The calendar flipped to May nearly two weeks ago, but for fans of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the glorious motorsports month is finally here.
Today, engines of two junior series roared to life at the Racing Capital of the World, with the NTT INDYCAR SERIES set to begin the ninth GMR Grand Prix on Friday. This weekend’s action precedes the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
With competitors from USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires joining the 27-car NTT INDYCAR SERIES field, this event on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course springs that May feeling in Indianapolis. There are 11 days of on-track action between now and the “500” on Sunday, May 29, and it should be memorable.
SEE: Event Details
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES stages its first practice on the road course at 9:30 a.m. (ET) Friday, with a second session at 12:45 p.m. NTT P1 Award qualifying will be held at 4 p.m.
Saturday, a final practice will be held at 10:30 a.m. with NBC’s coverage of the 85-lap GMR Grand Prix beginning at 3 p.m. All series action can be viewed on Peacock Premium, the direct-to-consumer live streaming service of NBC Sports.
The INDYCAR Radio Network will provide coverage to its network affiliates, SiriusXM 160, racecontrol.indycar.com and the INDYCAR App powered by NTT DATA.
Indy Lights has its first doubleheader of the season this weekend, the Indy Lights Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Race 1 featuring the 14 car-and-driver combinations is at 5:35 p.m. (ET) Friday, with Race 2 at 1:20 p.m. Saturday. Both races will be 35 laps or 55 minutes.
Official “500” practice begins Tuesday, May 17.
Here are five things to watch from the NTT INDYCAR SERIES this weekend:
Road Course Has Been Team Penske Playground
The INDYCAR SERIES has raced on the IMS road course 11 times, with Team Penske drivers winning on eight occasions. Most recent was Will Power’s victory in the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix last August.
Power, the driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, has five wins and five NTT P1 Awards on the circuit, including victories in three of the first five GMR Grands Prix. Additionally, former Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud gave Roger Penske – now the owner of IMS – road course wins in 2016 and 2019, and current Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) won an October race in 2020. Pagenaud also won here for another team, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, in the inaugural INDYCAR SERIES road race in 2014. This season, Pagenaud drives the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing.
Only two other non-Penske drivers have gone to Victory Lane in INDYCAR SERIES races on this road course: Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) in July 2020 and Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Building Tomorrow Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing) in May 2021. VeeKay’s victory was the first of his career in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
Power also holds the track record, a lap of 1 minute, 7.7044 seconds (129.687 mph) set in the Firestone Fast Six round in 2017.
VeeKay’s ECR Program Comes in Hot
It has been a rollercoaster 12 months for VeeKay, who is competing in his third INDYCAR SERIES season for Ed Carpenter’s team.
The Dutch driver with strong connections to two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk was riding high after holding off Romain Grosjean for the victory in last year’s GMR Grand Prix. VeeKay went on to earn a front-row starting position for the “500” – his second top-four start in as many attempts – and jumped to fourth in the season standings after finishing second in the first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle Park.
However, a cycling crash in the days following the Detroit doubleheader left him with a broken collarbone, forcing him to sit out the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America. He returned to the cockpit for the remainder of the season, but he and the team couldn’t find their groove, settling for 12th in the point standings.
VeeKay is off to a solid start in 2022, posting three top-10 starts and as many finishes in the four races. He won the pole for the most-recent race, the Honda Indy Grand Pix of Alabama presented by AmFirst at Barber Motorsports Park, and he scored his fourth career podium finish by coming home third after leading 57 of the 90 laps. VeeKay arrives in Indy seventh in the standings.
“It’s cool to come to the track and see your own photo on the tickets,” he said. “Of course, you’ve got the confidence of already having won there and knowing that you can do it and the team can do it. I think it’s a little bit of peace you get from having won there already.”
INDYCAR’s Youth Movement Has Legitimate Traction
For starters, it would be unwise to discount the 40-somethings of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Six-time series champion Scott Dixon, former series champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power, and Helio Castroneves – all former “500” winners – figure to be heard from this month at IMS.
But there is no disputing how much of an impact the 25-and-under group has made in recent months. From Alex Palou (25) to Colton Herta (22) to Pato O’Ward (23) to VeeKay (21), a statement has been made.
O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) won the Barber race, with VeeKay on the pole. Joining them on the podium was Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda), which made the average age of the threesome about 22.6 years.
Add in series rookie Callum Ilott, the 23-year-old driver of the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet who qualified a career-best 11th at Barber, and fellow newcomers Kyle Kirkwood (No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) and Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 Shield Cleansers Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), and it’s easy to imagine the new trajectory of the series into the next decade.
“The new generation is kind of taking over,” VeeKay said.
Palou isn’t ready to go that far. After all, Dixon is his teammate, and the driver No. 3 in career series wins has finished first or second in four of the past five GMR Grands Prix. Palou also knows that fellow Ganassi drivers Tony Kanaan, the 2013 “500” champion, and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, a four-time winner of the Brickyard 400 at IMS, will be strong in this year’s Indy oval race. And then there’s Newgarden, the 31-year-old driver who has won half of this season’s four races.
“But yeah, (the Barber race was) a good podium, obviously,” Palou said. “It’s always good fighting with each other. I think we know a lot how we race each other, and I think we’ve already shared a couple of podiums together. It’s really cool. Hopefully we can continue doing the same.”
Balance Reigns Week to Week
Yes, Chevrolet has won all four of the races held this season, with Team Penske drivers reaching Victory Lane three times (Arrow McLaren SP won the other). But this year is another example of the balance of power within the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
Of the 12 podium positions available so far this season, eight have been secured by different drivers and five different teams. The four top qualifying positions have been occupied by drivers from four different teams.
Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Snap-on Team Penske Chevrolet) scored his first series win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and he did so while starting on the pole for the first time.
Palou enters the GMR Grand Prix with the series lead for the first time this season, but his margin is just three points over McLaughlin, nine over Newgarden and 10 over Power.
And think of the shakeup the standings could take this month. Fifty-four points are available in the GMR Grand Prix followed by 12 in PPG Armed Forces Qualifying for the “500” and another 103 in the double-points-paying 200-lapper known as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” That total – 169 – is more than any driver has accumulated so far this season.
Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean (No. 28 Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana/DHL Honda) won the pole for last year’s GMR Grand Prix and finished second. He also finished second in the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix last August after qualifying in the third position.
Twelve of the 27 drivers in this field have led laps in the GMR Grand Prix, led by Power with 210. Dixon has led 69 laps, Pagenaud 68.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Trio Worth Watching
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing drivers Graham Rahal (No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda), Jack Harvey (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda) and Lundgaard have all had some of their best moments on the IMS road course.
Rahal, a six-time series race winner in his career, has twice finished second on this circuit, including a 2020 drive. He finished fifth and seventh in last year’s races.
“Every time we go to the GMR Grand Prix, as a team we expect to be up front,” Rahal said.
Harvey’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES success came as a member of Meyer Shank Racing. He has three top-three starts on this course, a personal best of any track on the series schedule, and he finished third in 2019 GMR Grand Prix. He started third in last year’s race. In Indy Lights, he competed in four races and won a pair of poles and two races, with three top-two finishes.
“Why does (the circuit) suit me? I don’t want to give that away,” he said.
Lundgaard made his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut last August in the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix. He qualified fourth and finished 12th, leading two laps. This will be the first circuit that he has raced at previously in the series.
“I think I was P7 in practice last year before heading into qualifying,” he said. “I’m hoping this year to make it to P1 in all sessions, make it a grand slam or something.”