New season brings new hope, new questions

The excruciating off season is finally coming to an end, and the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series is finally set to get underway this weekend with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.  With so much news to digest over the past six months, there’s no better time than now to dig into five major storylines heading into the fresh season.

Can NTT break INDYCAR’s growth barrier?

While it may not be the sexiest story of the offseason or the point of focus that most IndyCar fans enjoy talking about the most, the arrival of NTT as the entitlement sponsor for the IndyCar Series is probably the most important news this offseason.  With the departure of a household name like Verizon, many fans worried the visibility of the Series will take a major hit going forward.  If those who steer the ship are to be believed, however, the Series is in very good position for growth being attached to a company like NTT.

Like most North American IndyCar fans, I was mostly clueless on NTT and its offerings before the January announcement of their ascension to IndyCar’s title sponsor.  And like most North American IndyCar fans, I still to this day am mostly clueless on NTT and it’s offerings.  What I do know is that they are a MASSIVE Japanese telecommunications and data company with international reach, ranked 65th on Forbes Global 500 list and the fourth largest telecommunications company in the world.  So while many of us here in the United States aren’t familiar with NTT, many people around the world know of the company and hear its message.

What excites me about the prospect of NTT’s entitlement sponsorship is the possibility of reaching new markets outside of traditional auto racing markets. This is where Verizon should have succeeded but sadly fell substantially short.  For a short period of time, Verizon, like IZOD before it, took its IndyCar message beyond the racetrack and into the mainstream.  Unfortunately, Verizon, also like IZOD before it, saw a change in corporate leadership that no longer held auto racing in the high esteem of the folks who signed the sponsorship contracts.  The final years of each contract saw the title sponsors mostly focusing their efforts on promoting the Series to the fans the Series already had — TV spots during races, development of mobile apps for race fans, signage on display at the race tracks, and so on.  Neither did very well at focusing outside of the existing fan base and reaching new fans.  And that led to little growth outside the core fan base.

My hope is that NTT puts less focus on the existing fan base and pushes its marketing efforts beyond those people who are already watching IndyCar races.  Promoting the Series to those who are already tuning in, in my opinion, should fall at the feet of INDYCAR and it’s marketing team.  They are the ones who need to make sure the current fan base is excited and engaged.  They need to know what their current fan base wants and what will get them excited.  NTT needs to use it’s massive global resources to help spread the word of IndyCar racing to those who may not have been exposed or to those who might be willing to look at IndyCar again.

BTW, NTT Data – the subsidiary that has sponsored Ganassi Racing since 2013 – has their American headquarters in Plano, Texas, about a 40-minute drive from Texas Motor Speedway. I would expect/hope to see a massive mobilization of their workforce for that event in June.

NBC Sports takes the reins

So technically this isn’t offseason news as NBC Sports was announced as the exclusive US television partner of INDYCAR before the 2018 season even began, but it is perhaps the most noticeable change fans will be presented with going forward.

It’s no secret that fans had long grown tired of the INDYCAR product presented by ABC and ESPN.  Long gone were the days when Paul Page, Bobby Unser, and Sam Posey made listening to the broadcast almost as much a part of the experience as watching the cars on track.  There have been other great announcers over the years (I was always particularly fond of Bob Varsha), but over the past 15 years, the product has suffered tremendously.  Though some of my friends will say it’s heresy, the sad truth is Paul Page of 2004 was a far cry from the Paul Page of 1994.  The Todd Harris experiment was nothing short of disaster.  And the three-man booth of Marty Reid, Scott Goodyear, and Eddie Cheever had just grown tiresome.  Even swapping the highly-respected Allen Bestwick for Marty Reid failed to invigorate the ESPN presentation.

Even more frustrating for long-time fans (and probably new fans as well) was the general lack of excitement and fresh air given by ESPN.  Announcers talked down to fans as if every highlight of the race needed to be explained to a young child.  Broadcasts often missed exciting and important moments of the races without explanation.  Little to no ancillary programming was produced.  Coverage on the ESPN website was pretty much non-existent after John Oreovicz was unceremoniously dropped only weeks before the start of the 2017 IndyCar season.

However, IndyCar finally got a breath of fresh air when Versus started their IndyCar coverage in 2009.  Although Tony George had been almost universally panned for hitching the IndyCar Series to a 10-year deal with a network that few had ever heard of and even fewer knew they had access to, those fans who were able to tune were almost jubulent in their praise.  Versus, which over the next few years eventually morphed into NBCSN, brought in fresh talents like Lindy Thackston and Robbie Floyd to mesh with longtime veterans like Bob Jenkins and Jon Beekhus.  Before long, they added Robin Miller and an unemployed driver by the name of Dan Wheldon (who just happened to be coming off a shocking Indianapolis 500 victory) to spice up the pre-race show.

Fans loved when IndyCar races were on NBCSN and, in general, were ambivalent towards those races on ABC.  Unfortunately, ABC continued to hold the right to the biggest race of them all – the Indianapolis 500.  Apathy continued to be the name of the game as the years went on and ESPN/ABC continued to whittle away their presentation.  Fans begged INDYCAR to make a switch and take the Series full time to NBC.  Not only did NBC Sports give a vastly superior presentation of IndyCar racing, fans had seen what NBC did with other sporting events like the Kentucky Derby and the Stanley Cup Finals.  They knew that when NBC Sports went in on an event, they went all in.  And they wanted that for INDYCAR!

Finally last year INDYCAR pulled the trigger on cutting ABC loose, severing a relationship that dated back to 1965 with ABC’s coverage of the Indianapolis 500.  It was now NBC or bust.

Since that announcement, NBC has given fans no reason to believe they won’t live up to the hype fans had.  NBC and NBCSN have already presented a broadcast schedule in 2019 that will present the Indianapolis 500 with more coverage than in previous years and are including IndyCar Racing in their “Championship Season” promotions.  Additionally, the kick off of the NBC Gold INDYCAR Pass will give fans a singular location for finding live and archived on-track video.

Unfortunately, there will be some, if not many, fans who will be disappointed that what has been free for the past couple seasons, i.e. live streaming of practice and qualifying sessions, will now cost them $50 per year to access.  They need to put up or shut up.  I get that not everyone wants to plunk down $50 per year, but I find it unlikely that many can’t come up with $4 per month to have access to live and archived practice sessions, qualifying, and races.  To me, it’s a no brainer.  NBC Sports already has my money for this year.

It’s not fair to expect the move to NBC to be the cure-all for INDYCAR’s low and stagnant ratings.  It is true that INDYCAR has managed to mostly retain their (quite honestly) abysmal ratings over the past several years and has even seen some small growth, which compared to other sports properties must be considered a win.  But peanuts are still peanuts, and the raw numbers are still well below where they need to be to make a sizable reverberation with sponsors and potential partners.

Nonetheless, I strongly believe that giving the television presentation a new home will do wonders for helping to promote and grow the Series.  I expect big things from NBC Sports in 2019 and beyond.  I don’t expect problems to all be solved in 2019, but I feel confident that we’ll see substantial gains over the next three years.

Oval aero package

This might be the biggest question mark heading into the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season. Can the Dallara UAK-18 be tweaked enough to produce exciting oval racing that IndyCar fans have come to know and expect over the past many years?  Or perhaps more accurately, will the Dallara UAK-18 be tweaked enough to produce exciting oval racing in 2019.

The introduction of the new universal aero kit led to thrilling racing on nearly all the road and street courses in 2018.  Drivers cited less drag, less downforce, and less disturbed air following another car as the biggest contributing factors to the increased raceability of the cars.  Unfortunately, while the significantly reduced downforce put an increased focus on driver skill on the ovals, the general feeling among the fanbase was that the entertainment aspect of the show suffered.

Anyone following IndyCar racing for any amount of time will see that this topic almost always devolves into a shouting match about ovals versus road courses and unlimited technology versus spec racing and eventually CART versus IRL.  I refuse to go there again.  It’s just too exhausting.  I’ll leave it at the fact that a large number of fans (if you want to debate whether it’s most fans or a majority of fans or just a few very vocal fans, do so amongst yourselves) found races last year at Phoenix, Indianapolis, Texas, and Pocono failing short of their expectations.

The lackluster race at Phoenix was particularly devastating as pundits had claimed for nearly two years that the new aero kit would cure the race of its processional nature.  Unfortunately, the race continued to feature little excitement and fan response reflected the lack of interest.  Not long after the April race, IndyCar and ISM Raceway announced the track would not be part of the 2019 circuit.

In the buildup to the Indianapolis 500, unquestionably the biggest stage of the year for IndyCar racing, drivers openly admitted that passing would be difficult, especially for drivers more than three cars back in a line and more than a couple laps after a restart.  Alexander Rossi made a series of passes on restarts that made even Tony Kanaan watch in awe, but even the fearless American found passing to be nearly impossible more than a couple laps back to green flag conditions.

The cars were unquestionably harder to drive.  Drivers with minimal experience in a DW-12 such as Ed Jones and Danica Patrick and IndyCar legends such as Sebastien Bourdais, Helio Castroneves, and Tony Kanann all found the package tricky when their cars suddenly stepped out and ended their days against the wall.  For some people, just knowing how difficult the cars are to drive and watching a driver really “earn” a pass constitutes good racing.  Those people most likely enjoyed last year’s oval racing and the Indianapolis 500 in particular.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe those people accurately represent the lion’s share of fans who watch racing today.

I am not of the belief that every race needs to match 2013’s race record of 68 lead changes.  I also don’t believe (contrary what some may think) that IndyCar racing should look like the IRL days of old at Chicagoland where the entire field raced 2×2, nose-to-tail for a couple hundred laps with drivers having nowhere to maneuver.  I like cars running at high speeds and close to each other.  I like drivers being able to pass if they have a better car.  I hate watching a leader drive 10 laps behind a back marker because the speed differential isn’t great enough for the leader to lap him.  I think the 2015 IndyCar race at Fontana was pretty much perfect with close racing, about five lanes of track that drivers could use, and plenty of room between cars that they usually did not have to come within inches of each other to simply drive the track.

Somewhere in the middle of all that is a good compromise.  The 2019 updates to the UAK-18 desperately need to find that compromise.  Ovals in general (outside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) are on life support when it comes to open-wheel racing, and putting on snoozefests like INDYCAR did at Phoenix and Pocono last year will only hasten the demise of the once dominant form of American racing.  (And yes, before people jump on me about saying Pocono was a snoozer, I realize drivers were being particularly cautious following the Robert Wickens crash.  I would have given the race a pass for that reason alone had there not already been great concern raised after the dud of a race at Texas a couple months earlier.)

The biggest problem last year seemed to be the lack of tuning options on the UAK-18 on the large ovals.  There was almost no wiggle room for teams to make changes on the car to better suit their driver.  Combined with a general lack of downforce on the front of the car, teams and drivers had their hands tied in making a car better and more maneuverable in traffic.  INDYCAR has added some additional aero options to the 2019 specifications, and after testing at Indianapolis and Texas Motor Speedways, the initial reaction from the drivers has been positive.  INDYCAR is certainly to be commended for taking small steps to finding an equilibrium rather than making a massive change that goes too far.  I have faith that INDYCAR will get there (quickly) and that the 2019 product will be improved over the 2018 one.  INDYCAR can’t afford to put on poor shows at ovals and give fans a reason to not return.

Can Dixon finally repeat?

Given that Scott Dixon is only six weeks older than me, it seems almost impossible that he will be entering his 19th year at the top level of American open-wheel racing.  Let’s get one thing clear right away.  No matter how you cut it, Scott Dixon is one of the greatest IndyCar drivers in the history of the sport.  Period.

Dixon may not have the flashy personality of Helio Castroneves or the outgoing social media presence of a Tony Kanaan.  But if I had one driver to put in my car for every race on the IndyCar calendar, it would be Scott Dixon.  And at 38 years old, there is not a single indication that the Scott Dixon of 2019 is even the smallest step behind the Scott Dixon of 2009.

Since coming to IndyCar from CART in 2003, and excluding the disastrous Toyota years of 2004 and 2005, Dixon has finished in the top 3 of the championship an absolutely absurd 12 out of 14 years.  He finished fourth in the championship in 2006 and sixth in 2016.  Other than that, he has five championships, two runners-up, and five third-place finishes.  That’s just sick.

At this point, I’m really just trying to think of things Scott Dixon even has left to possibly accomplish in his career.  I suppose he’s “only” a one-time Indianapolis 500 winner.  And he hasn’t set a track record at IMS.  I’m really grasping for straws here.  The only thing that Scott Dixon really hasn’t done is win back-to-back championships.  In fact, history might suggest that if there is a time to beat Scott Dixon, it’s in the year following his championships.

Following his 2008 championship, Scott finished second to his new Ganassi teammate Dario Franchitti in 2009.  That season saw Franchitti, Dixon, and Ryan Briscoe go to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway each with a chance at the title.  However, other seasons following Dixon’s championships haven’t been quite as kind to the Kiwi.  In his follow-up seasons, Dixon has finished 10th in 2004, 2nd in 2009, 3rd in 2014, and 6th in 2016.  By most standards, those are still good results, but I’d venture to say they aren’t quite Dixon-esque.

After his first championship in 2003, Dixon went into undoubtedly the worst period of his career when his Ganassi racing team suffered through 2004 and 2005 with a woefully underpowered and unreliable Toyota engine.  If ever there was a time, it was then that Dixon was pretty much considered an afterthought at most races.  His only win came in the IRL’s return to Watkins Glen in 2005.  But in learning how to get every last ounce out of their chassis setups, Chip Ganassi Racing was well prepared to dominate when Honda became the sole engine supplier for 2006, and Dixon’s career went into overdrive.

Looking to 2019, it’s hard to see what might be different for Scott this time compared to his previous title defenses.  A rookie teammate in Felix Rosenqvist will be in the #10 team car that was previously filled by Tony Kanaan.  Is that a positive?  I think the competition will be even greater against Dixon for 2019 with Will Power still near the top of his game, Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi both now considered favorites at each track the Series races at, and Ryan Hunter-Reay still capable of winning week in and week out.

Nobody in their right mind would ever bet against Scott Dixon, but I just don’t see him repeating his title 2019.  I’ll take him for another top 3 and at least three race victories though.

Will Herta and the rookies lead a new wave?

It’s hard to remember the last IndyCar rookie class as heralded as the 2019 crop of newbies is.  Formula 1 veteran Marcus Ericsson heads an impressive class that includes former Indy Lights driver Felix Rosenqvist and the highly-touted Colton Herta.  All three of these IndyCar rookies have shown well in preseason testing, perhaps no one more so than Herta.

It seems we’ve been hearing about Colton Herta for many years now, in no small part because he is the son of former Rahal and Andretti driver Bryan Herta.  Like many other young Americans, he cut his teeth in karts and lower formulae State-side before heading to Europe at a young age to further his craft.  Herta returned to the US in 2017 to join forces with George Michael Steinbrenner IV, a long time friend, and Michael Andretti in the Indy Lights Series.  Herta made a strong showing in the series throughout 2018, but a broken wrist at Toronto derailed his form and he finished second to teammate Pato O’Ward.

Herta and O’Ward got their IndyCar breaks at Sonoma in the 2018 IndyCar finale where O’Ward had quite simply a magical weekend.  In all honesty, O’Ward’s weekend made Herta’s look very underwhelming until it became known that O’Ward was gifted with the latest and greatest shock and suspension pieces from Andretti Autosport while Herta was saddled with systems that were several years old.

Without rehashing the controversy and drama that has surrounded the Harding Steinbrenner Racing effort this past off season, Herta has ended up in the #88 seat for the 2019 season while O’Ward is now on the outside looking in.  Based on preseason testing, it seems Mike Harding and George Michael Steinbrenner made a good choice.

Herta has looked brilliant in early season testing.  Of the four official sessions at the Circuit of the Americas last month, Herta was the pacesetter for three sessions and led the fourth until the last couple minutes.  He clearly looked in his element.  That being said, results from preseason testing can be fool’s gold.  In 2018, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan teammates of Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato looked ready to take the Series by storm, only to see them struggle at the season-opening St. Pete race and continue to struggle pretty much all year.  Given the lack of experience as a unit at HSR, I don’t expect them to be frontrunners at most events this year.

That being said, I do believe Colton Herta will have several strong showings this year, and it won’t necessarily surprise me to see him win a race.  HSR has many longtime racing veterans, including Brian Barnhart, Al Unser, Jr., Larry Curry, Vince Kramer, and Gerald Tyler, in place and are ready to succeed if they have the resources and the tools to do so.

Fellow rookie Felix Rosenqvist didn’t necessarily set the world on fire during his 2016 Indy Lights campaign, but after testing with Chip Ganassi Racing following that season, Ganassi has been high on returning the Swede to American soil and putting him in one of Ganassi’s big cars.  That opportunity finally presented itself for 2019, and Felix looks poised to make the most of the opportunity.  Whether Felix looks to stay in IndyCar for the long haul is difficult to say right now, but I expect him to show well this season.  It’s been a long time since the #10 car was really considered a serious contender on a weekly basis, and expecting a rookie to return that entry to its former glory may be asking too much.  But I will be surprised if Rosenqvist doesn’t score at least a couple podiums, particularly on the street courses, and won’t be shocked if he finds his way into victory lane as well.

Fellow Swede Marcus Ericsson is perhaps the most interesting of the rookies in 2019.  The five-year Formula 1 veteran comes to IndyCar after losing his ride at Sauber late in 2018.  Drivers who come to IndyCar under such circumstances usually draw the ire of IndyCar fans (myself included, admittedly) and are not necessarily greeted warmly at first (ahem Alexander ahem Rossi ahem). Ericsson actually seems to have a genuine interest in IndyCar racing though, so I will reserve judgement until he gets a few races under his belt.

Ericsson steps into the entry that Robert Wickens so successfully handled in 2018 before his accident at Pocono, and expectations will be high that Ericsson perform in a similar manner.  He may not necessarily be fighting for the win at the season opener with only a couple laps remaining, but I expect a solid effort from him and his Schmidt Petersen Motorsport team.  I’ll even go so far as to consider Ericsson my front runner for 2019 IndyCar Rookie of the Year.

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