Five emerging IndyCar storylines as series shifts to U.S.; more notes
Graham Rahal will make his return as the IndyCar Series heads to St. Petersburg
In winning the opener, Will Power showed traits that make him a favorite in Florida
Danica Patrick is still in search of her first top-10 finish of the year in any circuit
While the NASCAR Sprint Cup season is in full swing -- and that means Eight More Months of Jimmie Johnson -- the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the United States after a smashing season-opener in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
And that is why Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg should be recommended viewing for any auto racing fan who is in need of seeing something different.
NASCAR fans love their short track racing and that means some fender-banging action at Martinsville Speedway. That Johnson is already a six-time winner in his 16 trips to Clay Campbell's flat track makes him a heavy favorite to win on Sunday, which would give him four wins in the first six races as he continues his Drive for Five.
Face it, the Johnson Domination, albeit impressive, has become monotonous. And while it is unfair to classify NASCAR fans as auto racing fans because they are interested in NASCAR only, it's the small number of fringe fans that watch all of auto racing that can tune in at 3:30 p.m. Sunday to watch a variety of storylines developing in the IndyCar Series.
Try these on for size.
1. IZOD Has IndyCar Dressed For Success
With a strong sponsor finally able to sell its series, IndyCar has become fashionable again. This is a mainstream sponsor that deals with what is in style and when Mike Kelly, the executive vice president of marketing at Phillips-Van Heusen came to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in 2008, he was hooked on the sport.
Now he is investing an estimated $100 million over the next six years to promote IndyCar with a specific focus on the sexiness of the sport and the glamour of its stars. The series is fresh off a highly-successful debut in Brazil two weeks ago and heads to St. Petersburg, Fla., for IndyCar's spring break.
This event has been one of the highlights of the season because of its local, winding around Al Lang Stadium on the shores of Tampa Bay. The course also includes a runway of Albert Whitted Airport and turns onto the streets of St. Pete.
A chance to bask in the sun means plenty of fun for the large crowd that comes to this race every year making it as much an event as an auto race.
Ryan Hunter-Reay is IZOD's posterboy and will drive car No. 37 for Andretti Autosport on Sunday. He finished second at St. Pete last year and got a dress rehearsal for this week as he finished second at Sao Paulo in the opener.
2. Graham Rahal Is Back
Two years ago Rahal made history when he became the youngest driver ever to win a major open-wheel race. He was just 19 years old when he put the Newman/Haas/Lanigan entry into victory lane in just the second race after unification. It was Rahal's first IndyCar Series race.
As the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART champion Bobby Rahal, he was IndyCar's great American hope. Young, fast and handsome, Rahal was the driver that could leave IndyCar into the future and give American racing fans reason to rally around the flag.
That remains his only win, however, and when he was unable to strike a deal to remain at Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Rahal began the season on the sidelines.
Enter Sarah Fisher, who like Rahal is a native of Ohio and the owner/driver of Sarah Fisher Racing. She was set to begin the season in car No. 67 but realized that street and road racing are not her strong points. So she approached her sponsor, Dollar General, and put Rahal in her car for the street race at St. Pete and the road course race at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama on April 11.
"Being that there is one race, other than the Indianapolis 500, I don't want to miss every year is St. Pete," Rahal said. "So when the opportunity came from Sarah, I just had to jump right at it."
Rahal needs to be in IndyCar full-time but getting a chance to compete in the first two races in the United States may lead to a full-time deal later this season. The series needs Rahal, who at 21, has an impressive future if he can get a fulltime ride on a competitive team.
3. Power To The People
It didn't take long for Will Power to prove that he was back as he won the season-opener in Brazil, his first race since suffering a fractured lower back in a crash at Infineon Raceway on August 22. Power drove with fearlessness and determination in the win, the same qualities that make him a favorite at St. Pete as he leads a powerful three-driver lineup at Team Penske that includes three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and championship contender Ryan Briscoe.
4. Can Danica Patrick Earn Her First Top-10 Finish Of The Season?
Patrick finished sixth in the season-opening ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway in February, but she has yet to finish higher than 15th in any race since. ARCA doesn't count as a top-tier racing series, so Patrick has finished 35th in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona, 31st at California and 35th at Las Vegas. She was 15th in a 24-car field in the IndyCar race at Sao Paulo.
Patrick is the face of IndyCar and remains the one driver that generates mainstream interest in the series. She won't be back in a NASCAR Nationwide race until June 26 at New Hampshire International Speedway. While it's true the IndyCar suits her style much better than the JR Motorsports Chevrolet, Patrick is driven to succeed which is why she enters St. Pete with a determined focus.
5. Franchitti And Dixon Hope To Be "On Target"
Just missing the top-five at Sao Paulo was the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing duo of two-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon (sixth) and defending IndyCar champ Dario Franchitti (seventh). Franchitti started on the pole and led 29 laps, while Dixon had to back after he was knocked off course in the first-lap crash that included Mario Moraes' car going airborne and landing on top of Marco Andretti.
The two Target drivers are among the class of IndyCar and should be considered serious contenders for the 2010 championship. And while the season is still early, both drivers want to continue their winning ways as IndyCar returns to the United States.
New IndyCar CEO's Bold Move For Future
Calling it the "defining decision of this decade" Indy Racing League CEO Randy Bernard has formed an advisory committee that will help determine which chassis design will be the IndyCar of the future. Bernard made the announcement Sunday night while appearing on SPEED's Wind Tunnel, then spoke with SI.com.
William R. Looney, a four-star general in the United States Air Force, will be the chairman of a seven-member advisory committee that will include engine experts, chassis experts and one team owner from those currently in the IndyCar Series.
"Under General Looney's command he was responsible for the modernization of all United States aircraft," Bernard explained. "I thought there were a lot of similarities with that; how he developed a process. I don't want to make a mistake. I want to have a guy that knows what he is doing and I think he is the type of guy that does."
Bernard came to this conclusion over the last two weeks. Although General Looney is not involved in racing, he has a thorough understanding of innovation and safety aspects. Before the next generation of IndyCar is chosen, Bernard wants to make sure that there are no "laws of unintended consequences" involving the new car.
The radical design of the Delta Wing concept has led to many questions about its ability to perform and whether it incorporates the necessary safety aspects that IndyCar officials expect. In addition to the Delta Wing, new car designs have been proposed by Dallara, Lola, Swift and most recently BAT -- a new company formed by Bruce Ashmore, Alan Mertens and Tim Wardrop.
"We have to look at all this as part of the process and take away what we believe is helpful and successful for the League and look at the negative things, too," Bernard said. "The surveys the fans did will be very important and the surveys the OEMs did will be very important. We're going to stay on plan. If they come back to me and say it will be longer than 90 days I would rather get this process right than make a harsh decision for 2012."