Ten For The Road – And Also For The Ovals – In 2019

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, December 31 2019
Roger Penske tops the Top 10 Stories of 2019 in the IndyCar Series.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

With a record 18 Indianapolis 500 victories on his resume, motorsports mogul Roger Penske basically has “owned” the storied Month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And then he bought it!

That setup and punch line became a fast fact in early November, when “The Captain” stunned the industry with the announcement that Penske Corporation would be acquiring Indianapolis Motor Speedway, INDYCAR and additional Hulman & Company holdings. Penske’s postseason purchase of America’s “Cathedral of Speed” easily was the most captivating story of 2019 for sanctioning body INDYCAR, and among the top stories in all of motorsports worldwide.

Recall that Anton “Tony” Hulman purchased the Speedway in dilapidated post-World War II condition in November 1945 and began to transform it into one of the world’s most iconic sporting venues. Over the past 75 years, Hulman and his family have re-invented the facility while hosting Indy cars, NASCAR, Formula One, MotoGP, major golf tournaments and concerts, among other events.

Team Penske won its first Indy 500 and BorgWarner Trophy with the late Mark Donohue in 1972. Penske’s roll call of Indy 500 champions features four-time winner Rick Mears of California and three-time champ Helio Castroneves of Brazil. Australian Will Power (2017) and Frenchman Simon Pagenaud (2019) are the latest contributors to Penske’s dominance of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

The official sale is scheduled for early January, with industry observers anticipating the impact the 82-year-old Penske will have on the sport and facility at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road.

“I really have to wind back to 1951 when my dad brought me here when I was 14-years-old,” Penske, founder/chairman of Penske Corporation, said during a news conference announcing the purchase. “And I guess at that point the bug of motor racing got in my blood I’d have to say, and to think about what it’s meant to our company, the brand that we’ve been able to build. It’s interesting, I talked to Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, and we all agreed what the Indianapolis 500 has meant to us as individuals and as a company, and certainly our company.

“And I think that what it really says, that in the United States of America, if you work hard and you’re committed and you have a great group of people, you get great success. So today I hope my dad’s looking down at me and looking at this group and saying, ‘Son, you did a good job.’^”

Domestic open-wheel racing was dominated last season by Team Penske. With the help of information from INDYCAR’s communications staff, here is RacinToday.com’s ranking of the series’ top 2019 stories:

IndyCar drivers in May of 2020 will be welcomed to Roger World. (File photo courtesy of the IndyCar Series)

1. Roger Penske acquires IMS, INDYCAR: Tony George, Hulman & Company’s chairman of the board, said he first approached Penske about buying the company’s assets on the final day of the NTT IndyCar Series season, Sept. 22 in Monterey, Calif., at the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. Private, highly confidential meetings were held over the next six weeks, with only a handful of executives included in the negotiations. Penske seemed genuinely pleased that one of the biggest secrets in motorsports history held until the deal was formally announced Monday, Nov. 4, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Josef Newgarden won his second IndyCar Series championship in 2019. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

2. Josef Newgarden wins four races, captures second series championship: Newgarden won a season-high four races en route to his second series crown in three years with Team Penske. He also joined Sam Hornish Jr. as the only Americans to win multiple series crowns since Al Unser Jr. in 1994. A 29-year-old native of Nashville, Tenn., Newgarden claimed the top spot in the standings by winning the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., and relinquished the position only once _ after teammate Simon Pagenaud won the Indy 500_ to effectively go wire-to-wire.

2019 Indinapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

3. Simon Pagenaud records history-making Month of May at Indianapolis: For the first time, the same driver won all three major Indianapolis Motor Speedway events in May _ the INDYCAR Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 pole and the 500 itself. In the race, Team Penske’s Pagenaud led 116 of 200 laps and outdueled Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport over the final laps to become the first Frenchman to win the Indy 500 since Rene Thomas in 1914. Pagenaud, a 35-year-old native of Montmorillon, France, also became the first pole-winner to win the 500 since Penske’s Helio Castroneves in 2009.

Colton Herta was a phenom in 2019. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

4. History-setting Colton Herta leads stout rookie class: Herta, of Harding Steinbrenner Racing, made the first emphatic rookie statement by winning the season’s second race, the inaugural INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, in March. A second generation driver, Herta became the youngest race-winner in INDYCAR history at 18 years, 11 months, 25 days. Herta added another victory in the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in California.

Meanwhile, 28-year-old Swede Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing won the season Rookie of the Year Award based upon two top-three and six top-five finishes. Additionally, the Indy 500’s top-finishing rookie, 21-year-old Connecticut native Santino Ferrucci of Dale Coyne Racing, produced three fourth-place finishes along with a seventh at Indy. Also, 29-year-old Swede Marcus Ericsson of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports finished second in the second Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix street race while Carlin’s Pato O’Ward put on a show at COTA in finishing eighth. And DragonSpeed’s Ben Hanley, a 34-year-old Englishman on a part-time team making its third INDYCAR start, delivered a strong effort at the 500, qualifying 27th.

James Hinchcliffe lost his job as McLaren and SPM merged.

5. McLaren, SPM merge, hire Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew: Backed by its Formula One pedigree and open-wheel history, McLaren announced in August its fulltime return to INDYCAR in a partnership with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Rebranded as Arrow McLaren Racing SP, the team confirmed a deal with engine supplier Chevrolet. Additionally, the 2019 driver lineup of popular Canadian James Hinchcliffe and Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson was replaced by Askew and O’Ward, the two most recent series champs of Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires. At 23 and 20 years, respectively, Askew, the 2019 champion from Florida, and O’Ward, a native of Mexico and the ’18 champ, form the series’ youngest pairing.

INDYCAR tested its Aeroscreen program in 2019.

6. INDYCAR introduces Aeroscreen, hybrid technology: INDYCAR announced a partnership with Red Bull Advanced Technologies during the Indy 500 race weekend for the development and implementation of an Aeroscreen for enhanced driver cockpit protection. The safety innovation, which will make its competition debut at the outset of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, consists of a ballistic Aeroscreen anchored by titanium framework that encompasses the cockpit. The Aeroscreen underwent its first on-track test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Team Penske’s Will Power; both termed the outing a success. Other tests followed at Barber Motorsports Park, Richmond Raceway _ returning to the schedule in 2020 _ and Sebring International Raceway. 

INDYCAR President Jay Frye described the Aeroscreen as “a game-changer.” For 2022, INDYCAR, in partnership with Chevrolet and Honda, will implement a single-source hybrid system in its cars. Keeping with INDYCAR’s history of integrating innovation into the sport, the hybrid powertrain will mark the first time vehicles will depart from traditional, manual hand-held electric starters to a hybrid component that can be activated by the driver from the cockpit. Also, engines are targeted to exceed 900 horsepower.

Alexander Rossi will continue on with Andretti Autosport.

7. Alexander Rossi re-signs with Andretti Autosport: Rossi loomed as the most highly sought-after free agent during Silly Season with a number of options, including Team Penske. But the 28-year-old native of Nevada City, Calif., re-signed a multi-year deal with Andretti Autosport in July. Team-owner Michael Andretti also renewed with engine supplier Honda. The Rossi-Honda tandem was strong in 2019, finishing third in the NTT IndyCar Series championship _ top result for the engine manufacturer. Rossi also delivered dominating wins on the Streets of Long Beach and at Road America, leading an impressive 134 of the combined 140 laps, and a runner-up finish in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Fernando Alonso took a major bump at Indy.

8. Juncos/Kaiser bump McLaren/Alonso from Indianapolis 500 field: What the Fernando? Who could predict that Fernando Alonso, 38, and a two-time F1 World Driving Champion from Spain who ran so well in the 500 in 2017, would fail to earn a spot in his ballyhooed return to IMS? Or that McLaren, which came to Indy with its own program for the first time in this era of the sport, also would go home early with Alonso? With the papaya orange No. 66 Chevrolet in a precarious position during the final minutes of qualifying, Kyle Kaiser _ a 23-year-old Californian driving for the small, part-time Juncos Racing team _ clicked off four laps/10-miles fast enough to make the traditional 33-car field.

9. NBC airs its first Indianapolis 500, becomes exclusive home of the NTT IndyCar Series: The 500 had been carried on ABC since F1 hero Jim Clark’s landmark victory in a rear engine Lotus/Ford in 1965, dating to the halcyon days of black-and-white broadcasts hosted by Jim McKay. Nostalgia aside, NBC significantly increased exposure for the NTT IndyCar Series through its first of a multi-year deal. Eight races were shown live on network television, three more than in 2018, and fans enjoyed action of all on-track activity via NBC Sports Gold, a leading direct-to-consumer product. Another positive was the inclusion of the Indianapolis 500 in NBC’s “Championship Season” marketing campaign.

10. NTT joins as series’ title sponsor: A multi-year agreement with the global information technology and communications leader was signed in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The agreement affords INDYCAR the opportunity to benefit from NTT’s digital innovations, including the evolution of the INDYCAR Mobile App and integration of NTT’s proprietary Smart Platform.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, December 31 2019
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