IndyCar Heads South – Way South – For Opener

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 11 2010
Panther Racing packaged it cars and sent them to Brazil this week for the season-opening race in Sao Paolo. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

Panther Racing packaged it cars and sent them to Brazil this week for the season-opening race in Sao Paulo. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

A year ago, Helio Castroneves was in a hellish limbo that included the possibility he could be heading to federal prison instead of starting a new IndyCar season for longtime employer Team Penske.

What a difference a year makes.

Now, with those much-publicized tax evasion charges safely behind him, the bouncy Brazilian is a new father and among a small group of drivers expected to contend for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship in 2010.

There isn’t much the three-time and defending Indianapolis 500 winner hasn’t done in IndyCar, but one big void on his resume is no championship.

“I’m very fortunate what I’ve accomplished already,’’ he said in a telephone interview from Brazil, where the season will be with Sunday’s Sao Paulo Indy 300. “Sure I’m going to continue working four times harder to achieve that. Hopefully, this year will be the year.

“But I won’t get frustrated. I won’t get disappointed. I won’t be upset because I didn’t win the championship. I enjoy what I love to do. As long as I’m competitive, I’m going to pursuing my goals.’’

To clear that big hurdle in this year’s 17-race season, Castroneves will have to finally beat Target Chip Ganassi teammates Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, winners of the last two serie titles, and his own Penske teammates, Ryan Briscoe, who finished third last season, and Will Power, the man who filled in for Castroneves when he missed the first two races of 2009 while standing trial.

“The Ganassi team is still so strong,’’ Castroneves said. “But the Penske team is going to be good also. Will coming to the team is going to make us push each other. … We are very limited in testing this year, so having a third car is going to certainly help develop and improve the car.’’

It’s the first time Roger Penske’s traditional powerhouse will run three drivers for the full season since he fielded cars for the all-star trio of Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr. and Paul Tracy in 1994.

Franchitti, who won a title for Andretti Green Racing in 2007, had an abortive season in NASCAR in 2008 and came back to win the championship for Ganassi last year, is prepared for a tough season-long competition.

“It just gets tougher every year, with more teams getting more and more competitive,’’ the Scot said. “We just have to work even harder than we have in the past.’’

Ganassi and Penske appear to be the class of the field again, with Power, coming back from a broken back sustained last August in a crash at Infiniti Raceway, likely to add to the fun that has brought the championship battle to the last lap of the last race each of the past three seasons.

Last year, the points lead changed hands 15 times in the 17 races, with Franchitti, Dixon and Briscoe battling to the finish.

But several other teams could become a factor as the season rolls on.

KV Racing Technology, with Formula One veteran Takuma Sato joining aggressive E.J. Viso, is one of the teams that made the difficult transition from the defunct Champ Car World Series to IndyCar at the start of the 2008 season.

The cars were different, the tracks were different and the incumbent IndyCar teams had a big edge in technology and experience. But two seasons of competition has cut down the gap to the top teams for the team owned by former Champ Car star Jimmy Vasser and former Champ Car boss Kevin Kalkhoven.

Perhaps the biggest question mark heading into this weekend’s two-day inaugural IndyCar event in Brazil is the Andretti team. Michael Andretti bought out his partners in AGR and renamed the team Andretti Autosports. He also hired longtime open-wheel executive Tom Anderson, a proven winner, as senior vice president racing operations.

The Andretti team underachieved last year, failing to win a race despite a lineup that included former series champion Tony Kanaan and heralded American drivers Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti.

“We know we can win,’’ Kanaan said. “This team is used to winning eight, 10 races a year and, last year, none. Everyone is determined to turn it around and get back to the top. Michael will do what it takes to get us there.’’

It’s a huge season for Patrick, the most famous woman in racing. She got her only IndyCar victory in Japan in 2008 and is back from a much-ballyhooed stint this season in NASCAR –the place where her future may lie.

But, right now, all she is thinking about is improving from her fifth-place finish of a year ago, winning more races, including the Indy 500, and contending for a title.

“I guess some people don’t believe I can be a contender, but I do,’’ said Patrick, who signed a three-year extension with Andretti over the offseason “And my team believes, too. I’m committed to this team and this series.’’

The Andretti team has added another American driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, also considered a potential star.

Besides being teammates, another thing Patrick, Marco Andretti and Hunter-Reay have in common is that all of them have won in IndyCar. Now they have to prove they can do it again.

Justin Wilson proved just how good a driver he is last year by putting Dale Coyne Racing in the Winner’s Circle for the first time in its 25 years of open-wheel competition. Now he has moved to Dreyer & Reinbold, where he will join fellow Englishman Mike Conway for 2010.

The rest of the IndyCar field may not be racing at the top of the grid each week, but there is some talent.

Dan Wheldon, another former series champion, will start his second season for Panther Racing and remains a threat to the leaders at every race.

Raphael Matos, driving for Luczo Dragon Racing/de Ferran Motorsports, is another of the six Brazilian drivers entered in Sunday’s race, along with Castroneves, Kanaan, A.J.Foyt Racing’s Vitor Meira – also returning from a broken back – Conquest Racing rookie Marco Romancini and another Dreyer & Reinbold driver, female rookie Ana Beatriz.

Patrick and Beatriz will be joined in the lineup by two other women, HVM Racing rookie Simon de Silvestro from Switzerland and Milka Duno, who has replaced Wilson at Dale Coyne Racing.

Newman/Haas/Lanigan seems to have slid down from the top shelf of teams as it will start the season as a single-car operation. Gone from team is American driver Graham Rahal. Arrived is Hideki Mutoh.

Rahal, it was announced Thursday, will drive for Sarah Fisher Racing at St. Petersburg and Alabama.

Longtime open-wheel driver Alex Tagliani, driving for his own startup team, FAZZI Race Team, will also be on track in Sao Paulo.

Brazil will be the first race for series sponsor IZOD, the first series entitlement for IndyCar in nearly a decade.

Sunday’s race, which will be televised live to the U.S. by VERSUS, beginning at 11:30 a.m. EDT, will be contested on a temporary 2.6-mile, 11-turn circuit that won’t see its first action until practice begins Saturday morning.

“A first event, always has some bumpy spots or little bit here, little bit there,’’ Castroneves said. “But that’s why the IndyCar Series is so great. We go anyway. We race anyway. … So far, everything is going smooth. I don’t doubt it’s going to be a great show.’’

He could say the same about the whole 2010 season.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 11 2010
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