Note: Today’s guest panelist on the INDYCAR Writers’ Roundtable is Associated Press National Writer Jenna Fryer. Jenna started with the AP as a stringer while still in college. She went to work for the AP upon graduation and this year is celebrating her 25th year with the company, including 20 years covering motorsports.
Today’s question: All of the drivers gathered in Indianapolis last week for INDYCAR’s preseason Content Day. What was the most interesting nugget you came away with from two days of interviews, conversations?
Jenna Fryer: Several things stood out to me, in no particular order:
-- Conor Daly continues to find ways onto the radar. His prank on Alexander Rossi at Indianapolis last year dominated “500” media day. For Content Day, he came with a unique hairstyle that had everyone talking. I appreciate the effort drivers make to be relevant away from the track.
-- Alexander Rossi, who said the 2020 program “sucked globally,” is likely going to be on a mission this season for a turnaround.
-- Scott McLaughlin is going to be very fun to cover and I suspect very exciting on the track.
-- It seems at least three veterans are in contract years. Will Power admitted he was with Team Penske, while Simon Pagenaud declined to answer. Ryan Hunter-Reay seems to operate on year-to-year deals, and his 2021 program was announced fairly late. He said it wasn’t because the deal took long to put together but noted his entire career has been a rollercoaster of negotiating contracts and securing sponsorship. All three appear determined not to worry about contracts and win races.
Curt Cavin: Will Power surprised me by confirming he is in the final year of his Team Penske contract. That public admission is something Roger Penske’s drivers seldom, if ever, reveal and Simon Pagenaud deftly dodged the question when asked last week. What this suggests is that Power, who has finished in the top four of the INDYCAR standings only once since 2016 – he was third in 2018 and fifth the other three years – will be on a mission when the season begins April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park. Clearly, he will have something to prove.
Zach Horrall: While his bluntness certainly isn’t shocking, the most interesting thing I found was the discussion Alexander Rossi had about Andretti Autosport’s 2020 struggles. It’s no secret it was a tough year, or as Rossi put it, “I just think we sucked globally.” The key here isn’t how much he focused on how bad last season was, but instead the emphasis he put on the positives they took away and the things they learned about their teams and cars over the offseason. To Rossi’s point, the last few races of 2020 were good performance-wise to him and his teammates, and they’ve appeared to have speed in preseason testing. That kind of honesty is important, and I think Rossi was giving us a warning we’re going to hear a lot from him in 2021.
Paul Kelly: How could the answer be anything but Conor Daly’s glorious Turbo Mullet? Seriously, this is a pretty easy answer for me. Everyone believes they’re a potential race winner, title contender or podium finisher during preseason Content Day. That’s natural, before the reality of the unfolding season bites. But what struck me was the intensity with which Pato O’Ward believes he is all these things. Pato is a fun guy with charisma to spare. But a crucible of intensity flows with molten steel under that fun exterior. Take this excerpt from his answer to a question about his and the team’s expectations for 2021: “We want to win races. We want to win races. We want to be consistently fighting for podiums, and we want to be there. We want to be contenders every single race weekend. I think in doing so, that'll put us in a position at the end of the year to fight for the championship. That is the goal. I want to get to Long Beach having a possibility to win the championship. That's why we do this, man. We do this to win races, win championships.” This is a 21-year-old dude entering just his second full season in the series. The belief and focus are impressive, and I think Pato will translate that into his first career NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory this season with Arrow McLaren SP, and possibly much more.