This is the third of five articles that previews the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series. Each day this week, Arch City Media features an aspect of the upcoming season for the popular franchise.
There will be plenty of intrigue as a new crop of drivers makes initial charges during the 2021 season of the NTT IndyCar Series that begins Sunday at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
In the mix are stars from other motor sport disciplines as well as retired open-wheeled veterans that are purposefully hired for part-time rides that could yield high rewards.
Sunday’s shootout at the Barber Motorsports Complex is the first of a 17-race docket that contains seven road courses, six street configurations and four ovals. The non-oval events are the ones that will predominantly feature the series’ newbies.
Of primary interest is the IndyCar debut of seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who drives the No. 48 Honda at road and street races for the powerhouse collective of Chip Ganassi Racing.
While there have been past moments where IndyCar drivers have transitioned to NASCAR (Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick immediately comes to mind), Johnson’s trajectory from stock to open-wheeled racing is somewhat rare.
As he competed during his final full-time NASCAR docket last season, the 45-year-old Johnson tested in IndyCar for his current boss in July 2020 and was signed to a part-time contract for races in 2021 and 2022. This agreement allows the Californian to also race part-time for Ganassi’s NASCAR brand at select series events.
The newfound challenge of competing on non-ovals – and making right-hand turns – has given the long-time, popular competitor renewed vigor.
“I’m progressing every time I’m in the car,” Johnson said. “Really been able to spend time with my team and understand really how IndyCar racing works. How a race weekend works. I’m really going to have to use this year, if not the first half of this year, to acclimate myself to the car. Understand where the limits are with the car.”
The open-wheeled machine, which on circuit courses can average 130 MPH on race day, has provided additional intensity.
“It’s a monster,” Johnson said. “That’s the best way I can put it. There’s so much power, so much downforce, so much grip. It’s wild to drive.”
The oval events that Johnson will bypass consists of the traditional Indianapolis 500 (now shifted back to Memorial Day Weekend), a pair of early-May races at Texas Motor Speedway, and the August return of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Worldwide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois.
Longtime fan favorite Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 winner that raced six events for A.J. Foyt Enterprises last season, is penciled to pilot Ganassi’s No. 48 Honda at the four IndyCar oval races that Johnson will not compete at.
“I feel like a kid that got a new toy,” Kanaan said of the upgraded ride. “I was getting ready to look for other things in my life because I thought last year was going to be the last lap. Then I got a call from Jimmie, Chip, and all of a sudden I’m back.”
The unlikely one-two punch of racing veterans might arguably be the feel-good team to follow this season.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time together and on the phone,” Kanaan said of the relationship. “Jimmie is an amazing individual. Hats off to him to be able to actually have the courage to put himself in a position that after winning seven championships to come back and become a rookie. I appreciate that a lot.”
More adaptable to the open-wheeled format, and perhaps to one to watch early, is Formula 1 veteran Romain Grosjean, who makes his initial IndyCar splash with Dale Coyne Racing and the No. 51 RWR Honda. The 35-year-old Frenchman is slotted to race all road and street courses in 2021.
“I’ll focus on what I can do and what I can learn,” the nine-year F1 vet said. “I’m going to do my own work as much as I can. I’m a rookie (and) I need to learn things. Obviously, we’re going to do our best but there will always be scenarios we haven’t imagined and we need to get used to.”
Identical to the aforementioned Johnson/Kanaan configuration that fields a car for Ganassi, Dale Coyne will employ the returning Pietro Fittipaldi to race the No. 51 RWR Honda at the four oval events. The grandson of two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi raced six IndyCar events for Coyne in 2018.
“It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid to race in the Indy 500,” said the 24-year-old. “All of Dale’s cars were competitive there last year and we’re looking to do the same this year.”
While the aforementioned tandems are well constructed, one legacy franchise is set to have an IndyCar newcomer claim Rookie of the Year honors outright across all races and claim podium placement.
Kiwi Scott McLaughlin, a three-time Supercars Champion (2018-20), pilots the No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet full-time and races alongside teammates Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, who have each won series championships.
“Someone put out a tweet, quite a good tweet, (that) the rookie class (is) where it’s like a three-time Supercar champion, a seven-time NASCAR champion, then a guy who is a veteran of Formula 1 in their first season in IndyCar,” McLaughlin said. “It just shows what IndyCar is all about right now. It’s exciting times for the category. I hope the fans relish it.”
Some other IndyCar veterans with minimum rides last season are finding themselves back into a more-active fold this year.
Canadian James Hinchliffe, who raced six events for Andretti Autosport last season, was bumped up to a full-time ride in the No. 29 Honda for Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport,
“Being back full time has always been the goal and it feels so great to know that I will be back on the grid and with such an amazing team, “Hinchcliffe said. “I can’t wait to get to the track and kick off 2021!”
Helio Castroneves, who won three Indy 500s during his 20-year career, is slotted for six races this season for upstart Meyer Shank Racing.
“I’m excited because there was a huge opportunity for the future with this amazing organization,” he said. “Young team, young potential. It is going to take a little time. As I say, it’s a process, but I’m excited. I’m ready for this challenge.”
Finally, there has been some early series buzz for individual entrants at the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May.
Juan Pablo Montoya, a two-time Indy 500 winner, will drive the #86 Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren SP while Simona De Silvestro, who won Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors in 2010, will helm the No. 16 Chevy for Paretta Autosport, the first-ever female-owned IndyCar team.
Coverage of Sunday’s race takes airs on NBC (locally KSDK-TV, Channel 5) beginning at 2 pm Central.
For more information on the series, visit their official website.
COMING UP THURSDAY: While individual drivers look to snare victories at every event, the IndyCar team franchises that field multiple cars at every race are looking to lay claim as the most-successful collective for the season. Which team will claim the top spot within “the track turf war?” We’ll look at the complexion of the IndyCar teams for 2021.
Arch City Media will have coverage of the series with previews and recaps of every event.
By trade, he is a six-time, regional Emmy Award-winning news videographer/editor for KTVI/KPLR-TV. By hobby, he is an announcer and digital content producer for St. Louis-based Arch Rival Roller Derby. Also a webcast announcer for post-season roller derby tournaments on wftda.tv. Yep, this Illinoisan primarily writes about derby, covering Arch Rival, the St. Chux Derby Chix and the STL GateKeepers men's league. He also writes about St. Louis SLAM Women's Football, St. Louis Lions women's soccer and other sports topics.