IndyCar Season Begins Season, Quest Continues

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 24 2012

Dario Franchitti leads a highly freshened IndyCar Series back onto the track this weekend in St. Petersburg. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series).

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

The history of INDYCAR is the history of a quest; a quest for solid ground.

For the 2012 season, which begins this weekend with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, INDYCAR is rolling out a large box of changes which the series and its supporters hope will mark a big step forward in that quest. The hope is that new and improved will translate into new fans and improved ratings.

In February, during a pre-season event held in a theater in downtown Indianapolis, INDYCAR boss Randy Bernard took to the microphone and detailed the changes which the series will showcase in 2012.

Near the end of his spiel, Bernard, who is beginning his third year at the helm of the series, said, “Sit back, buckle up and hold on tight, because 2012 promises to be one hell of a ride.”

Much of the series’ 16-year history has been a hell of  a ride. And not always a hell of a good ride.

Born out of a fractious internal revolt, and at a time when open wheel racing in America was under external siege from NASCAR, INDYCAR – formerly the Indy Racing League – has never been able to capture the imagination or support that open-wheel racing enjoyed during large chunks of the 20th century.

Traditional fans of the sport were put off by a number of circumstances surrounding INDYCAR. They didn’t like the revolt, in which founder Tony George broke free of CART in the mid-199s; they didn’t like what they viewed as pedestrian cars and equipment; they didn’t like the large number of foreign drivers who crowded into a series that had billed itself as uniquely American; they hated George.

The development of new fans never took off  as identity problems resulted from the existence of two major open-wheel series in North American and, because NASCAR became the place to be and the thing to do for people who like cars and speed.

The last generation of the IndyCar Series was marked by fits and starts as promising events either fell flat, never materialized or failed to catch on.

The biggest of those events was the 2008 reunification of IndyCar and CART. Finally, open-wheel supporters believed, their sport would race back onto the front burner.

For a variety of reasons – from internal strife in the corporate offices to a disastrous television deal with something called VERSUS – the unified edition of IndyCar failed to provided the hoped-for jolt.

In 2010, Bernard, who was brought in to replace George, began implementing changes. Changes that he hoped would improve the INDYCAR “brand”.

Many of the latest changes will be in evidence this weekend on Florida’s Gulf Coast street circuit. Changes that will include:

– Multiple engine manufacturers. Long a series of one-power plant – Honda – the 2012 cars will have General Motors and Lotus engines on board.

The quest; inter-manufacturer competition.

The potential downside; reliability and uneven competition.

– Different engine formula. Gone are the normally aspirated V-8s of years past and arrived are turbo-charged V-6s.

The quest; more torque, better note.

The potential downside; adjusting to new machinery.

– New chassis design. The series, after holding a competition to become the new chassis builder for IndyCar, is going with the Dallara DW12.

The quest; better looks, safer, more programable, more even playing field.

The potential downside; the new chassis might not work as hopped and did have problems in testing.

– New competition staff. The last several years, Brian Barnhart and his staff came under attack from drivers and fans for, well, interesting rules and rulings. It all came to a head last year when several drivers ripped into Barnhart and called for his head. Remember the site of calm, gentle Will Power giving a double-bird to race control and then being given an ovation in the garages? The new competition crew is led by Beaux Barfield, who comes over from the American Le Mans Series.

The quest; new regime will produce new respect for law enforcement.

The potential downside; the new regime will take time to establish itself.

– New teams, drivers and sponsors. The big catch was KV Racing Technology landing ultra-respected former Formula 1 veteran Rubens Barrichello. Added to that was the promotion of new driver talent like Katherine Legge and Josef Newgarden, the addition of sports car ace Simon Pagenaud and a full-season run for Ed Carpenter.

The quest; bring in new fans, some from F1 and sports cars.

The potential downside; the top new drivers are foreign-born.

– New events at new venues. The series’ schedule last season saw the loss of big markets like Kansas City, Michigan, Miami and Chicago. All those were at ovals. This year, more ovals are off the schedule as Kentucky, New Hampshire, Las Vegas and one half of the double-header at Texas have been subtracted. But new events in China, Detroit and Las Angeles have been added.

The quest; add international appeal and tradition.

The potential downside; only four ovals on schedule may prove unpopular.

– Danica Patrick. She’s gone. Left for a full-time gig in NASCAR. For years, she was the great hope for the series as her massive popularity put the sport on the front page. But privately, many in IndyCar think that Patrick had worn out her welcome in the series. She actually got booed in driver introductions at Indy a couple years back. But, it is tough to replace that kind of a Q factor.

The quest; develop new stars.

The potential downside; fewer soft-porn TV commercials.

– Dan Wheldon. His death at Las Vegas not only ended the IndyCar season, it wrenched the guts of racers and fans worldwide. It was so public and so graphic. It produced one of those moments in which the entire racing community stepped back and pondered what the hell was up. The game was suddenly a life and death sport again.

The quest; try to overcome the shock and saddness.

The potential downside; not being able to overcome the shock and sadness.

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

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 24 2012
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