After a season of positive momentum and foundation building that resulted in increased metrics for television and at-track spectator viewing, the NTT IndyCar Series season has hit a slight bump even before rolling over to 2024.
With the recent news that the new hybrid engine formula on which the series was heavily relying to kickoff their continued rise for next year is delayed, IndyCar is now edging closer to something no sport wants.
And IndyCar has a history of flirting with staleness.
It’s been covered by multiple outlets, all questioning whether the series is making the right strategic decision in moving forward with the Dallara DW12 chassis in parallel with the new engine formula. Leadership is taking a patient approach, introducing new technology and additional cost, via testing and components, on the teams in a dedicated manner. The business approach in that doesn’t seem too perplexing or questionable. After all, IndyCar isn’t ripe with the millions of dollars that other racing series like NASCAR and Formula 1 attract nor does it pull in the monster television revenue. The paddock is full of owners who are in this because they have a great passion for racing, not to make a fortune off selling their assets in exchange for a driver to put on track.
Still, the teams need to at least stay in the black to continue operation.
Is it good for the series, though, to have put focus on the engine and relegate a new car design to later?
Let’s see what the TV viewership says at St. Pete. Rather than touting the introduction of a new engine formula, and no new car look, the series is rolling into the season opener in March exactly the same way they did in 2023. The drivers will have their storylines: Will Alex Palou repeat? Does Josef Newgarden defend his Indianapolis 500 win? Which driver out of the crop of rookies jumps out? Does Palou spend a third consecutive season in as many court rooms as victory lanes?
Now look at the sports landscape across the nation and see what IndyCar’s professional, major league brethren are doing.
In the NBA, commissioner Adam Silver introduced the new in-season tournament, an idea plucked from the European formula used in both soccer (sorry, football) and the Euroleague. Regardless of the skeptics among the crowd that said it wouldn’t do anything for the sport (like this dude behind the keyboard), it’s proven to be a massive hit for the fans and has injected great energy and vibes into the early season.
The NFL recently added an additional game to their schedule in the last few years, bumping up the number of you-should-care games in a season to 17. They also changed how many teams could make the playoffs, which increased that total by two. Know what that ends up selling? More storylines and hope to a fan base that can’t get enough of the biggest sport in the country.
But those are stick and ball sports, what does it matter what they do compared to motorsport?
In the IMSA series, the preeminent sports car series in the nation (and covered fantastically by our own Phil Allaway), the leadership introduced the new GTP class last year and, heading into the 24 Hours of Daytona, have 10 full-time cars expected in the top-tier class. That included four different manufacturers, with two more possible in the future. There’s a lot of freshness in that paddock.
The other two major series in the country, NASCAR and F1, epitomize the capability in bringing ‘new hotness’ into their seasons. It goes without saying that the folks at F1, and their massive budget, are at the top of their game in introducing bold new parts, pieces and designs each year. NASCAR just recently launched a new car and continually tinkers with their racing product and schedule to ensure there is plenty to talk about in between events or seasons.
Then there is IndyCar. The current aero package was launched in 2018, but it was built on the spec safety cell chassis that hit the track in 2012 and was spearheaded two chief executives ago. This DW12 has had three different aero kits built around it, and has been on track longer than the IR03 Dallara which started in 2003 and was considered long in the tooth when the decision was made in 2011 for a new ride. The engine formula has basically been the same since 2012 as well, except for early changes to Honda’s turbocharger configuration.
Know what else hasn’t changed in that time frame? The addition of a third engine manufacturer, massive amounts of horsepower like in CART’s heyday, and a new car designed for the future.
Now that the hybrid engine is delayed so is the series’ attempt to inject new technology into the paddock and put them on the cutting edge of racing innovation. Instead, IndyCar has to triumph more about the close racing product and accessible drivers – which are absolutely critical for the series’ identity. But where is the next quest for freshness and change that will introduce more stories? The new video game? Delayed, for who knows how long? How about a new race at Thermal Club? That will cost you $2,000 for the VIP package, which now the series admits was poorly communicated when announced. A new engine that produces a ridiculous amount of horsepower? Even when it hits the track, early reports say that the weight is going to slow the cars down and possibly eradicate any gains.
The impact of this forced delay – which is no doubt legitimate for fairness in the paddock – will effect the forthcoming racing product. With the added horsepower from the energy recovery system, the series was moving towards improving the package at the famed Indy 500, where cars have been limited in being able to move through traffic. Putting the strategy in the hands of the drivers was going to provide an additional aspect to follow during all racing.
Props to IndyCar though for making this tough call. If the parts aren’t ready and there isn’t enough for the full field to test before the St. Pete, then this is the best decision for the competition. However it doesn’t make it less frustrating that it’s happened.
With 2024 closing in quickly, it looks like IndyCar is already starting their season over a bump, but hopefully they pick up momentum right where they left off this year.
About the author
Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.
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