Responding Like a Thoroughbred

Posted in IndyCar on October 16, 2019 by Oilpressure

Before we get started, I wanted to acknowledge that it was eight years ago today that Dan Wheldon was fatally injured in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I chose not to write about it as I have a few times on this date because there is only so much one can say every year before the words start sounding hollow – and I certainly don’t want that to happen. But I will keep Dan Wheldon and his family in my thoughts today and hope each of you will do the same. – GP

It may seem that there have been a lot of recent posts here regarding McLaren’s upcoming fulltime IndyCar program in 2020. Well, it’s not your imagination. Last week, there were two posts here that were at least partially about the questions surrounding Arrow McLaren SP’s status. The week before that, there was one.

There are a few reasons for that. First of all, from a financial standpoint the seat or seats that are open with McLaren are probably the ones most lucrative for a driver of the remaining open seats. Secondly, there is a lot of drama and intrigue surrounding this team. No one really knows if James Hinchcliffe will be a part of the team (I still say he won’t) and the manner in which they have joined the series has ruffled a few feathers in the paddock. Lastly, we are about three weeks into the IndyCar offseason and there are few fresh topics to discuss at this time of year.

Plus, the rumors keep swirling around this team. They are the offseason gift that keeps on giving. The latest rumor has newly crowned Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew joining the team in the car recently vacated by Marcus Ericsson, who was signed to a third car at Ganassi last week. That one makes sense, for both sides. Askew is undeniably talented, but he will be a rookie. He needs some seasoning, just like Colton Herta did this past season. Yes he won two races, but he also made his share of rookie mistakes. That’s why they are called rookies.

For now, McLaren is publicly saying that they plan to have James Hinchcliffe in the primary car for 2020. Even if it happens, it is only because Hinchcliffe has one year remaining on his contract with the team that McLaren took over (and yes, I see this as a takeover). Hinch will be a stop-gap to 2021. Word has it that they don’t really want him there, and he doesn’t want to be there. But a lack of better alternatives for both parties may force an unhappy marriage for next season until their divorce can be finalized. That’s when they plan to make a big splash with a driver signing.

Rumor has it that the driver they are targeting for the 2021 IndyCar season is Simon Pagenaud.

My question is…why would he do that?

Those connecting the dots point to the fact that he drove for the forerunner of this team from 2012 through 2014. When he started, it was Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports and by the time he left it was Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The dot-connectors also point out his previous relationship with Gil de Ferran, who will be spearheading the McLaren IndyCar effort.

They also point to Pagenaud’s status with Team Penske, before he swept the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this past spring. After winning the 2016 IndyCar championship and finishing second to new teammate Josef Newgarden in 2017, Pagenaud went winless in 2018 and finished a forgettable sixth in points. Prior to his magical Month of May, Pagenaud had been equally unimpressive in the first four races of 2019; finishing seventh, nineteenth, ninth and sixth respectively. It wasn’t disastrous, but it also didn’t help that Newgarden had a win, two second-place finishes and a fourth in that time period and was leading the points, while driving for the same team.

Whispers were becoming louder and louder that Pagenaud’s seat was in jeopardy and that he was driving for his job. From what we’ve heard since then, those weren’t just rumors. But Pagenaud responded by winning the IndyCar Grand Prix, then the pole for the Indianapolis 500 before the crowning achievement of winning the Indianapolis 500. By the time the series left town and headed for Belle Isle, Pagenaud was the points leader and was confirmed to return to Team Penske for 2020.

Decades ago, I once heard a coach say that if you put a whip to a thoroughbred, he responds. If you put a whip to a jack-ass – he bucks. Pagenaud responded. He also followed up with another win at Toronto later in the summer, validating his return to Team Penske for next season.

We don’t know of any of the politics that go one behind closed doors at Team Penske. The Captain keeps such a tight lid on such things; we were more likely to know what went on with the Politburo prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But if we were hearing the murmurs about his employment status heading into last May, you know Pagenaud was hearing them – and feeling the pressure. Some say the pressure is too great at Team Penske and Pagenaud would be better off elsewhere. Baloney!

Pagenaud is a racer, a series champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner. You don’t accomplish those things by wilting under pressure. Instead, you thrive on it.

Unless Pagenaud cares about nothing other than the biggest paycheck possible, why on earth would he leave Team Penske to go into such an uncertain situation at McLaren. About the only thing certain about the first few seasons at McLaren is that it will be a rocky road. Keep in mind, that this new “alliance” between Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and McLaren combines two teams that were shocking non-qualifiers for the last two Indianapolis 500s.

At Team Penske, you are well-paid and you have access to the best equipment and personnel in the business. You win races, championships and the Indianapolis 500. The current driver lineup at Team Penske has three series champions and two Indianapolis 500 winners. Josef Newgarden has never won at Indianapolis, but he partially makes up for it with two series championships in the three years he has driven there. His time to drink the milk will likely come sooner than later.

I may be wrong, but I think most drivers value winning over money. And if you are on a team that has won the Indianapolis 500 eighteen times and three of the past four IndyCar championships – how much money do you ask to leave that behind?

Everyone has their price, but is Simon Pagenaud at a point in his career where he wants to leave behind the opportunity to win more championships and Indianapolis 500s just to chase a bigger paycheck? It’s not like Roger Penske pays minimum wage.

If Pagenaud were to go to McLaren for the 2021 season, he would be thirty-seven years old at that year’s Indianapolis 500. To me, that’s a little long in the tooth to hit the re-set button on your career and go to a situation that sounds anything but stable.

When he was driving, I was always a big fan of Gil de Ferran. I liked his driving style and the way he carried himself outside of the car. But as much of a fan I was in his driving days, I can’t say that his post-driving career has duplicated his success inside the cockpit. His run in ALMS (with Pagenaud as his driver) was probably the pinnacle of his success in his post-driving career. His run with Jay Penske with de Ferran Dragon Racing was unremarkable at best. He has had various worldwide roles with Honda, but now finds himself working with Chevy – who he only drove for one year in his entire IndyCar career, in 2002.

McLaren showed itself to be way too top-heavy last May when they failed to qualify at Indianapolis. It was a comedy of errors as the car of Fernando Alonso faced one setback after another. Zak Brown and Gil de Ferran played key roles in that debacle. Did they learn anything? Time will tell.

Simon Pagenaud should be very grateful that I am not him, but if I was – I would stay put at Team Penske. Most drivers don’t intentionally walk away from Roger Penske. Ryan Hunter-Reay chose to stay with Andretti Autosport after being courted by The Captain following his 2012 championship. He won the 2014 Indianapolis 500, but he has had a non-spectacular, if not solid, career since then. If given truth serum, I wonder what he might say today about his decision to not go to Penske. In five years or so, we may be asking the same thing about Alexander Rossi.

Team Penske is where drivers go to spend the remainder of their careers. Rick Mears joined Team Penske as a driver in 1978 and is still employed by the team to this day. Al Unser spent his last fulltime years at Team Penske and had two more championships to show for it. He also raced in four more Indianapolis 500 one-offs after that, that led to his fourth “500” win. Helio Castroneves drove fulltime for Penske from 2000 to 2017 and is still chasing his fourth “500” win with the team each May. Will Power will likely close out his driving career with Penske and I would be shocked if Newgarden ever left.

The dot-connectors say that Pagenaud has just been given one extra year with Penske and he wants more security than that. Seriously? If you want security, go work for the government. Successful racers want to race where they have the best chance of winning. Period. They aren’t in it for a steady big paycheck. They want to win. If this is Pagenaud’s mindset, then perhaps he should go chase the paycheck and leave the winning environment at Penske for the almost certain dumpster-fire at McLaren.

But I don’t think Simon Pagenaud is like that. I think he is a thoroughbred. He proved that to us this past May. I predict that Pagenaud will stay with Team Penske until he is ready to hang up his helmet – on his own terms.

George Phillips

Reserving the Right to Change My Mind

Posted in IndyCar on October 14, 2019 by Oilpressure

Over the years, one of the most common criticisms I’ve heard of people is to say that so and so never likes to admit that they’re wrong. My question is who does?

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A Surprising Twist in IndyCar’s Musical Chairs

Posted in IndyCar on October 9, 2019 by Oilpressure

Put this in the category of “I didn’t see that coming”. Yesterday, Chip Ganassi announced that he has signed Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson to drive the heavily rumored third car at Chip Ganassi Racing. Perhaps there are some that suspected that move, but I didn’t. My friend Paul Dalbey of texted me about it yesterday afternoon and I was totally unaware of it. To say it caught me by surprise would be an understatement.

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Possibly a Blessing in Disguise

Posted in IndyCar on October 7, 2019 by Oilpressure

Like just about any fan of the NTT IndyCar Series, I have drivers that I really like and a few drivers that I don’t really care for. Over time, drivers may go from one list to the other. For example, when Graham Rahal came into the series through unification in 2008, he was not my favorite for a few reasons. Over time, he won me over. I was flat-out wrong in some of my criticisms of the second-generation IndyCar driver, and Graham also evolved in other areas. Today, I rank Graham Rahal among my favorite drivers in the series.

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Fans Have a Right to Speak and Be Heard

Posted in IndyCar on October 4, 2019 by Oilpressure

I’ve gone off on a rant about this topic before, and I will probably feel the need to write about it again before the start of the IndyCar season. As most of you know, the NTT IndyCar Series conducted its first on-track test of the new aeroscreen at IMS on Wednesday. Scott Dixon and Will Power ran for the better part of the day, conducting various tests and configurations. Overall, both drivers gave the safety device glowing reviews.

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A Somewhat Overlooked Loss

Posted in IndyCar on October 2, 2019 by Oilpressure

Jimmy Vasser is best known for winning the 1996 CART championship and for winning eight races for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. But before Vasser drove for Chip Ganassi and became the Jimmy Vasser we know today, he drove three years for the late Jim Hayhoe who also served as his mentor in CART. Prior to that, Vasser drove two full years for John Della Penna in the Toyota Atlantic Championship.

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Don’t Take Everything at Face Value

Posted in IndyCar on September 30, 2019 by Oilpressure

Normally, I don’t buy into conspiracy theories. I pretty much take things at face value. I believe that man landed on the moon in July of 1969; I’ve always thought that there was only one shooter in the JFK assassination and I think that the twin-towers were taken down by terrorists flying commercial airliners into buildings – and not some inside job by the US Government. Heck, I never once even questioned the existence of Santa Claus until some kid from down the street set me straight when I was seven years old. Even then, I didn’t believe him until we ran into the kitchen and confronted my mother about it. But when I saw the glare she gave him, I knew the truth. OK…so I was proven wrong on St. Nick, but most of the time I don’t try to read between the lines.

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