The Unofficial Start To Silly Season

Today is August 1, which is the unofficial start to the Verizon IndyCar silly season. I’ve never really known where the term silly season came from. The NFL calls a similar time period Free Agency. They are both the same thing; when an athlete’s contract with an employer is up and they are free to shop their services around to a competitor.

The NFL is very strict on when an athlete and a competing team can engage in informal discussions. Next year, that date is March 11. Any proof that discussions took place prior to that date will lead to tampering charges. What the punishment for tampering is, I’m really not sure. But it must be pretty severe because clubs go to great lengths to disguise the tampering that we all know takes place.

IndyCar is not that strict. Discussions have been going on since this past spring between drivers whose contracts are up at the end of the season and team owners who may be interested in procuring their services for next year. We also know that like the NFL, IndyCar contracts are not all that iron-clad if the team wants to part ways with a driver. But if a driver wants to leave, that’s a different deal. The same rules apply to the NFL, IndyCar and Joe’s Sandwich Shop. If they have a contract and want to keep you – you’re staying.

I only know of two upcoming free agents that could cause a stir in the silly season – Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud. There may be others that I’m not aware of, but they are the only two of the top teams. As I type this, I’m also wondering about Will Power.

As I mentioned Monday, Scott Dixon has options. If he wants to stay at Chip Ganassi Racing – the team he has driven for since 2002 – he would surely be welcomed back. Dixon, Ganassi and Mike Hull have won a lot of races together. Forty-three to be exact, while he got his first IndyCar win while driving for Pac West at Nazareth in 2001 to reach the total of forty-four wins amassed by Dixon.

Dixon has also had talks with McLaren. If they decide to make the jump to IndyCar, they want Dixon as one of their two drivers. Would Fernando Alonso be the other? Talk about a dream team.

During Sunday’s race broadcast from Mid-Ohio, Robin Miller casually worked it in that Roger Penske is also interested in the thirty-eight year-old New Zealander. Robin Miller doesn’t just throw stuff out there to see what sticks. If he said Penske is interested in Dixon, you can pretty well take it to the bank that Penske is interested in Dixon. Whether or not it ever materializes is something totally different.

The other key cog in all of this is Simon Pagenaud, but for different reasons. Pagenaud won the IndyCar championship in 2016 and came within a few points of winning his second straight last year. But this year has been a struggle for Pagenaud, and quite frankly – he has become somewhat expendable. If Roger Penske and/or Tim Cindric think they can improve their lineup with a Dixon, Alexander Rossi or Robert Wickens; they would pull the trigger. For the record, Rossi and Wickens are both under contract for 2019 – but if Roger Penske wants them bad enough, I have an idea he can get them.

I don’t like dealing in hypotheticals normally, but this is silly season so hear me out. Let’s say Penske comes to terms and lures Scott Dixon away from Ganassi. Suddenly Simon Pagenaud is out on the street. Would he automatically go to Ganassi and take Dixon’s spot? Maybe. Maybe not. Chances are, Ganassi would see who else he could land before hiring Roger Penske’s reject. The last time he did that was when Ryan Briscoe was released. That didn’t work out so well. If he were to look around, he may be able to lure Robert Wickens away from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, even though he is under contract.

If that were to happen, Pagenaud could return to SPM, where he spent three seasons from 2012 through the 2014 season before jumping to Penske. With his childhood friend gone from the team, would James Hinchcliffe welcome Pagenaud to the team? Even with Wickens garnering headlines this season, Hinchcliffe has always been the top driver at SPM, no matter if his teammate was Wickens, James Jakes or Mikhail Aleshin. Would he still be considered their number one alongside a former champion?

It’s fascinating to speculate how one move could start a whole series of dominos falling. If Dixon stays put at Ganassi, does any of this happen? Probably not. If Dixon goes to McLaren, he would obviously have to be replaced at Ganassi – but I suspect Pagenaud would still be safe at Penske, unless he jumped to Ganassi. If that happened, would Wickens go to Penske? Where does Alexander Rossi fit into all of this?

With all of the hypotheticals and possibilities out there, here’s what I think is going to happen regarding Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud – nothing.

While it may be every driver’s dream to drive for Roger Penske at some point in their career, I don’t see it as a wise move for Scott Dixon – maybe ten years ago, but not now. Scott Dixon is thirty-eight right now. There is usually a learning curve when a driver jumps to another team. Although it only took Josef Newgarden three races into his Team Penske career to notch his first win, that’s not the norm. Will Power also won in his first season with The Captain, so it’s certainly possible – especially when you’re talking about someone with Dixon’s talent.

But it took Simon Pagenaud a complete season to gel at Penske. Is that an indictment on Pagenaud or just life in the paddock? It’s a pretty high standard, but Pagenaud is currently the only Team Penske driver to not win in his first season among his teammates.

In fact, a look at the record book reveals that Juan Montoya and Ryan Briscoe did it and so did Sam Hornish. Helio Castroneves won in his first season with Penske and so did Gil de Ferran. Al Unser, Jr. won in his first season with Penske and Paul Tracy won in his first full-time season, although he was winless as a part-timer in 1991-92. Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Unser, Al Unser and Mario Andretti all won in their first full-time seasons with Team Penske.

Pagenaud belongs to a small unenviable club of drivers that did not win a race in their first full-time season with Team Penske. That club also includes André Ribeiro and Kevin Cogan. Neither of the other two saw a second full-time season. Is Pagenaud the exception or the rule? I’d say he’s the exception, but I don’t make those decisions at Team Penske.

If Penske is coveting Dixon, Rossi or Wickens; it’s safe to say he’s been toying with the idea of not renewing Pagenaud’s contract. If he’s toying with that idea, Pagenaud needs to keep his eyes open. With Indy Lights drivers Colton Herta and Patricio O’Ward headed somewhere in the Verizon IndyCar Series next season, there will be just so many open seats – even for a recent former champion, when he doesn’t bring money to the table.

So after going around and around in my head (and in this post) about what might happen, I think that this year may produce one of the dullest silly seasons in recent memory. I don’t think there will be any movement by any team that has won a race this season, with the exception of Dale Coyne Racing and the No.19 – and one of its occupants may stay as well. I think Ganassi, Penske and Andretti will all have the same driver lineup next year as this year. When’s the last time that happened?

Of course, now that I say that – Dixon will jump somewhere and the dominos will start falling one by one. But I really don’t see that happening. Stay tuned.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “The Unofficial Start To Silly Season”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    I’ve never understood the term “silly season” either, nor do I care for it. But then you’re article kinda showed how things can get rather silly, so…

    I think it all hinges on McLaren, if they do show up for next season and poach a driver from another team it could cause the dominoes to start falling. I’m still not sure whether they’re actually going to make the leap though.

  2. according to the internet, which is always reliable…the term “silly season” was coined in the late 1800’s by newspaper reporters in England to describe the slow news days of summer when stories tended to be more human interest and oddball (silly) just to fill up the pages. I assume the phrase was borrowed by reporters here in the States and then some writer applied it to sports like auto racing to describe unverified supposition and rumor. I think in baseball they call it the “hot stove league.”

    as far as Indycar silly season, it seems like the continued (possible) addition of new teams is the exciting part. or (possible) new engine partner? and I also wonder about the health of the already weak Mazda Road To Indy since Mazda is pulling out. oh–and also–who’s the next title sponsor of Indycar?

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    From Robin Miller’s Mailbag today’s edition, “I understand there is a bidding war between McLaren/Andretti and Ganassi for Scott Dixon, so that’s where the money comes into play. But Dixie may simply sign a one-year deal with Chip and see if this McLaren team comes alive in 2020. Like he told me: ‘I’ve got a couple of good options.’ As he should.”

    Interesting that conversation revolves around Dixon & Pagenauid, while, one would naturally think that the on track activities/skill of Sebastian Bourdais would open a door at Team Penske……………….

  4. Bourdais to the 10? That car has been lacking since Dario left.

  5. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I think there is a huge question right now about who is the mumber one driver at SPM.

  6. I just do not think Dixon will jump ship to McLaren right now. McLaren coming to Indy is not a done deal and I am not sure what impetus the company has for coming across the pond. It doesn’t sell that many cars here, does it? I find this all very curious.

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