Significant IndyCar Free-Agent Signings

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With all of the sports world focused on March Madness, NFL quarterback Drew Brees picked an odd time to announce his retirement after a twenty-year career in the NFL, which followed a successful stint at Purdue. Mixed in with all of the talk of brackets on Monday, my morning sports radio station was discussing Brees and his retirement. The talking heads said that when the Saints signed Brees away from the Chargers, it may have been the biggest free-agent signing in league history. Peyton Manning and the Broncos may have something to say about that, but on the week of the Brees retirement, we’ll let that one go undisputed – for this week anyway.

That statement got me to thinking about what would be IndyCar’s equivalent to big free-agent signings. Surprisingly, there aren’t that many – at least in recent history. But the few I can think of paid dividends.

1993 comes to mind. That was the season that reigning World Champion, Nigel Mansell, left Williams and jumped across the pond to Newman/Haas. All he did was win his very first race along with the 1993 CART Championship. Had it not been for a rookie mistake on late restart, he may have won the Indianapolis 500 that year, instead of finishing third.

Before the end of the 1993 season, word had leaked out that Al Unser, Jr. would not be re-signed by Galles Racing – opting instead to join Marlboro Team Penske in a third car to run alongside teammates Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy. Emmo drove the No. 2 car, Tracy the No. 3 car and Unser, Jr. in the oddly numbered No. 31. To this day, I’m not quite sure why such an ugly number was picked.

Little Al made it work, however. He won eight races for The Captain in 1994, including the Indianapolis 500 with the famous pushrod Mercedes engine. There were three additional second-place finishes earned by Al Unser, Jr. that propelled him to a dominating CART Championship. I would say that free-agent signing worked out even better than Newman/Haas signing Mansell.

Dan Wheldon found himself out of a ride after the 2010 IndyCar season. Like most drivers who went there, it didn’t end well for Wheldon at Panther Racing. John Barnes always had a quick trigger, when it came to changing drivers. I suppose it became obvious to Barnes that the driver who won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Championship in 2005 had suddenly forgotten how to drive. Barnes parted ways with Wheldon, in favor of rookie JR Hildebrand.

Rather than sign on with a lesser team for the season, Wheldon looked around the IndyCar landscape and listened to his old friend Bryan Herta, who convinced him that he was putting together a winning effort for an Indy-only program. Wheldon agreed to the deal and the rest is history. Wheldon’s winning the Indianapolis 500 was no fluke. The car was fast all month and it was just an added bonus that the car he was booted out of a few months earlier, ended up in the fence coming out of Turn Four on the final lap. You know that added to Wheldon’s joy as he took the checkered flag for the second time. Although it was only a one-race deal, I would classify that as a big free-agent signing for Bryan Herta Autosport.

Another free-agent signing that worked out for both parties was when Josef Newgarden’s contract was coming to an end at Ed Carpenter Racing. It had been a rough few years for Newgarden. He had started out driving for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in 2012. When that team fell on hard times, they merged with Ed Carpenter’s team to form CFH Racing in 2015. After one year, Fisher and Hartman dropped out and the team reverted to Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) for 2016.

Three team names in three years takes it toll, yet Newgarden won two races under the CFH Racing banner and another under ECR. Roger Penske took notice of Newgarden’s talent in the car, and his demeanor out of the cockpit. When Roger Penske calls, you answer. Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden has won two championships and finished second in 2020. All he needs is to put his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

What about Will Power? After his Aussie Vineyards sponsorship went away after the 2008 season, so did his ride with KV Racing Technologies. He was still available just before the start of the 2009 season. Fortunately (for Power), he was tabbed by Team Penske as a backup plan as Helio Castroneves was going through his tax evasion trial in the spring of 2009. Power did all of the pre-season testing and filled in for Helio in the season-opener at St. Petersburg.

As is usually the case, the team took an extra car to the second race at Long Beach, in case Castroneves suddenly became available – which is exactly what happened. Helio was acquitted on Friday afternoon and boarded a flight to Long Beach. Power practiced in the No. 3 car, but when they got the news that Helio was headed their way, the team pulled the black Verizon No. 12 out of the transporter. Thus began Power’s relationship with Verizon, which continues today. For his good attitude, Power was promised a handful of races with Penske for the 2009 season. By 2010, Power was in a full-time Penske ride where he still is today – a championship and an Indianapolis 500 victory later.

What I remember more recently are the blockbuster free-agent signings that didn’t happen. Looking back, you have to think that the respective drivers had to kick themselves in retrospect.

In 2012, Ryan Hunter-Reay was in the process of wrapping up his championship winning season. He was driving for Andretti Autosport, but was being courted by Team Penske. Hunter-Reay ultimately decided to stay at Andretti. He parlayed that decision into a win in the 2014 Indianapolis 500.

After that, things went terribly wrong with Honda as the aero kit era unfolded in 2015. Whether it was the hideous Honda aero kit, or the Honda engine itself, things did not go well for Honda that season as Honda won only six of the sixteen races. Andretti Autosport only won two of those races, with Hunter-Reay winning one of them – at Iowa.

In 2016, Honda only won twice with an Andretti car winning once – Alexander Rossi at the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Hunter-Reay went winless and his mood showed it. In the meantime, Penske won the 2015 Indianapolis 500 and the 2016 IndyCar Championship. In 2017, Andretti cars found victory lane twice, but neither car was driven by Hunter-Reay. When Ryan Hunter-Reay won at Belle Isle in 2018, it was his first win in almost three years. He won the season finale at Sonoma that season, but hasn’t won since.

Is Hunter-Reay kicking himself for spurning Roger Penske in 2012, or is The Captain silently patting himself on the back for not hiring Hunter-Reay? We will never know the answer to either of those questions, but I can’t help but wonder how the course of IndyCar history would have been changed had Penske and Ryan Hunter-Reay joined forces.

Several years later, history repeated itself when Alexander Rossi’s contract was up at the end of the 2019 season. Rumors swirled that Team Penske was pursuing Rossi relentlessly. Although knew it would be a good move for Rossi, I was hoping he would stay at Andretti just to keep the playing field somewhat level. Ultimately, Rossi opted to re-sign with Andretti Autosport. Consequently, Rossi had the worst season of his brief IndyCar career. I can’t help but wonder if Rossi started second-guessing himself after the first couple of races in 2020.

Drew Brees may or may not be the most significant NFL free-agent signing in history, but IndyCar has a few of their own. While the NFL is making all of the headlines this week with their high-priced free-agent signings, the NTT IndyCar Series has a pretty good history of some major signings as well. I notice that most of them deal with Team Penske. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “Significant IndyCar Free-Agent Signings”

  1. SkipinSC Says:

    How about the return of Takuma Sato to RLL after a 500-winning stint at Andretti? I’d say that worked out pretty well for Rahal and Co.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    According to Al Unser Jr. himself (quoted when he began to run the 31 or Kelley Racing in the IRL):
    “Personally, my favorite number has always been the number three and our goal for that season was to always be in position one on the time charts and to put the number one on the car when we won the championship. That was how we came up with the number 31 for that season’s entry and much to our surprise the 1994 season was incredible!”

    On big free agent signings, Chaparral picking up Johnny Rutherford in 1980 after Al Unser split for Bobby Hillin’s Longhorn team and Rutherford’s McLaren squad folded was a big one.

  3. according to Drew Brees, he wants to spend more time with
    his kids/family. well, working the Olympics and Notre Dame
    football and Sunday Night NFL (and other NBC stuff) will make
    that family time “air time”, if all of them fly with him everywhere.

    in terms of Indycar, the owners are the free agents …
    regardless of any contractual relationships with drivers.

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