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IndyCar heads to Laguna Seca with new faces in new cars as drivers jockey for jobs

IndyCar is back in action this weekend on the Laguna Seca road course in California and spectators may need a spotter's guide to figure out who is even in the field following a wild sequence of driver movement that has upended the free agent market with more than half the season remaining.

Agustín Canapino is back in the Juncos Hollinger lineup after being pulled from the car two weeks ago at Road America over concerns about his mental preparation. The Argentine had been ensnared in a social media uproar over alleged death threats from fans leveled at 20-year-old Theo Pourchaire following contact between the two drivers at Detroit earlier this month.

JHR used 19-year-old Indy NXT driver Nolan Siegel to replace Canapino that weekend, and Siegel decided to withdraw from his own race to focus on the IndyCar substitute role. That took Siegel out of the Indy NXT championship hunt, then he went to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and won in the LMP2 class driving a car co-owned by McLaren CEO Zak Brown.

So impressed with Siegel and concerned other teams would snatch him up now that he's abandoned the Indy NXT program, Arrow McLaren signed him to a multi-year contract to take over the No. 6 starting this weekend in Laguna Seca.

One problem: Pourchaire had already been announced as the driver of the No. 6 for the remainder of the season. So after withstanding a social media hatefest, he was out of a job with no warning whatsoever.

Siegel becomes the fifth driver tied to the No. 6 season. The seat was supposed to go to two-time IndyCar champion Alex Palou, who backtracked and breached his contract in August when he decided not to leave Chip Ganassi Racing.

McLaren is now suing Palou for up to $30 million.

The team scrambled to hire David Malukas — and announced the hiring at Laguna Seca last September — but Malukas broke his wrist in a mountain biking crash a month before the season opener. Callum Ilott and Pourchaire filled in for Malukas, but once Malukas missed his fourth race, it triggered a clause in his contract that allowed McLaren to fire him.

“Look at the sequence of facts: It started last year with that driver (Palou) that decided not to come over and breach his contract. Then we decided on continuity,” Arrow McLaren sporting director Tony Kanaan said. “I did not sign up to have to choose four drivers and then every option we had because we had to make a decision quick, a lot of them had schedules already.

“I think eventually we look for continuity. There is never a good time. Everybody’s going to say, ‘Oh, this is bad timing,'” Kanaan continued. “What is a good time to do what we did? I don’t know when. I think today, some people agree, some people disagree. We have to just move on. We’re here trying to win races and it is a little bit of disruption, but racing is a disruption with everything else so it’s just one more day in racing and we’ll move forward. Once we’re in a race nobody’s going to remember.”

And as for Malukas? Well, he's finally going to make his season debut this weekend as the new hire at Meyer Shank Racing. Malukas got the job shortly after sports car star Tom Blomqvist crashed on the opening lap of the Indianapolis 500.

Blomqvist had been struggling in the move from sports cars to IndyCar, and the team benched him for the two races after the 500. Once Malukas' wrist was healed, MSR gave him the second chance he desperately needed.

Coincidentally, Malukas is now teammates with Felix Rosenqvist, who was the original driver in McLaren's No. 6 before the Palou hiring and ensuing fiasco.

“I’ve never been more careful in my life going upstairs or anything before I left. Left foot, right foot. Really just focused that I can make it in one piece into the car,” Malukas said. “Definitely been a roller coaster, that’s for sure. It started with obviously a big high, getting the whole Arrow McLaren signed. Then it went to a pretty big low after everything that’s happened with the injury.”

Malukas indicated McLaren firing him was a little bit of a relief because it allowed him to stop worrying about his job status.

“I would say the stress went away once the contract got terminated because there wasn’t such a heavy push on making a specific timeline,” Malukas said. “At the same time I was working on the hand, doing everything I could just in case something were to happen, the MSR deal came around. Fast forward to now, we’re here. Definitely an emotional roller coaster for me this 2024. It was a character-building year and now we’re back.”

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

Jenna Fryer, The Associated Press