Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Open-wheel racing's year of mending

HOMESTEAD — The convenient number is 12, as in the dozen contentious years since Tony George founded the Indy Racing League, centering an oval-based schedule on the Indianapolis 500. But the sport had sparred from within since 1979, with CART, Champ Car and USAC each vying for supremacy. The creation of the IRL simply made the cut clean. And now open-wheel racing is one again. The completion of Champ Car's death spiral into bankruptcy and the IRL's move to absorb its key assets — including several teams and three key race dates — has provided the opportunity for mending. Whether it will work, whether open-wheel racing can regain the prominence it squandered as it bickered and NASCAR ascended, will not be answered for years. Those are questions for another season. "What we don't need right now is politics or anything else," said IRL team owner Chip Ganassi. "We just need to get going. We just need to go race."

What does this mean

For purists, North American open-wheel racing is truly united for the first time in nearly 30 years. For casual fans watching on television, if it looks like an IndyCar and isn't racing somewhere in Europe, it likely is an IndyCar. That means Danica or Marco or Dan, the same drivers who race on the streets of St. Petersburg and in the Indianapolis 500.

Who are the stars

Some of their resumes are lacking, but they look good on posters.

Danica Patrick

Winless in three IRL seasons, but a marketing dynamo and a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. In fairness, she's getting closer, finishing second at Belle Isle, Mich., last season.

Marco Andretti

Endured a horrific sophomore season with 10 races unfinished after winning a race as a rookie in 2006. But blame the mononucleosis. Apparently that makes race cars flip over. The last name goes very far in this sport.

Dan Wheldon

Ah, a former champion. The 2005 series and Indianapolis 500 winner had a woeful (for him) 2007 but he has a new focus, new teeth, a new bride and seems ready to reclaim his place atop the standings.

Helio Castroneves

A two-time Indy winner, the Dancing With the Stars champion is ready to show a nation of middle-age women that he races cars, too.

Scott Dixon

A runnerup for his second championship last season, the New Zealander just keeps putting together solid seasons.
Who's new

The famous son of a famous father, and eight guys on entertainment visas.

Graham Rahal

The 19-year-old son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby is the most marketable and arguably talented driver — though winless as a rookie last season — to join the IRL. He and Marco Andretti, grandson of legend Mario, could be the salvation of open-wheel racing in North America.

Justin Wilson

Rahal's Newman/Haas/Lanigan teammate was second in the Champ Car standings last season. Speaking of standing, he stands 6 feet, 31/2 inches and is the tallest among the series' drivers.

Will Power

Yes, that's his name, but probably an asset of his, too. The native of Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia, perhaps foretold of a promising future with two Champ Car wins last season.
Who's missing

The past two IRL season and Indianapolis 500 champions, the past four Champ Car titles (though it's one guy) and its most charismatic personality.

Dario Franchitti

Left the season after winning the title for a new challenge with Chip Ganassi Racing in Sprint Cup.

Sam Hornish

Won the series and Indy in 2006. The IRL's leader in wins (19) and titles (3) now drives Penske Racing's No. 77 Sprint Cup Dodge.

Sebastien Bourdais

Former St. Petersburg resident became the first in 99 years of North American open-wheel racing to win four straight titles, but Formula One opportunity came before unification.

Paul Tracy

Champ Car's 39-year-old active leader in wins (31) was left unemployed when team owner and former series co-owner Gerald Forsythe opted to cease operations rather than immigrate to the IRL.

New wrinkles

Variable assist steering rack

Could give smaller drivers — read: Danica — help in wrestling cars through street courses.

Paddle shifting

Drivers no longer have to release the wheel to shift with the old sequential lever, which could make racing safer and more fluid on street and road courses.
Weight rules

Drivers are divided into five categories by weight. Three classes will have weight added to their cars (up to 35 pounds), one left alone and one have weight removed to, ostensibly, negate weight advantages to smaller drivers — read: Danica — and bring every car in the field within one percent of each other.
Fuel adjustment knob

It's back. Maybe Scott Dixon wouldn't have run dry on the last lap at Chicago, and would have won the championship last season if he had this handy knob to lean out the fuel mixture.

Open-wheel racing's year of mending 03/31/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 3:44pm]

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