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IndyCar Open Wheel

IndyCar Silly Season Almost Wrapped Up

Often in the most recent years of the Verizon IndyCar Series, silly season and the final fulltime seats on the circuit were often not decided until days, sometimes hours before the opening of the first race weekend. Looking ahead to 2017 however, things certainly have not followed this pattern.

Perhaps in an accelerated and exhilarated mode due to the momentum generated from one of its best campaigns since the split of openwheel racing in North America twenty years ago, the landscape for the 2017 season could be fully in place before the first day of the new year. As of November 20, 2016, only three (potentially four) fulltime seats are without team confirmation. As a result, this could also push up the calls on driver picks for next May’s 101st running of the  Indianapolis 500, something that may also cool off the concern of the race not featuring a full, 33-car grid, a common concern among IndyCar’s fan base for the last several years.

Currently, all of the rides below are set in stone before the Thanksgiving Day holiday…

Penske: Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power

Ganassi: Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Charlie Kimball, (one vacancy)

Andretti: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi, (one vacancy)

Carpenter: Ed Carpenter (ovals only), (road courses only driver, unknown), J.R. Hildebrand

Schmidt-Peterson: James Hinchcliffe, Mikhail Aleshin

Foyt: Conor Daly, Carlos Munoz

Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan: Graham Rahal, (one potential vacancy)

Coyne: Sebastien Bourdais, Ed Jones

KV: (one vacancy)

Now regarding the vacancies, the fourth seat at Andretti Autosport appears to be the least in question. Multiple insider reports suggest that former AJ Foyt Racing pilot Takuma Sato will take the seat. Following a difficult 2016 season, plus a possible switch by the Texas-based squad from Honda to Chevrolet engines for 2017, Honda began shopping around Sato’s services to keep him on the fulltime grid for 2017. In terms of making that a reality, Andretti seems to be the best option.

As for the final opening at Chip Ganassi Racing and the single seat at KV Racing, another former Formula One pilot Max Chilton appears to be in the position to fill one of the seats. Chilton, with personal backing from Gallagher Investments, contested the full IndyCar tour in 2016 with CGR and reports recently suggested a renewal for 2017 was “imminent.” However, things have yet to be set in stone, which has created some buzz from the underground.

Of course, if Chilton does not end up with Ganassi the options for finding another driver are limited. Reports suggest that a personal budget of at least six million dollars is needed to cover the financial requirements for the fourth CGR ride and not many of the current free agent drivers in play can offer that amount of money. About the only other driver who could have the dollars to cover the ride is Indy Lights veteran Felix Serralles. The 24-year old Puerto Rico-born driver won two races last year in Lights and placed sixth on the final points table.

If Chilton does not retain the seat at Ganassi, he would immediately become the lead candidate for the opening at KV Racing, the team currently in the most uncertainty for its IndyCar racing future. With investor James Sullivan pulling his support and reportedly a relocation of the team’s headquarters from Indianapolis to Florida in the works, money is needed for the new year, and the savior could come in the form of Indy Lights entrant Trevor Carlin. Carlin, who entered the car Ed Jones used to win this year’s Indy Lights championship, has been pointing to an eventual move up to the major series and the situation could see him step in to aid KV’s current financial trouble. With Carlin in play, the team would certainly follow the Ganassi situation closely and would be more than eager to snap up Chilton, who drove for Carlin both in Indy Lights and in the lower European ranks before his one season in Formula One. Beyond Chilton, a pay driver appears necessary to help KV, and there are several of those drivers out there seeking seats.

As silly season for full time seats enters its climax, two other concerns have yet to reach a conclusion. Ed Carpenter is looking for a driver to fill his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Chevrolet for the road course events in 2017. 2015 Indy Lights champion Spencer Pigot handled those duties for ECR this season, but insider tips suggest he may not be the driver in the lead to continue that role. In addition to Pigot, fellow Indy Lights veteran Zach Veach, who does offer some financial backing could take over the role, which would likely include a separate car for the 101st Indianapolis 500.

There is also an outside chance that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing may also expand to two fulltime runners in 2017, in its efforts to reach Graham Rahal’s goal to win an IndyCar Series championship. Reportedly, the son of the 1986 Indy 500 winner would prefer having Oriol Servia as his teammate if the deal materializes. Servia has history with Rahal, having performed three one-off efforts for the team at Indy over the last decade.

Now as for the Indy 500 in 2017 itself, filling the field may get an early jump start, yet it still is a puzzle that for now is missing a few pieces from full completion. If the second Rahal entry materializes, the circuit would have 22 fulltime runners for next season or two-thirds of a 33-car lineup. The likely third Ed Carpenter Racing car for its road course replacement would make 23, with Juan Pablo Montoya’s possible one-off entry with Roger Penske making 24. Expect Andretti Autosport to once again offer a fifth car at the Brickyard (possibly for Indy specialist Townsend Bell) and based on social media posts, it also appears likely that Pippa Mann will once again participate at Indy, with Dale Coyne Racing being the lead candidate to assist her.

Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson had hoped to run three cars fulltime in 2017,  but worst case scenario will run a third car at Indy and in a handful of other 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series events. Its lead Indy Lights driver this year Santiago Urrutia has been rumored as a potential driver for this entry. A.J. Foyt Racing has also shown a willingness to enter an extra car to make up the numbers and may very well do so again next May.  There is also a chance Dreyer-Reinbold Kingdom Racing and Buddy Lazier’s family run operation could each return in 2017. If all of those come to reality, that would put the field at 30 cars, with only three more needed to ensure a full field. Not the perfect storyline, yet one that should reach a good conclusion.

Regardless of the outcome, it is safe to say the 2017 silly season has indeed live up to the term and maybe a few more surprises are in store.

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.              

By Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad.

A major follower of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Matt has attended six previous Indianapolis 500s and rates Tony Kanaan's long awaited victory in the 2013 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as his favorite memory.

Outside of following auto racing, Matt is an avid fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish athletics program and can often be seen at home games throughout the season or running the audio controls on several ND-related radio programs. A native of Springboro, Ohio, Matt now resides in Mishawaka, Indiana.