COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season begins Sunday with the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at 3 p.m. on NBC4. One of the most anticipated seasons in recent memory is ahead, featuring a world-class crop of rookies and a defending champion chasing history.

Here in Ohio, Pataskala’s Meyer Shank Racing is charting new territory with a second car piloted by a big-name driver, despite coming off just its first full season. And Columbus area native Graham Rahal is hoping to break through to the series’ top tier.

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Excitingly unusual rookie class

Headlining this IndyCar season is a premier class of rookies whom fans of other racing circuits will be especially interested in. Despite dipping their toes into IndyCar for the first time, these drivers bring decades of experience.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will fulfill a childhood dream and drive the No. 48 for Chip Ganassi Racing in the 13 road course races on the schedule. Fans can even vote on the paint schemes he runs in five races.

  • Jimmie Johnson Sebring test 1
  • Jimmie Johnson Sebring test 2
  • Jimmie Johnson Sebring test 3
  • Jimmie Johnson Sebring test 4
  • Jimmie Johnson Sebring test 5

Johnson’s two-plus decades of professional racing experience mostly consists of NASCAR stock cars and IMSA sports cars. Indy cars, unlike vehicles in his previous series, have no power steering. They’re also lighter and faster.

“It’s a monster. That’s the best way I can put it,” he told reporters during IndyCar Content Days in March, “There’s so much power, so much downforce, so much grip. It’s wild to drive.”

IndyCar racing will also challenge Johnson with new strategy, rules and race flows. Johnson said he is progressing well but that he will still be learning the car throughout the season.

“I’m really going to have to use this year – if not the first half of this year – to acclimate myself to the car, understand where the limits are with the car,” he said.

2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan, returning for his 24th season, will drive Johnson’s car in the four oval races, including the Indianapolis 500.

Joining Johnson in the rookie class is three-time defending Australian Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, from New Zealand, in Team Penske’s No. 3 and former Formula One driver Romain Grosjean, from France. McLaughlin will run the full season, and Grosjean, who spent four seasons with American F1 team Haas, will drive road courses for Chicago’s Dale Coyne Racing.

Grosjean made headlines last year when he survived a fiery crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix with only burns on his hands and feet.

In theory, Grosjean’s transition to IndyCar should be easier than Johnson’s or McLaughlin’s because F1 is also an open-wheel series, but he is still adapting to the different driving style.

“Does it come from the tires, the car, from the aero, the mechanical grip? I don’t really know,” Grosjean told reporters, “I just found that it was different to drive and to go fast.”

Grosjean said he hopes to be at about a 5 or 6 on a 10-point scale of being good to go with IndyCar racing by the season opener. He also said people should not assume his 10 years of F1 experience will guarantee wins in IndyCar.

“I don’t think you should see it that way,” he said, “[IndyCar drivers] have a lot of experience, they are super, super quick, they are top drivers. They’ve been here for a long time.”

McLaughlin has entertained race fans on Twitter with the hashtag #ScottLearnsAmerica as he experiences American things for the first time, like NFL football.

“I love American football, watched it for a long time. Best thing now is I don’t have to watch it at 6 a.m., I can watch it at 1 p.m. with a beer in my hand. It’s awesome,” he said.

Australian Supercars, like F1, runs exclusively road and street courses, which helps McLaughlin the same way it helps Grosjean. But the cars he is used to driving are two-door sedans, which makes the transition to open-wheel difficult.

“I’m learning boost levels, aero maps, trusting aero, aerodynamics through corners and stuff,” he said.

Giving McLaughlin a slight advantage among fellow rookies may be his one IndyCar start last year, at the season finale in St. Petersburg. He crashed out on lap 47 and finished 22nd.

Dixon chasing all-time greats

Scott Dixon is back for his 21st IndyCar season after a dominating championship performance last year that included four victories. The 40-year-old New Zealander started the season with three consecutive wins and held off an October challenge from Josef Newgarden.

With six titles, Dixon is one championship away from tying AJ Foyt for most all-time, and with 50 career wins, he is just two away from tying Mario Andretti for second-most. Foyt holds the career wins record, with 67.

Scott Dixon 2020 IndyCar championship
Scott Dixon holds up six fingers while celebrating his sixth IndyCar drivers’ championship, in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Oct. 25, 2020. (Joe Skibinski/IndyCar)

“It’s easy to come in and say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to repeat, we want to repeat, we want to win a seventh championship,’” Dixon told reporters, “But trying to secure that is something totally different.”

He pointed to the experienced rookie class and the overall parity among teams that makes current IndyCar competition the strongest he has ever seen.

“I think for a driver it’s just being able to have pretty much the same equipment as everybody on the grid and having the possibility of winning the race that is pulling people in,” Dixon said.

If Dixon wins a race this year he will break one record, though. He and Foyt are tied for most seasons with a victory, at 18.

Elsewhere on the grid, Penske driver Will Power is chasing his 40th career win, which would break a tie with Al Unser, Sr. for fifth all-time. And Hélio Castroneves needs just one win to jump into the top 10.

Power, who earned a series-best five poles last year, is just five away from tying Andretti’s record 67.

Notable driver and team changes

Stockdale, Ohio, native Zach Veach is not returning to IndyCar this year after parting ways with Andretti Autosport last September. Replacing him in the No. 26 will be 21-year-old Colton Herta, who finished third in the standings last year and won the second race of the Mid-Ohio doubleheader.

Veach is running the full IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season co-driving Vasser Sullivan Racing’s No. 12 Lexus GTD.

Elsewhere at Andretti, James Hinchcliffe will drive the No. 29 full-time after a part-time 2020. And Marco Andretti will race only the Indianapolis 500.

Other 500-only entries include Juan Pablo Montoya for Arrow McLaren SP, Conor Daly for Ed Carpenter Racing and Simona de Silvestro for Paretta Autosport. Paretta is a new female-led team that is an extension of IndyCar’s diversity efforts.

Four-time champion Sébastien Bourdais will drive AJ Foyt Enterprises’ No. 14 full-time.

Álex Palou moves from Dale Coyne Racing to Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 10. Felix Rosenqvist, who held that seat last year and won at Road America, moves to Arrow McLaren SP’s No. 7, a seat from which McLaren pulled Oliver Askew after his rookie season.

Replacing Santino Ferrucci full-time in the Vasser Sullivan No. 18 is Ed Jones. Ferrucci this year is running a limited schedule in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Full schedule

No races have yet been nixed from the 17-round calendar, but there have been some changes. The traditional season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg moves again this year, but it will be second instead of the finale.

The finale this year will be the street course in Long Beach, Calif., which moved from its spring date to give the coronavirus pandemic more time to improve in California.

Most notable, however, are the tracks not on the schedule this year. Iowa Speedway, which hosted a doubleheader last year, is off the calendar, as are Circuit of the Americas and Richmond Raceway.

With Iowa and Richmond absent, IndyCar is down to just three oval tracks: Texas Motor Speedway, Indianapolis and World Wide Technology Raceway outside St. Louis. Texas, though, will host a doubleheader.

2021 NTT IndyCar Series schedule
Date Race Type TV
April 18 Barber Motorsports Park Road
April 25 Streets of St. Petersburg Street
May 1 Texas Motor Speedway Oval
May 2 Texas Motor Speedway Oval
May 15 Indianapolis road course Road
May 30 105th Indianapolis 500 Oval
June 12 Detroit Belle Isle Street
June 13 Detroit Belle Isle Street
June 20 Road America Road
July 4 Mid-Ohio Road
July 11 Streets of Toronto Street
Aug. 8 Streets of Nashville Street
Aug. 14 Indianapolis road course Road
Aug. 21 St. Louis Oval
Sept. 12 Portland Road
Sept. 19 Laguna Seca Road
Sept. 26 Streets of Long Beach Street

New to the IndyCar schedule is a music note-shaped street course in Nashville, Tenn., that races by the city’s NFL stadium and crosses the Cumberland River.

Nashville IndyCar map
(Graphic courtesy Music City Grand Prix)

IndyCar returns to central Ohio on July 4 with the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Tickets are discounted on the track’s website until April 27.

As for nearby races in the Midwest, Indianapolis Motor Speedway retains its two road course races, and the doubleheader on Detroit’s river island street circuit returns in June after being canceled last year because of the pandemic. 🏁 (Return to menu)