Topic 1: Team Penske is off to a quick start again just like 2015. They became nonexistent after the Indy 500. Have they figured out how to get 4 number 1 drivers to work together, will they implode like last year or will the other teams catch up and give them a run for their money?
TonyD:I don’t think Team Penske will ever implode. You are talking about one of the best run organizations in all of motor sport. Helio Castroneves was in the championship fight until Mid Ohio last year, while Power and Montoya fought until the last race. I expect them to be in the running every race all year.
Tomas: Penske never implodes, they have good drivers and excellent engineering. It’s whether the likes of Ganassi find what they are looking for.
Ashley: I do think all four Penske drivers will work well together. As with any multi-car team, it gives them an opportunity to compare data. But I also think there are some other strong driver/engineer combinations this year that will give them a run for their money.
Nancy: I think other teams will catch up, at least that’s what I am hoping will happen. IndyCar needs to have as many winners as possible to keep fans interested. Other teams are starting to figure out the chassis, aero-kits etc.
Rick: Not sure they “imploded” last year as much as everyone stepped up their game accordingly. If anyone can have four number one drivers work together, it is Penske. Not really sure what we mean by “working together”. If a race came down to the last 10 laps and it was three Penske drivers, it would be very interesting to see how that would play out. Further, I would truly expect both Gnassi’s and Andretti to catch up by mid-season. I think it is more a function of their off-season work, the quality of their personnel, and the quality and capabilities of the drivers and the equipment.
Topic 2: Honda’s aero-kit work in the offseason made big strides compared to what their teams had last year. Do you think Chevy still has an advantage and is this the last year for aero-kits?
Tony: Too much money has been spent on aero kits, I think they stay. I think Honda will have made strides, but expect Chevy to still have the upper hand, especially in qualifying.
Ashley: There is no doubt that Chevy will be strong again this year, but as evident by the recent test at Phoenix (six Hondas in the Top-10 in Session Four) and St. Pete, I think Honda will be right up there with Chevy. I don’t think this will be the last year for aero-kits.
Nancy: I believe it is the last year for aero-kits as they are an added expense the teams don’t need, and Honda is still behind. They should have had this figured out last year.
Rick: Yes, Chevy will start the season with a continued advantage, but that gap will be narrowed before too many races. The real challenge here is to try and determine what is the litmus test to decide the aero package difference is being closed. Looking solely at which team is in the winners circle is not necessarily the best indicator. Take a look at where the entire Honda field is finishing versus the field.
Tomas: I don’t know.
Topic 3: Who do you have for rookie of the year: Max Chilton, Conor Daly, Alexander Rossi?
Tomas: Conor Daly.
Ashley: Conor Daly. I think Chilton and Rossi will still do well given that they are driving for two strong teams in Ganassi and Andretti/Herta. I know that the competitive drive in them, as with any racer, will push them to win. However, Conor knows exactly what it takes to get where he is right now and has fought for that.
Nancy: Conor Daly! I think he is a great driver and will prove it this year.
Rick: Conor Daly. He will have the advantage of having spent a fair amount of time in an IndyCar, compared the other two. All three are accomplished drivers, all three will have interesting seasons, but ultimately, I would put my eggs in the Conor Daly basket.
Topic 4: Ratings for the St. Pete race came in at 1.1 which was a significant jump. Is IndyCar on the right track by focusing on the tv audience? Have they focused on improving the tv audience at the expense of the fan experience at the track? Please expain.
TonyD: I believe so . Having the first race of the year be a billboard for the month of May, followed by the Angie’s List GP and qualifying for the 500 on ABC to advertise the race is big. I love NBC Sports Coverage however, but I think both are on the right track.
Tomas: I am not sure, but I can tell you that tv numbers are the most important. Sure it’s great to see fans at the track and it’s good for atmosphere but tv is where the money is at.
Ashley:I am so glad to see a jump in TV ratings. I might be partial since I work for NBC Sports, but so many people on the production side are putting in hard work, so it’s great to see the high ratings follow. Ultimately, I don’t think it has to be one or the other. I think there can be high TV ratings AND a great experience at-track. They feed off one another. If you see a great crowd at the race on TV, you want to go in person and experience it for yourself.
Nancy:They’ve focused on the TV audience, but not the race times, meaning a 5:00 race on Sunday TV start will get many tuned in but not as many will attend. Fans want to be able to go home after the race due to work, if it rains fans have to make a choice. Therefore why would a fan come to a race vs. watching on TV.
Rick:I guess I didn’t realize IndyCar was focusing on the tv audience. The fact the numbers are better is a function of being on ABC on a weekend where the NASCAR race was not on simultaneously, there were not a lot of other events to take viewership away, and IndyCar is producing a quality product. They were able to pick up motorsports fans and provided a product that was engaging, competitive and interesting. Not sure they have reduced the fan experience at the track at all. I was not in attendance for St. Pete, so am not sure what or how the fan experience has been reduced at the track.
Topic 5:Is the Mazda Road to Indy viable and successful? Spencer Pigot is the reigning Lights champion and only has a 3 race deal, Gabbby Chaves the 2014 champ lost his ride after 1 season at BHA, Sage Karam the 2013 champ lost his ride after 1 full year at Ganassi and Tristan Vautier is out after 1 full season and a partial season last year? It seems to work well until you get to the last rung. Please elaborate.
Tomas: Indycar is where it’s at. These kids could have been good racing against other kids, but when you step into an Indycar you have to push yourself to another level to try be on the same page as guys like Dixon, Montoya, Power and Castroneves. These guys drive 110% all the time, not only that they have experience at knowing what they need from their cars. I think it’s a good thing as it shows how tough it is. A kid that does make an impact, leads, wins and drives it like he stole it will sooner or later pop up.
Tony: The problem is, these older drivers are still having success. Montoya, Kanaan, Helio, Dixon are still getting it done and have been for the last 10-15 years. Some of these drivers get one off races and don’t succeed in mediocre equipment. Karam is on the sideline because he didn’t prove anything last year, besides he can’t be trusted.
Ashley: I am a huge fan of the Mazda Road to Indy. There was nothing more exciting to me than getting to work with some of the MRTI drivers and then watching them make their way to IndyCar. While I think it is still a system that works, IndyCar runs off the money that comes into a team. Winning the Indy Lights championship is not enough to get you a full-time IndyCar ride, so drivers still need to find sponsorship funding. It makes me disappointed to see great drivers like Gabby Chaves & Sage Karam out of a full-time IndyCar ride right now, simply because a driver from another series can come in and bring sponsorship money.
Nancy: It is becoming successful and car counts are going up, with that being said, IndyCar doesn’t seem to care about success as much as it does bringing money to the table. If you don’t bring money you don’t drive.
Rick: To me the MRTI is viable and successful if there are graduates running in the prime series, that are competitive and that win races occasionally. By those conditions, the MRTI has been successful. If the qualifications are the champion is running competitively year after year, then it has been a miserable failure. In addition to all those mentioned in the question, JK Vernay won the Lights Championship and never got a ride with any IndyCar team. What exactly does the Lights Champion win? It was billed early on as a $1 million scholarship, which one could intrepret as cash. In reality it’s meant the lack of entrance fees and reduced tire costs amounting to a million dollars.
It would seem to be a bit of a curse. The scholarship gets your foot in the door, but doesn’t provide enough to get a full season ride. The Champion is still required to raise enough funds to put with the scholarship to make it through an entire season. Raising funds has little to do with being the Lights Champion.
The entire ladder system has the capabilities to allow the cream to rise to the top. The first rung is more expensive than karting, yet less expensive than trying to run your own team. Same with the second level. With each level becoming progressively more expensive, there seems to be a number of people willing and capable to write the checks and get into a seat to take the shot. And there is talent in the Lights Field. Especially this year. Dean Stoneman is going to be really fun to watch. Check him out. A great story and truly deserving of the opportunity. To me, he is representative of what the MRTI should be about.