It seems the NTT IndyCar Series off-season is longer than its on-track racing activities, in this case going from almost the close of October to mid-April. Sure, the pandemic is responsible for some of that lack of activity, but America’s premier open-wheel series seems to relish being out of the public eye for about half of each year.
The NTT IndyCar Series’ off-season ends this weekend when the 17-race schedule begins at Barber Motorsports Park, with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, set to take place on April 18th at 3PM ET. There have been private and all-skate tests leading up to this 90-lap season-starter, the 2.3-mile 17-corner permanent road course outside Birmingham, AL. The race is broadcast live on NBC.
It looks to be an exciting season for the open-wheel set. For this opening race, not only the NTT IndyCar Series will be on-site to compete, but the Road to Indy gets back to business this weekend as well. And with so many stars in the INDYCAR pantheon graduates of that Road to Indy, it’s an excellent opportunity to see, well, who might be next on the hit parade.
What’s next for the iNDYCAR set is stopping six-time champion Scott Dixon from taking a seventh title with Chip Ganassi Racing, and seeing if seven-time NASCAR Cup Series titleholder Jimmie Johnson can make it in a Ganassi Indy car. There have been lots of drivers who have crossed over from Indy cars to Cup cars over the years and a few that have done the reserve trip, but Johnson, who is driving only the road and street-course contests, is definitely going to bring more eyeballs to this series.
He’s not the only one to change direction in motorsports. Scott McLaughlin, who is a three-time champ in Australia’s mega-popular SuperCar touring series is getting adjusted to driving without a roof, too. McLaughlin, the fourth full-season Chevrolet entry for Team Penske, has the benefit of championship teammates: Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, just as Johnson benefits from the feedback of Dixon, together with Ganassi teammates Marcus Ericsson, Alex Palou and Tony Kanaan, who’ll contest ovals in Johnson’s familiar No. 48 race car.
There’s a lot of star power in the previous sentence, but that’s only the start of what stellar racers INDYCAR has on tap for this year. To start, it has 24 definitive full-season entries on tap, starting this weekend, with 11 cars racing with Chevrolet power and the balance powered by Honda’s 2.2-liter, twin-turbocharged and directly-injected V6 engines.. There are strong teams like the four-car Ganassi (Honda) and Penske’s Chevy squad.
Don’t ever, ever count out Andretti Autosport (Honda), which has full-season cars for rising star Colton Herta, 2012 champ and 2014 Indianapolis, 2014 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi and team returnee James Hinchcliffe in the fourth entry. Marco Andretti becomes the fifth driver on this team for the 105th Indianapolis 500. Speaking of Indy, reigning, two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Honda) won the Barber race last year, but his teammate Graham Rahal is hoping to turn his winless tide (since 2017!) in Alabama this weekend.
Arrow McLaren SP (Chevrolet) had a growth year in 2020 as Patricio O’Ward, the Mexican Indy Lights champ came into his own after an ill-fated trip to Red Bull and a possible F1 drive. After finishing second in the season finale at St Petersburg, Fla. last October, along with excellent off-season tests, O’Ward has to be among the top challengers to the INDYCAR status quo, along with his full-season teammate Felix Rosenqvist, who was on Ganassi’s team the past two years.
A.J. Foyt Racing (Chevrolet) has a different look this season and should be making its way up the grid with four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais conducting the full season along with second-year racer Dalton Kellett, giving Canada two drivers to follow, as Kellett joins the series along with veteran Hinchcliffe. Max Chilton returns with Carlin for another season in their Chevy-powered Dallara.
Star-maker Dale Coyne Racing (Honda) has two affiliate teams in 2021: Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan enters returning driver Ed Jones, while former Haas F1 racer Romain Grosjean will attempt a “Mansell,” coming from Formula One in an attempt to become an INDYCAR champion, entered by Dale Coyne Racing with RWR (Rick Ware Racing).
Now in its tenth year, Ed Carpenter Racing again has 2020 Rookie of the Year Rinus Veekay in the No. 21 Chevy for the full, 17-race season, while team owner Carpenter takes on the ovals and fields standout Conor Daly for the road courses. Daly has tested extremely well this off-season and has the momentum of continuance to guide him forward, as does Veekay, who had a nasty enough crash at Indianapolis’ oval test last week to sit out much of the first day and all of the second. The team needed to save a car for this race and St Pete next week.
Meyer Shank Racing is starting its third consecutive full-season drive to make Jack Harvey a winner and/or champion in its Honda-powered Dallara; he’ll have the benefit of part-time teammate Helio Castroneves, who knows a thing or two about winning in this series, including three trips to Victory Lane at Indianapolis.
It’s a stout group of racers assembling to start their seasons and chart a course to a championship that will not be crowned until late September in Long Beach. In fact, the season closer will be close to the same date as the first Long Beach race when it takes place on September 26. The weather at Barber Motorsports Park this weekend should be okay, even with scattered showers forecast in the area. That won’t stop the racers, as tire supplier Firestone always has good rain tires available.
This is the first time the Indy cars have raced this venue with its protective Aeroscreen, which added weight to the front of the cars. That will challenge the strategists and engineers who plot settings for each of the 24 entries, but we won’t know who coped best with those changes – as well as a repave of this circuit – until those 90 laps are complete on Sunday afternoon.