By: Tanner Watkins
November 22, 2018 | 8:00 AM
With Thanksgiving upon us, the full force of the IndyCar Series offseason has taken hold. Currently sitting 108 days from the season opener at St. Petersburg and 185 days from the latest installment of the Indianapolis 500, winter days in Indiana call for some reflection.
Two months removed from the 2018 finale at Sonoma Raceway, it feels right to start looking towards 2019. While there are certainly some matters to sort out – like finding a title sponsor and moving television numbers back in the right direction – INDYCAR has to be comfortable with where they stand at present.
In 2019 the series will introduce NBC Sports as the sole television partner while ESPN and ABC watch from the sidelines for the first time. Surely there will be a few nostalgic Indianapolis 500 fans missing the “500” on ABC next spring, but the move to NBC was necessary, inevitable, and should be prosperous in the long run.
For anyone who watched the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series finale last weekend, one could see early returns on INDYCAR’s investment.
On multiple occasions, NBC ran ads promoting the IndyCar Series as well as their highly anticipated debut broadcasting the Indianapolis 500. Furthermore, the simulcast of NASCAR’s Homestead race on both NBC and NBCSN gave fans a preview of what to expect when NBC rolls out the red carpet for the “500” next May.
The excitement surrounding NBC and their company taking the IndyCar Series reigns is tangible, and that is a breath of fresh air that will only benefit the series.
And speaking of the Indianapolis 500, it is great to see America’s landmark event moving in the right direction. J. Douglas Boles and the entire Speedway staff have done a fine job to carry momentum from 2016’s 100th running, and for that, they have been rewarded with a healthy, growing event.
Car counts for the “500” will be a hot topic to discuss in 2019 as nearly 30 entries are already confirmed for May, ensuring we get to that magical number of 33 with a high likelihood for “bumping” again.
Maybe James Hinchcliffe and Pippa Mann cringe at the thought of enduring another Bump Day, but in reality, it was the drama created last year on qualifying weekend that conjured up scenes and emotions we had not seen for years at IMS. It was difficult to watch those events unfold for a couple of fan favorites, but the media coverage and exposure that followed were only good things for the series and the race itself.
As a traditionalist I yearn for those moments, but it just feels right to have some natural competition for those 33 spots. The same could be said for the IndyCar Series points system.
It is hard to fault NASCAR for trying to implement a playoff-based championship format while they continue to bleed fans and television viewers. In today’s era, the modern race fan has a shorter attention span than what it used to be, and there are less of them altogether.
The problem is that NASCAR has modified the structure every few years in this millennium, topping it off with quirks and gimmicks that have driven some fans away from the sport.
I applaud INDYCAR for sticking with a traditional points format where the driver with the most points tallied at the end of the year is crowned the champion. Sure, the double points at Indianapolis and the season finale are a bit artificial, but I’m comfortable with that standard now.
Winning the Indianapolis 500 should mean more than winning Iowa or Toronto (no offense) and since they have eliminated point payouts for “500” qualifying, I feel the double points for race day are acceptable.
The IndyCar Series championship system is easy to follow, natural in its progression through the season, and different from NASCAR, its main competitor in the United States. Adding in the fact that the championship is normally decided in the final race of the season anyway, there is no reason why the current format should be altered.
Finally, let’s talk about this developing rookie class on deck for 2019.
With Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson and Santino Ferrucci already confirmed for full-time rides next season, the 2019 Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle is going to be as fierce as any rookie fight in recent memory.
O’Ward and Herta combined to win 13 races in Indy Lights last season while Rosenqvist picked up victories in three of his 10 starts as a Lights driver in 2016. Rosenqvist has continued to show his talent by being competitive in Formula E and sports cars while Ericsson should be on the pace quickly given his Formula One experience.
Ferrucci is a wild card and could go either way, but his perceived villain persona with the fans is good for a series filled with nice guys. It is okay to have a Paul Tracy type in the field, but the Connecticut native will need to be successful too in order to really make things work. It is a wait-and-see approach with the 20-year-old.
Couple this rookie class with the current crop of IndyCar Series drivers, and you have a field of pilots in 2019 that is, without doubt, the deepest and most talented pool of competitors ever seen in American open-wheel racing.
The 2019 season in IndyCar should have even the most casual fans on the edge of their seat while these men and women fight to the checkers. I’m thankful for the series’ commitment to the teams, their fans and the overall group effort it takes to move motorsport forward in today’s entertainment landscape.
It is not an easy job, but Jay Frye, Mark Miles and many others calling the shots at INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have stuck their necks out there and it is paying off. With these individuals at the helm, the IndyCar Series is in good hands.
Now let’s eat some turkey, watch a little football and begin to plan those trips to St. Petersburg. Opening practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be here before you know it, and that is just one of the many things I am thankful for.
Header image courtesy of Chris Owens/INDYCAR.