INDIANAPOLIS, February 24, 2004 Oh yee-hah! The open-wheel racing season is upon us. Yeah, the NASCAR taxicabs got a head start, but now it's time for the purity of fenderless race cars to take center stage.
The Indy Racing League campaign begins this weekend at 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway, which once was as flat as a nine-year-old girl and now has a graduated banking that makes the Indy cars about 15mph faster than they were last year, even with downforce removed.
Nineteen cars (drivers, crew and a bunch more spares) will make the trip that most truckies say takes an even 24 hours driving from here to South Florida, all in search of the first of 16 IndyCar Series checkered flags.
Others may join in for Round 2 at Phoenix International Raceway in mid-March, an addition or two comes in Japan a month later and still more cars are expected to make up the 33-car field for the 88th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race on May 30th.
Of course this year is different from any other because of the engine swap from 3.5 to 3-liter capacity that will occur for race #4 at the Brickyard.
The Indy Racing League has been struggling to find equitable ways of slowing cars in its premier series, which has attracted engines built by Honda, Toyota and Chevrolet/Cosworth Racing, escalating already fierce competition.
The changes in engine displacement make this a double-tiered season. There are the first three races under the 3.5-liter rules that also mandate a 12" slit in a stepped air box. Then we go to the 3-liter era, which may exist with or without the slit. Eventually the change will matter to everyone on the teams, but not now.
What's important right now is this weekend's Toyota Indy 300, the March 21st race in Phoenix and the contest at Twin Ring Motegi on April 18th. The latter is most significant to the folks at Honda, who built the track and have never won on its 1.5-mile oval, despite trying six times in Champ Car and Indy Racing competition.
There's plenty of intrigue to this year's series beyond the obvious: rules changes, team personnel swaps and the like. With only two open tests to evaluate the competition, it's been tough to figure out who has a head start and who doesn't.
While there has been no mass exodus of Champ Car teams and crew to the Indy Racing League as some had expected, a few defectors have taken flight.
Chief among them is engineer Peter Gibbons, a prime part of Newman/Haas Racing since the 1991 season. Gibbons, who had a strong working relationship with former NHR driver Michael Andretti has joined the second-generation shoe's Andretti Green Racing just this week, rendering some of the current staff redundant.
AGR seems to have more chiefs than Indians these days and you've got to wonder who will end up behind the line this team has drawn around its cars where engineers are not permitted. Yes, they actually have a line around the cars and engineers can't enter that space. Not a bad idea when you're trying to prep a car for competition and have too many cooks in the kitchen.
There are questions in this reporter's mind about Kelley Racing's acceptance of a second car for perennial Most Popular Driver Sarah Fisher. While Sarah has engineering background, she has earned a reputation for less-than-optimal discussions with her race engineers.
With Andy Borme now on Kelley's staff to guide veteran Scott Sharp and Fisher, she has an opportunity to work with one of the best engineers in the business. We'll have to see if she can make it. Will the job of tending to Fisher's needs rein in the hopes of Sharp? This addition could be divisive for the seventh-year IRL squad.
Over the past few weeks, some animosity between current IRL champ Scott Dixon and former two-time titleholder Sam Hornish Jr. has cropped up, with Dixon making statements to the effect that Hornish will be a poor Marlboro Team Penske teammate to ebullient Brazilian Helio Castroneves.
Of course Hornish has never had a true teammate and is a quiet sort. We'll have to see if Dixon is right or not; it's silly to assume it won't work before the season's even started.
I'm excited to see the talented Darren Manning join the Indy Racing League as teammate to Dixon at Team Target. The Briton made an indelible statement at Rockingham Speedway in Corby, England when he first raced a Champ Car for Dale Coyne Racing in 2002. He also performed admirably for Derrick Walker's CART team last year. Manning has ability and patience, which will hold him in good stead as he learns the cars and tracks on which the IRL plies.
This could be Tomas Scheckter's last good opportunity in the Indy Racing League, after traveling from the Red Bull Cheever Racing group to Chip Ganassi's Team Target and now to Pennzoil Panther Racing. Scheckter gets to experience his third IRL engine after using Infiniti and Toyota power in his two previous stops as he works with Chevrolet.
Scheckter has the chops if he gets his energies channeled less to speed and more to winning; the only checkered flag that Jody's son has accrued happened in his first year at Michigan; Tomas will have a competitive teammate in rookie Mark Taylor, who handily captured last season's Menards Infiniti Pro Series title and now drives for the Midwest lumber magnate, whose team has merged with Panther.
Synergy has set in at Red Bull Cheever Racing, where veteran Alex Barron is the lead driver and rookie Ed Carpenter complements him. This duo appear to have similar personalities and driving styles if pre-season is any indication and that could be a huge factor in their reach for success.
Cheever's outfit has relocated to far larger facilities on the north side of Indianapolis and seems a cohesive group. Having the quiet Barron around, a guy who speaks with his right foot more than his mouth should be good for Carpenter, the recent Butler University graduate who matriculates to his first full year of Indy cars.
I'm sad to see the absence of Felipe Giaffone, whose supply of Hollywood dollars dried up after last season, when he sustained a broken leg at Kansas and had to miss several rounds. Giaffone's departure leaves Mo Nunn Racing with a single car for Tora Takagi, who needs to settle down a bit. Maybe he'll mature this year?
We'll also miss Al Unser Jr., who scored a win at Texas Motor Speedway last June and ended up sixth in the final 2003 standings. Not bad for a guy coming back from the depths of alcoholism. There's been talk about Pat Patrick putting a team together for Junior, but thus far only talk. Mr. Patrick no longer has equipment or personnel in place to run a team, having sold it all to Champ Car owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Paul Gentilozzi.
Kenny Brack probably won't return to competition until the middle of the year, which is a loss for fans of the Swede's driving and musical interludes. Brack's seat at Team Rahal will be kept warm by Buddy Rice, now nearly three years into IRL combat.
Even with all the team changes at the Indy Racing League and I've only talked here about a few everything is in place for the IRL to have a competitive yet safe season, particularly with regard to the people who work with racers. From top to bottom, the Indy Racing League is ready to take proper care of its athletes and those who support them.
Brian Barnhart in racing operations has the capable John Capels and Phil Casey working with him. Marketing man Ken Ungar has an excellent staff to assist him, as does John Griffin at public relations. And the League has Dr. Henry Bock in place to service the physical needs of the entire IRL community.
I can't stress enough the entity of stable personnel in the Indy Racing League, particularly as I look at Open Wheel Racing Series and the scalpel work being done to pare salaries in preparation for a very lean year of Champ Car racing.
In the world of auto racing, where a driver's outlook on life can change in a millisecond, having the finest medical practitioners on staff is imperative. In fact, having the best staffers in all areas of our sport is important.
At this time, it's apparent the Indy Racing League is showing intelligence in keeping staff satisfied. And intact.