By Dillon O’Toole
After reading the title of this article, you may find yourself contemplating what exactly is the silliest season of the year. You most likely aren’t thinking winter, as winter is too bleak of a season to contain any sort of humor. Maybe your brain thought of summer, as it’s typically seen by many as the season of joy and fun activities due to its associated sunny weather. Or, perhaps, you thought of fall, because if America’s Funniest Home Videos taught me anything, people falling down and getting injured is the peak of comedy. Well, if you thought of any of these previously mentioned seasons (or spring) you are in the completely wrong ballpark (I mean, why would you even go to a ballpark, baseball has nothing to do with what I’m talking about). What I’m actually talking about, the silliest season of all, is the period of time within motorsports in which drivers change teams, retire, or get fired (they could also be boring and just stay on the same race team but that’s not very interesting now is it).
If said athlete is a massive sports star, changing teams or contemplating retirement can draw massive media and fan interest. Need proof? Take a look at the massive attention Tom Brady got when he changed from the Patriots to the Buccaneers, retired from the Buccaneers, and then unretired from the Buccaneers. While the massive sports stars will always draw attention to where they will be competing, in motorsports, all driver moves can and will draw attention due to the limited number of seats in any given series. While the actual number of full-time seats in any particular motorsport may vary over time, the total number of seats will always be less than the number of players in baseball, football, and soccer. Currently, baseball has a 26-man roster (although that goes up to 28 on September 1), football has a 53-man roster, and soccer (specifically the MLS) has a 30-man roster. On top of the roster size, each series has 30, 32, and 28 teams respectively which allows a massive number of players to be active at the top level of each sport. Alternatively, in the world of motorsports, Formula 1 has 20 cars, Indycar has 25 full-time cars, and NASCAR has 36 full-time cars (note that Indycar and NASCAR both feature cars that don’t race every week and full-time cars that don’t use one driver for every race).
Because of motorsports’ limited amount of space for top-level competitors, every single move by a driver can have a massive impact on available options for other drivers. This dynamic led to the movement of drivers being dubbed ‘Silly Season,’ as there is often a shock movement of one or more drivers. Most of my experience with Silly Season involves examples from NASCAR as I only recently started to closely follow Indycar and Formula 1 (don’t worry, I’ll be covering both of those later). Arguably, one of the most famous moves in NASCAR in the last 15 years was Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaving the team founded by his late father, Dale Earnhardt Inc., to go to Hendrick Motorsports. This culminated after a period of tension between Jr. and his stepmother over ownership and performance of the team. The move by Jr. forced the driver who he replaced, Kyle Busch, to move to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he would go on to win 2 championships and over 50 races.
Sometimes, a surprise retirement suddenly opens up a seat well after the time most drivers have been signed. When this happens, an unexpected driver may be the one who ends up getting a ride. This occurred between the 2016 and 2017 seasons of the NASCAR Cup series. After missing out on yet another championship, driver Carl Edwards announced his retirement on January 11th, roughly a month before the 2017 season began. He was replaced by Daniel Suárez, a rookie driver, rather suddenly. Suárez would later be replaced after two seasons due to subpar performance although many people (including myself) believe that he was rushed into the top series too quickly and was not given enough time to develop his skills (luckily, after bouncing between multiple teams he has since won his first race).
Before I start talking about this year’s silly season (the inspiration and main topic of this article), I want to talk about one more recent Silly Season rumor. Over the course of the 2020 NASCAR Cup series, it was speculated that driver Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan would start a NASCAR team together. These rumors spread like crazy—they named Bubba Wallace as the driver and they even claimed the car would be number 23. Sure enough, it was eventually announced that all of this was true. Bubba Wallace would drive the number 23 Toyota for 23XI racing, a team owned by Hamlin and Jordan. This may seem rather mundane, except for the fact that when the rumors began they were continuously labeled as non-credible and false. In fact, few people believed it would actually happen and instead thought the rumors were some people’s fantasy scenarios. This may seem like peak craziness, but 2022 has proven that to be very false.
In the world of NASCAR, the 2022 Silly Season started out looking rather tame. The biggest news story for much of the year was the upcoming retirement of veteran driver Aric Almirola, and most speculation was about who would replace him. That was, until July 12th rolled around (get it?). On that fateful day, Denny Hamlin was on a video call with Toyota Racing Development, when suddenly Reddick appeared on the call. This is an unusual circumstance given that Reddick drives for a Chevy team. It was then announced that Reddick would be joining 23XI Racing… except there was a catch. You see, just days prior, Reddick’s current team, Richard Childress Racing (the same team the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. drove for), had confirmed that Reddick would be returning for the 2023 season. The announcement made by Hamlin and Reddick was that he was joining 23XI in 2024. It’s not unheard of to make an announcement for two seasons down the line (Clint Bowyer was announced to be going to Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2017 season in 2015), but it is most definitely not a common occurrence. This announcement seemed to be the catalyst needed for Silly Season to really kick off.
Some other notable developments since then have been speculation over driver Martin Truex Jr. retiring (he confirmed he isn’t), Kevin Harvick potentially retiring after a disappointing couple of seasons (he has since won two races and quieted all discussion about him retiring), and, most shockingly, Kyle Busch potentially joining a new team and leaving Toyota. This last development is still currently unresolved at the time of writing, and it is the most shocking due to the fact that Busch is the face of Toyota in NASCAR and has been for more than a decade. The fact that there is even a possibility of him potentially leaving them drives home how dire his contract negotiations must be, because no one would have predicted him ever considering leaving Toyota at the start of the year. Oh yeah, one last development. You know how I said the biggest story earlier this year was Almirola retiring? He just changed his mind and is returning on a multi-year contract.
Alright, enough about NASCAR (I bet those of you who know me well are surprised by that sentence); let’s talk about some open-wheel racing. To begin, we have to talk about Indycar. In an article last November, I commented on how Alex Palou was “quite impressive” since he won the Indycar title in his second year in the series, and first year at his team Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR). I didn’t go on to say this in the article, but I believed that at the time Palou was going to be the long-term future plan for CGR since the team’s star driver, Scott Dixon, was getting a little… old. This was seemingly confirmed to me, as on July 12 (yes, the same day the Tyler Reddick news broke), CGR confirmed that Alex Palou would return to the team in 2023. Shortly after this, Alex Palou himself denied these rumors stating as part of a tweet, “I have recently informed CGR, for personal reasons, I do not intend to continue with the team after 2022”. Later that same day, McLaren Racing confirmed they had signed Alex Palou for 2023.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I certainly can’t drive two cars at once. Both teams have continued to insist that they have signed Alex Palou for the 2023 season. It got to the point where Chip Ganassi filed a lawsuit against Alex Palou for breach of contract. As far as I can tell, this lawsuit has not been resolved at the time of writing. While all of this is happening off the track, Palou is still in contention for a second Indycar title in a row. Additionally, Chip Ganassi has publicly said he wants Palou in his car for next year, but it’s just as likely this is just talk and he intends to replace Palou for next season regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome. I for one am intrigued to see how this resolves itself.
Before July 12th, I had never seen nor heard of a contract dispute as weird as the one involving Alex Palou. Notice how I started that sentence by saying “before July 12th.” So let’s talk a little bit about Formula 1. On August 1st, Fernando Alonso announced he was leaving Alpine to replace the retiring Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin. This came as a shock to Alpine who only learned of this move when the press release was made. Alpine was lucky though, since they had an up-and-coming star waiting to be brought up to the top ranks of Formula 1 in Oscar Piastri. The loss of Alonso definitely hurt, but at least they had a replacement ready. In fact, Alpine announced Piastri would join the team the very next day. All seemed well, that is until Piastri tweeted that he would not be racing at Alpine next year. This seems familiar, don’t you agree? But wait, there’s more! Do you want to guess what team signed Piastri? That’s right, it’s McLaren Racing coming to steal your girl—I mean driver. You would think that race teams would have learned from the whole Alex Palou mess and make sure their contracts are ironclad, but no, the same exact problem happened less than a month later. Even involving one of the same teams, to boot.
Well, I should probably start wrapping this up. While I’ll always enjoy the product motorsports produces on track, the drama surrounding Silly Season is always an entertaining time. Strange, coming from someone who used to say I hated reality TV because I wasn’t a fan of the drama. I guess I just hate reality TV because it’s a soulless medium that is mostly faked and is in no way natural. Unlike Youtube, which in no way has people trying to lie and fake their way to success.