Toronto Preview

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For the first time in three years, the streets of Toronto will come alive this weekend with the sounds of the NTT IndyCar Series. On Monday that looked to be the main storyline heading into this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto. By Tuesday night, that and anything else IndyCar related took a back seat to the drama going on at Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR).

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this week, we all know the timeline of events from Tuesday night – so I won’t rehash them here. But the gist of everything is that Chip Ganassi Racing chose to exercise their option on Alex Palou for 2023 and publicly announced their intentions to do so. Palou and McLaren Racing later announced that Palou would be joining McLaren in 2023, but they did not say in what capacity.

I am in new territory here, because I find myself of defending Chip Ganassi. This may be a first for me, because I’ve always considered Chip Ganassi Racing as The Evil Empire. I’ve liked most of their drivers over the years, but I’ve never cared for the team – mainly because they were always beating drivers that I was pulling for. I’ve only become a Scott Dixon fan in recent years, because I always equated him with CGR – the Death Star.

In my opinion, McLaren is the new Death Star. They seem to be on a mission to outspend every other IndyCar team and raid those teams of the best drivers, regardless of contract status. This is bad for business in the NTT IndyCar Series. Not only are they driving up driver’s salaries; but they are potentially plucking good drivers out of the series, regardless of their contract status, and reassigning them to whichever series they choose. They are driving up the cost of doing business and depleting the series of some of its best young talent.

In this situation, I am squarely supporting Chip Ganassi. From what I can tell from those that are much smarter than I am about such things; Ganassi had an iron-clad contract with Palou. Apparently, this started over what most things start over – money. Palou came to the series in relative obscurity in 2020, driving for Dale Coyne. He had an unremarkable rookie season, finishing sixteenth in points. When Felix Rosenqvist was unexpectedly recruited away (by McLaren, ironically) relatively late in the silly season for 2021, Ganassi took a chance on the young and unproven driver, signing him to what is now being reported as a two-year deal with an option at least on 2023 and possibly 2024.

Most drivers coming off of an unspectacular rookie season would jump at the chance for a ride with a championship caliber team that had just added another championship just the season before. Chances are, Palou signed for not much money – just for a chance to prove he belonged in the series. Ganassi gave him that chance. Quite honestly, I would say that Ganassi had a lot more at stake than Palou did at the time.

We all know how it turned out. Palou won his very first career IndyCar race in his debut with Ganassi at Barber in 2021. He finished a very close second to Helio Castroneves in the Indianapolis 500, and went on to win the championship as a second-year driver that was driving his first season with Ganassi. Apparently the new champion felt he was suddenly underpaid and expressed those feelings to the powers that be at CGR. Chip Ganassi did not earn the nickname Cheap Ganassi for no reason. He knew he was legally in his rights to pay Palou only his agreed-upon salary and nothing else.

We are now learning that Palou was becoming quickly disgruntled behind the scenes. In May, we were hearing rumors that McLaren was pursuing Palou; but Palou and Ganassi quickly dismissed them as just that – rumors.

If you follow the NFL, you know that each team can apply one Franchise Tag per offseason on a player whose contract is up. This prevents them from becoming a free-agent and signing with another team, while guaranteeing the player that they will be paid the average salary of the Top-Five players at that position. It is normally used as a delay tactic to negotiate a new contract later in the offseason. If no new contract is reached – the player is forced to play for that team, for that salary for the next season. More times than not, the player that plays under the franchise tag is disgruntled and their weekly results show it.

By CGR exercising their option, they have effectively told Palou he will be forced to race in IndyCar for Ganassi in 2023 for the bargain basement salary he signed for prior to the 2021 season.

When NFL players sign a contract and then have outstanding seasons, they want a new deal of hold themselves out of training camp and sometimes the season. It holds their teammates and fans of the team hostage, simply because the player does not want to live up to the agreement that he signed a couple of years earlier. I’ve been following the sport a long time and I have always found myself siding with the team, instead of the player. If they didn’t like the deal, they shouldn’t have signed it – plain and simple.

If Alex Palou never intended to live up to his end of the bargain, he shouldn’t have signed a contract with options – plain and simple. Chip Ganassi gave Palou a great opportunity that his credentials, quite frankly, didn’t deserve. Even before he secured the championship last season, he was being labeled as the heir apparent to Scott Dixon at CGR. Had he played ball for another season past this one, Palou could have written his own ticket at Ganassi and stayed there a long time and won more championships and possibly an Indianapolis 500 or two. Not now.

Quite honestly, I wouldn’t blame Chip Ganassi one bit if he yanked Palou out of the car this weekend and held him out for the season – basically paying him to not drive; similar to what Gerald Forsythe did to Paul Tracy in 2008, when Forsythe wanted nothing to do with reunification. However, Marshall Pruett of Racer.com reported late Thursday night that Ganassi confirmed Palou would be in the car this weekend.

If Ganassi’s contract was as iron-clad as everyone says, then I think Palou was clearly in the wrong in this situation. He didn’t like the salary he agreed upon, so he essentially signed with two teams – Ganassi and McLaren. From what it sounds like, if Palou doesn’t want to race for Ganassi in IndyCar in 2023; he will have to race for McLaren elsewhere. I think this thing is about to get real ugly. As Kevin Lee said on Trackside Tuesday night when this story was breaking – Grab your popcorn!

Aside from the drama going on with those respective teams, there is a race this weekend – and a significant race, at that. The series returns to Toronto after a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Temporary street circuits have not always been my favorite type of IndyCar track, but I have always enjoyed the racing at Toronto for whatever reason. The circuit around Exhibition Place has been modified as a result of all of the development around the area, and the track layout has suffered. In the past few years, the pits have been moved from the south side of the main straightaway to the north side – and that has not been an improvement, in my opinion. But that was necessitated by the growth and development of the area. I believe a hotel is now located where the old pits used to be. This also affected grandstand seating along the main straightaway.

But the signature landmark – the iconic Princes’ Gates (built in 1927) at the head of Turn One immediately tells any experienced IndyCar fan what race this is. (Photo IndyCar.com)

Toronto

I have never been to this race, even though it is on my list to eventually attend. However, I found myself in Toronto for work in 1995 – about two weeks after the race. I made my co-workers that had the rental car take me to exhibition place, where I walked around portions of the circuit, including the Princes’ Gates.

Toronto is also known for the long and fast “backstretch” along scenic Lake Shore Boulevard on the shores of Lake Ontario. After the sometimes tricky right-hander, the track snakes along through a series of turns until the cars are back on the main straightaway, facing the Princes’ Gates once again.

Unfortunately, Toronto always brings a sad memory. It was along the backstretch that rookie driver Jeff Krosnoff was fatally injured in a tragic accident. Volunteer corner worker Gary Avrin was struck in the incident and lost his life as well. The loss of each life was equally tragic, but drivers always know that a fatal accident is part of the equation. Weekend volunteers do not. As always, keep their memories alive as you watch the race this weekend.

Speaking of watching the race, you can only view Sunday’s race on Peacock. When the TV contract extension was announced, part of the deal was that two races would be shown exclusively on Peacock each season. As it turned out for 2022, only one race was scheduled for peacock – Toronto, partially because it was uncertain if this race would run, since it had not since 2019. We have know since the TV schedule was announced last fall that Toronto would be shown on Peacock, yet many fans on social media are acting like this was something new. Get used to it. Like it or not, streaming is the future of television viewing.

I think I’m actually going to prefer consuming races this way. NBC has announced that between Sunday’s green-flag and checkered-flag, there will be only three minutes of commercial time. Yes, you read that correctly – three minutes. I suspect that now, some fans will complain that they don’t know when they will be able to go to the bathroom. That means that between three practice sessions, qualifying and the race, there will be only three minutes of commercials all weekend, since all of the other weekend broadcasts are already commercial-free.

If you don’t have Peacock and don’t know if you want to pay $4.99 a month for all of their content, you can sign up today for a seven-day free trial. Watch all of the IndyCar content, and check out all of their other live sports, movies and TV shows. All episodes of two of my favorite shows – Yellowstone and Two and a Half Men are readily available for binge watching. You may never leave your couch for the next week. Try it and then decide if it’s worth the cost of a gallon of gas per month or not.

Remembering that all races are broadcast on Peacock and the IndyCar Radio Network, Practice One begins this afternoon at 2:30 pm EDT and runs until 3:45pm EDT. Another advantage to Peacock is if you miss Friday’s practice due to work, you can access it when you get home. IndyCar practice is a great way to begin your Friday Night. Saturday’s Practice Two goes from 10:00 am to 11:00 am EDT. Qualifying gets underway at 2:00 pm EDT, while the Sunday Morning Warm-Up runs from 10:55 am to 11:25 am EDT. Sunday’s race broadcast starts ON PEACOCK at 3:00 pm EDT.

With all of the hubbub surround the Alex Palou saga, it is easy to forget that we have a tight points battle going. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson leads the points, with Will Power trailing by twenty points and Power’s Penske teammate, Josef Newgarden in third – trailing Ericsson by thirty-four points. Half of the field has never raced at Toronto, and I think experience will matter this weekend. Josef Newgarden is a two-time winner at Toronto and has already won three races this season. I wouldn’t really call this going out on a limb, but I look for Josef Newgarden to win the tenth race of the season, giving him his fourth victory and Team Penske’s seventh.

George Phillips

17 Responses to “Toronto Preview”

  1. OliverW Says:

    I agree with you re Palou and Chip. Completely.
    The question is where will Zac Brown place his drivers. I will be sorry to see Felix go. Is Palou really going to FE or F1, I don’t think so. Will Pato be happy with all this happening. He now has Herta and Palou to contend with in the race to test a F1 car . Danny Rick says he is not going anywhere so lots still to play out. If I was Chip I would have given Palou a raise but reckon Chip thinks correctly that drivers are easy to find. Question is can he find one as good as Palou.
    Bet Felix wishes he had stayed at Ganassi if he sits on the grid off FE. Does Zaccreally want to place drivers in championships they don’t want to race in.

  2. I shoulder some blame on Chip, quite a bit of it, because I think he can’t keep a decent driver in that car because he puts all of his effort on Dixon. That was great when Scott was the best driver in the series but I am not so sure that is true any longer. Chip needs to think about the future and grooming the next star for his team. Yes those are great cars but I am not so sure a driver with wants to watch their cash get pushed to the other guy like that. Doesn’t make SPAM right though for how they are doing it. I also don’t understand the allure with throwing it all away in the states to run 15th in F1 but that seems to be the mindset of these younger drivers. At least Palou seems F1 ready unlike the crash magnet Colton Herta.

    • Inside Overlap Says:

      Andrew & George,
      I’m tending to agree with you. Indy has really become much more popular, motor racing as a whole in the US has. Just look at all the talk about big sponsors deals and then all the hype of getting an American team into F1, this has been spilling over to Indy and then the good PR Indy received internationally when Grosjean was coming to Indy. Indy is getting more recognized and more eye balls; meaning there’s now a lot more money/income coming to Indy teams.
      With all this potential of money streaming in, drivers are going to want their share (at least, what they think is fair) and not be left behind. I totally get that; they play a huge roll in the Indy Racing product but they also need to work with team owners and not bleed them. The success in Indy is the long term relationships.

      As mentioned before, Chip is well known for being a frugal team owner and is successful. However, perhaps this time he held on for too long and too tight in his ways, not budging enough and relying on his contract position and not thinking forward enough.
      I think that just bit him back.

    • Agreed, if Indycar doesn’t pay drivers they’re going to want that back marker spot in F1 because they can at least get an international brand with their modest salary.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I blame all parties here… detonating a bombshell like this the week of the ONE race that is one Peacock?! What were they thinking?!

    Seriously, though, I don’t really fault anybody here though I do find it off-putting that McLaren and Palou seem to be trying to bully their way out of Palou’s Ganassi contract. Ganassi, for his part, probably should have handled this with a cooler head… though it is understandable why he apparently loathes Zak Brown and McLaren.

    It will be interesting to see how the season goes forward for Palou. Perhaps his time in the car this weekend will calm some tempers and the team. Perhaps he’ll stay in the 10 car in an awkward situation for the rest of the year because Ganassi needs him in a car to enforce his contract to make McLaren buy it out. Or perhaps this will be his final race in the 10 car and we’ll get to see Ryan Hunter-Reay for a few races. None of these things would surprise me.

    • Big Mac Says:

      I’m with Billy. I think that any savvy team owner–and Ganassi is definitely a savvy team owner–would realize that someone in Palou’s situation would be looking for a raise, and would have negotiated the original contract taking that potential into consideration. And Ganassi may well have offered him a raise, but if he did, apparently it was for less than what Palou thought he’d get. At bottom, it’s a difference of opinions on that issue, and I don’t “support” one side or the other.

      Now, to the extent that a third party, McLaren, has been sticking its nose in here telling Palou what he’s really worth, I don’t much care for that and I do wonder whether that could lead to a claim for tortious interference, although that’s outside my area of expertise.

      • I think it could in theory lead to a decent TI claim, but RP would probably jump in long before it got to that stage and “convince” the parties to have some sort of settlement. He knows better than anyone had these things can blow up a lot more than just two seats.

        Drivers and owners have tended to prefer the free wheeling model instead of the unionized one in other sports, I’m wondering if that’s going to change after Hinch and this one.

        I’m definitely not a Ganassi fan, but he seems in pretty solid ground here, new drivers are a risk and he deserves some sort of benefit from it. Having two one year options is, to me, a bad, bad agreement to sign in the first place (even the baseball reserve clause was a one team option year).

  4. Like you, I’m inclined to side with Ganassi on this. However, I see driving up driver salaries as a GOOD thing. Most IndyCar drivers have been woefully underpaid for a couple of decades, and they deserve better compensation for the workplace risks the job demands.

  5. Inside Overlap Says:

    Thanks for the article and it’s an interesting situation and how it got here. I tend to agree that all three have a hand in this drama, none of them sound innocent. It’s unfortunate and hope McLaren does not inject an increased ruthlessness among teams & drivers in Indy. While it’s never perfect I have to say I really do enjoy Indy because of the civil relationships among the teams and drivers (well, it’s not always like that) and would hate to see it become more like F1 with all the mud flinging and animosity between teams. Indy generally provides good clean racing with most of the focus being on the track and not off it.

    I guess this situation has been a good thing for Andretti; if we didn’t have this new drama for everyone to talk about; I’m guessing the main focus of the weekend would have been back on the Rossi, Grosjean and Team Andretti drama?

  6. standard procedure now. the LIV jumped the PGA.
    NIL/Transfer Portal in the NCAA is the Wild West.
    quote:
    “Get used to it.”

  7. Yannick Says:

    Zak Brown of McLaren is doing some weird stuff there. Is he trying to de-stabilize the competition by hiring away their up-and-coming driving talent? Do these young drivers really only fall for it because they can get F1 testing time from it? They seem to not remember how that very team AMSP dumped James Hinchcliffe not so many years ago.
    It may be keeping the team in the headlines but I feel what AMSP really would need right now to improve their position as a team to be reckoned with every weekend in this series, is stability.

    I was really happy for CGR that they had found a new champion to drive on their team, seemingly for the next few years. I’ve become a supporter of Palou in his Coyne year and was very happy when he won the 1st race last year thinking “many times, the winner of the 1st race has won the championship”. And what an amazing storyline it was.
    And now this: AMSP is not quite where they need to be to win championships. Their performance at Indianapolis this year was quite good but not good enough. I like their drivers but find it hatd to support Zak Brown after this move.

    One of the best seats in the house is now open, the #10 of CGR.

    Palou kind of throwing away his title defense feels kind of like when AJ Allmendinger quit Forsythe for Red Bull’s NASCAR team one race before the end of the season, thereby effectively throwing away his only shot at the title and coming home 3rd in 2007.

    And why does Zak Brown need so many drivers? I can only come up with “maybe O’Ward is leaving, even though it not having been announced” But I don’t want to create a rumour.

    • billytheskink Says:

      To be fair to Allmendinger in 2006, Bourdais had clinched the title at the penultimate race at Surfer’s Paradise and had already effectively taken control of the title race after AJ’s driveshaft broke at Montreal two races prior to that.

  8. Scott Leong Says:

    Great analysis. I tend to side with CGR in this case. As has been written on other sites, I think CGR is looking for a big buyout from AMSP.
    I recently discovered Oilpressure and have enjoyed reading your posts.

    • Inside Ovelap Says:

      Welcome Scott,

      You could be right about CGR and not a bad play to driver bailing out of an agreement. But from what has been suggested in other places, that local employment laws between employer and employee make effect what is enforceable in the contract. It could ugly and judicial and take a while.

      Certainly not a warm fuzzy feel good story happening in that part of the paddock and I can’t imagine how the race debriefs will go for now on after each race; let alone the team pre-race meetings; bring a sweater for those meetings.

  9. Northsider Says:

    Chip is in the right, but he’s wrong. Good managers, owners, principles etc… reward employees who overperform, despite the contract. Lando Norris, had 2 years left, Zak added two and increased his current salary, why? to keep his star happy and from looking for greener pastures. Kurt Warner after he won the superbowl and MVP etc despite playing for the league minimum with more years left on the minimum contract had his deal redone.

    Rather then patting himself on the back that he had the Champ on a scale contract, Chip would have been smart to tear up the deal and redo it. This is a talent driven sport and Chip knows it

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