programming designed to showcase the series the same way “Drive to Survive” on Netflix has worked for F1.
The six-part “100 Days to Indy” will air on The CW Network and chronicle the 100-day window ahead of the Indianapolis 500 on May 28. Cameras will be prevalent all weekend in St. Petersburg, where the 17-race season officially opens.
“When you talk about a real television production, that’s something that is hopefully going to make a difference for all of our jobs,” said Conor Daly, fresh off his first career start in NASCAR's Daytona 500. “Hopefully it takes everything to a higher level and it takes all the recognition and everything that we do to a higher level.”
Team Penske returns with its lineup intact: Reigning champion Power and Josef Newgarden, both two-time IndyCar champions, and Scott McLaughlin, who in his second season last year found his groove and accounted for three of Penske's nine wins.
McLaughlin won the season-opener at St. Pete to kickstart a campaign in which the Kiwi and three-time Australian V8 Supercars champion should challenge for the title.
He knows his competition is intense internally, particularly with Newgarden, who has grown into one of McLaughlin's closest friends.
“It’s rewarding when you can beat those guys. You know that they’re at the top of their game. You know when you’re beating them, you’re doing a good job,” McLaughlin said. “As a team, we push each other. The competitiveness between us all, we hate losing to each other, but we also know the reward in beating each other, for the team to win.”
Power is overcoming a rocky few months since his championship. He broke some ribs in a karting crash and his wife, Liz, fell seriously ill in January and faces a long recovery from a staph infection. The Australian, who turns 42 this week, used a new, calm approach last season and now will be juggling the start of the year with his support system recovering at home in North Carolina.
“The last few weeks have been tough, staying in hospitals and working through the health issues that my wife has,” Power said during preseason testing. “Hopefully we can get to a point where it feels safe. I think we’ll know for sure in five weeks whether her blood stays sterile. She was in a pretty bad shape.”
Chip Ganassi Racing won the Indy 500 last year with Swedish driver Ericsson but was a distant challenger for the title. Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson has departed and been replaced by Armstrong, a 22-year-old rookie who grew up idolizing fellow countrymen Scott Dixon.
Dixon is now teammates with his one-time biggest fan as “The Iceman” seeks an IndyCar record-tying seventh series championship. Alex Palou returns to the team for his final season before making a full-time move in 2024 to McLaren Racing.
Palou, the 2021 champion for Ganassi, had a messy contract dispute with the team last season that was resolved in arbitration. He will get to test McLaren's F1 car this year and be its reserve driver when it doesn't interfere with IndyCar, but will have to wait a year to join the new-look McLaren IndyCar team.
McLaren has added 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to its team in an expanded third car. He will be teammates with Pato O'Ward and Felix Rosenqvist for a team on the rise.
Andretti Autosport will have 22-year-old Colton Herta leading the four-car organization. Romain Grosjean enters his second season with the team, as does Devlin DeFrancesco, who was a rookie last year. Kyle Kirkwood rejoins the Andretti organization after a rookie season driving for A.J. Foyt Racing.
IndyCar this year welcomes Armstrong from F2, as well as ladder system graduates Benjamin Pedersen (Foyt) and Sting Ray Robb (Dale Coyne Racing).
Agustin Canapino, a 33-year-old Argentinian, was hired to drive as an IndyCar rookie for his fellow countryman at Juncos Hollinger Racing. Three months ago, Canapino could only say “hello” in English but spent the winter learning the language.
“I started to do two, three classes a week, and I don’t know, I am here,” he said. “I focus a lot to at least try to learn to speak, to communicate, and of course I need to improve a lot, but at least I can speak with the engineers and some people.”
FACTS AND FIGURES
IndyCar will be televised on NBC a record-tying 15 times, which includes two days of Indianapolis 500 qualifying. ... IndyCar is touting this season as the most sustainable in series history with the use of a Shell’s renewable race fuel, renewable diesel for team transporters and an alternate Firestone race tire made from guayule rubber that will be used at St. Pete and on all street courses. ... IndyCar will debut a new mobile medical unit to provide consistent and accessible care. ... For the first time in series history, alternate-compound tires will be used on an oval at the Aug. 27 race outside St. Louis. ... The Indianapolis 500 will only be worth single points; it had been awarded double points since 2014.
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