Ganassi, Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson in contract stalemate

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Few drivers have experienced a bigger boost from winning the Indianapolis 500 than Marcus Ericsson, who has truly turned last year's victory into a life-changing event.

Not only did it resurrect the Swede's career, which had stalled after five seasons in Formula One, it also made Ericsson a bona fide superstar in both his native country and adopted hometown of Indianapolis.

But as Ericsson attempts to become the first back-to-back winner of the Indy 500 since Helio Castroneves 21 years ago, he does so without a contract in place for next year. It's a maddening situation for Ericsson, who has been clear he wants to remain with Chip Ganassi Racing but has a phone ringing with options from rival teams.

At issue is Ericsson's seat at Ganassi is funded by a sponsor he brought to the team along with support from Swedish billionaire Finn Rausing, who has long backed Ericsson's career. Essentially, Ericsson pays to drive the No. 8 car — a slight he made clear moments after winning the Indy 500 last season, when one of his first remarks was: “Not bad for a pay driver.”

Ganassi holds exclusive negotiating rights with Ericsson until August, when the driver can formally talk to other teams, so that has given him time to hear what others in the paddock have to say.

“I’ve noticed my phone being quite busy the last few months, and teams being pretty interested in my future. That’s definitely a new thing for me. It feels like people are taking notice and rating me as a driver, and that feels great," Ericsson said. "I have great support from Sweden and my backers and sponsors and everything, and I’ve had that all my career, and I’m very, very thankful of that.

"But I feel where I am now in my career, and what I’ve achieved, that shouldn’t be like, the reason why I’m hired. I think what’s important for me is I should be hired for the skills I have as a driver, and not for the potential sponsor I can bring or not bring to the team.”

His contract status is among the biggest talking points heading into this weekend's Indy 500 qualifying.

For the second year in a row, the Ganassi lineup has shown it is the strongest team through the opening practice rounds, with Ericsson the fastest on the overall speed chart Thursday and also logging the fastest lap without an aerodynamic tow from another car.

But when Ganassi showed up for his annual media briefing traditionally held on “Fast Friday,” the contract status of Ericsson was just about the last thing the team owner wanted to discuss.

“Yeah, I want him to stay. Yeah, I’m working hard to do it,” Ganassi said. “I’m not a big guy to be talking about our deals or our contracts or anything, but Marcus has a big future in the sport, and I want it to be on this team, sure.”

Pressing him yielded little more information, and Ganassi actually seemed to grow annoyed by the line of questioning, even as Ericsson sat stone-faced two seats over.

“We just need to finalize some sponsorship, and away we go,” Ganassi said.

Is that close to happening?

“I think we are, yeah,” Ganassi replied.

But is he prepared to lose Ericsson at the end of the season? Remember, 2021 champion Alex Palou is already set to leave Ganassi's No. 10 car for McLaren Racing.

“Here’s what we’re doing today: We’re focusing on today right now. OK? I’m not here to talk about my drivers and their contracts. I’m here to talk about Fast Friday and qualifying on Saturday and Sunday,” Ganassi said. “All the drivers are valued pieces of the team, and I want them all here today, I want them here tomorrow, I want them here next week, I want them here next year.”

And that was all Ganassi said on that subject.

That leaves a tricky situation for Ericsson, who used last year's Indy 500 win to challenge for the IndyCar title. Then he won this year's season opener, was IndyCar points leader after three of the first five races and has solid 16-1 odds at FanDuel to capture a second consecutive win in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Despite his IndyCar success and five seasons in F1, Ericsson has never been a highly compensated driver. He also turns 33 in September and figures this is his last opportunity to sign a lucrative contract.

So he rightfully wants to be paid in the seven-figure range, just like teammate Scott Dixon, or Josef Newgarden or Colton Herta on other teams. None of them bring sponsorship to their race team, and many believe that Herta, who finished 10th in the final IndyCar standings last year, became the highest paid driver on the grid when he signed an offseason extension at Andretti Autosport.

Not having a deal done for 2024 upon his return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway has frustrated Ericsson, but he insisted it won't detract from his goal of winning the Indy 500 again.

“It would have been nice to have them worked out before already now obviously, but that’s not been the case,” he said. “I just have to focus on delivering on track. I feel I’ve done a strong start to the year, and that should hopefully help my case. I’m not stressed about it. I feel there is a lot of teams interested if Chip is not."

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