Optimism abound for IndyCar community during Media Day festivities
It was IndyCar Media Day on Monday, when hope springs eternal for every entry in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series. And for the first time, IndyCar held its annual gathering of media and drivers in Texas, where teams will hit the track at Circuit of the America’s for "Spring Training" Tuesday and Wednesday.
Autoweek was among the media outlets that participated in Media Day at the Fairmount Hotel in downtown Austin, just a few blocks from the Texas state capital building.
Past Media Days were remembered with IndyCar drivers talking about how the series is on the upswing with better days ahead. With a new schedule, a new television contract that will have eight of the 17 races on network television on NBC with the remainder on NBCSN, and a new series sponsor in technical company NTT, this year, they actually mean it.
"The momentum is really good for INDYCAR right now," said five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon.
He should know better than anyone.
When he joined the series in 2003, it was still called the Indy Racing League and some of the top teams remained in the rival CART Series. A younger Dixon won the first of his five IndyCar titles that season when it was still an all-oval series and after clinching the title, the outspoken New Zealander called the IRL cars at that time "crap."
Sixteen years later, Dixon is an IndyCar racing legend, and a winner of the 2008 Indianapolis 500. With 44 career victories, only Mario Andretti’s 52 and AJ Foyt’s 67 wins are ahead of Dixon, who still have plenty of time left in his career for more wins.
When Dixon was a young driver learning his way in the old IRL, the rival Champ Car Series featured a young Frenchman named Sebastien Bourdais, who would go on to win four-straight Champ Car Series titles from 2004-2007.
After attempting Formula One, in 2008, Bourdais’ return to IndyCar stardom was slow. He competed in just nine of 17 races for Dale Coyne in 2011 and was part of the abysmal Lotus Dragon Racing effort in 2012. The team ditched the horrible Lotus engine after just four races and finished the year with Chevrolet power.
After a full-time ride with Dragon in 2013, Bourdais joined KVSH Racing in 2014 and returned to Victory Lane with a win in the first race of a double-header at Toronto. Bourdais won two more races in 2015 for KVSH – the second race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix and the short track race at the Milwaukee Mile.
Bourdais has made it to victory lane every season since. He was involved in a massive crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during his qualification attempt in 2017, fracturing his pelvis. He was back in the race car for the final three races in 2017.
He won the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for the second year in a row in 2018, but once again crashed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Lap 137 of the 102nd Indianapolis 500
"I’ve been too much of the entertainer the last few years," Bourdais quipped on Monday. "I need to be less entertaining and win more races."
Bourdais returns to Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan and believes this will be the most complete IndyCar season in his career from a series standpoint, even better than the days when he dominated the Champ Car Series.
"I think the intensity is very high, the cars are racey, it’s maximizing the strength of the series on every aspect," Bourdais said. "I think there are a lot of really good things happening over the last couple of years. Everyone is excited about it.
"It’s going to be a heck of a season for sure."
Graham Rahal remembers CART’s glory days of the 1990s, when the series was probably more established in the United States just before NASCAR reached its big boom of growth. Rahal’s father was one of the star drivers before he retired and became a team owner.
Graham began his career in Champ Car and always sided with the CART model. When Champ Car and the IRL merged in 2008 to create today’s IndyCar Series, Rahal became the “Poster Boy for Unification” by winning in his very first IndyCar Series race.
Since that unification year, the series has enjoyed some peaks, but also some deep valleys.
"It’s a good time," Rahal said. "I don’t consider anything back because it’s a different era than it was. I feel fortunate that it’s going down the right path. There is no doubt it is in a much better spot than it was a few years ago or 10 years ago. If we get one more OEM in here, it’s going to take off. Other forms of racing can’t say that right now.
"IndyCar racing is heading in the right direction. Things are looking really good. Everybody has a part to push this thing forward. I’m excited for where it is at. I feel like I have a long time ahead of me. We have a lot of young guys going in and it’s good.
"It’s a good time for IndyCar right now."
There remain a few unexpected bumps along the way. The day began with Pato O’Ward announcing he was leaving Harding Steinbrenner Racing. The 2018 Indy Lights champion was supposed to be part of a two-car team that included young Colton Herta.
Without sponsorship for two cars an only one Honda engine lease, O’Ward left the team. Herta found out about it at Media Day. And Carlin Racing has cut Charlie Kimball’s season down to just five races because of sponsorship considerations.
It’s not perfect in IndyCar but compared to where it has been just five years ago, the series has come a long way.
"This is about to get really interesting," promised IndyCar CEO Mark Miles.