The weather was predictably spectacular at Sonoma Raceway when I sought Wally Leavitt, our general manager of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
It was clear the green flag for the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma was not going to be delayed by Mother Nature, but after the checkered flag was waved on the 2018 Verizon Indy Car Series season, I knew I’d need to hustle to make my flight out of San Francisco.
So, I found Wally upon my arrival at the track. “Thanks again for letting me be a part of the broadcasts this year,” I told him. “It was a really fun season.”
“It was fun,” he replied. “And fast. This year went by fast.”
Wally was right. The 2018 season seemed to flash by in the blink of an eye. I guess that’s what happens when you’re having fun. I am indeed grateful to have been allowed the opportunity to witness and help chronicle a season of excitement. Before closing the album and securing it in a desk drawer, let’s take a quick stroll down (recent) memory lane.
The St. Pete race weekend is always an adjustment period, and a humbling challenge. Each year, new sponsor paint schemes and driver changes force me to question whether I still have the ability to call race action as it happens. There is a familiarity necessary when transferring what your eye is seeing into what your voice describes, and each year there’s a car or driver that creates a mental hurdle.
Each year, the acclimation process takes place to the point I can recognize a driver by the color accentuation flashing by me at maximum speed. In 2018, the need for a quick learn happened before the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg took to the grid.
I watched a young Indy Lights driver, still two months shy of his 19th birthday at the time, outrun the field in claiming his first victory in the series. Yes, Patricio O’Ward ran 2016 in the Pro Mazda Championship, but 2018 was an emphatic re-introduction in the paddock for the gregarious and confident young man from Monterrey, Mexico. He took the checkers in Race 1 at St. Pete, the first of his nine victories en route to the Indy Lights championship. By year’s end, he secured himself as one of IndyCar Series’ rising stars.
O’Ward was not the only young driver that used the Florida sun to illuminate the shine of rising stardom. The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was paced early by rookies Robert Wickens, Matheus Leist and Jordan King. Wickens was brilliant all day until his late-race tangle with Alexander Rossi, which allowed veteran Sebastian Bourdais to get his second straight win in St. Pete. It was a preview of a wild 2018 season.
I can’t say or write enough about the talent of Wickens. The Canadian was fast from the get-go and showed his skill and maturity during his May rookie orientation at Indianapolis. After a problem with his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports machine delayed the first phase of his rookie test, Wickens confidently stepped into teammate James Hinchcliffe’s car and never missed a mark. A car that was set up entirely different than his own, but Wickens was unfazed. His calm and outgoing demeanor allowed him to pass the test with ease, on his way to a ninth-place finish and Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the 102nd Indianapolis 500.
Wickens, who is recovering from the serious late-season crash in Pocono, was also the season’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year, a particularly high honor considering the stout class of 2018. King, Leist and Zachary Claman De Melo all had moments of fierce speed and competitiveness, but Wickens’ greatest competition for the award came from Ohioan Zach Veach. A staple in the paddock during his climb up the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, Veach’s progression was obvious from one race to the next. By season’s end, his No. 26 Group 1001 Honda was a consistent threat in qualifying, a regular and steady runner toward the front of the field. Veach ended the season by erasing any doubts the years ahead will produce race wins for Andretti Autosport.
While the rookies were proving their mettle, the veterans continued to disprove the theory that Father Time will remain undefeated. Tony Kanaan was again breathtaking on the oval at Indy, showing he still has what it takes to get himself and AJ Foyt Racing back into Indy’s victory lane. Will Power dominated May and challenged for another championship into the season finale. Ryan Hunter-Reay got on the wrong side of Lady Luck but still picked a pair of wins, while Bourdais was one of the fastest qualifiers every weekend.
Then, of course, there is Scott Dixon. The Kiwi continues to rewrite the record books, as his fifth season championship came in a year he surpassed every driver not named A.J. or Mario in all-time wins. Dixie was once sponsored by Energizer, which is only fitting. He just keeps going and going.
The last few seasons have seen the confirmation of what the past had predicted: that INDYCAR has rising stars in James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Josef Newgarden and Rossi. Which takes us back to O’Ward.
Last week, it was officially announced that Pato will team with promising young talent Colton Herta on a team co-owned by Mike Harding and George Steinbrenner IV. The emergence of Steinbrenner, a member of one of America’s most powerful sports families, into INDYCAR may be huge.
There is no sports franchise more recognized in the American sports landscape than the New York Yankees. Having the grandson of its iconic owner joining open-wheel racing has seemingly open-ended potential. O’Ward and Herta both have shown an ability to wheel a car to victory lane, but they’ll now wheel them amongst a field full of competence and competitiveness in 2019.
Wally and I were both correct. The 2018 season was fun. The 2018 season went fast.
I can only hope the latter hold true for the offseason, as well. Are we in St. Pete yet?