IRL looking to carry momentum from last season

Coming off a fantastic finish in 2009, the IndyCar Series is

looking to build on that excitement this season with a new title

sponsor, a new CEO and measures designed to improve racing.

The 2009 title was decided in the closing laps of the final

race, capping a thrilling year in which Dario Franchitti edged

Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe in one the closest points race in

series history.

The three title contenders will be back when the season kicks

off in Brazil on Sunday, as will three-time Indy 500 winner Helio

Castroneves, star Danica Patrick and several other drivers who can

also challenge for the title.

“The depth of the field is definitely growing,” Dixon told The

Associated Press. “There is a lot of great drivers and teams again

this year. It will be exciting.”

The inaugural Sao Paulo Indy 300 will be one of the highlights

of the year, taking place on a street circuit that goes through a

Sambadrome and a mile-long straight that is the series’ longest

ever, according to organizers. The stadium-like Sambadrome is where

Sao Paulo’s traditional Carnival parades were watched by tens of

thousands of revelers just a month ago.

Sao Paulo is one of the two new venues this season, along with

Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. The only other race outside

North America will be the Indy Japan 300 in September.

The series enters the season looking to reach new markets,

attract more fans and increase its visibility in the U.S. and

abroad. It will begin the year with clothing maker Izod as a title

sponsor, and with promoter Randy Bernard as its new CEO. Bernard

spent 15 years as the head of the Professional Bull Riders Inc.,

helping grow the TV audience and attendance at that sport’s

events.

It will help that the series is keeping one of its most

marketable drivers, Patrick, who will drive a full schedule despite

a 13-race commitment to NASCAR’s Nationwide Series.

There also are four other women on the circuit this year – Milka

Duno of Venezuela, Sarah Fischer of the United States and rookies

Ana Beatriz Figueiredo of Brazil and Simona de Silvestro of

Switzerland. Fischer is not expected to run all races and won’t be

in Brazil for the opener.

“We know the competition is going to be tougher,” Franchitti

said. “There will be the usual suspects that were in the title

fight last year and I think you’ll add a couple more. We’ll have to

work harder if we want to come home with another

championship.”

Penske, in its first season since 1990 without longtime sponsor

Philip Morris, will enter three cars for the full season, something

it hadn’t done since 1994. The drivers will be Castroneves, Briscoe

and Will Power.

Patrick’s teammates at Andretti Autosport will be 2004 points

champion Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is

on a limited schedule for now. Japan’s Takuma Sato, who spent seven

years in Formula One, will run for KV Racing Technology.

“It’s going to be very challenging,” Briscoe said. “There are

going to be lots of different drivers vying for wins so we’re going

to have to be very focused and paying attention all the time.”

Officials are hoping the racing will become even more

entertaining on the track after they gave drivers nearly twice as

much horsepower when pushing the overtake button. The measure

should significantly increase passing compared to last year,

pleasing fans and drivers alike.

Fans, however, had few reasons to complain after last year’s

season finale.

Dixon had a five-point lead over Target Chip Ganassi teammate

Franchitti and an eight-point advantage over Briscoe entering the

deciding race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Franchitti won the

thrilling race on fuel strategy, clinching his second series title

– the first since an unsuccessful stint with NASCAR in 2008.

The points lead changed hands a record 15 times in 2009, and no

more than 33 points separated first to third during the 17-race

season. The final margin was 11 points, and of the 40 drivers who

started at least one 2009 race, 27 earned a top-10 finish.

The IndyCar series will remain diverse this year, running on

eight ovals and nine road or street courses.

The Indianapolis 500, the year’s main event, will have one less

week in its traditional schedule in May to help teams save

money.

Other changes in 2010 include the addition of a reverse gear to

cars running on road and street courses, and the recommendation of

using a new headrest designed to give drivers more protection in

crashes.