CONCORD, N.C. — I spent much of this year paying more attention than usual to the NTT IndyCar Series, and I’m glad I did.
I came to motorsports a fan of the Indy cars and I will always be a fan of that type of racing, but work in another series took my eyes from it for several years. I watched the races when I could and kept up on who was who and what was happening, but it wasn’t like it used to be.
This year, however, I made it a point to watch as much as I could and it was a good move on my part.
The series came down to the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach with multiple possible champions and the fight on the streets was a bare-knuckled brawl … with a gentlemanly edge, of course. To see Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward, Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden duking it out on one of the iconic circuits in the world was quite a spectacle, and it was well worth the time.
Formula 1 is cool, no doubt, but there’s an exclusionary air to the world-wide series that IndyCar doesn’t have. It’s almost like it used to be, when you would see the odd Indy car on an open trailer headed to Michigan or Milwaukee or Trenton. Granted, that was some time ago and I haven’t seen one in many years, but I remember passing them on the road as a kid.
That’s the feeling I got this year.
The Music City Grand Prix, which was run in the streets of Nashville, was a spectacle and it set that cosmopolitan city on its ear. I had questions about the course layout going in, but it worked out well and I was riveted to the TV screen. Colton Herta is a showman behind the wheel, and the drive he put in over the final laps before crashing out was a throwback to Andretti, Foyt and Rutherford in their heydays.
Marcus Ericsson recovering from being airborne in a crash at the start to win the inaugural Music City Grand Prix was a story for the ages.
The races the series put on this season had the passion I remembered and the drivers raced as hard as I have ever seen. That is something I didn’t think I would see much of going forward, but the new cars and their drivers have done a great job in that regard.
A big part of this — renaissance, if you will — has to do with Roger Penske and his team at IndyCar. They’ve managed to take all the things that were great about the 1970s and 1980s and meld them into the current iteration, adding some show-biz flair and a no-nonsense pragmatism to good business to make it all work.
Teaming up with Nashville was a master stroke, because it hooks the trendy Music City vibe with the speed and flair of Indy cars on a course that was designed to make for good racing. That’s not to say Nashville was the only success on the schedule.
The Indy 500 was back in all its glory and the races at Portland (Ore.) Int’l Raceway, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Long Beach were fitting cappers to a season that saw so much good happen.
Young drivers such as Palou, Herta and Newgarden melded well with veterans the likes of Dixon and Helio Castroneves to provide an added “new blood vs. old blood” feeling.
The depth of the series is pretty solid, too. Dixon and Will Power are the elder statesmen of the group and the young pups are coming on in a good way. Romain Grosjean came in from F-1 and made an immediate splash, carving his way forward on many occasions.
The attraction of Indy cars to F-1 drivers is growing because the competition is better and the dogs and ponies associated with F-1 are much tamer. It is more of a viable alternative to the global gaggle than it may have been a few years ago, given that there are more competitive seats and competition does not require the budget for a small country to be successful.
I am bullish on the future of Indy Cars again, if you couldn’t tell. The fact that Jimmie Johnson was able to run almost a full season, learning, growing and getting better all the time, is a bonus. He’s a tie to NASCAR, which still enjoys the biggest share of the U.S. market, and his arrival and success could close that gap in the near future.
A strong open-wheel presence is a very good thing and the 2021 IndyCar season gives me great hope for the future.