Tuesday, January 7, 2014

14 Big IndyCar Questions For 2014

I've been working on a column to kick off the New Year, and I had a few ideas for how to do it. However, I didn't count on a) a ridiculously cold string of weather disrupting life the past few days here in Indiana, and b) the losses and worry we've felt over the holidays. As I'm sure everyone reading this knows, we have both the passing of Andy Granatelli and the ongoing medical drama of Michael Schumacher.

A couple of years ago, I only knew of Andy Granatelli from grainy old STP commercials online, and of course his famous photo with Mario Andretti. Two years ago, though, I was able to (briefly) meet Andy Granatelli. To be honest, he wasn't in the best condition, though that's hardly unexpected from someone who lived the better part of a century. But holy cow, I got to meet him, and at the Speedway, no less!

I was never a big Michael Schumacher fan (I was never a Ferrari partisan, despite their successes), but his ski accident was still jarring. We still don't know what the eventual outcome of his dire injury will be, but it was another sudden accident, made all the more stunning because it didn't happen on track. It led to that phenomenon when you can't help but hit the "refresh" button on your browser, yet dread doing so in case terrible news is waiting.

Nearly everyone makes New Year's resolutions, whether we formally put them out there, or just tell ourselves we should knock off some bad habits, such as overeating or writing angry letters to Robin Miller. This year, though, I simply want to get the most out of enjoying what I have. That includes time with family, my jobs, and yes, racing. There's an urgency we're reminded of, with the events of this offseason. We never know what's coming next, so it's best to enjoy what we have while it's here.

To that end, here are my 10 big IndyCar questions for the year ahead:

1) How will the Ganassi changeover go? Adding Ryan Briscoe, and seeing Tony Kanaan jump into the #10 car has given us a team chock full of winners (not that it wasn't like that before).

2) Can Andretti and Ganassi succeed with their new engines? Andretti has jumped to Honda, while Ganassi is with Chevy. Did both teams make the right call, given their circumstances?

3) How will Indy 500 qualifying fare? What are the fine details of the new qualifying format, and just how high will speeds creep this year?

4) Will the Grand Prix of Indianapolis be a success? Adding another race at IMS during May is an absolute hot-button topic, and I expect it to be the most scrutinized race of the year.

5) What type of success will Honda have with their new engine? Honda will now have a a twin turbo, and they seem confident they'll be competitive right out of the gate. If they aren't, or if they blow everyone away, it goes without saying that

6) What's the over/under on the combined number of races Ed Carpenter and Mike Conway win? I firmly believe this is one of the best personnel moves in recent history. Ed Carpenter Racing should be fun to watch each and every race weekend this season.

7) How will Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Andretti Autosport, and other team engineering adjustments pay off? I'm curious to see how Josef Newgarden works with new chief engineer Jeremy Milless, who replaces Nathan O'Rourke. O'Rourke's move to James Hinchcliffe's car for Andretti will likely also be one of the most high-profile moves of the new season, for good or for ill. Also, what type of success will Bill Pappas have at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and what will Michael Cannon do with Dale Coyne?

8) Will the Milwaukee Mile's date move to August pay off? The Mile is one of the most historic venues on the IndyCar schedule. Andretti Sports Marketing has a title and presenting sponsor; will the fans follow to a date in mid-August?

9) What will be the car count for Indy Lights? It's looking like there may be around a dozen full-timers, which sounds poor but is light years ahead of last year's count. For that matter, what's the fate of last year's Lights champ Sage Karam, beyond his Daytona 24 run?

10) Just how good will Juan Pablo Montoya be? Is his early testing with Penske any indicator of his success this year? How will the fans respond to the ready-made black hat?

11) Will IndyCar's nicest guys triumph in 2014? Simon Pagenaud is something special, and could easily be in a fight for the title, if Honda comes out with a roar. Justin Wilson continues to show he is one of the absolute best in the sport, and hopefully he has the support to compete with the top teams more often than not.

12) Who will be in the second Dale Coyne car? Will Pippa Mann return for more races? Will someone like Jack Hawksworth get his chance, and will the lineup for the car be somewhat streamlined this season? The Dale Coyne seat is always one of the most intriguing, and this year should be no different.

13) IndyCar's sponsors and coverage--what lies ahead? We know IZOD is gone, but how will Verizon and Firestone adjust their sponsorship? Are new sponsors waiting in the wings? Will the consecutive ESPN broadcasts do anything, and will IndyCar succeed in convincing their broadcast partners to allow their streaming and online coverage to join the 21st century?

14) Whither Simona, Hildebrand, and Jakes? I'm beginning to worry there's not a seat left that will work with Simona's current circumstances, and that would be a shame. Will JR Hildebrand, James Jakes, or perhaps another shoe appear in the Team Barracuda/BHA ride? For that matter, will we see drivers like Oriol Servia or Alex Tagliani anywhere outside of Indianapolis? There's plenty of time left for silly season, and no one knows just how it will turn out.

Honorable Mention: Who the heck ends up running the National Guard livery in 2014: Rahal or Panther?

The are plenty of other questions awaiting us for the 2014 IndyCar season. What are your other big questions in the year to come? Whatever they are, I hope each of you dive right in and experience the year to come to the fullest.

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