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Author: Mark W. Theisen
March 5th 2014 -
    WEST BEND, WISCONSIN March 1, 2014:    Still in the midst of one of the ten all  time worst winters in the Midwest one sees light at the end of the tunnel in the form of the first race of the 2014 IndyCar season set for March 30th.  The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will commence an 18 race schedule for the IndyCar series in St. Petersburg, Florida with television coverage on ABC to begin at 3:30 P.M. Eastern Standard Time.  I, for one, can wait!

     The series still is in search for a title sponsor and many questions remain about individual teams and sponsors yet IndyCar has put out its 2014 Leader Circle Entrants indicating a good starting field is on the horizon to try and equal the highly competitive season they had in 2013.

     Here’s what we know of so far:

     Andretti Autosport switches from Chevrolet to Honda for 2014 in a move that surprised many in the off season but team principle, Michael Andretti, was looking for a leadership role with the manufacturer and he would not have had that with Chevrolet.  His team will lead the banner for Honda in 2014.  Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz will drive the four full-season efforts with a fifth car in the works for the Indianapolis 500.  Munoz replaces E.J. Viso on the team after his stellar performance in last Year’s Indy 500.  His second place finish boosted his appeal to sponsors and cemented his ride for the full 2014 campaign.  Despite the switch in engine suppliers, look for the Andretti group to be strong out of the box in 2014.  The Andretti group is diversifying into other forms of motorsports in 2014 as they strive to become a key player in global racing in the years to come.

     Chip Ganassi Racing switches from Honda to Chevrolet.  After a highly successful run of 9 years with Honda it was a surprise for the switch but Chevrolet is a key part of Ganassi’s NASCAR operation and the move allows him to keep his allegiances in tact.  Defending series champion Scott Dixon returns in the bright red Target sponsored car and he will be joined by defending Indianapolis 500 champion, Tony Kanaan.  Kanaan replaces Dario Franchitti in the second car after the later retired from racing after sustaining injuries in a late 2013 crash in Houston.  Doctors advised against Franchitti continuing his racing career and he agreed.  He will be with the team in an advisory capacity.  Charlie Kimball returns to the team with his Novo Nordisk sponsorship and the team will return to a four car operation with the addition of Ryan Briscoe for 2014.  Sponsorship is still being sought for Briscoe’s car but he is scheduled to compete the full season.

     Team Penske will continue with Chevrolet for 2014 but will have not two but three full time cars this season.  Joining Will Power and Helio Castroneves will be former series and Indianapolis 500 winner, Juan Pablo Montoya.  Out of an Indy Car for over 10 years Roger Penske did not hesitate to hire Montoya when his contract with Ganassi’s NASCAR operation ended at the end of 2013.  A winner in every form of motorsport that he has competed in Montoya will need time to get back in the IndyCar routine but he will be competitive.  Power’s sponsor, Verizon, will back Montoya as well.  Look for a breakout year for Power.  On the heels of his first oval track win in the 2013 season ending race at Fontana, California Power enters 2014 with the confidence to win the title.  Always strong on road and street courses he is now a threat anywhere and that should vault him to his first series title in 2014.  Castroneves goes into this year’s Indy 500 in quest of his fourth win which would tie him with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears as the only for time winners of the 500 in its 97 running’s.  Montoya’s car became eligible for the 21 car Leader Circle through a partnership with Dragon Racing, which is not running full time in 2014.  Dragon Racing is owned by Jay Penske, a son of Roger.

    Schmidt Peterson Motorsports stays with Honda and will have Simon Pagenaud returning to the team in which he won his first series race in 2013.  He will be joined by rookie Mikail Aleshin and the two will race the entire season while a third car has been already announced for the Indianapolis 500 and that announcement took everyone by surprise.  1995 Indianapolis 500 winner, Jacques Villeneuve was announced on Wednesday February 26 as the driver.  Villeneuve won the 1996 CART title before leaving the series to race in Formula One, where he was that series champion in 1997.  Since then Villeneuve has dabbled in various forms of motorsport but at age 42 still feels he has what it takes to race at Indianapolis.

     KV Racing Technology stays with Chevrolet in 2014 but has completely redone its driver roster.  Sebastien Bourdais replaces Kanaan in the Number 11 car that was driven to victory in the Indy 500 last year.  Sebastian Saavedra goes to the Number 17 that was driven last year by Simona de Silvestro.  Silvestro was unable to secure financial backing to extend her career in IndyCar.  Now after four years that included her becoming the first woman driver to finish on a podium on a road course in Indy Car race, the talented Swiss driver will take her talents to the Sauber Formula One team where she will become a test driver to start with aspirations of racing full time in the series in the future.  Silvestro was one of the bright stars of IndyCar and her smile and accommodating personality and drive to succeed will be missed.  Ironically both Bourdais and Saavedra come to KV Racing from the Dragon Racing Team, which will drop from a full time Indy Car series to that of a part-time effort perhaps only for the Indy 500 this year.

     Dale Coyne Racing stays with Honda for 2014 and has Justin Wilson confirmed in one of the teams two full time entries for 2014.  The second qualified for the Leader Circle program and Coyne is looking to firm up drive and sponsor before St. Petersburg, the end of this month.

     A.J. Foyt Racing returns with Honda in 2014 and driver Takuma Sato.  Sato gave the Foyt team its first win in over 10 years last season and sat atop the point standings heading into the Indianapolis 500.  Sato then was beset with problems and fell off as the season progressed but the team and sponsor ABC Supply Company and excited about 2014 after having one full year with Sato behind them.  The team will run two cars at Indianapolis in May for both the Inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course at the Speedway on May 10th and the 500 itself on May 25th with rookie Martin Plowman getting the opportunity.  Plowman was part of a LeMans winning sports car team last year and has raced twice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indy Lights.

    Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing remains with Honda this year and Graham Rahal the son of one of the team principles, Bobby, will continue as driver but the big change comes in the form of sponsorship from the National Guard.  "This (sponsorship) is a game changer,” said the senior Rahal.  "It will enable our team to hire additional engineers as well as field a second full time car in the series.  We will work side by side with the National Guard in all that the do so support themselves and our series.  I couldn’t be happier.”  The sponsorship came to the Rahal group from Panther Racing and was a sponsorship that was sought throughout the IndyCar paddock.

     Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing will continue with Honda for 2014 and Josef Newgarden remains the team’s driver.  Wink Hartman, a major player in the team built an impressive new headquarters and race shop in Speedway, Indiana last year, within walking distance of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and is committed to continue to grow this team.  Sponsorship searches continue but also under way are a grass roots effort to fund a second car for the team, at least for the Indy 500.  Travis Tetrault and Jason Godby have begun an effort to raise One Million Dollars for the effort in One Hundred Dollar increments.  It is their goal to put no sponsor decals on that car, only the names of those that contributed the $100.00 to the effort. 

"I don’t know if they can do it, but good luck to them, Fisher said.  "They have great entrepreneurial spirit.”  The group’s information is available on its Twitter account, @CuttersRT.

Immensely popular as an IndyCar driver, Fisher has support throughout the city of Indianapolis and her and her husband, Andy, have the drive and determination to make it all work.

     Ed Carpenter Racing returns with Chevrolet in 2014 but driving duties will be split in 2014.  Mike Conway, who skills on road and street courses have produced win and top finishes, joins the team in the capacity of road and street specialist.  Team owner, Carpenter, will drive the car on the oval course where he is a master and is also the defending pole winner of the Indianapolis 500.  Fuzzy’s Vodka returns as sponsor.

     Bryan Herta Autsport returns with Honda for 2014 and is on the Leader Circle program.  A driver has not been announced but the team expects to be on the grid at St. Petersburg.

     All of the results in 22 entries firm for St. Petersburg with Panther Racing and Barracuda Racing expected to compete bringing the number to 24 cars committed for the full season.  This was the number the series had last year and saw that number increase for special events throughout the campaign as sponsorship monies were found.

     The Leaders Circle program was established in 220 to provide incentives to teams that participate full time in the IndyCar series.  Each Leader Circle member is assured a minimum of One Million Dollars for the 18-race season if the entrant successfully qualifies for the Indianapolis 500 miles race and runs the full series.  Twenty entrants were selected based on their standing in the 2013 IndyCar entrant points, including Herta’s operation.  In addition, all entrants will continue to compete for bonuses that will now be paid to the top 10 finishers at each IndyCar race aside from the races as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway and auto Club Speedway.  Non-Leaders Circle entrants will compete for payouts award to the top-five finishers excluding the about mentioned three events.  Clearly there is a lot of money to be earned this year in the series.  A series sponsor will certainly enrich this program.

     What does the entry list look like for the Indianapolis 500?  By my count we sit at 24 confirmed, far from the 33 that is the "magic number” for the race.  We can add Panther and Barracuda for sure and perhaps even two cars from Panther.  That’s 26.  Buddy Lazier, a former 500 champion, will return in 2014 with his family run team, 27.  NASCAR’s Kurt Busch is 70% sure of his double duty effort, meaning racing at Indy and then Charlotte Motor Speedway later in the day.  He began preparation for this effort with a test with Andretti Autosport last year and he is eager to do this in 2014 despite running full time on the NASCAR with Stewart-Haas Racing, 28.  Townsend Bell is expected to have a program, 29.  Dragon Racing, one perhaps two cars, we’ll count one, 30.  That leaves three to go.  Drivers abound and cars are available but engine deals and sponsorship money continue to be the major hurdle.  I fully expect to see 33 cars coming for the green at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway May 25th but it will be an interesting two months in between.  The official entry list is usually announced around April 15th.

Stay tuned!