GLENDALE, Arizona – Welcome to the “Valley of the Sun,” where optimism abounds for Verizon IndyCar Series drivers as they come together to talk about the upcoming season amid welcome temperatures in the high 70s.
In the ever-flowing spirit of competition, Wednesday’s first of two media days included two firsts involving a remote-control, miniature No. 18 Indy car. There was a first “incident.” There was a first “controversy.”
During a break from several hours of having pictures taken, on-camera interviews recorded for global media outlets and the signing of countless memorabilia items, several drivers enjoyed maneuvering the remote-control car up to speed on the plush carpet of the ballroom lobby of the Renaissance Phoenix Glendale Hotel and Spa.
AJ Foyt Racing’s Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist took their turns. Team Penske’s Will Power enjoyed popping wheelies. Zach Veach of Andretti Autosport thought he had earned pole position with the fastest lap around an unbanked, mock, carpeted superspeedway oval, but Gabby Chaves of Harding Racing was a split-second quicker. Then Chaves crashed the car.
“It should be red-flagged,” Veach said, insisting Chaves’ time should not count. “It was tubbed.”
“It was not tubbed,” Chaves said. “The gears were not engaging. We need a gearbox change.”
Chaves admitted he broke the car in a hard wall impact, but technically under series rules which allow for repairs after a run on an oval, he still qualified quickest.
“Qualifying was complete, then it crashed,” he said. “You’re still on pole. Then you have repairs.”
Both drivers laughed about the “conflict” in an amusing light-hearted deviation from their media day commitments. There didn’t appear to be any hard feelings that could carry over to when the drivers test the real cars this week at ISM Raceway in nearby Avondale.
“Hopefully our real conflicts will be about podium stuff and not about, ‘Dude, why are you blocking for 19th place?’” Chaves said.
Media day could be considered the unofficial beginning to the season as drivers get reacquainted with each other while focusing on tests and trying to learn the nuances of driving a redesigned Indy car with a new universal aero kit. There’s much work to be done before the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11, which is just around the corner but still seems somewhat far off.
“Everyone is confident, everyone thinks they’re going to have a great season and everyone I’m sure has forgotten any kind of tension they had with any other drivers from last season,” said Spencer Pigot of Ed Carpenter Racing. “It’s been a while since we all raced together and everyone is starting fresh. It’s definitely friendly.
“I’m sure after this test at Phoenix, there will be a couple of people, hopefully not us, that are a little disappointed with how it went and will need to improve and then, of course, when we get to the first race, everyone is excited. And that can turn pretty quick.”
Pigot, promoted to a full-season ride after driving road and street courses the past two years, concedes he’s seeing some of the new drivers for the first time. Leist is a 19-year-old Brazilian rookie. Veach, 23, also has his first full-time ride. Carpenter hired 24-year-old English rookie Jordan King to drive his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on road and street courses, Pigot’s old job.
Dale Coyne Racing introduced Pietro Fittipaldi, the 21-year-old grandson of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time Formula One champion Emerson Fittipaldi, as well as 19-year-old Zachary Claman DeMelo. They will split time in the No. 19 Honda as teammates of four-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais. Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser, 21, will try to prove himself worthy in a four-race commitment with Juncos Racing after winning last year’s title in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires.
Rookie Robert Wickens has joined longtime Canadian countryman and friend James Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Hinchcliffe spent much of the day busting into photo and interview sessions uninvited to capture the reactions of fellow drivers on his smartphone for INDYCAR's Facebook Live posts.
Jack Harvey, who made his series debut in last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil before two other starts, is back for at least six races and possibly more for Michael Shank Racing with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Stefan Wilson, who gave up his Indy 500 ride last year to help create an opportunity for two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso, returns with Andretti Autosport to make his second May start in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“There are a lot of new drivers coming into INDYCAR, which I think is exciting,” Pigot said. “There’s a bit of an unknown. And a lot of drivers have switched teams and done different things. Every time you see them, in the back of your mind, you might say, ‘Hello’ and be friendly, but everyone knows that as soon as you get on the track, that goes out the window.”
Power, the 2014 series champion, admitted he's already thinking ahead. The 36-year-old Australian, whose 32 career wins rank ninth on the all-time list, is eager to get busy figuring out the new car as he looks to reclaim a championship that has been won the past two years by Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.
Newgarden, the reigning champion, edged Pagenaud for last year’s title. Both will participate in today’s final round of media day activities. Meanwhile, rookie drivers will get time on track this afternoon at ISM Raceway’s 1.022-mile oval to better prepare themselves for Friday and Saturday, when all 23 cars will be on track.
For now, like everyone else, Power exchanged pleasantries with fellow competitors. The time for playing nice will soon come to an end.
“It’s normal,” Power said, smiling. “Everyone is like, ‘We’re looking forward to the season.’ Then three races in, we’ll be like, ‘That guy is such a wanker.’”