Motor

IndyCar Series takes on new look

Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Team Penske Dallara Honda
IndyCar Series drivers like Helio Castroneves are ready for the season.
FOX Sports CHRIS ESTRADA
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We got what we wanted.

After years of complaining about the lack of American drivers in IZOD IndyCar Series rides that could contend for wins and championships, we’ve been served at last.

Races set

IZOD IndyCar Series 2011 schedule.

Andretti Autosport has retained its three homegrown racers — Ryan Hunter-Reay, Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti — but the group has now been joined by Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball over at the expanded Chip Ganassi Racing. Then there’s Firestone Indy Lights champion J.R. Hildebrand, who is finally getting his own big break over at Panther Racing.

That’s certainly a good thing for IndyCar, which desperately needs more American stars to help boost interest in the sport.

“I would say while it is important, we're going to see what happens this year,” Rahal said last week. “We've got a great field of American drivers, a really good group of people that can certainly succeed. We'll see how the fans take that. . . . There's a long list of Americans to cheer for now. We'll see how it goes.”

However, while the series finally has a bigger chunk of American talent, there’s been a trade-off, of sorts. Missing amongst the participants in this week’s open test at Barber Motorsports Park were Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Paul Tracy – all of them open-wheel champions and all of them among of the sport’s more popular drivers for an extended period of time.

While series CEO Randy Bernard maintained confidence that all of them will be at the first race March 27 in St. Petersburg, Fla., it bears noting that all of this is occurring on the cusp of a new era in IndyCar.

In 2012, IndyCar will begin what is essentially “Version 4” of the series. It’s been a fascinating evolution from the all-oval beginnings to the addition of the former CART powerhouses in 2002 and 2003, through the end of the open-wheel schism in 2008 to where we are now.

But now, it has accelerated to its quickest pace to date. The reign of Randy Bernard has spurred the development of an IndyCar where everyone must get by on their own, without help.

Combined with an economic climate that has been cool overall to motorsports for some time now, it’s forced great racers to become even greater fundraisers.

Evolution never plays favorites, either. Just look at Kanaan. The amount of funding he brought to the table wasn’t enough for him to hang onto his ride at the now-defunct De Ferran Dragon Racing.

Thus, fans have been forced to not only accept the rise of the American driver contingent but also the fact that some other drivers are not where they have been in recent times. Whether this is a true changing of the guard is yet to be decided. For all we know, all the champions out of rides could hit on a willing sponsor tomorrow and continue their careers promptly.

But if this really is a changing of the guard, then it’s best for fans to prepare themselves for the effects that haven’t yet revealed themselves.

Surprise? Not really

Looking to end a four-year title drought, Team Penske started the 2011 campaign with a successful two days at Barber Motorsports Park this week.

Two of its drivers, defending road/street course champion Will Power and Helio Castroneves, topped the time charts Monday and Tuesday, respectively. In the overall speeds, Castroneves logged the fastest lap of the entire open test at 71.9434 seconds, just enough to nip Power’s hot lap of 71.9636 seconds.

"This was a really good couple of days of testing and our [No. 12] car was very good,” said Power, who will look to avenge his five-point loss in last year’s championship to Dario Franchitti.

“We did a lot of work and learned tons of valuable information about our car here at Barber. . . . We practiced pit stops, which are every bit as important as speed on the track with how tight the competition is in this series. I am definitely ready to get this season started."

Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon put up the third-fastest overall time, followed by Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe and Newman/Haas Racing’s Oriol Servia to round out the top five.

'Lucky Dog' rule coming to IndyCar?

After word got out that IndyCar would implement NASCAR’s controversial “lucky dog” rule, the open-wheel fan base spoke its opinion loud and clear. At one point last week, a poll on the series’ web site had 85 percent of the voters against adding the “lucky dog” to the rulebook.

It appears that Bernard has taken the criticism to heart. After telling the press at Barber on Monday that many fans had told him the potential rule was “too gimmicky,” he’s now shifted to, in his words, “not just leaning toward [nixing it], I’m pointing toward it” according to a blog post by the Indianapolis Star’s Curt Cavin.

It looks like this round will go to the fans over the team owners, who had requested that the “lucky dog” be added in complement to the new double-file restarts this season.

Originally set for ovals only, those double-file restarts will now be featured at all venues, starting with the season opener at St. Petersburg. Team owner Chip Ganassi told the press that he was in favor of them and of anything else that could get more people watching.

“We have to attract some fans and when you visually watch a race on television, it needs to look like other races,” he said. “Let's face it — most of the people who watch racing on television are watching NASCAR. When they turn on an IndyCar race, they should be able to see what's happening, and it should look similar.

“If you're watching the NFL or a college football game, the rules are pretty much the same and the look is the same and the field is the same. There are small differences, but they are basically the same.”

Meanwhile, driver Dario Franchitti is also hoping that they’ll add to the entertainment value — even if that means a few more wrecked IndyCars in the process.

"Will there be more cars in pieces? Yeah," he said. "But it will add to the spectacle. Ultimately, it's a sport, but it's an entertainment and those two have to be balanced and that's a difficult thing to do. In a lot of ways, I'm glad I don't make the decisions."

In other news

  • Sebastian Saavedra, a veteran of Firestone Indy Lights who competed in last year’s Indianapolis 500 and IZOD IndyCar Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, will drive the No. 34 full time for Conquest Racing. "I've been working a long time towards this and for it to finally happen is fantastic,” he said. “I can't wait for the season to start. I know it won't always be easy but I am up for the challenge.”
  • In the wake of the horrific earthquake and tsunami that has taken a severe toll on his homeland, Takuma Sato’s No. 5 KV-Lotus machine had the words “Pray for Japan” on its sidepods during the Open Test. “. . . I really appreciate all the support the drivers, the fans, the media, everyone has shown,” Sato said in a team release. “Fortunately, for me, my family and friends are okay, but that is really a small part. My head and heart are in Japan at the moment. It is just so devastating. People are suffering . . .” The team release also revealed that Sato was working on a project that would allow fans to help relief efforts and hoped to announce it "in the coming days."

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