One of the biggest events in the IndyCar calendar is upon us – the 102nd Indianapolis 500, taking place on May 24th. Known informally as the “500”, the Indianapolis 500 is one of the most prestigious sporting events in the world and, for the first time since 1975, will be held outside of the U.S, in Canada this year.
It didn’t take long for the media circus that is the IndyCar offseason to begin, and this year’s edition was no different. Stories about the series’ future dominated the headlines in the weeks leading up to the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on March 9th – the first of 22 official IndyCar races this year.
While most of the attention focused on the top-secret negotiations between Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, there were a number of other important happenings that took place behind the scenes.
In this article, we’ll run down the most important of those newsworthy events.
The Biggest Story
If there’s one story that dominated the headlines in the IndyCar offseason, it’s the contract negotiations between Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi.
The two sports car magnates have been locked in several heated meetings and telephone calls over the past several months, working toward an agreement that would see them combine forces once more. The contract negotiations were finally made public in February, when the two men issued a joint statement confirming that they had reached a deal, but no details about the agreement were revealed.
The contract negotiations have been a major talking point ever since. Many, including IndyCar President and COO J.R. Coyle, openly question whether or not the two are actually united behind the scenes, or if this is simply another case of big-business headlines in the making.
The Marriage Of Convenience?
When Chip Ganassi purchased his stake in the Penske Automotive Group in 2011, many questioned if this was simply a marriage of convenience – a way to combine the resources of two existing racing teams under one roof. While some still believe that this is simply a case of corporate synergy at work, most now believe that the two are in it for the long haul.
What’s more is that Chip Ganassi has publicly stated that he intends to expand his role at the team, taking on a more active role in both the strategic and day-to-day operations of Penske Racing. This, according to team owner Roger Penske, is a sign that the two men intend to make the alliance a professional entity, dedicated solely to winning races, rather than a relationship built on convenience and mutual benefit.
While most of the headlines this past year have focused on contract negotiations and corporate maneuvering, there were several other significant stories that made the headlines in IndyCar, some of which had a direct impact on fans, drivers, and the series itself.
In 2014, a number of changes were made to the rulebook in an effort to make the racing more spectacular and gain a little more speed out of the cars. The first major rule alteration came in the form of a shorter yellow flag period, with each team now given seven minutes to come to a stop following a crash. The new rule was met with widespread support, with drivers praising the shorter yellow flag for making the racing more exciting.
There were also changes made to the cars, with the hybrid systems being banned for safety reasons and given a.5 second time penalty. The new rule effectively nullified the advantages that the hybrid systems provided, limiting their effectiveness and the strategics that they represented. Despite the controversial rule changes, the general feeling among fans, drivers, and teams was that the series had become a bit too safe and lacked the traditional IndyCar spirit of competition. Several races, including the Indy 500, were won using solely the grunt of the driver and the power of the engine. That said, several drivers, most notably Juan Pablo Montoyo, made a success of the season, leading many to believe that the series had simply adjusted to the new rules and that it still had the potential to produce some amazing races.
The Return Of Danica Patrick
Perhaps the biggest news story to hit the IndyCar offseason had to do with the return of Danica Patrick to the sport. For years, Patrick had left IndyCar – focusing on a career in the TVA Businesses – but was lured back into racing by three things: money, competition, and adventure.
Patrick made a successful return to IndyCar in 2014, winning four times – including the Indianapolis 500. Her performance that year earned her the honorific “Queen of IndyCar”, as well as a spot on the podium in every race but one. While her performance that year was a major factor in her re-appearance in IndyCar, the primary reason behind her success was in fact the competitive spirit of the series. Patrick has publicly stated that she believes the IndyCar series has improved since her departure in 2006, citing increased parity as a sign of the series’ growth. In other words, while the economic and logistical challenges of being a working woman in the 21st century can be immense, Danica Patrick made an indelible mark on the Indianapolis 500 and made a success of her time there. It was also a significant sign that the equal pay issue, which had plagued woman drivers for years, was starting to be addressed – both positively and negatively – in the minds of the general public and within the industry itself.
The Rookie Class
One of the biggest talking points in the paddock all season long had to do with the top-flight rookie class. After years of trying, IndyCar finally hit the jackpot with their first freshman class. Sebastián Saavedra, who had spent the past two years racing in Mexico, finally got a break and was given a chance to shine in his rookie season. The young Venezuelan put in an amazing performance, winning five races, including the Indy 500.
His performance earned him the Rookie of the Year award and, in a move that shocked the racing community, the Driving Machine award, given to the most progressive rookie that year. While rookie class has traditionally been a weak point for IndyCar, fans and drivers alike were unanimous in their praise for the rookie class of 2014, with many saying it was one of the best in recent memory. With the class’s arrival, the IndyCar offseason officially came to a close.
While this year’s edition of the Indianapolis 500 was dominated by business news and headlines about the future of the series, there were several other important happenings that occurred behind the scenes.
Here’s a rundown of the most significant news stories that didn’t make the headlines.
Raising The Bar
Whether or not to raise the bar in terms of what constitutes an acceptable victory has been a contentious subject in the paddock all year long. Many felt that, since 1975, when the Indy 500 was last held in Canada, that the victory lap, trophy, and good cheer that follows a win should be preserved for American audiences and that non-traditional victories (such as the one won by Sebastián Saavedra in 2014) should not be countenanced. Others believed that having a foreign victor at the Indy 500 would add a little spice to an otherwise routine sporting event.
Regardless, for the first time in a quarter of a century, the Indy 500 will be held outside of the U.S., in Toronto. The fact that this edition was hosted by a non-American is a significant milestone, as is the fact that it was the first time that the race was held in the country outside of Quebec. While most countries, including Canada, will have an “in country” exemption for the 500, anyone who is not a Permanent Resident of the U.S. will have to obtain a Special License to be allowed to participate in the race.
The Secret Meeting
Even though IndyCar has a tendency to generate more media speculation than actual news, there were still some important stories that were covered in a bit more depth than usual, due to the fact that they were not widely reported upon. One of those stories involved a private meeting between Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske, held at the end of January, just prior to the beginning of the season. While many have speculated that the two have been at odds with each other for some time, this was the first time that Ganassi had publicly acknowledged that he and Penske had met – and that they had discussed a number of important matters.
What’s more is that the two men did not meet with just any other racing team owner in attendance – they met with one of the most renowned businessmen of all time, Henry Ford.