Things Are Falling Into Place

We are now getting a clearer picture of what the Verizon IndyCar Series will look like for 2017. On Monday, two more drivers had their 2017 destinations confirmed. In a not-so-surprising move, Takuma Sato signed to drive the No.26 car for Andretti Autosport. I say that it was not a surprise because Michael Andretti had been struggling to find sponsorship for the car previously occupied by Carlos Muñoz. In the past, Muñoz had been bringing a large portion of the money required to run that car. After last season, his source (presumably his family) dried up.

On Thursday, there were unconfirmed reports that JR Hildebrand had landed the ride in the No.21 car, vacated last month by Josef Newgarden. While I hope that’s the case, I’ll wait until it is confirmed today before discussing it next week.

I believe it was Michael Andretti’s first choice to have Muñoz return to the cockpit of the No.26 car. But with the funding pulled away, Andretti had to review all of his options. Sato has support from Honda. With November approaching the next day, I have an idea Andretti had to make a decision. So he chose Sato with funding over Muñoz with out it.

Both drivers have come agonizingly close to winning the Indianapolis 500. Sato was leading Lap 200 in 2012 when he made contact with (some say taken out by) Dario Franchitti in Turn One. Franchitti went on to win, as Sato was climbing out of his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing owned Dallara. Sato was credited with what sounds like an unremarkable seventeenth place finish. Those of us that remember that race know better.

As it turns out, that was one of Sato’s best Indianapolis 500 finishes in seven tries. He finished thirteenth twice – in 2013 and 2015. Other than those semi-decent finishes, Sato’s record in the “500” has been pretty abysmal. In his debut in 2010, Sato finished twentieth while driving for KV Racing technology. The following year, he had the dubious distinction of finishing dead-last. This past year, Sato finished twenty-sixth for AJ Foyt.

But Sato is fast – very fast – when he is not crashing. His mantra of No attack, No chance has been a double-edged sword. It served him well in his 2013 win at Long Beach, but has bitten him more times than not. It may explain why his best finish in the Verizon IndyCar Series has been thirteenth in 2011. A quick glance at his results shows a smattering of podium finishes mixed in with a slew of DNF’s and low finishes. The No.26 car may end up on the podium some, but may be just as likely to end up in the fence. Michael Andretti may want to budget a little more for car repairs.

More than likely, this will end up being what essentially amounts to a driver swap. With Sato going to Andretti, all signs point to Carlos Muñoz heading to the open seat at AJ Foyt Enterprises. That is, one of the open seats. Muñoz will replace Sato, but there will still be one vacant seat at Foyt’s team available. Personally, I’d like to see that go to Conor Daly. I think Daly has earned a shot at another permanent seat in this series. As a rookie at Dale Coyne Racing, Daly showed flashes of brilliance interspersed with some rookie mistakes. But Daly showed me enough of the brilliance to sway my opinion, for whatever that’s worth (not much).

A few weeks ago, I opined that an all-Colombian team may be filling the seats in Foyt’s stable. I thought Juan Montoya might be in play for one of Foyt’s seats to go along with Muñoz. It was probably more wishful thinking on my part to see the feisty Colombian driving for the fiery Texan that piqued my interest.

But we now know that isn’t happening.

The other driver announcement on Monday was a bigger surprise than Sato signing with Andretti Autosport. We now know that Juan Montoya has agreed to accept the offer of Tim Cindric and Roger Penske to drive a fifth Team Penske car in the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

Montoya was also supposedly in talks with Ed Carpenter Racing. For whatever reason, from the first time I heard that Montoya may possibly end up with Ed Carpenter – I just didn’t see it happening. My gut just told me that it would not be a good fit. Apparently, my gut was right for once.

Some are speculating whether or not Montoya made the best choice. The correct answer is that it’s really not for anyone else to say. Only Juan Montoya knows whether or not he made the best choice based on what he was looking for.

I’m merely speculating myself here, but I have an idea Montoya was waiting to see what was going to happen with Tony Kanaan first, and then Max Chilton at Ganassi. Those were the two seats that were sort of iffy at the end of the season. Kanaan was confirmed for the No.10 car a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if anything has been decided with Chilton, but it’s my understanding that Montoya had been given a deadline of October 31 to make a decision.

Montoya stated very clearly that a ride with Team Penske gave him his very best chance to win another Indianapolis 500. He also said that an Indianapolis 500 victory was what was most important. He’s right – on both counts. Although Honda showed some strength in winning at Indianapolis last May, I’d still bet my money on Chevy – especially a Chevy-powered car prepared by Team Penske.

In 1978, Rick Mears was offered a handful of rides with Team Penske to fill in for Mario Andretti, who was running Formula One and USAC and ultimately won the F1 title that year. Rather than take a full-time ride with a lesser team, Mears concluded that a part-time ride with Roger Penske was better than a full-time ride elsewhere. Penske guaranteed at least six races for Mears in 1978, including Indianapolis. Mears ended up running eleven out of the eighteen races that year and won three of them. The next season, he was full-time and won his first of his eventual four Indianapolis 500 victories.

Fast forward almost forty years and not a whole lot has changed. Roger Penske will turn eighty before the start of the next season, but besides whiter hair and a little bit larger waistline – he is still The Captain in every sense of the word and his race team still sets the bar at the Indianapolis. The only real difference between the decisions of Rick Mears and Juan Montoya is that Mears was at the beginning of his career while Montoya is winding his down.

While Montoya’s pride probably told him he was still capable of winning and driving in the series on a full-time basis; I think he began to realize that perhaps his heart was into other things as well. Montoya’s son, Sebastian, is already running karts in Europe and will be running in the US next year. He has found that he really enjoys being at his races. A full-time IndyCar career could prevent him from attending many of his races.

But let’s face it – it is the lure of possibly winning another Indianapolis 500 that keeps Montoya wanting to come back. When he won the race in 2015 for his second time, you could tell that it meant much more to him than when he first won it in 2000. Very few people have experienced the euphoria of drinking the milk in Victory Lane at Indianapolis. The rest of us can only dream and imagine what that would be like.

So Montoya has decided to take Roger Penske and Tim Cindric up on their offer to run a fifth Penske car at Indianapolis. For now, there are no other races planned for Montoya. Then again, there were only six races planned for Rick Mears in 1978. He almost doubled it by running eleven. Cindric and Company will have to build a fifth team from scratch for May, which was one reason for the October 31 deadline. They needed time to do it right.

Quite honestly, I never thought he would do it. I thought he had too much pride to take a back seat at Penske, and would take a full-time gig at Foyt. But I’m glad he is doing what he’s doing. It’s painful to watch athletes prolong their careers with other teams just for the sake of not retiring. It was awkward to see Johnny Unitas close out his career as a San Diego Charger. It was painful to watch that one year when Joe Namath played with the Rams. More recent examples were watching Joe Montana and Emmitt Smith wind down their playing days with the Chiefs and the Cardinals respectively.

I’m glad that we fans have at least one more year of watching Juan Montoya display his mastery at IMS. And make no mistake – it is mastery. Montoya has run in four Indianapolis 500’s. He won two of them, finished fifth in another before crashing in last year’s race to finish thirty-third. With 2017 being Montoya’s fifth “500”, his established pattern of winning every other time suggests that he’ll win it for the third time next year. I’m not so sure I would bet against him.

Now that Montoya and Sato have confirmed their 2017 plans, fewer seats are up for grabs. There is the mystery surrounding KVSH, and the remaining available seat in the No.20 for non-ovals at Ed Carpenter Racing, as well as the remaining non-confirmed seats at Dale Coyne Racing and AJ Foyt Racing – with many more good drivers than seats. It’s about to get really interesting. Stay tuned.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “Things Are Falling Into Place”

  1. I was shocked but glad to see Montoya make that move. I personally don’t understand when athletes who have more money than they will ever need, and have done everything in the business, why they don’t just step back and enjoy their families and lives and also let in some new talent.

    So for Montoya, I think it’s a good thing, enjoy time with your son!

    Looks like Hildebrand over at ECR, I am just not sure that’s going to work out well, he is a good oval racer but never good on the road courses.

    I know this won’t happen but I would like to see KV shored up with adding the Byrd team and money in, I know that was Bryan Clauson’s ride and I know they are probably reeling still from that, but, a kid like Daly, getting behind him would be a great thing to see.

    I would like to see Foyt go back to 1 seat and find someone decent, I guess Munoz would be a fine choice there.

    • billytheskink Says:

      To be fair to Hildebrand, he performed about as well as anyone did at Panther racing on road and street courses, not counting Tomas Enge’s 3 race sample in 2005. Since unification, no other Panther driver finished higher on a road/street track (a pair of 5ths) or qualified for a Fast Six session (which JR did once).

      In Indy Lights, Hildebrand won 1 oval race in 15 starts. He won 4 road/street races in 18 starts.

      It will be interesting to see how he performs at Carpenter.

  2. Regarding the different economics involved for a driver to obtain and maintain a seat in IndyCar and in Nascar: Remember when Danica Patrick went to Nascar? There was hardly a day that went by without some national news about Danica. It almost seemed as though she would soon be added to Mt. Rushmore or at the very least get her image on a postal stamp. Now you can listen to an entire Nascar race broadcast and never hear her name. She seldom finishes north of 22nd in a race. While it is true that Nascar is more popular with race fans than IndyCar, I still don’t understand the economics of how the Danica Patricks, Cole Whitts and J.J. Yeleys of Nascar keep their rides each year. Can it really be worth that much for New Holland to be the “Official Agricultural Sponsor” of Nascar?

    • Ron, I took the VIP tour of the NASCAR team shops in Concord, NC last November. Our tour guide was asked about driver’s salaries. You know how much our tour guide said Greg Biffle is worth? $60 million dollars. GREG BIFFLE! Perennial backmarker! SIXTY MILLION DOLLARS!

      I cannot imagine what Junior, Stewart, Danica, Senior and Jeffy Gordon is worth! Holy COW!

      • That $60 million figure made my eyes bug out, so I did a quick Google search to see what Biff’s career earnings might be. Sure enough, at the beginning of 2015, his career Cup earnings are about $69 million, for a Cup career that’s about to span its 14th full season:

        That speaks pretty highly to NASCAR’s huge race purses over that 2002-2016 “boom time” since more successful drivers from a few years before with way longer careers were “worth” less than that (for instance, Rusty Wallace raced Cup for almost twice as long, won a championship and nearly three times as many wins, with 55 to Biffle’s 19, yet racked up almost $20 million LESS in prize money). Nowadays, even a tail end driver can rack up huge earnings (for instance, last year’s 40th place points finisher, Alex Kennedy, rang up over $1 million in prize money). I guess there’s your answer as to how much even a backmarker is “worth”.

        Now, another interesting question would be something along the lines of baseball’s VORP, “what would a different driver in that same Roush equipment have been worth in prize money over that same 14 year time span? More or less?”

        • billytheskink Says:

          It is worth mentioning too that “perennial backmarker” is not a particularly apt description of Biffle over the course of his career. He was a very successful driver for the better part of a decade and contended for the championship on multiple occasions. He also likely earned solid endorsement money from 3M and Ford during that time in addition to purses and salary.

          His recent tumble toward the back half of the grid has coincided pretty directly with the falling fortunes of the Roush-Fenway team. His advancing age probably does not help either. I don’t think a lot of folks realize that Biffle is almost 46 and the oldest full-time driver in the series. He is nearly two years older than Jeff Gordon, despite beginning his career in Cup a full decade later.

    • I remember when Darrel Waltrip interviewed Danica before her first race at Daytona and he asked her how it felt to be the new face of NASCAR. Wow that was easy- just show up for the first race of the season and she is called the main star. I think all she had done at that point was qualify on the pole at Daytona. We all know how things have gone since.

    • Yikes! After seeing those numbers I may have been better off not knowing the economics I asked about.

  3. I read an article where JPM indicated that he was the happiest he’d ever been driving for Penske, because it was a true team. It’s common knowledge that all 4 teammates are an open book, and sharing data is a must. Not only that, once a Penske family member, always a Penske family member. Loyalty is paramount. From how he talked about working for Penske, I gathered there was a good chance he would most likely remain rather than go elsewhere.

  4. How I wish IndyCar could pay its stellar drivers in the neighborhood of $65 million!

    On a positive note, congrats to JR for FINALLY receiving a full time ride. He has given quite a lot of support to ECR and I think his ride is well deserved.

  5. I feel Carlos Munoz would be better off if he asked Michael Andretti to hire him to drive the #29 car at the GP of Indy and at the Indy 500 than with going to Foyt. Munoz has almost won the Indy 500 as a one-off entry before, on his IndyCar debut even.
    And staying with Andretti would leave the door open for him to run more races with the team. His teen idol Montoya has just chosen a similar strategy for himself at Team Penske so this sure enough would work for Carlos as well.

    I believe the hiring of Hildebrand has got a lot to do with his work in the test at Iowa this season. Through his setup work, JR contributed heavily to Newgarden’s win there. And that’s just what this team needs.

    Sato to Andretti is another interesting move as Sato’s road and street racing background will surely help the team with their setup work, an area in which they currently need more driver input from a veteran which he is. Sato also helps with the budget, so this hiring checks several boxes at once.

    That leaves the 2 seats at Foyt (if Munoz were to stay part-time at Andretti), the 2nd Coyne seat (which is up for sale) and whatever happens at KV.

    Foyt has got the Chevy aerokit and engine and this will be most helpful on the road and street circuits for the team. So they should hire a proven road racer for the #14 car. Conor Daly should be the obvious choice but AJ favors ovals over road races so he’ll most likely go for a driver with more oval expertise than road course skills. Gabby Chaves would be a good fit as well for the #14. Oriol Servia has also thrown his hat into the ring lately. He could really bring this team forward with his huge experience and thus, checks both boxes. I have no idea who will join the team to drive the #41 car but this year, it looked like it needed more input in the engineering department, to say the least.

    IndyLights champion Ed Jones will start at least those races which his scholarship pays for, and a cooperation of KV and Carlin is in the works. We’ll see how that develops. As Max Chilton is related to an ownership stake in Carlin Racing, this is also influencing his decision to stay at Ganassi in the #8. So we might or might not see the #8. And if the car were to appear only part-time, it seems likely Sage Karam would drive it, given his schedule allows for that.

    And ECR’s favorite for the #20 on the roads and streets is their current driver Spencer Pigot.

    With the doubt over what’s happening at KV Racing Technologies, the is another question mark over the car count at the Indy 500 next year, especially since KV ran 3 entries there this year.

    That leaves the 2nd Coyne seat which usually goes to whoever brings the most Coyne. But given the race victories of Mike Conway and Carlos Huertas in fairly recent years in that car, and Richard Clayton Enerson’s respectable debut races at the end of this season, the car should be considered as quite a good ride. Again, we’ll see how that develops.

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