What We Learned: IndyCar racing rules the roost in Brazil, more notes
The mania usually reserved for Danica in the U.S. doesn't happen in Brazil
Patrick took 15th in Brazil; Will Power claimed 1st in the rain-shortened race
The IZOD IndyCar series has become the hallmark of extreme racing
SAO PAULO, Brazil -- If the IZOD IndyCar Series' first trip to Brazil was meant to be an adventure, it certainly exceeded those expectations.
A slick concrete racing surface entering the first turn that many drivers likened to driving on ice, it forced IndyCar officials to move qualifications from Saturday to Sunday morning, so a track grinder could be called in to add more grip to the surface. That meant the IndyCar drivers qualified at 8:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m. EDT) and then competed in the race a few hours later.
That was only the beginning of the adventure as a first-lap crash saw Brazil's Mario Moraes' car launch into the air and land on Marco Andretti.
That was literally the calm before the storm, as a torrential downpour soaked the track, forcing a 35-minute red-flag before the race resumed.
The racing was fast, furious and fearless and in the end, Will Power battled back from the adversity of a broken back suffered last August to score an impressive victory over American driver Ryan Hunter-Reay.
So while the IZOD IndyCar Series features some of the fastest racing on the planet, it's time to get right into the Five Things We Learned from the experience.
1. Brazilians love IndyCar Racing. While the IZOD series is often lost in the exhaust fumes of NASCAR in the United States, Brazil loves its open-wheel racing. Whether it's Felipe Massa in Formula One or Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves in IndyCar, these are the drivers that Brazil loves to watch on Sunday. In many ways, IndyCar racing is more popular in Brazil than in the U.S. The television ratings are much higher in Brazil and the outpouring of spectator support in one of the largest cities in the world was impressive.
There are 20 million people that live in Sao Paulo, making it one of the world's largest cities. It's like combining New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles into one massive megalopolis. A local chauffeur named Sergio transporting Fred Nation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star, Jeff Olson of Racer Magazine and myself to the track at Anhembi Parque -- site of the impressive 2.6-mile, 11-turn street course which includes two lanes of one of Sao Paulo's busiest highways -- there was a stunning revelation.
At 7 a.m., there were blocks and blocks of spectators outside of the gates waiting to get in. There were more fans lining up to get into this race six hours before the green flag than there were in attendance at last season's IndyCar finale at Homestead Miami Speedway -- for the entire weekend.
Think about the last time a massive crowd has lined up early for an IndyCar race other than the Indianapolis 500 and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. It just doesn't happen that often in the U.S. There were only 40,000 grandstand seats constructed for this race but an overflow crowd of 46,000 were in attendance, including an impressive array of 25 VIP suites filled with sponsor guests.
The electricity and atmosphere for this event was highly impressive. The largest portion of grandstands including the permanent facility used for Brazil's famous Carnivale; and the fans had seven Brazilian drivers to cheer for, although national favorites Kanaan and Castroneves were taken out of serious contention by some early racing incidents.
But one Brazilian made it to the podium with Vitor Meira finishing third and fellow Brazilian Raphael Matos taking fourth. And while the top two drivers were from Australia and the U.S., respectively, the 200 media members that jammed the media center had plenty to write about involving the seven drivers from Brazil that were in the race.
2. Danica-mania doesn't exist in Brazil. For anyone who wants to escape this phenomenon in the U.S., come to Brazil. She was just another driver to the spectators at this race. In fact, she was overshadowed by two other female drivers, Brazil's Ana Beatriz who made her first IndyCar Series start for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (finishing 13th) and Simona di Silvestro of Switzerland, who drove HVM Racing's entry to the lead for four laps after the first pit stop before finishing 16th. Beatriz was the local hero in this country and got Danica-like attention from the Brazilian media. And considering that de Silvestro, who competed last year in the Formula Atlanta Series, led laps in her first IndyCar race, it's easy to see why they were the female phenoms at this event.
As for Patrick, she finished 15th in the 24-car field and had her share of issues, including sliding off course during the heavy rain shower that stopped the race for 35 minutes. But Patrick said after the race that she actually felt "racy" again as she has parked her NASCAR Nationwide Series Chevrolet at JR Motorsports until the June 26 race at New Hampshire International Speedway.
The facts are, IndyCar racing is what Patrick does best, even if a 15th-place finish is far less than she expected to start the season. And while she is the media darling in the United States, Patrick is considered "just another pretty face" in Brazil.
3. Never call an IndyCar a 'boat' because they don't float. This was obvious when a massive rain shower drenched the track after 33 laps, forcing the race to be stopped for 35 minutes. Unlike NASCAR, IndyCar races on street and road courses can be contested in the rain with grooved rain tires provided by Firestone. But the massive amount of water that pooled on the track made it virtually impossible to continue, and the series made the right decision to park the cars to allow the water to drain off before continuing the race.
It was a total adventure to watch the IndyCar attempt to navigate the street course under caution with several cars, including Patrick's, sliding off course turning that part of the race into the Greatest Spectacle in Hydroplaning.
"The only shame about the whole race is that it went red for some puddles because there were a lot of big dips out there and our cars hydroplane pretty easily," said Hunter-Reay after finishing second. "It would have been great to get some good rain racing in. Maybe next year we will fill in those things and see where it goes."
4. With three top drivers, Team Penske will be tough to beat. The addition of Will Power to a full-time ride at Team Penske could make it an unbeatable operation. Power is instantly a contender for the series championship and for the Indy 500. His two biggest challengers are his teammates, three-time Indy 500 winner Castroneves and title challenger and fellow Australian Ryan Briscoe. While Target/Chip Ganassi driver and defending series champion Dario Franchitti led the first 29 laps when the racing got fierce it involved Power, Briscoe and Hunter-Reay. Briscoe was in front for four laps before driving off course on lap 54; Power led four laps -- the final four.
When Power broke two vertebrae in his lower back in a crash during practice at Infineon Raceway in August 2009, some wondered if it might slow down his promise and potential.
Power answered that question with an impressive drive Sunday in South America.
5. NASCAR may be bigger, but IndyCar is the definition of extreme racing. Long before NASCAR took over as the USA's most powerful form of racing with its massive amount of sponsorship, spectators and television ratings, it was IndyCar racing that defined motorsports in America for the better part of the 20th Century. As NASCAR began its impressive growth in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the "Open-Wheel Split" of 1996 over the creation of the Indy Racing League sent the sport into a tailspin. But unification with teams in the rival Champ Car Series in 2008 that created a complete IndyCar Series was the first step toward an Open-Wheel Racing comeback. IZOD signed up as the sport's first series sponsor since 2001 and Sunday's race in Sao Paulo was the first under the IZOD banner. Tony George, the founder of the IRL and former CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp. has left the sport. Randy Bernard has taken over as the CEO of the IndyCar Series and brings some energy; fresh ideas and some determination to his role which could help the series grow.
But IndyCar still has several things that sets it apart of any other form of racing. It has speed; it has a degree of difficulty, even an element of danger. Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and others are the definition of classic racing drivers who push it to the limit with their rear-ends just an inch or two off the pavement.
IndyCar may not have the popularity, but it has the glamour and sexiness that make it the definition of true auto racing. What it really needs is the marketing and a chance to build a new audience for what remains an exhilarating product on the race track.
For anyone who watched Sunday's race at Sao Paulo, it was as much a "street fight" as a "street race."