2021 Is The Year You Start Watching IndyCar

Illustration for article titled 2021 Is The Year You Start Watching IndyCar
Photo: Chris Jones / IndyCar

Cancel your plans for this Sunday, because you’re watching IndyCar. No ifs, ands, or buts.

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Not convinced? Don’t worry—I’m here to convince you to take up one of the world’s most exciting racing series. I won’t hear any excuses. By the end of this handy guide, you’ll know where and when the series is racing, and you’ll have the chance to pick your favorite drivers. All you need is one race, and you’ll be hooked.

Open-Wheel Racing for the Regular Joe

IndyCar isn’t perfect, but it’s one thing that most other open-wheel series aren’t: It’s accessible. If you’re turned off by Formula One’s elitism or Formula E’s gimmicks, you’re going to settle into IndyCar quite comfortably. It has solid racing, fun drivers, and great competition—but best of all, you can watch this series at reasonable hours and still buy a ticket to a race for under $50 if you pick your venue right.

That is, in part, because IndyCar is still digging itself out of a hole it created by fracturing into smaller pieces a few decades ago, at the pinnacle of its success. Back then, Formula One drivers were leaving the series to come compete in open-wheel cars in America, and viewership ratings were on par with NASCAR. But all that success caused deep rifts to become irreparable, and eventually the series imploded. By the time everyone reunified, IndyCar was pretty low on the racing radar.

Not ideal! But that bodes well for you, o Modern Race Fan. You now have the pleasure to enjoy a somewhat-spec series designed to keep costs down and that in turn highlights some exceptionally fun on-track battles from a series that’s doing its very best to keep you watching. Don’t let anyone talk you out of tuning in because they have about a million complaints about what IndyCar could be, because it is fast, fun, and available to American race fans. You’ll have plenty of time to join in the fun and bitch about a lack of ovals, questionable pundits, terrible fans, or the downsides of a two-manufacturer championship later. For now, enjoy the positivity.

Lest We Forget: The Indianapolis 500

The Indy 500 calls itself the greatest spectacle in racing, and I have to say: it isn’t wrong. It’s one of those races that’s loaded with pomp, circumstance, and tradition, but in ways that you can’t really fault.

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Basically, the Indy 500 is the oldest and longest-running race in the world. There have been over 100 races on the “Brickyard,” so named because it’s gone through plenty of different track surfaces, one of which was brick. There’s a massive buildup to the event, which is followed by exceptional racing and a winner who earns a truly absurd prize purse that would rocket their net worth up into millionaire territory. It draws huge crowds as well as drivers from around the world; if you’re only going to watch one race this year, this one is it.

Illustration for article titled 2021 Is The Year You Start Watching IndyCar
Photo: James Black / IndyCar
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2021 Teams and Drivers

IndyCar teams are a haphazard affair; there isn’t the two-cars-per-team situation like in many European open-wheel series, nor are there specific teams guaranteed to race in each event like NASCAR. Basically, if Andretti Autosport wants to run like nine cars with three of them being kinda-sorta affiliated with Andretti in a technical sense, it can do that. If Team Penske wants to add four cars for the Indy 500, it can. If a team wants to split a car between a few different drivers for different events, it can do that.

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I will admit that it can get confusing, even for a longtime fan like myself. Which is why there I will be providing you with a quick and dirty guide to the grid to get you prepared for everything the season can throw at you.

Another quick note: drivers do not have individual numbers. Instead, a number is assigned to a chassis, which can be shared between two drivers.

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Chip Ganassi Racing

Chip Ganassi likes winners, and you’ll get just that from Scott Dixon, the reigning IndyCar Champion, and from part-time racer Jimmie Johnson, who you might better know as a seven-time NASCAR champion. Álex Palou was seriously impressive last year in Arrow McLaren; you can expect a strong run from him this year.

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  • No. 8: Marcus Ericsson
  • No. 9: Scott Dixon
  • No. 10: Álex Palou
  • No. 48: Jimmie Johnson - rookie (only events 1, 2, 5, 7-13, 15-17) and Tony Kanaan (3, 4, 6, 14)
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Team Penske

Now that Roger Penske owns IndyCar, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Team Penske, you’d think they’d have an advantage; no so for this team. While Josef Newgarden gave Dixon a run for the championship last year, Penske was overall fairly inconsistent by their own “Penske perfect” standards. Anyone here is a good bet for title champion—including Scott McLaughlin, who will be joining the IndyCar circuit for his first full year outside of Australian Supercars.

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  • No. 2: Josef Newgarden
  • No. 3: Scott McLaughlin - rookie
  • No. 12: Will Power
  • No. 22: Simon Pagenaud

Andretti Autosport

Andretti had an absolutely terrible year in 2020; the team just didn’t seem to catch its stride until the latter part of the season, at which point it was really too late to recover. Alexander Rossi finished in ninth place overall in the championship, which was the best the team had to offer. This year, expect a stronger effort from the team after a series of team personnel changes.

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  • No. 26: Colton Hera
  • No. 27: Alexander Rossi
  • No. 28: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport

  • No. 29: James Hinchcliffe

Andretti Herta-Haupert Autosport with Marco Andretti & Curb Agajanian

  • No. 98: Marco Andretti (Indy 500 only)

Arrow McLaren SP

Arrow McLaren SP was seriously impressive in 2020. Pato O’Ward didn’t quite nab a race win, but he was consistently nipping at the heels of the leaders. If the team builds on last year’s success, they’re going to be a legitimate championship contender this year.

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  • No. 5: Patricio O’Ward
  • No. 7: Felix Rosenqvist
  • No. 86: Juan Pablo Montoya (races 5 and 6)

A.J. Foyt Enterprises

Oh, what to say about A.J. Foyt? Last year’s full time driver Charlie Kimball finished 18th overall in the championship while the team’s second car was split between three drivers. That just about tells it all.

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  • No. 1: J. R. Hildebrand (Indy 500 only)
  • No. 4: Dalton Kellett
  • No. 11: Charlie Kimball (races 5 and 6)
  • No. 14: Sébastien Bourdais

Ed Carpenter Racing

Ed Carpenter Racing is a solid midfield contender and would probably be even stronger if its team boss decided to step back from the ol’ racing game. Alas. Rinus Veekay was 2020's Rookie of the Year due to some seriously impressive—albeit inconsistent—races; you’ll want to keep an eye on him this year. And on Conor Daly’s sweet mullet.

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  • No. 20: Conor Daly (1, 2, 5, 7-13, 15-17) and Ed Carpenter (3, 4, 6, 14)
  • No. 21: Rinus Veekay
  • No. 47: Conor Daly (Indy 500 only)

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

That middle name in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing does indeed stand for David Letterman, longtime television host. The team had a poor start to 2020 but immediately kicked things up several notches, allowing its two full-time drivers to finish sixth and seventh in the championship. And Takuma Sato won his second Indy 500. So, there’s that.

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  • No. 15: Graham Rahal
  • No. 30: Takuma Sato
  • No. 45: Santino Ferrucci (Indy 500 only)

Carlin

Carlin can be something of a mystery team. It scored its first pole position in 2020 with Conor Daly, but it also epitomizes the “eh” hand wave in terms of performance. Daly was able to milk a lot out of the car, whereas Max Chilton’s best finish was 11th. Not terrible, but Mostly Fine.

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  • No. 59: Max Chilton (1, 2, 5-13, 15-17), TBA (3, 4, 14)

Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing

Dale Coyne Racing made a solid showing in 2020, but its slate of drivers for this season is entirely different from last, which makes it hard to predict its performance. But it is quite fun to note that ol’ Romain Grosjean has made his swap from the Formula One circus to IndyCar and has landed at this fine team.

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  • No. 51: Romain Grosjean - rookie (1, 2, 5, 7-13, 15-17) and Pietro Fittipaldi (3, 4, 6, 14)
  • No. 52: TBA (Indy 500 only)

Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan

  • No. 18: Ed Jones

Meyer Shank Racing

This will be Meyer Shank Racing’s second full season as an IndyCar team, and you’ll definitely want to keep an eye out for them. While his performances may not have shown it, Jack Harvey had some consistently impressive runs. Expect them to have refined last year’s performance and channeled it into a great car for 2021.

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  • No. 06: Hélio Castroneves (6, 12, 13, 15-17)
  • No. 60: Jack Harvey

Paretta Autosport

I try to remain impartial as a journalist, but I can’t hide my excitement for the Indy 500-only Paretta Autosport team. Owner Beth Paretta describes it as a “female forward” team, which means that she’s staffed it with as many qualified women as she could find, including driver Simona de Silvestro. The Indy 500 is a fickle beast, so it’s hard to predict how the team will perform in the race, but they’ll be making history nonetheless.

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  • No. 16: Simona de Silvestro (Indy 500 only)
Illustration for article titled 2021 Is The Year You Start Watching IndyCar
Photo: Chris Owens / IndyCar
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This Year’s Storylines Will Hook You

2020 is going to be a damn good year for IndyCar for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is due to the rookie class. You’ve got seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, three-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, and former F1 driver Romain Grosjean all competing for Rookie of the Year accolades. It’s going to be great to watch all three drivers learn the ropes of a brand new form of competition.

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And speaking of competition, it’s a big contract year, which means some top-level drivers are going to be fighting hard to retain their place in the IndyCar series. And we’re not just talking occasional race winners: we’re talking Indy 500 champions and series champions. Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud and Will Power and Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay will all wrap up contracts this year. And the last time one of those drivers was put in the hot seat, he won a series title (which is why ol’ Pagenaud is still around).

Don’t discount the fresh talent making waves in the series, though. In 2020, young drivers Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward were consistently on the charge to the front of the pack, with both drivers ending up third and fourth in the championship, respectively. And with both drivers staying at their teams—and with both teams amping up their personnel—you can expect both to continue flaunting the new face of IndyCar.

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That being said, Scott Dixon chasing down his seventh IndyCar title is going to be something to watch. He’s never won back-to-back championships, and his performance started to slip in the latter half of 2020 as other teams finally got their shit together.

Tracks and Watch Guide

You’re going to hear plenty of folks waxing melancholic about the lack of ovals on the 2021 IndyCar calendar. This discipline is one of the few that races on three totally different types of circuits—ovals, road circuits, and street circuits—and this season, the oval part of the schedule consists of a paltry four events as opposed to the more even balance fans have come to expect over the years.

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That, though, will be one of the reasons why I see 2021 being a great year to draw in new race fans, especially the crowd prone to turning up their noses at oval tracks. They’ll get a sense of the kind of racing IndyCar provides without having to watch many ovals (although I will say that the ovals are a lot more fun than you’d expect).

Here are the events for 2021, along with start times (all in ET) and where to watch:

  1. April 18: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama | Barber Motorsports Park | 3pm on NBC
  2. April 25: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg | St. Petersburg Street Circuit | 12pm on NBC
  3. May 1: Genesys 300 | Texas Motor Speedway | 7pm on NBCSN
  4. May 2: Xpel 375 | Texas Motor Speedway | 5pm on NBCSN
  5. May 15: GMR Grand Prix | Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course | 2:30pm on NBC
  6. May 30: 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 | Indianapolis Motor Speedway | 11am on NBC
  7. June 12: Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Race 1 | Belle Isle Street Circuit | 2pm on NBC
  8. June 13: Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Race 2 | Belle Isle Street Circuit | 12pm on NBC
  9. June 20: REV Group Grand Prix | Road America | 12pm on NBCSN
  10. July 4: Honda Indy 200 | Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course | 12pm on NBC
  11. July 11: Honda Indy Toronto* | Exhibition Place Street Circuit | 12pm on NBCSN
  12. August 8: Big Machine Music City Grand Prix | Nashville Street Circuit | 5:30pm on NBCSN
  13. August 14: Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course | 12:30pm ET on NBCSN
  14. August 21: Bommarito Automotive Group 500 | World Wide Technology Raceway | 8pm on NBCSN
  15. September 12: Grand Prix of Portland | Portland International Raceway | 3pm on NBC
  16. September 19: Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey | WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca | 3pm on NBC
  17. September 26: Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach | Long Beach Street Circuit | 3pm on NBCSN
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* The Honda Indy Toronto is still currently listed on the IndyCar schedule but is subject to change due to Ontario’s current COVID-19 situation. If the race is cancelled, one of the other races on the calendar will become a double-header.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

DISCUSSION

But...the cars are ugly! And Santino Ferrucci!

(Don’t remind me F1 has Mazepin)