Pedley: Championship Party Has Been Subdued

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 21 2011

Dario Franchitti won his fourth – and third straight – IndyCar Series championship earlier this year. The celebration has been tempered by circumstances. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series).

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

The timing of Tuesday’ media teleconference with Dario Franchitti and Chip Ganassi offered the first reminder that 2011 was anything but a business-as-usual racing season for the IndyCar Series: It was a presser with the championship winners and was held two months after the season ended.

Then there was the tone of the hour-long question-and-answer session with driving champion Franchitti and Ganassi, his team owner. The event was free of even mild celebration, the volume was low and the jokes and wisecracks forced.

Franchitti and Ganassi had won their third straight IndyCar championship and mood was flat-line.

The major reason was obvious, but it was finally voiced well into the session when Franchitti was asked about Dan Wheldon, his former teammate and continual good friend, who died as a result of a wreck 11 laps into the final race of the season.

“What happened with Dan was absolutely tragic,” Franchitti said softly but with trademark Scottish accent. “We miss him. Really, I don’t know what else to say apart from that. Especially the sort of last couple weeks, because of being at all the awards things back here in the UK.

“If he was here, he would have been here with me, he would have been celebrating his Indy 500, and I would have been celebrating the championship. We would have had a good time. He would have been

Driver Dario Franchitti and Chip Ganassi have had a somber off season.

getting the plaudits he richly deserved. Whether it was his family or his dad, Clive, getting these awards on his behalf, it was pretty tough.

“He was obviously a great friend and a terrific competitor. I think I speak for the whole racing community, especially the INDYCAR family, that we’ll all really, really miss him.”

The teleconference was not strictly a Q and A about Wheldon. Big on-track issues are looming as INDYCAR takes its between-seasons breather. The 2012 season could be one of the most important in its history.

New cars, new engines and a new schedule are among things which will be waiting for teams and fans next season. And judging from the sounds Ganassi and Franchitti were making, the path to the upcoming season could be scattered with pot holes.

The teams have gone to work on the new Dallara-based cars – cars which will be radically different from those the series has been running over the last generation. Car which were being developed and tested by the series with the aid of Wheldon.

Some sources have reported that the new cars have been tough for teams to get hold of. Ganassi was asked about that.

“I think it’s important to point out,” the veteran owner of IndyCar, Sprint Cup and GRAND-AM teams, said, “everybody has questions about the new car. I think you have to put yourself back in the mode of the car we’re retiring now, when that car was developed, it took two or three years to get that car right. When we were getting new cars every year in CART, they were just evolutions of a previous car.

“This new car is somewhat of a revolution. It might take a little extra time to get it what I would say right for everybody, not necessarily right for just one or two teams. It may take a while to get it right.”

It was suggested to Ganassi that there was some hesitancy in his voice as he said that.

“Don’t read any hesitancy in my voice,” he said. “I was just really pointing out some facts. The fact is there’s no hesitancy in that. Having been in the sport a long time, you just need a dose of reality every once in a while. With a new car, they don’t fall off the truck and set new lap records right out of the box. I mean, you have to take your time and work into that slowly, do the right thing. They take a little tweaking sometimes, i.e., every car in the past. That’s all.

“The fact that we have a new rules package, a new governing way of doing things with the new car here,

A side view of the new Dallara. The car needs work.

time will tell if that’s the right way to go about it or not. It’s just a process we have to go through.”

Franchitti has spent time testing the car for Ganassi, who has opted to remain with Honda power. He said the car proved frustrating to drive. But he, too, urged critics to remain patient through the sorting process.

“Scott (Dixon, his teammate who has doing much of the most recent testing) says they’re starting to make some progress now,” Franchitti said.

Also entering the series this season will be a couple of new engine manufacturers. Franchitti said he loves that as he looks forward.

“With the manufacturer race that’s coming up as well with Lotus, Chevy and Honda, I’m excited about that part of it,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to see who gets it right, who doesn’t get it so right, so closely they’re going to be matched. That’s one part of it. I have total faith in the Target team they’ll get as much as they possibly can out of this car.”

The IndyCar Series is like all pro racing series in that it has teams, like Ganassi’s and Team Penske, that are bigger and more well-positioned for success that some of the smaller teams.

Ganassi was asked how the switch to new cars might manifest itself on the track in terms of competitive balance.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “It’s probably a little early in the process. I don’t want to come out and say that nobody knows. I would say it’s a little early in the process to say how it would manifest itself on the track right now.

“I think in terms of road racing, the car is fine. It just needs a little help on the ovals. There’s only three ovals right now from what we’re hearing. That may be a blessing right off the bat.”

Franchitti said his big hope is that INDYCAR officials listen to teams and drivers during the testing and

The new Dallara was tested by Dan Wheldon. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

sorting process with the new equipment.

The champion said, “For me, it’s very important that the series allows us to fix the car and to work with the car and not paint us into too tight a box.

“I’ve seen a couple articles written that talk about the imbalances of the car and stuff. We’re starting to fix that. But it’s important the series allows the latitude to adjust the car to different driving styles. It’s one thing saying everybody must drive the same stuff, but that’s going to suit certain drivers and hurt other drivers. They need to allow that latitude to adjust the car to everybody’s different driving styles.

“I would say that’s the one thing that’s kind of concerning me. The car right now seems to suit my style, but in fairness they need to really work on that. Hopefully they can come up with an elegant engineering solution to fixing the problems of the imbalance the car’s had.”

The schedule for the 2012 season has not yet been finalized. But, it is believed that the season will start just over three months from now.

INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard, who said early last week he expected the schedule to be release late last week, has already announced the addition of a couple of new events. One of those will be in China and another in Detroit.

Ganassi was asked about the schedule.

“In terms of China,” he said, “I think our sponsors feel that a race offshore like that, whether it’s in Japan or China, I think they’ve always sort of thought, let me say at least Target has always sort of thought, one race offshore is fine, adds a little bit of caché or whatever, but I don’t think we want to get three, four, five races outside the country. I’d have to say that’s going to start to have a detrimental effect on the series I would think. One or two outside the country, I should say outside of North America, maybe you can include Mexico in that, once you get outside of Mexico, U.S., Canada, I’m not sure I’d be in favor of a lot of races outside that for our series.

“The question is, maybe you separate it, if it would start to grow like that, have two separate championships or something like that, and you could choose to participate or not.

“I think obviously, whether it’s the sanctioning body or the teams, we all have vivid in our minds the financial crisis of a few years ago. So I think it makes us a little bit more nervous going forward with plans like that. There’s so many venues here in the U.S. that I think we can make a success of. It would be a lot easier than traveling halfway around the world.”

The new schedule could be released any day. The stumbling block appears to be negotiations with Texas Motor Speedway. The schedule needs to included 16 races in order to honor the agreement with title sponsor IZOD.

The first race will likely be at St. Petersburg on March 25.

While the death of Wheldon has not allowed for a whole lot of celebrating at Target Chip Ganassi, the short time between now and the start of the season and all the work which must be completed, is also putting a bit of a damper on what should have been a rockin’ off season at TCGR.

That’s the way it sounded on Tuesday, at least.

Too bad, too, because Franchitti and Ganassi are building on a historic, Jimmie Johnson-like run in the series and deserved their chance to howl.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 21 2011
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