A Number Swap Triggers A History Lesson

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Last week, it was announced that Andretti Autosport drivers Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi would be swapping numbers. Starting next season, Marco Andretti will drive a car carrying the No.98, while Rossi will drive the No.27 car. That got me to thinking about some IndyCar numerology in the past. It’s a dangerous thing when my mind wanders in the offseason. You never know what bit of minutia I might dig up.

Some say they don’t give a hoot what number a driver carries on his or her car. Well, I do. In this day and age, the number is a driver’s or team’s brand. Since 2011, we’ve been able to look up at the scoring pylon of a race and know that No.28 is Ryan Hunter-Reay. OK…he carried No.1 as the defending IndyCar champion in 2013. But other than that, we’ve associated RHR with No.28.

Teams will sometimes have an entire sequence or numerical pattern that they follow. Sometimes that pattern has simply evolved by accident, while other teams have historical reasons. For example, there is a reason that most of the Andretti cars follow a pattern around the No.27.

Formula One driver Gilles Villeneuve of Canada was fatally injured during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder in May of 1982, while driving for Ferrari. In 1981 and 1982, he carried the No.27 on his Ferrari; including the day he was killed.

A little more than a decade later, his son Jacques was driving in CART. After a stellar rookie season in 1994 when he carried No.12 for Forsythe/Green Racing, he changed to No.27. When Barry Green and Gerald Forsythe went separate ways in 1995, Villeneuve stayed with Team Green and carried the No.27 on his car to honor his father’s memory. While Villeneuve only drove that number one year in CART before heading to Formula One, the No.27 has stayed with every incarnation of that team since 1995. From the days of Team Green, Andretti-Green Racing and Andretti Autosport; there has always been a No.27 on that team.

Other teams are not near that complex in their selection of numbers. Dale Coyne has always run No.19 on one of his cars. When he was partnered with the late Walter Payton, the other car on the team carried No.34; symbolizing the running back’s number from his days with the Chicago Bears.

Roger Penske likes car numbers that end in “2”. Josef Newgarden’s normal number is No.2, Will Power is No.12 and Simon Pagenaud is No.22. This next season, Newgarden will carry the champion’s No.1, while No.2 will be dormant and I’m sure No.3 will be held for Helio Castroneves to carry his normal number in next year’s Indianapolis 500.

Chip Ganassi Racing started out with No.9 in IndyCar simply because that was what Jeff Ward ran by default when Ganassi was still running full-time in CART. It was probably still available from when Juan Montoya ran it and won with it at Indianapolis in 2000. He has since been able to grab No.8 and No.10 for a sequence of numbers.

AJ Foyt Enterprises runs No.14 because it is synonymous with Foyt himself. The four-time Indianapolis 500 winner first used the number in 1967. it was the lowest number available at a time when the first twelve numbers were given to drivers based on their final rankings from the previous year. He was also attracted to the number because Bill Vukovich had carried the number to Victory Lane twice in a row in the previous decade. It now symbolizes the leading driver on Foyt’s team.

In a way, I liked the practice of assigning a car number based off of the previous year’s performance. But it was sort of hard keeping up with who carried what number from years to year. Rick Mears finished third in the championship in 1990, so he drove car No.3 the following year. In 1991, he finished fourth, consequently assigning No.4 to him in his final year in 1992.

But if a driver retired, someone else got his or her number – either by driving for that team or by some other arrangement. Michael Andretti finished second in points in 1992 while driving for Newman/Haas, but went off to run Formula One in 1993. Scott Goodyear finished fifth in the 1992 standings driving for Derrick Walker. But with Michael gone in 1993, somehow Goodyear ran Michael’s earned No.2. I never really understood how that worked out.

Even more confusing was the 1991 season. Since the Indianapolis 500 was not a CART sanctioned race, they had their rules. Arie Luyendyk had won the 1990 Indianapolis 500, and was running car No.9 throughout the CART season while driving for Vince Granatelli. However, he was given the option to run the No.1 in the 1991 Indianapolis 500 since he was the defending race champion. He took it.

In doing so, he forced other drivers to change numbers. Defending CART champion Al Unser, Jr. had been carrying No.1 all season, but with Luyendyk taking his number – Little Al chose No.2, the number Michael Andretti had been running for the season. Michael opted to take the next available number, the No.10 for Indianapolis. The next weekend at Milwaukee, all drivers had their normal CART numbers back.

Ed Carpenter’s car at the team carrying his name is No.20, going back to his days at Vision Racing. I suppose that is to symbolize 20/20 vision, but that’s a guess. No one has actually told me that.

Sometimes, sponsors dictate the number. James Hinchcliffe’s Arrow car carries No.5, symbolizing something to do with five years, but I’m not real sure what that’s about. Tony Kanaan’s car always carried No.11 back to the days when he drove the 7-Eleven car. He even got to carry that number to KV Racing Technology while driving for other sponsors. I still think of Kanaan when I see No.11.

Getting back to Andretti Autosport, they build their numbering system around the No.27 legacy number of Gilles Villeneuve. Their cars usually carry Nos. 25, 26, 27, 28 and 29. It was only in 2016, when Bryan Herta Autosport merged with AA that the No.98 was in their fold. That is a number that has had an association with the Agajanian family going back to 1948. The number has won four times – twice with JC Agajanian in 1952 with Troy Ruttman and in 1963 with Parnelli Jones. Dan Wheldon drove the No.98 to an Indianapolis 500 victory in 2011 in a car owned by Bryan Herta, Mike Curb and Cary Agajanian. Alexander Rossi earned his win in an ownership group that included Herta, Curb and Agajanian along with Michael Andretti.

But now Rossi and Marco Andretti are switching numbers. This will be the fourth number that Marco Andretti has carried on a car owned by his father since he joined the team in 2006. He started out with No.26 and that was his number for years until 2013 when he thought the No.25 would bring him better luck. It didn’t. Two years later, he changed to No.27 for the 2015 season. For 2018, Marco will be changing to No.98. all that will leave for Andretti numbers is the No.28 of Hunter-Reay and the No.29 that Fernando Alonso drove in last year’s Indianapolis 500.

But from what I understand, this was actually initiated b Bryan Herta and not Marco. Last season, Bryan Herta was moved from Rossi’s pit stand to Marco’s. They apparently plan on the same arrangement for 2018. But with Herta being the one with ties to Cary Agajanian and the No.98 made famous by Cary’s father – it only made sense to put Herta and Marco with the No.98.

Still, it looks like Marco keeps blaming his bad luck on his number. While that may have been the case in earlier number changes, it doesn’t appear that’s the case this time. But it still seems like he should just pick one and stay with it.

By now, some readers have given up on this post. They couldn’t care less about the number a driver carries and never knew them in the first place. Others will find it interesting. I’ve been blessed (cursed) with the ability to remember dates and numbers very easily, so I find IndyCar numerology fascinating. It drives Susan crazy when I whip out a date or year at random to relate it to some event in our lives, when she can’t even remember what year we were married.

My weakness? Remembering names and faces of people I meet. If I meet you at a track and then can’t remember you two hours later when we bump into each other again – don’t take it personally.

But now we know that there will be new names at the top and bottom of next year’s entry list – Josef Newgarden at No.1 and Marco Andretti at No.98. That is unless someone tries to take No.99 – a number symbolic of Greg Moore and Sam Schmidt. That may require even more delving into numerical history.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “A Number Swap Triggers A History Lesson”

  1. Mirela Conway Says:

    I really hate this change. In this day and age I like consistency and brand recognition. When I think of rossi I associate right away to 98 napa. I have racing gear with his number.

    I understand why they did it but it still sucks for me as a fan.

    And Marco needs to stop with all these number changes in the future. It’s getting annoying.

  2. I used to look forward to seeing the drivers’ new numbers based on the previous year’s standings. I never had any trouble keeping up. I think Indycar should require the champion to use No. 1 the following year,

  3. Scott Goodyear ending up with #2 in 1993 was likely very related to ensuring Nigel got his traditional #5.

  4. Mike J "Mike from Vernon Hills" Says:

    From 1981 to 1995 USAC had the Gold Crown Championship which for most of it’s life consisted of the Indianapolis 500 since it was the only Indy car race they sanctioned. The winner of that championship was the Indianapolis 500 winner (except once) and had the option of having number 1 on their car for the “500” .

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I think this a poly to make all of Marco’s fans buy new #98 merchandise and all of Rossi’s fans buy new #27 merchandise…

    Marco’s move from 26 to 25 went well (16th to 5th), 25 to 27 did not (9th to 9th to 16th to 12th).

  6. BruceinNewburyport Says:

    I was hoping to vote for deranged and fascinating.

  7. I will always associate #98 with Troy Ruttman and the Agajanians and #99 with Tony Bettenhausen Sr. Tony’s beautiful black #99 Belanger Special with yellow wheels is in the IMS Museum.

  8. you and Michael Jordan are obsessed:
    (when he wore #12 for one game and lost)

    Jordan was “very superstitious” about his jersey. After the game, Jordan spoke about having to wear a different number. “That has never happened to me before,” Jordan said, according to the Sentinel. “It’s pretty irritating because you’re accustomed to certain things and you don’t like to have things misplaced.”

  9. I laughed loudly when I read about the change in Marco’s car number. Didn’t realize it was Bryan Herta’s doing. I am a pessimist that it will help Marco in any way. Just focus and drive the car, Marco!

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