IndyCar resumes this weekend in downtown St. Petersburg following long and rocky offseason

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — It has been six months since Alex Palou closed the IndyCar season with his second championship in three years and the time off has not been the smoothest for America’s open-wheel racing series.

Honda publicly aired grievances with IndyCar, team owners have been grumbling, the series was forced to delay its transition to a hybrid engine and the ballyhooed season finale in downtown Nashville has been moved 35 miles away because of construction to the city's NFL stadium.

The new season opens this weekend on the streets of downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, and IndyCar has 17 races this year to showcase its product. It comes at a time when Formula 1 is engulfed in scandal and has just one dominant driver, giving IndyCar the opportunity to prove its on-track product is superior to the more popular European-based series.

“It’s been probably a tougher offseason for cadence and news, but I really think 2024 can be another great step for us in the IndyCar Series,” said Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden. "We have so many positive things going on... (and) it helps when we get back to the track because we just have a great racing product, too. ... I think that we have the highest level of racing in this series.”

IndyCar had seven different winners last season, and even though Palou clinched the title with a race to spare, it was the first time in nearly 20 years the series did not go to the finale with multiple title contenders.

Max Verstappen won the F1 season opener last week by more than 22 seconds; Newgarden won the Indy 500 by 0.097 seconds. And the winning move Newgarden used to block Marcus Ericsson — a sweep below the yellow line on the track — has since been banned by IndyCar.

Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske wasn't pleased with the offseason hiccups. He said recent meetings with Honda, the drivers and the team owners went well as IndyCar outlined its vision through 2027.

“We've been falling over rocks that have been put in front of us, many of them I would not say we caused it, but it's within our company,” Penske said. “We've got to be in a situation where we deal with them. But if you get into the details on this stuff, we are busting our butts. The things we are trying to do, bring revenue into the company, the investments we are making — we are really working hard.”

About those hurdles

Honda, not unlike many of the team owners, has concerns about a sense of stagnancy in a series that provides a fantastic product. The decision by IndyCar to delay the introduction of a new hybrid engine until after the Indy 500 in May didn't make anyone happy.

Neither did fiddling with the Nashville race, so beloved by fans that IndyCar made it this year's season finale. All the construction as the Tennessee Titans build a new stadium forced a change, so the race will instead be run at Nashville Superspeedway, an oval in nearby Lebanon. At least fans love Indy cars on ovals and there are seven such races this year, including a return to the Milwaukee Mile for a doubleheader and a third consecutive trip to Iowa Speedway.

Mark Miles, CEO of Penske Entertainment, acknowledged the rocky offseason and need to get back to racing.

“I don't think we're tone deaf," said Miles. “I think its a long offseason and I think when we get back on track and start racing, that will make a difference.”

Larson's double bid

One clear upside is the upcoming attempt of NASCAR champion Kyle Larson to run the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day over Memorial Day weekend. Larson will run in Indy with McLaren Racing and the nightcap with Hendrick Motorsports as he becomes the fifth driver to attempt “The Double."

Larson's attempt has ticket sales for the 500 ahead of the traditional pace.

Drivers in different seats

The biggest offseason move was made by Ericsson, the 2022 Indy 500 winner who left Chip Ganassi Racing for Andretti Global. The Andretti squad hired Ericsson to replace Romain Grosjean, who moved to Juncos Hollinger Racing for his third team in four IndyCar seasons. Andretti also dropped from four cars to three.

Ganassi, meanwhile, who has Palou and six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon in his camp, expanded his team by two more cars and will field five entries this year. Two are rookies in Linus Lundqvist and Kyffin Simpson.

Meyer Shank Racing has an entirely new lineup with Felix Rosenqvist and Tom Blomqvist, and McLaren replaced Rosenqvist with David Malukas, but he was injured in an offseason biking crash and will be replace in St. Pete this weekend by Callum Ilott.

Dale Coyne Racing waited until this week to announce its lineup, which appears to be a car shared by Jack Harvey and IndyCar development driver Nolan Siegel, while sports car racer Colin Braun will be in a second car for an unspecified number of races.

All eyes on Palou

Palou has been the centerpiece of free agency the last two years in a battle for the Spaniard between Ganassi and McLaren.

Palou originally signed to join McLaren in 2023 but mediation ruled he was under contract with Ganassi through the end of last season. That pushed his McLaren arrival to 2024, but Palou changed his mind and it has now become a lengthy court battle as McLaren seeks more than $30 million in breach of contract damages.

Palou has continued on and off the track as if nothing is amiss and will race for a third title this year.

The main benefactor of his waffling is McLaren driver Pato O'Ward, who replaced Palou as a McLaren reserve F1 driver while also receiving a contract extension and substantial raise.

The popular Mexican is among the drivers calling on IndyCar to grow into the series it can be and challenge NASCAR in the United States for ratings and attendance.

“I think we really have the potential to see massive gains, but just like in a lot of things, you just obviously have to fuel it if you want to see some of that double, triple, quadruple,” O'Ward said. “I try and do my best to help and to bring new audiences and new people to the series, because I feel like once people see and watch it, they’re going to want to stick around. The problem is you need to get it in front of as many eyes as you can.”


AP auto racing: