IndyCar season preview
The American moment
Several years ago IndyCar seemed bereft of young American talent, the result partly of a damaging merger of open-wheel series that sent a lot of would-be open-wheel drivers scrambling to NASCAR and partly because of an influx of talented foreigners. For instance, in 2005, 10 American drivers ran more than half of the 17 races, but only two finished in the top 10 in points. By 2008 there were seven full-time Brazilian drivers, equaling the number of Americans. The situation bottomed out for U.S. drivers in 2010, when only three Americans drove the full schedule and a fourth, Graham Rahal, cobbled together rides in 12 of 17 races for a variety of teams. Ryan Hunter-Reay brought home the lone American win that year. But things have changed. Charlie Kimball, JR Hildebrand and 2012 rookie of the year Josef Newgarden have arrived via Indy Lights, a testament to IndyCar's ladder series setup. Now seven Americans are committed to full-time rides, with others lining up for at least the Indianapolis 500. Kimball, Hildebrand and Newgarden are in their 20s, as are second-generation stars Marco Andretti and Rahal. And Hunter-Reay, 32, is the defending series champion, the first American to claim the prize since Sam Hornish in 2006.
NBC Sports Network airs the bulk of IndyCar broadcasts and added Formula One this year.
But it didn't hire two lead broadcasters.
Leigh Diffey, left, a native of Australia, will do play-by-play for IndyCar and F1 this season. For IndyCar he replaces the legendary Bob Jenkins.
Diffey is no stranger to open-wheel fans in the United States, where his first assignment was with CART in 2001. He became a U.S. citizen in 2011.
"I have such good memories of covering open-wheel racing here, and this is like Phase II — a continuation — and I'm so excited about it," Diffey told indycar.com. "I'll bring some energy to the broadcast; everybody knows that's my style."
Jenkins retired from full-time duty last season after calling myriad racing series for decades. He will still contribute to NBC Sports Network's Carb Day coverage for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This year's schedule includes something new: races on back-to-back days on three street courses. Detroit (above right), Toronto (above left) and Houston will host one Saturday race and one Sunday race.
It's not a new concept. Predecessor series AAA and USAC hosted doubleheaders at numerous ovals for decades, and CART did it into the early 1980s. But hosting two full-length races on consecutive days, especially on physically demanding street courses, is a different direction for IndyCar.
"(It is) something we wanted to introduce this year to improve the fan experience on a given race weekend," series race director Beaux Barfield told racer.com. "With two races, there certainly is a lot more entertainment and competition."
Qualifying for the Saturday races will take place on Friday, and qualifying for the Sunday races will happen on Saturday before the first race.
One more wrinkle: IndyCar will use Formula One-style standing starts for the Saturday races in Toronto and Houston.
By the numbers
3 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg titles for Helio Castroneves, the only multiple winner in the event's eight years under IndyCar sanction
3 Points by which Ryan Hunter-Reay won last year's series title over Will Power, the closest margin since Sam Hornish and Dan Wheldon tied in 2006 (Hornish earned the title on a tiebreaker)
4 Active drivers among the all-time top 12 in wins in major U.S. open-wheel series: Sebastien Bourdais, 31; Dario Franchitti, 31; Scott Dixon, 29; Helio Castroneves, 27
2 Wins Scott Dixon needs to reach 30 for his career, which would make him the ninth driver to win that many in major American open-wheel series
196 Consecutive starts (CART and IndyCar) for Tony Kanaan, 15 off Jimmy Vasser's modern-era record
4,733 Laps led by Helio Castroneves, 130 short of Bobby Unser (above) for fifth all time