Jimmie Johnson, Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean, oh my! That’s quite the rookie class for IndyCar, which opens the season Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama stacked with storylines throughout the grid.
Simon Pagenaud participated in a pre-season test session at Barber Motorsports Park.
“I didn’t think I’d be racing Jimmie Johnson and Romain Grosjean. It’s crazy. Very exciting,” McLaughlin said. “It just shows what IndyCar is all about right now. I hope the fans relish it.”
McLaughlin should easily take top rookie honors because he’s running the full schedule, but he’s got his sights set on winning races and even competing for the championship. But the competition is fierce starting at the top with six-time champion Scott Dixon and within Team Penske.
Dixon will be trying to tie A.J. Foyt’s record seven championships while leading an expanded Ganassi organization. The team will field four cars this season with only Marcus Ericsson returning for a second year. Dixon will be acclimating to new teammates Johnson and second-year IndyCar driver Alex Palou.
Dixon in 20 seasons has never won back-to-back titles but his current streak of two in the last three years is the best of his career. He turns 41 this July but noted Tom Brady recently won a sixth Super Bowl at 43.
“I don’t think you can ever really put a time scale on it or an age or anything like that,” Dixon said. “I think we’ve seen the longevity, not just in our sport but across sports in general, there’s so many different ways, whether it’s the mental game or training or anything like that.”
Penske has three IndyCar champions on its roster: Josef Newgarden has two titles, while Simon Pagenaud and Will Power each have one. Power has confirmed he’s in a contract year this season while Pagenaud declined to comment; Roger Penske said contract talks are ongoing with all his drivers, but he’s generally been on record as opposed to fielding four teams.
Penske has plenty on his plate beyond driver contracts as he begins his second season as owner of both IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His first year of ownership was decimated by the pandemic and he was forced to host the Indianapolis 500 without spectators for the first time in history.
He’s confident there will be fans this Memorial Day weekend — he wants the full 400,000 — and has held mass vaccination clinics at the speedway. IndyCar believes at least 90% of the paddock will have received at least the first shot by the time the season begins Sunday. Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., said the series is considering regular COVID-19 testing for participants who choose not to receive the vaccine.
Penske is also negotiating a new television package as NBC enters the season in the final year of its contract. IndyCar will have a record nine races on network TV this season, but NBC has moved many practice sessions to its subscription streaming services and made production cuts that viewers will notice — Paul Tracy, for example, will be color analyst for just seven events as the network will use a two-person booth for the remaining 10.
Penske wouldn’t speculate on potential television partners and said he’s still learning about streaming services.
“We don’t really talk about the negotiations we’re having right now for the future, but we certainly want to have a broadcast partner as we go into the future, and if that entails streaming and other aspects of what might be available, we’re looking at all of those,” Penske said.