We’re eight races into the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season and with depending on if they make up Toronto or not, we have eight to nine races remaining. To me, we’re halfway through.
Heading into this season, everything was lining up for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season to being among the most pivotal in a long time. You have a TV contract up at seasons end. You have as much talent now as you’ve ever had before. Almost everyone from 2020 would return. Then, you get additions of Romain Grosjean, Scott McLaughlin and oh yeah, that Jimmie Johnson guy. That on paper was making 2021 as difficult to win in INDYCAR as it honestly ever has.
“It just seems like it gets better every year,” Josef Newgarden told me. “It’s hard to diminish what happened the last couple years. I think our depth of talent has been incredibly high since I’ve been in the series. It’s just been incredibly high. It’s only gotten better from 2012, whether that’s teams, personnel or the drivers themselves.
“Yeah, I think if you look at the championship, who is in there now this year, certainly the additions with people like Jimmie Johnson or Romain Grosjean, there’s a lot of talented people in the mix. It’s going to be really tough to stay at the front of the pack.
“The field count is going up. It’s not just the depth of talent is increasing, it’s the depth is increasing but the size is increasing and you’re keeping that depth with increased size. Yeah, it’s going to be a tough task. INDYCAR is so tight nowadays. This is the closest form of racing that I see on the planet at the moment, the most parity out there. To try to find an edge on this competition, it takes a tremendous amount of work.”
Graham Rahal agreed this past spring saying that this season has come a long way since his first one 14 years ago.
“It’s come a long way, man. I remember my first year in ’07 in Champ Car. I told this story last year, but if you were outside the top 5 in a Newman/Haas car you were probably pretty ticked off,” said Rahal.
“You look at where it is today and just how deep the field is, and it’s impressive. I mean, this is a — maybe everybody wants to say the golden era of INDYCAR racing was in the early ’90s or in Champ Car, may have been the late ’90s, early 2000s.
“But I’ve got to be honest. From a talent pool perspective, the golden era is right now. We’re living the golden era. It’s never been better, and I’m not sure it will get better. It is deep across the board, and it’s definitely cool because you’re also gauging yourself against the rest.
“For sure there’s going to be times that guys go out there and they’re going to perform great and we’re going to be like, Oh, yeah, they’re awesome, and then next weekend like us in Gateway, you may just completely suck, and it shouldn’t be a surprise because you cannot miss a step.
“The depth, every single driver in the series can win. That’s factual. That couldn’t have been said 20 years ago, let alone five years ago.
“I think it’s just a very pure form of motorsports right now. My opinion is it’s a very pure form, and what I mean by that, no driver aids. The physicality of it is at the prime. Jimmie grew up, he hasn’t been shy of saying it, his dream was to be an INDYCAR driver, and now he’s got the opportunity to be able to fulfill that dream.
“For Scott, he’s done all he could do. He could go win 20 V-8 super car championships, but at the end of the day he’s ready for the next challenge. For Grosjean what else is he going to do in F1? Unless he’s in a Mercedes he’s not going to win, so where doing go? What are you going to do?
“Might as well look across the pond where here he can compete. Here he is going to have the opportunity to win no matter what team he’s with. So these guys, I think the purity of INDYCAR racing is what’s attracting so many people to the sport right now.
“I think that’s only going to get better. There’s some great races on the calendar this year. You look at Nashville. Nashville is — if there’s ever an opportunity for a street race to be a home run, that’s it. I think even to see Dale get involved in the ownership role, Justin Timberlake, guys like that, they can make Nashville explode even more and put it on more of an international viewing platform. I think there’s great opportunity ahead.
“The positive I can say in the position I’m in today is the future, the next five years looks a lot brighter to me than maybe even the past five, and that’s a great thing.”
With that said, NASCAR was promoting their 2021 season as the “best season ever.” But, one had to think was it going to be that way for INDYCAR too. With how important this season is, would the drivers feel it in and out of the cockpit?
“Yeah, you definitely have a sense of what’s moving, what needs to move, what’s taking play around you definitely,” Newgarden continued. “There’s a lot to do. Like I said, the best I do feel is still to come. But there’s a lot of moving pieces. There’s just a tremendous amount of effort that’s going in, much more than I could fathom. Thank goodness I only really have to work on figuring out how to make cars go fast and keep it out of the wall and in Victory Lane. That’s my job, which is much easier than what they are tasked with at the moment.
“Yeah, there’s a lot on the horizon. I think the pandemic, navigating that, has been first on the list, trying to understand how do we just get to the racetrack, how do we serve our customers the best, how do we give our race fans the best experience possible. That’s still number one for all of us. Then how do we take the series as a whole, keep moving that forward every year, whether that’s TV contracts, engine manufacturers. There’s a lot at play there.
“We have a sense of that. Thankfully that’s up to better people than me. I think we do have the best of the best looking after it.”
Power said that he feels it too.
“I do actually. I think it’s a very important season. Yeah, really hoping we can get another manufacturer. I think that would be great for the series. I’m sure that the series is working very hard on trying to make that happen. It needs to obviously happen with enough time for a manufacturer to be able to kind of catch up in a way to Honda and Chevy.”
Last year’s Indy 500 champion, Takuma Sato, said that he feels it too and that this year’s season will be a difficult on track as ever before.
“Yeah, I think it’s extremely challenging, I would say,” the two-time Indy 500 champion told me. “I think anybody who participating in INDYCAR will realize and recognize how hard this series is.
“But one side is very good. I think that’s the name of the sport really. It’s very competitive field, very competitive cars and drivers and teams. Very attractive, how we say, environment we have. I think it’s all good thing.
“Once again, to be competitive all the season, every single weekend is extremely tough, but you have to be there. Somebody will win the championship. I think it’s nothing is impossible. All we need to do is try to focus on season, but focus on every weekend to be the best of our potential.”
So far, we’ve had seven different winners in those eight races run from five different teams hailing from seven different countries. We’ve seen four first time winners, a four time Indy 500 champion and a youth movement riding a big wave forward.
24 year old Alex Palou earned his first career win in the season opener in Barber. 21 year old Colton Herta led 97 of 100 laps on the streets of St. Pete. A then 20 year old Pato O’Ward won the second race of the doubleheader weekend in Texas as well as doing the same for last Sunday’s race in Belle Isle. 30 year old Marcus Ericsson won the first race in Belle Isle while 20 year old Rinus VeeKay won the GMR Grand Prix.
For Palou, O’Ward, Ericsson and VeeKay, each were their maiden INDYCAR wins. Then, throw in 40 year old Scott Dixon winning a race at Texas and Helio Castroneves joining the four win club for the Indy 500 and you get a season to what has lived up to its billing as the best one yet.
Barber was thrilling. St. Pete saw Herta dominate but Newgarden made it a fun battle in the end. The first Texas race left more to be desired but the second one was nothing short of amazing during the second half of the race. The GMR Grand Prix was another fun show while the Indy 500 and both races in Belle Isle far exceeded expectations and were arguably the top three races of the season so far.
Last weekend in Belle Isle was a preview of what the future of the NTT IndyCar Series is going to look like for the next decade or so. Saturday was thrilling racing which saw Ericsson earn his first career victory. 20 year old VeeKay was runner-up while 21 year old O’Ward was third.
On Sunday, you had 30 year old Josef Newgarden, a two-time series champion with 18 career wins, battling with 21 year old Herta as well as that same 21 year old O’Ward to go along with 24 year old Palou at the end of an instant classic.
These four are title contenders now and race winning threats each race. Imagine what the next 10 years are going to look like. Then, factor in VeeKay and you get a bright future.
Just look at the points. 21 year old O’Ward leads 24 year old Palou by one point. 40 year old Dixon is in third while 30 year old Newgarden is in fourth. 20 year old VeeKay is tied with Simon Pagenaud for fifth. 21 year old Herta and 32 year old Graham Rahal are right behind with 30 year Ericsson right there with them.
Is the future now?
“I think over the years in INDYCAR we saw some really young drivers that are really good one or two years and then the veterans are always there, so we’ve got to keep the consistency up,” Palou told me. “That’s how you can run up front in the championships. I’m trying to learn as much as possible from the man Scott. Hopefully I can make it happen, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy.”