Ganassi exodus embodies IndyCar's silliest of silly seasons

IndyCar is readying a "hold my beer" moment of epic proportions.

The average Formula One or NASCAR silly season will see one or two marquee drivers change teams or be replaced by up-and-coming talent. Last year, Fernando Alonso was F1's big mover, trading Alpine for Aston Martin, and in the Cup Series, it was Kyle Busch exiting Joe Gibbs Racing for a new adventure at Richard Childress Racing. After "Fred" and "Rowdy" handled their business, the major fun and speculation party was over.

What IndyCar has brewing in its upcoming silly season is unlike anything we've seen in motor racing: 90% of its teams are either considering or committed to making changes to their driver rosters. Of IndyCar's 10 teams, only one, the defending series champions at Team Penske, can claim to have its three-car lineup signed, safe and locked in for 2024.

Everyone else? Not so much.

The other nine teams, from A.J. Foyt Racing to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, have at least one driver -- if not more -- who are out of contract once the season ends Sept. 10. In some cases, like Dale Coyne Racing and Meyer Shank Racing, we could see 100% changeovers. We also have a few teams that are simply counting down the days until the season is finished so they can peel the name of a problematic or underperforming driver off the cockpit and give someone else a try.

Altogether, just 12 of IndyCar's 27 existing entries have drivers under multiyear contracts, leaving the other 15 -- a stunning 56% of the available seats -- in need of solutions. Some of those 15 will be resolved with ease; inking an extension with his family-owned team is a formality for Graham Rahal.

The real intrigue is reserved for the top of the championship, though, where three of the series' biggest programs are on the clock for headline-making driver alterations. It's big name after big name preparing to hold news conferences and announce they are taking their talents to sunny new destinations.

Chip Ganassi Racing is IndyCar's undisputed leader in this category. Led by Alex Palou, the team has a vice-like grip on the championship as its drivers own first, second and fourth in the standings after 10 of 17 races. Palou, the 2021 IndyCar champion for Ganassi, has four wins this season and is so far ahead in the points that he could go on vacation for the next two races and return without surrendering the lead.

The racing world has taken notice.

"I've never been on this form before, and I've never had interest like this from that many people or from so many different series," Palou told ESPN. "So it's been great. I've been enjoying what I like most, which is winning."

Riding that wave of interest, Palou's been chasing a seat in F1, and while the odds of that door opening next year are increasingly slim, the Spaniard is primed to say farewell to Ganassi -- possibly with a fresh IndyCar championship in hand -- and drive for bitter rival Arrow McLaren, the team led by McLaren Racing CEO and chief poker of bears Zak Brown. Brown tried to sign Palou in 2022, cackles with delight whenever he causes grief for Ganassi, and has an Indy car -- along with ongoing McLaren F1 testing opportunities -- and seven-figure deposits awaiting the young star once we reach the offseason.

Next, it's Ganassi's 2022 Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson, who, like Palou, isn't expected to return. The former F1 driver, who's thrived since joining Ganassi, has been resolute in saying his sponsor Finn Rausing, owner of the Alfa Romeo F1 team, no longer wants to pay for the seat he's occupied since 2020.

We've heard nothing out of Ganassi to suggest the team will cover the costs to run the car and pay the Swede to stay, but with that Indy 500 win and his status as a title contender, Ericsson's being pursued by at least four teams, including Andretti Autosport. If betting apps offered wagering on IndyCar's silly season, most of the money would be placed on Ericsson to Andretti.

With the situations of Palou and Ericsson at Ganassi, it's like the best team in the NFL being on pace to win the Super Bowl and knowing that even if they hoist the Lombardi Trophy, two of its three key players remain determined to leave for teams they are currently dominating. This is uncharted territory.

Ganassi's fourth car, shared by two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato and rookie Formula 2 race winner Marcus Armstrong, has been a solid performer as well. Those two could also be gone by mid-September.

Put it all together, and McLaren is preparing its new-employee handbook for Palou, Ericsson's fanning himself with numerous contract offers and trying to decide where he wants to drive for the next three to five years, Sato's contemplating retirement, and Armstrong's pining for an invitation to keep paying for the seat he's in.

Scott Dixon, Ganassi's six-time champion and bedrock, sits second in the standings to Palou and is the lone guaranteed driver on the payroll. The New Zealander is a threat to win his seventh title and ranks as the driver everyone wants to learn from, so in that regard, Ganassi should have no problems finding high-caliber replacements for however many vacancies it needs to fill.

Ganassi's history of uncovering gems like Palou goes back to 1995 when the unproven Jimmy Vasser was signed; by 1996, he and Ganassi were celebrating the team's first IndyCar title. It happened again when the unheralded Alessandro Zanardi came searching for something better. After falling out of F1 and landing in an obscure European sports car championship, he was given a shot by Ganassi to relaunch his career in America, and Zanardi would go on to win two consecutive IndyCar titles for the team starting in 1997 and continue its elevation to the heights it maintains today.

Dixon followed, joining Ganassi in 2002, where he's become the greatest IndyCar driver of his generation. Few doubt Ganassi's ability to identify and introduce new hellraisers to the series, but most of their predecessors needed at least a year to reach their full competitive stride.

What can't be ignored in the short term is how Team Penske, Arrow McLaren and Andretti Autosport would view a massive year-to-year shakeup at Ganassi as an extraordinary gift. The trio of Palou, Dixon and Ericsson is presently steamrolling its opposition, but subtract Palou and Ericsson from the equation, and the fight resumes in 2024 with Dixon surrounded by a bunch of unknowns in the other cars.

With race winners Colton Herta and Kyle Kirkwood under contract, Andretti's dealing with a comparatively easy silly season as it's only shopping for two drivers to solidify its future. The tenure of IndyCar sophomore Devlin DeFrancesco is reaching its end at the team owned by Michael Andretti, and most assume his successor will be Ericsson.

DeFrancesco's teammate Romain Grosjean, the beloved F1 veteran whose story of survival from the fiery Bahrain crash in late 2020 earned him legions of followers, is another heavyweight caught up in the silly season. At an increasing frequency in recent weeks, Ericsson's been mentioned as a candidate to replace his former grand prix rival. Stuck in a dispiriting string of poor results for Andretti, the Swiss-born Frenchman's ability to fend off Ericsson -- or others the team might covet -- and earn a contract extension could hinge upon a swift return to form.

If Ganassi can stockpile some ready-for-F1 talent and develop them into oval-loving all-rounders, its rivals might not have as much to celebrate in the coming years. If Andretti can level up and find the right drivers to transform all four of its cars into routine winners, it will have a legitimate chance to contend for titles. And if Arrow McLaren slots Palou into its team, no excuses will be accepted if it doesn't earn next year's championship.

Racing's silly season is here and who knows where it will take us before it's done.