There have been no shortages of discussion and changes in the INDYCAR off season. In four short days, when the season officially kicks off with practice at St. Petersburg, it will be a completely different paddock and series then it was when the 2019 season wrapped up at Laguna Seca. There have been changes in ownership, in the cars, in the schedule, and just a whole ton with drivers and teams. The absolutely biggest change is what the series underwent in 2019. The November announcement ended the seventy-four year ownership by the Hulman family and ushered in the Penske Era. Roger Penske purchased both the NTT INDYCAR series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There has been a lot said about the work ethic of the man now at the helm of the series. He has published many of his ideas: expanding the series, but focusing first on North America; adding more usage of the IMS; and he’s also putting money behind his action by raising the purse for the Indianapolis 500. Most importantly, this was an announcement that the paddock, and fans, greeted with pleasure and optimism.
Conversely, the most hotly-debated change is the new aeroscreen on the cars. The series first tested a windscreen back in February of 2018. The windscreen at that time wrapped lowers around the front of the cockpit and constructed from a PPG material called “Opticor”. The windscreen was tested both at the ISM Raceway in Phoenix and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The windscreen was also tested both during the day (IMS) and night (ISM) and both drivers reported some distortion. The windscreen was never tested on a road or street course. Following the two on-track tests prototype went under additional testing at PPG’s facility and other issues emerged. INDYCAR turned to another piece of technology they had been developing since 2012: the Advanced Frontal Protection (“AFP” or as we call it the “Nubbin”). A small 3-inch high, 0.75 inch wide piece of titanium that is affixed to the center line of the chassis right at the front of the cockpit. The goal of the AFP is to deflect pieces of debris that come to the cockpit. It debuted back in mid-2019 season.
The new, and final, iteration is the aeroscreen created in conjunction with Red Bull Advanced Technology. This aeroscreen is a polycarbonate laminated screen that includes an anti-reflective coating on the interior of the screen. It’s mounted on the cockpit with titanium and at three areas. It will hold a load of 150 kilonewtons which equals 33,750 pounds. Prior to full release around the holidays, the aeroscreen was tested at IMS, Barber Motorsports Park, and Sebring International Raceway. There are a lot of mixed emotions from fans about this, but the general review from drivers is “it works and you get used to it”. I’ll take their opinion over Facebook Racers any day.
Somewhat less discussed, is the new grid penalties that will be included if a team switches out an engine before the milage is up. Under the rules, an engine change is allowed if it has reached 2,500 miles. If a team changes out an engine prior to that, they will forfeit grid positions. On road or street courses the driver will be pushed down six positions, on an oval it’s nine positions. This is going to lead to all sorts of strategy. If it’s a driver who can fight their way through a team, why not change out an engine. If it’s a driver who may struggle on passing, it’s a risky gamble. I think this will lead to a LOT of strategy decisions on the part of a team. I look forward to seeing what happens.
Thanks to the 2020 Summer Olympics, the 2020 schedule faces a full month break between July 18th and August 18th. It also caused some readjustment of the races on the schedule. The April races (Barber, Long Beach, and Circuit of the Americas) were scrambled about. The race at Mid-Ohio typically takes place at the end of July, and is now moved to the first race back from the break on August 18th. Here’s hoping that in 2021 the schedule is readjusted, and also done with more fluidity and a mind towards travel.
2020 also has us saying good-bye to Pocono and hello to Richmond. Pocono’s exit from the schedule wasn’t shocking. Going into the race there were all ready stories about negotiations for contract renewal going sideways. Both sides have done a pretty-good job of not pointing fingers. In my opinion, the track suffered both from a bad on-track schedule as well as a bad job of promotion. Pocono’s ‘replacement’ (though it’s not for the same weekend) is Richmond Raceway. A Saturday night oval race, on a short-oval. The track is 0.75 miles, just a hair shorter then Iowa’s 0.875. I love night races and I love ovals…I am always cautious with short ovals though. We’ll see. The weekend is all ready rumored to have many speed-event tie-ins. All ready much better than Pocono.
This upcoming season also bring a lot of changes with teams and drivers. There will be a new(ish) team in the Paddock. In August of 2019 a deal was struck combining Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with McLaren Racing creating Arrow McLaren SP. It also signified a change of motor with the team moving from Honda to Chevrolet for 2020. This was the first of many big changes in the paddock as far as teams are concerned. The team ultimately released both drivers (though James Hinchcliffe is still somewhat under contract but does not have a car) and brought on Patricio O’Ward and rookie Oliver Askew. The drivers will compete in the full schedule of races, and then there’s Fernando Alonso joining them for the 500.
Three other teams have increased their commitment in 2020. Meyer Shank Racing, having slowly increased their number of races the past two years, have committed to run the full schedule in 2020 with driver Jack Harvey. DragonSpeed Racing attempted three races in 2019, including driver Ben Hanley securing unbumpable spot for the Indianapolis 500. In 2020 the team has committed to six races on the schedule, once again including the Indianapolis 500. They’ve not named their full contingent of drivers, but have confirmed that Ben Hanley will start off the season for the team at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Finally Drier & Reinbold Racing will no longer be simply an Indianapolis 500 team as they had been since 2014. Sticking with their main driver Sage Karem, the team will compete in at least four races, including the Indianapolis 500. They’ve also indicated they will include another car in the 500.
It has been a silly season traumatic for the veterans and big names in the series. James Hinchcliffe was unceremoniously left without a car after AMSP changed engines. He then announced sponsorship for May and will ultimately three races with Andretti Autosport and working with NBC during the other races. It is going to be a weird paddock without Hinch around the whole time as a driver, but thankfully he won’t disappear during the races he’s not running. Another huge shock of drivers loosing rides happened with Dale Coyne Racing announced that Sebastian Bourdais would not return to the team.
Towards the end of the 2019 season there were rumblings around AJ Foyt Racing’s ability to sponsor multiple cars next year. They lost their primary sponsor, ABC Supply, and things got quiet until January of 2020. The team first announced Charlie Kimball would race the full schedule for the team. Then in February 2020 Tony Kanaan made the very heartbreaking announcement that he would be in his last full-ish time season. #TKLastLap will have him running every oval race in 2020 for AJ Foyt Racing. The car’s road and street course schedule will be shared by Sebastian Bourdais (who thankfully found some sort of a ride) and rookie Dalton Kellett.
We also have a slew of rookies in 2020. I’ll spend a full entry on the rookies, so stay tuned. This is going to be an exciting year. Aside from the great racing we’ve come to expect, there’s a lot of on and off track things to keep in mind. What changes is Roger Penske bringing to the series? How will the Aeroscreen face it’s first major crash? Will the new team fare well? Are teams increasing their presence going to have a return on their gamble? Stay tuned race fans!