INDYCAR Voices: Jeff Olson

The NTT IndyCar Series season is complete, but the memories aren’t. Nor is the meaning behind what unfolded. In Ten Best of 2019, a three-part series over the next week, we take a look at 10 significant events and developments this year that are likely to last for years to come.

Let the countdown begin:

10. Fans

Locals say it was a day so hot the chickens were laying omelettes. A few hours before qualifying at Iowa Speedway, hundreds of fans stood in overwhelming heat for drivers’ autographs. Keep in mind a) it was a Friday, b) there wasn’t much on-track action that day, and c) it was hot enough to boil the ink in their Sharpies.

Alexander Rossi put it this way:

The following day, as race time approached, a storm of Oz-like proportions let loose on the track, sending everyone for cover. Most fans would’ve given up during the lengthy delay, but they would’ve missed the ensuing rainbow and a race that lasted into the early morning hours. By the time it ended, a small but loud crowd greeted Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane.

Here’s to IndyCar’s fans. They’re enthusiastic, knowledgeable and devoted. They’re savvy about the history of the sport. They’re also up on current events and how to follow racing in a changing digital age. They’re also growing in number. Attendance is up across the board, and it’s surprisingly strong at places like Gateway, Barber and St. Petersburg.

Follow their lead. They’re on to something.

9. The future and advancing technology

The future is here -- at least some of it -- and it’s as welcome as it is bold. The series made several moves in 2019 to advance safety and technology. One of them, an Aeroscreen designed in collaboration with Red Bull Advanced Technologies, will be tested this month and next and put in use next season. (The first on-track test is Wednesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where so many safety innovations have their roots.)

In July, Scott Dixon used a simulator featuring the aeroscreen to test visibility, turning pretend laps at Long Beach, Indy, Texas, Iowa and Barber. He reported no issues.

“We wanted to make sure as drivers that if we did run something that it was going to be something great -- not something rushed, not something that hadn’t been tested well,” Dixon said when the aeroscreen plans were unveiled in May. “... We’ve seen other versions of this, but I think this one covers a lot more bases.”

Video: Aeroscreen

The screen isn’t the only advancement on the horizon. In 2022, IndyCar will introduce a single-source hybrid system and an increase to 900 horsepower, continuing the sport’s legacy of developing advancements in technology that apply to both racing and production vehicles.

“As we move toward the future, we will remain true to our racing roots of being fast, loud and authentic, and simultaneously have the ability to add hybrid technology that is an important element for the series and our engine manufacturers,” INDYCAR President Jay Frye said when the hybrid plan was unveiled in August.

8. Indy and its never-ending drama

After winning the 103rd Indianapolis 500, Simon Pagenaud made a point to text someone who didn’t have such a great month. In 2007, Gil de Ferran helped Pagenaud get his racing career back on track. It worked -- Pagenaud eventually landed at Team Penske, with which de Ferran won the 500 in 2003 -- so Pagenaud was quick to thank him.

“I had a lot of support from him throughout the years,” Pagenaud said. “He’s been very important part of my improvement, my development as a driver. Without him, I don’t think I would’ve ever unlocked so much potential. He definitely has a very special place in my heart. I sent him a message. I said, ‘Thank you for everything, because all of your advice worked.’”

A week before Pagenaud won, de Ferran and McLaren Racing were left out of the race when Fernando Alonso was bumped in qualifying by Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing. It was the type of man-bites-dog drama we’ve come to expect from Indianapolis, and part of the reason why the race draws hundreds of thousands of fans each year.

It’s also why the race is heartbreaking for many and joyous for but a few. While McLaren’s struggles were the story of qualifying, they couldn’t overshadow the delight of an underdog.

“I came across start-finish and the first thing I asked (over the radio) was, ‘Are we in? Did we make it?’” Kaiser said after he made the 33-car field. “I just heard screaming. That was a good sign.”

A week later, de Ferran took solace in Pagenaud’s triumph, which capped his sweep of both May races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“The stars aligned for me the whole month,” Pagenaud said.

Friday: In the second installment of Ten Best of 2019, we’ll look at social media, the ever-changing balance between teams and manufacturers, and a group of rookies that will have a positive effect on IndyCar for years to come.