Marshall Pruett, Racing columnist July 20, 2023, 1:52 p.m. ET
Marcus Ericsson, foreground, and Alex Palou are fourth and first in the IndyCar standings, respectively, but both may leave Chip Ganassi Racing after this season. AP/Michael Conroy’s photo
IndyCar whips up “hold my beer” moments of epic proportions.
The ridiculous season of the average Formula One or NASCAR will see one or two marquee drivers change teams or be replaced by up-and-coming talent. Last year, Fernando Alonso was a big F1 cog, trading Alpine for Aston Martin, and in the Cup Series, Kyle Busch departed Joe Gibbs Racing for new adventures at Richard Childress Racing. Once “Fred” and “Rowdy” had taken care of their business, the grand feast of speculation and fun was over.
What IndyCar has brewed in the ridiculous season ahead is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in motor racing: 90% of its teams are considering or committing to making changes to their driver rosters. Of the 10 IndyCar teams, only one, the reigning series champion at Team Penske, can claim that its three-car lineup is signed, safe, and locked for 2024.
Everyone else? Not too much.
Nine other teams, from AJ Foyt Racing to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, have at least one driver — if not more — whose contract expires after the season ends September 10. In some cases, like Dale Coyne Racing and Meyer Shank Racing, we can see a 100% change. We also have some teams simply counting the days until the season is over so they can remove the problematic or underperforming driver from the cockpit and try someone else.
Overall, only 12 of 27 existing IndyCar entries have drivers under multi-year contracts, leaving another 15 – 56% of available seats – in need of a solution. Some of those 15 will be solved easily; signing an extension with his family’s team was a formality for Graham Rahal.
The real intrigue is reserved for the climax of the championship, where three of the series’ biggest programs are poised for a driver change to hit the headlines. It’s big name after big name getting ready to hold a press conference and announce that they are taking their talents to a bright new destination.
Chip Ganassi Racing is IndyCar’s undisputed leader in this category. Led by Alex Palou, the team has a strong grip on the championship as its drivers are first, second and fourth in the standings after 10 of 17 races. Palou, the 2021 IndyCar champion for Ganassi, has four wins this season and is so far ahead in points that he can go on holiday for the next two races and come back without losing the lead.
The racing world has taken notice.
“I’ve never performed like this before, and I’ve never had this kind of interest from so many people or from so many different series,” Palou told ESPN. “So it’s been great. I’m enjoying what I love most, which is winning.”
Riding that wave of interest, Palou is chasing a seat in F1, and while the chances of opening that door next year are slim, the Spaniard is ready to say goodbye to Ganassi – perhaps with a new IndyCar championship in hand – and drive for bitter rivals Arrow McLaren, the team led by McLaren Racing CEO and bear poker head Zak Brown. Brown tries to sign Palou in 2022, cackling with glee every time he causes Ganassi grief, and has an Indy car – along with an ongoing McLaren F1 testing opportunity – and a seven-figure deposit awaiting the young star once we reach the end of the season.
Next up, Indianapolis 500 Ganassi 2022 winner Marcus Ericsson, who, like Palou, is not expected to return. The former F1 driver who has developed rapidly since joining Ganassi has made it clear that his sponsor Finn Rausing, owner of the Alfa Romeo F1 team, no longer wants to pay for the seat he has occupied since 2020.
We heard nothing from Ganassi to suggest the team would incur costs to run the car and pay the Swede to stay, but with that Indy 500 victory and his status as a title contender, Ericsson is being chased by at least four teams, including Andretti Autosport. If a betting app offered a bet on IndyCar’s ridiculous season, most of the money would be placed in Ericsson to Andretti.
With Palou and Ericsson in Ganassi’s situation, it’s like the best team in the NFL on pace to win a Super Bowl and knowing that even if they lift the Lombardi Trophy, two of its three key players remain determined to go to the team they are currently dominating. This is uncharted territory.
Ganassi’s fourth car, shared by two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato and rookie Formula 2 race winner Marcus Armstrong, also performed solidly. The two could also leave in mid-September.
Putting it all together, and McLaren is preparing its new employee handbook for Palou, Ericsson is fanning himself with various contract offers and trying to decide where he wants to drive over the next three to five years, Sato is contemplating retiring, and Armstrong longs for an invitation to continue paying for the seat he sits on.
Scott Dixon, six-time champion and foundation of Ganassi, sits second in the standings to Palou and is the only guaranteed driver on the payroll. The New Zealander is a threat to win his seventh title and ranks as the rider everyone wants to learn from, so in that regard, Ganassi should have no trouble finding a high caliber replacement to fill the many vacancies that need to be filled.
Ganassi’s history uncovers gems like Palou going back to 1995 when the unproven Jimmy Vasser was signed; in 1996, he and Ganassi celebrated the team’s first IndyCar title. It happened again when the unknown Alessandro Zanardi came looking for something better. After quitting F1 and landing in an obscure European sports car championship, he was given the opportunity by Ganassi to relaunch his career in America, and Zanardi went on to win two consecutive IndyCar titles for the team starting in 1997 and continuing there.
Romain Grosjean is the third of four Andretti Autosport drivers in 2023, leaving his IndyCar future behind. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Dixon followed suit, joining Ganassi in 2002, where he became the greatest IndyCar driver of his generation. Few doubt Ganassi’s ability to identify and introduce new hellraisers into the series, but most of their predecessors took at least a year to reach their full competitive stride.
What cannot be overlooked in the short term is how Tim Penske, Arrow McLaren and Andretti Autosport will view the massive year-over-year overhaul at Ganassi as a tremendous gift. The trio of Palou, Dixon and Ericsson are currently putting up a fight, but subtract Palou and Ericsson from the equation, and the fight resumes in 2024 with Dixon surrounded by a group of unknowns in another car.
With race winners Colton Herta and Kyle Kirkwood under contract, Andretti faced a ridiculous season that was relatively easy having only bought two drivers to cement his future. IndyCar sophomore Devlin DeFrancesco’s tenure will end on the team owned by Michael Andretti, and most assume his successor will be Ericsson.
DeFrancesco’s teammate Romain Grosjean, a beloved F1 veteran whose survival story from a fiery Bahrain crash at the end of 2020 earned him a cult following, is another heavyweight caught up in this ridiculous season. With increasing frequency in recent weeks, Ericsson has been touted as a candidate to replace his former grand prix rival. Stuck in a series of disappointing poor results for Andretti, the Swiss-born Frenchman’s ability to fend off Ericsson – or any other team that might coveted – and land a contract extension could hinge on a speedy recovery.
If Ganassi can heap some F1-ready talent and develop him into an all-rounder who loves the oval, his rivals may not have much to celebrate in the years to come. If Andretti can level up and find the right drivers to turn his four cars into regular winners, he will have a legitimate chance at a title shot. And if Arrow McLaren does include Palou on its team, no excuses will be accepted for not getting the championship next year.
Ridiculous racing season is here and who knows where it will take us before it’s over.