The NTT IndyCar series has been on an upward trend the past few years, gaining popularity both among fans and participants all while navigating the unknown of a worldwide pandemic. It is now becoming clear that the added attention is most certainly going to lead to larger grid sizes in the near future. But just how many new cars are we going to see in 2022?
This season has already seen some of the largest fields in the sport in a decade, with 24 full time entries being augmented by more and more single race agreements. Last month, when the series was visiting the Indianapolis road course for a second time, there were an incredible 28 cars on the grid. That number could be the norm in 2022, however, rather than the outlier.
There has already been confirmation of one team expansion for next season, with Meyer Shank Racing set to run a second car for the full 2022 schedule. The team was already on the cusp of a breakout result in recent years, but an Indianapolis 500 win with Helio Castroneves in May propelled the team’s already popular profile even higher.
Team owner Mike Shank has said that he doesn’t want to field a multitude of cars in the way Team Penske does, and will be completely satisfied to run two cars and fight for the win every weekend. At least part of that dream will be realized next season when he has two consistent entries present on the grid for the entire schedule.
Also confirmed is the return of Juncos Hollinger Racing, which will take a second stab at making the jump to IndyCar after its plans were derailed by the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020. To ensure they hit the grid running next year, the team is running the final three races this year in order to prepare itself for the busy season ahead.
It is also very likely that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing will be running three full time entries in 2022, with HyVee stepping up as a major sponsor. The team has been running three cars at many of this year’s races, evaluating multiple drivers through single race deals in the #45 entry.
RLL has not explicitly confirmed that the HyVee car will be run in addition to the two that the team currently fields, but it is widely expected to be so. After all, the team is in the process of building a new 100,000 square foot race shop, and has already shown it has the manpower to efficiently operate three cars per weekend.
These three additional entries alone will push the regular grid to 27 cars, and that does not include the usual spate of one-off entries that dot the track nearly every weekend.
So who will fill the seats?
Finding enough drivers to fill these larger grids will likely not be an issue, as driver interest in the sport is climbing ever higher. This season has shown without a doubt that top drivers think very highly of the formula that IndyCar has at the moment. Multiple IndyCar veterans have expressed their view that the current set of drivers make for the most talented field the sport has seen in decades.
Just look at the list of this year’s rookies as an example. There’s the three-time Australian Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, and the ten-year Formula 1 veteran Romain Grosjean all racing alongside one another. Combine those names with the talented veterans that have made their names within IndyCar, and it’s almost as if a Race of Champions event is being held every week.
A few drivers with past IndyCar experience have been happy to accept single race deals this year in the hopes that they can convince the team bosses that they deserve a full time ride next year.
Santino Ferrucci has been one of the more familiar faces in the paddock, running five races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and finishing in the top 10 for all but one. Oliver Askew has stepped in for injured drivers a couple times on short notice, and has also made a good case for his proper return.
The interest from other drivers who either cannot find a way into Formula 1, or simply dream of racing in a sport where driver skill is the biggest factor in the finishing order, has been at an all-time high. Current Formula 2 driver Christian Lundgaard stunned the field with a knock-out performance in his IndyCar debut, qualifying on the second row on a track he had never seen outside of iRacing.
Recently we learned that Ferrari Academy Driver and Alfa Romeo reserve driver Callum Ilott will also be making his stateside debut in Portland this weekend, adding another star talent into the already heady mix. Most have pointed to a real long term interest in the sport and have expressed interest in using their time at the track to evaluate a future career path.
Ricardo Juncos recently said that he is currently considering 20 different drivers for his program next year. Just one example of how teams are spoiled for choice when it comes to interested talent.
Even more entries coming in the future?
The additional entries that have already been announced and confirmed for 2022 do not seem to be the end of the growth, either. Near unanimous approval of Roger Penske’s direction since taking over the series last year has brought ever more confidence in the sport’s future, and even more interest.
Already Arrow McLaren SP CEO Zak Brown has made it known that he intends to grow his team to three cars by 2023, and could even push that date forward if he can find a suitable driver and sponsor. A significant investment and majority stake in the team by McLaren has pushed the team firmly into factory territory, not that it has suffered for resources the past two seasons.
Other new teams that are currently only slated to run the Indianapolis 500, such as Paretta Autosport and Top Gun Racing, have also shown interest in expanding if the opportunity comes around as well. In short, the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series currently has the ingredients that race teams want.
It’s very likely we will see this year’s high mark of 28 cars easily eclipsed next season, and that could even push out past 30 at some events. There is no current provision in the rulebook to limit the grid size, except for the traditional 33-car grid for the Indy 500, but the ability of each track to accommodate the growing grid may yet become an issue.
IndyCar races on a few natural terrain road courses that sit well outside of any big city (such as Road America and Mid-Ohio), and they do not all have the biggest or the newest of facilities. The availability of sufficient pit stalls may soon come into play at some tracks where there is already a lack of free space.
But these are good problems to have, and Roger Penske and the other series leaders will be more than happy to come up with solutions if it means sustaining the recent growth.