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Monday, December 27, 2010

Sealing the Cracks That Caused the Split

My good friend Tony Johns over at Pop Off Valve likes to say that bantering over Twitter enhances social media usage by those of us who like to create content for the web. I've always been a little more wary of it.

Part of it is because I always like to have a hard-news-only option (hence the creation of a site account @OpnWhlAmerica), but part of it is because I don't feel like some of the more mundane experiences of my life really merit tweeting about. (I have to admit, I love Graham Rahal as a driver, but following his account isn't particularly enriching.)

This all changed for me over the holiday season.

With no other outlet to express the frustration and comedy of a Christmas Eve dinner gone somewhat awry, I took to the Twitterverse with the story of my 92-year-old grandfather figuring out that he was, indeed, home. One of the more entertaining stories I've ever had to tell, even in its simplicity and lack of two-way dialogue, it opened me up a little more to the idea of using social media to bring people into my life.

Then, in the wee hours of Boxing Day night, I let loose an even more frustrated nugget go: "Never letting longtime dating partners try to work out their shit in my apartment again. Sitting outside wondering what the fuck happened."

Throwing all caution to the wind, three of my closest friends had a small party in my apartment last night, spending an hour traveling to Boston in the midst of a noreaster that has proved catastrophic for any car unfortunate enough to be parked on a public road and most airports. Most of the night was a good time - fun, games, a lot of cathartic stories told between a bunch of people who have known each other for a long time. It would also be a good night for the former couple of two years to spend time with each other in the company of friends, perhaps providing an impetus for them to work out their differences.

Then, of course, things started to go wrong. The differences that caused the couple to split up in the first place, nearly a year ago, came back to the forefront. They tried to be better than one another. They complained about little things. The cracks that caused the split were only widening once again.

Things got heated, with the other friend and I removing ourselves from the room so the couple could do their thing, before we split them up to talk to them individually. The rest of the night was a big mess of awkward, bothered folks who didn't sleep very well or have their senses about them for much of the morning.

We basically concluded this: they need to figure out how to close the book, or at least come to a satisfactory point of renewal, because although things are on the road, they need to tie up some loose ends and get things right. Each side has their strong points and their flaws, but somehow every festering wound needs to be aided, every unplugged crack needs to be sealed, every broken lamp needs to be superglued back together before both sides can be satisfied. Both sides need to respect each other as equals, complete and inarguable equals, and until then, that can't happen.

Now, at the risk of going Roy Hobbson on you all, the question at hand here is simply: What the HELL does this lengthy anecdote have to do with IndyCar?

You've probably heard by now that the sport is finally taking two huge steps to bring it back where it once was. The first, of course, is bringing technology back to the forefront, making it matter, and making higher standards a possibility (if not immediate reality) for a new generation of fans. That's big - it brings back many of the people who bought into the open-development of CART and Champ Car, the technological advances that those series liked to bring to the table, and perhaps our first new track records at Indianapolis since the very beginning of the "split."

But the second step is to finally combine all American open wheel records into one record book. USAC or CART, IndyCar or Champ Car, they're all being brought together officially for the first time. Less physical than psychological, it's just another important instance on the road to complete unification.

For a long time, American open-wheel racing was torn apart by two very distinct schools of thought. One was the Tony George opinion, that the sport should be more like NASCAR, with more ovals and American drivers. Those in power in CART in the early 1990s were greater proponents of bringing in European drivers and fashioning the sport into an American Formula 1. George created the Indy Racing League as a backlash against it, and for 12 years the "split" festered.

When IndyCar bought out Champ Car in 2008, it was only the first, biggest step. There were still hard feelings. Four or five race teams went out of business, and some top Champ Car drivers to this day struggle to land rides. The Champ Car teams, having no more use for their cars, setup notes, and some equipment, were faced with a major competitive disadvantage. Now, they're not so much disadvantaged as they are still viewed differently; generally, owing to their road-course-only heritage, they mostly hire road course specialists, and former IRL teams often do the opposite.

Of course, we've made plenty of progress in these past three years. I say enough about Randy Bernard and Mike Kelly and what they do for the sport - while that's important, let's focus on some of the smaller things for a second. Some ex-IRL squads, like Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, have employed road course specialists like Justin Wilson, while Conquest Racing and Dale Coyne Racing have embraced development drivers from Firestone Indy Lights instead of the Atlantic Championship, Champ Car's former development series. The schedule is now an even mix of ovals and road courses. And with the record books being fixed, putting everything in one place, it's just another step forward, eliminating yet another point of contention.

American open-wheel fans are much like the feuding couple in my apartment from last night. Both sides want the same thing - complete unification - even if they may hesitate to admit it. It's best for both of them. Except, of course, each side wants things to go their way and not the other's, so things remain heated and some problems stay unsolved.

But enough time has passed that they should come to some mutual understanding and try to get it right. There will still be some fights and bitterness, but by this point, it's really time to put it all in the past, come back together, and start anew.

Maybe I'm a couple years too late with this post. Maybe not. I still see the dividing line in the sport between the IRLers and the Champ Car folks rear its ugly head now and again. There are still some loose ends to be tied up. Embracing the old sanctioning body's philosophy on car development is great. But combining the sport's record books recognizes the defeated series as the victorious one's equal... well, you can't ask for much more than that internal validation.

That's what the feuding couple needs, and it's what IndyCar needs, too, before things can be completely fixed - for both sides to recognize one another as equals. We're on the way, we're getting close, but we're not there yet.

Like Tony's hashtag said when he tweeted about the combined record books, it's about time it happens.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Refound Perspective

I've been in a bit of a rut as far as writing goes lately. I didn't finish my season review pieces here, even though I got through 17 of them. My readership, I think, has declined. My stuff elsewhere has suffered. The inspiration has been there in fits and starts, but not as constantly as it once was. Even my Christmas wish to you all was pretty lame. Maybe it's just because we're in the offseason.

Instead, I've been relaxing with my friends, Matt and Tom. We've known each other since middle school, at least. These guys are like brothers to me - the brothers I never had. We trade advice, we play video games, we try to make something of ourselves and our unit. But what we do together has nothing to do with my writing. They don't see my passion for motorsports as much as you all do.

We got together for Christmas, just like it was any other night. After a series of awkward family gatherings and decent gifts (especially money, always a necessity for a college student), Tom and I went to Tom's house to wait for our friend, Matt, to get out of his late shift at work. His adoptive father, Big Joseph, is usually up when we get in. We trade stories, we talk sports, we learn from each other. Well, mostly, I learn from him, because that's how it goes with generational gaps, usually.

This particular day we'd gotten to talking about sports, and witnessing greatness. He was 20 feet from Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem at Woodstock. John Bucyk sized his skates as a teenager. He once witnessed Ted Williams talk fly fishing with a friend's father. The point was that, no matter who you are on this earth, you're never nobody - you're always somebody. I heard more stories from him in a night than I'd heard from my father in five years.

I said this to him. I wished - and I do, to this day - that I could hear more of my dad's crazy driving stories from when he was a kid. I wanted him to teach me how to drive a stick, show me how to wheel a muscle car, endow me with the skills that would enable me to pilot a car with confidence and skill.

Thus far, I've had no experience with any of that. My family has a Mustang, but it's an automatic. The limitation of my manual abilities is acquired muscle memory with a Ferrari FXX on Road America in Forza Motorsport 3. Yet I've always wanted to be the next Dario Franchitti - hell, at least the next Marco Andretti. I never really got that chance. I'd be more at peace with it with the stories of his driving adventures. Nothing.

I told Big Joseph this. I said, "There's one quote that stuck with me. I think it was Bobby Knight, if not, somebody attributed it to him and that's the name that stuck with me. But he said that 'Those who can, do. Those who can't, write about it.'"

Said Big Joseph, "Fuck him."

My eyes widened a bit.

"Yeah, fuck him," Big Joseph continued, slicing carrots into a chicken soup. "Writers live forever. You come along as an athlete, you set a record in sports... sooner or later somebody's gonna come along and break it. But as a writer, if you can tell a story, you can live forever.

"If you can write - and I know you can write - stick it to 'em. Take your talents to the ice, to the field, to the ballpark, and shine."

I was witnessing greatness. Not the kind of greatness that you see on the sports field, but the kind of greatness that comes from the heart, when you want to teach somebody else a life lesson. It was a motivational speech on par with Herb Brooks in the locker room at Lake Placid in 1980. And it contained the same message - to go out and be the best at what it is you do, no matter what anybody says, if anybody doubts you, if you're not getting any breaks. Just go out and be somebody.

Perhaps the greatest Christmas gift of all was the inspiration to write something again, and it came from Big Joseph.

He said earlier in the night, "What's wrong with things coming by accident? How do you meet the woman you love?"

"By accident."

"Exactly. BY ACCIDENT. I wandered into The Grog in Newburyport, and who walks in but this beautiful brunette that turns out to be Thomas's grandmother. I might have come into the bar a nobody that night, but I was somebody enough to say 'Hey, how you doin'?' You're never nobody."

And I think I'm taking the right message from all of that.

I'm not nobody. I'm somebody. I may just be a mere IndyCar blogger, but you know what? I'm somebody. And so is everybody else in the IndyCar blogosphere. And I may be young, unpolished, and not know when to shut up sometimes, but I'm one of you, just the same. And I'm going to keep being somebody.

If you read me, good. Glad to have you. If you don't, well, you'd better start, because I'm going to come out next year and show all of you that my writing means something. I'm going to be a voice that leads the sport into the future, through ups and downs, peaks and valleys, good times and bad. I promise you no less than that from me, or from this site, from this day forward.

To that end, let me also announce the site's expansion. We're adding writers next year. We're switching from the tried-and-true Blogger format to a more heavy-duty WordPress site, and you're all invited. We'll still be at OpenWheelAmerica.com, but we'll also be on Twitter at @OpnWhlAmerica and attending at least half a dozen races between us next year. Expect nothing less than innovative and interesting content from young, dynamic, and authoritative voices year-round.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all - look for us in the future. See you soon, maybe even with the rest of those season review pieces.

Chris

Happy Holidays!

Nothing too lengthy or convoluted here - just a sincere wish from Open Wheel America that you and all of our readers have a happy holiday season. See you soon!

Chris

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Opinion: Why Is IndyCar On The Upswing?

It wasn’t too long ago that NASCAR was on the biggest power play in professional motorsports. It had all the top tracks, was culling drivers from the best of the rest of the country, and had the most fans (and money) behind it by far.

None of this could make it more apparent than the increasingly silly nature of the sport’s “silly season,” the time of year when drivers started announcing future plans. When I was growing up, usually drivers knew no earlier than October or November where they’d be the next year. Now, stars were signing multi-year contracts as early as May.

It even still borders on the ridiculous, as the concept of signing a contract for “the season after next” still comes into play (Kasey Kahne, anyone?). But the absurdity of the NASCAR silly season has been toned down as the money’s stopped flowing quite as freely through the garage.

During that time frame, IndyCar was on the bottom of the American motorsports food chain. Yes, the Indianapolis 500 still mattered, as it always will. But NASCAR was the top dog, and the Daytona 500 had arguably surpassed Indy. The NHRA had political stability. The split between Grand-Am and American Le Mans was hurting sports car racing, but not as bad as the still-divorced IndyCar and Champ Car hurt open-wheel racing; Grand-Am and the ALMS catered to different niches of sports car racing, and shared a majority of drivers, as they still do.

Most open-wheel drivers weren’t signing contracts until February, right before the beginning of the season. Many had to bring their own sponsorship. Now, we’re in the midst of an offseason that is seeing almost every worthy driver get a ride, and plenty of teams secure funding on their own.

What changed?

The keys here are political stability and room for growth. IndyCar eventually bought out Champ Car, the first action to help bring the sport back together, but just because the two warring factions have unified doesn’t mean that their supporters have done the same. To this day, old Champ Car fans resent the Dallara chassis, calling it a “crapwagon;” meanwhile, fans of the original all-American, all oval Indy Racing League despise the addition of road courses and foreign drivers.

But it was the decision to bring in Randy Bernard as IndyCar CEO that began paying the highest returns. Current fans in the know deify Bernard as the sport’s savior; while one man can’t take credit for everything, it’s easy to understand why.

Before Bernard left Professional Bull Riders, IndyCar was stuck with an outdated car, an underperforming schedule, no marketing charisma whatsoever, a star driver with only one win, and little positive momentum. Since he’s come in, all of that has changed. There’s a new car on the way with multiple manufacturers, some new races with great potential, a fresh look, the potential for some new (and, importantly to some, American) superstars, and things don’t look to fall off track soon.

Clearly, Mike Kelly and the folks at IZOD are to thank for the boost in marketing savvy, and no fan can thank them enough for helping revitalize the sport for other potential sponsors. They’re cool, trendy, and really seem to understand the heritage of the Indianapolis 500 and the essence of what makes open-wheel racing so great. But they can’t be the ones to go around and solicit new engine manufacturers or commercial partners; they are their own entity. That’s the new IndyCar administration’s job, and they do it well.

Compare that to NASCAR, which has seen a whole bunch of bad news under Brian France. The list of problems reads like a nightmare. Declining attendance at overbuilt tracks. Declining TV ratings with broadcast partners who undermine the races with poor coverage or excessive commercials. A divisive racecar that has improved safety at the expense of entertainment. A Chase format that the folks up top still can’t seem to get right. An underachieving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and five-times-consecutive champion Jimmie Johnson. It goes on.

It seems that the only thing that Brian France has carried over to NASCAR from his father’s and grandfather’s leadership is an iron fist, a strong-willed belief that the fans will eventually take what you give them, no matter what. France’s comments at Homestead this year implied that he was woefully out of touch with the common race fan, the people that NASCAR built its success with, implying that the sport was absolutely fine and hinting at even more alterations to the Chase, including a second potential points reset in the final few races to guarantee a big finale every year.

While France tries to impress the media in hope that the fans and sponsors will follow, Bernard has taken the opposite approach. So far, it’s been working out. Fans are beginning to rediscover the sport, and the subsequent new list of partners would make any race fan drool. Witness Chevrolet, Lotus, Mazda, Sunoco, and Verizon Wireless. Witness the addition of a dozen official partners this year alone, from car rental services (Avis) to gourmet popcorn (Just Pop In).

Verizon, shut out of NASCAR due to restrictions on wireless service providers in its Sprint-backed top series, will shift over $10 million to IndyCar sponsorship activation. That’s kind of a big deal.

This just leads to another crucial observation: IndyCar has almost infinite room for growth. “The split” left the American open-wheel world with a bunch of scorched earth and a long regenerative process. But now that the soil is a bit more fertile, and the costs are still relatively low, the sport should be able to support a renaissance.

Again, compare that to NASCAR. The days of 50 fully-funded teams are long gone. Sponsorship costs are so high that most companies consolidate with the biggest teams and share space on top drivers’ cars instead of giving some of the little guys a chance. The sport is overvalued and underperforming, and it shows with the loss of longtime, big-name sponsors like Old Spice, and the minimized roles of sport mainstays like Kellogg’s, Interstate Batteries, and Valvoline.

What’s the result of all of this?

With NASCAR now deemed “untouchable” by many potential sponsors, their funds are shifting over to IndyCar, which is able to welcome them in with open arms and significantly lower prices. The racing may not be much better than it’s ever been since moving to a spec vehicle, but the buzz is infinitely more positive.

It leads to drivers like Tony Kanaan landing on their feet within a month of losing a major backer. It leads to a bonanza of sponsorship deals for Team Penske. It leads to young drivers like James Hinchcliffe, Pippa Mann, and Charlie Kimball getting deals to move up, or at least being considered to. It leads to major funding for Simona de Silvestro, the sport’s biggest overachiever and perhaps its next female race winner.

And now we have 16 drivers and teams locked in before the new year – almost a 25% increase from where we were at this point last year. That will comprise the majority of the field, and that’s a huge step forwards from where we’ve been.

IndyCar has never done things the “NASCAR way,” and likely never will as long as Bernard is in charge. It can’t, and it doesn’t have to. There’s no reliance on the past - just the opportunity to build a better future for open-wheel racing in the States. And with NASCAR's list of problems growing yearly, it may not be as hard as you'd think for the Indianapolis 500 to become the crown jewel of American motorsports once again.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Opinion: Captain America a "Charging Star" for IndyCar


2010 was a bleak year for the American open-wheel driver. The only two full-timers confirmed at the beginning of the season were Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti, although Ryan Hunter-Reay pieced together a full season on a race by race basis. Meanwhile, 2009 full-timers Graham Rahal and Ed Carpenter had to be content with limited schedules, and the development driver pipeline sprung a leak somewhere between Indy Lights and the Indianapolis 500.

Today, we learned that 2010 was merely an aberration.

Panther Racing will unite an American driver with their National Guard sponsorship for the first time in 2011 as J.R. Hildebrand, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion, will move up to the IZOD IndyCar Series and compete for rookie of the year honors. Dan Wheldon's replacement parlayed a two-race audition with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing last season and a successful test with Panther at Phoenix earlier this month into multi-year job security.

The goal for any IndyCar team is to hire the fastest and most skilled driver possible. Hildebrand, with his successful Lights experiences and Formula One test at the end of 2009, fits the bill. He's had success thus far in just about every formula he's competed in, and leads an impressive class of young American drivers moving up the ranks - one that also includes Jonathan Summerton, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, and Conor Daly, among others.

But Hildebrand offers something else to the series, something that had previously been taken for granted: a distinctly American superstar.

The IRL used to have Sam Hornish, who won titles for Panther in 2001 and 2002 with the stars and stripes running down the side of his car. But as the CART contingent began to move in, the series moved more and more away from its original modus operandi, the employment of American-born oval specialists. No American has won the title since Hornish did in 2006. This year, Ryan Hunter-Reay finished seventh in points to represent the best finish for an American-born driver; that represents an all-time low.

Hunter-Reay, Patrick, and Andretti have all done their part for American open-wheel racing, of course. Hunter-Reay's wins on the road courses at Surfers Paradise, Watkins Glen, and Long Beach over the course of his career help dispel the notion that only foreign-born drivers excel on the road courses; Patrick has become a household name, perhaps IndyCar's best link to the general public until her NASCAR forays this year; no name better defines American open-wheel racing than Andretti.

But none of those drivers have earned the nickname "Captain America." None of them carry the flag on their car (and while some American drivers do on their helmets, the helmet isn't as distinctive or identifying for the driver as it was in the past). None drive a red, white, and blue car. Hildebrand will do all three in 2011.

Hildebrand's got two other qualities that make him unique. First, he's a racer, pure and simple. You name it, Hildebrand's done demonstration runs in it, from old Formula 1 cars to high-powered street cars. Before signing the National Guard deal, his Twitter background featured a picture of the great Steve McQueen.

Second, he's almost universally liked and respected in the IndyCar community. Patrick and Andretti are occasionally lambasted for their celebrity. Not Hildebrand, who is one of the friendliest faces in the garage. Who else would take to Twitter to personally thank every single person who sent him a congratulatory message? Not many drivers.

For too long, the personable, all-American IndyCar driver has been missing from a series that desperately needs something distinctly American in its identity. It's part of the reason why the series has dropped off so much in the eyes of the American motorsports fan. In fact, any true IndyCar fan should be rooting for Hildebrand to succeed - there's no driver better equipped to solve that problem than he is. He might even replace Hornish as the series' next American champion someday.

For now, Captain America will keep charging to the front - but it won't be long until he's the sport's next star.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Opinion: IndyCar Fans Need To Bring The Hate


Twitter is a fabulous distraction when you're bored - or, alternately, during the commercial breaks of football games on Sunday. It's especially fun to peruse through your follower list and see the strange bedfellows that are made during some matchups, none of them strangers than some of my blogging colleagues (and Indianapolis natives) rooting for the New England Patriots during their matchup with the Chicago Bears yesterday.

Now, being a Boston native, I found this hilarious. The Patriots and the Colts, despite the odd geographic combination, comprise one of the best rivalries in all of sports right now, up there with Yankees-Red Sox, Steelers-Ravens, LeBron James and Brett Favre-the world, and so on. These are intensely polarizing matchups; each side's fans paint their team as a group of heroes, while the other side is rendered as villains worse than Kim Jong Il.

Seeing some of these diehards jump ship for a day, if only to root against a team they somehow hate even more, is humorous and interesting at the same time. Sports psychologists could probably write a book on it.

But it brought me to an important realization: we don't really have a "bad guy" in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

NASCAR has Kyle Busch, the mercurial wunderkind who carries himself with all the grace of a raging alcoholic. Busch has a checkers-or-wreckers attitude that frequently gets him into hot water with his competitors; it's hard to walk through the NASCAR garage and see somebody who hasn't been pissed off by a Rowdy Busch outburst or daring move in the final laps of some race.

That hatred sells, though. Because of that strong contingent that loves Busch, me included, his souvenir sales are among the tops in the business. He's handsomely paid, or at least paid well enough to have started his own Truck Series team. And because of all the boos he garners week in and week out, he's a constant media presence, one of the few drivers in the sport that is always in the middle of a story.

It's not the nicest thing to say in the world, but let's face facts. We sports fans love to hate. Colts fans hate the Patriots. Celtics fans hate the Lakers. As a lifelong Boston Bruins fan, I despise the Montreal Canadiens organization with all my heart for their dirty play and tendency to employ thugs. Pick a sports team, any sports team, and ask one of their fans about a hated enemy, and see if you hear anything different. Hatred - and the necessity of subjective analysis - are the two things that separate sports from the other major news subjects of the world. (That would explain why so many sports blogs exist.)

But what do we have in IndyCar for a true rivalry? The closest thing that's come up as of late is Danica Patrick-Tony Kanaan, and that's got too many issues with it. Open wheel lifers love Kanaan; he's been a full-timer since 1998, has won championships, and is a friendly (if intense) guy. Patrick brought in an entire new fanbase to the sport, and while she may draw the ire of more fans in this rivalry, she can't be the villain per se because of how much marketing money is spent on her. It just doesn't make marketing sense to paint your most popular driver as the bad one, does it?

The closest thing that we have right now to hatred is our dislike for the dominance of Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. Many bloggers refer to them, somewhat derisively, as the "Red Cars" or the "Death Star." It's a start, I suppose. But of the five drivers on those two teams, there's nobody with a really abrasive personality. Helio Castroneves is one of the sport's most popular drivers, rarely caught without a smile on his face. Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe are generally personable. IndyCar fans are still getting used to Will Power. Scott Dixon is comically neutral, at least if you read the old Silent Pagoda posts on him.

It's the wrong kind of hatred. We can't just have everybody rooting against the concept of domination, because it happens in every form of racing. But what else do IndyCar fans really have to hate? ESPN, particularly Marty Reid and/or Nicole Briscoe? The International Speedway Corporation? Danica's threat to jump ship to NASCAR - even though some of us want her gone?

Maybe I'm focusing on the wrong thing here. It is pretty cool that a newcomer can step into the sport, pick just about any driver as their favorite, and share a mutual respect for the rest of the field after watching a race or two. Maybe that's part of what makes us unique. But I'm not so sure.

Somebody's gotta step up and become that universal villain, much like Kyle Busch in NASCAR, to take us to the next level. They need to be just as talented on the track as they are abrasive off of it, they need to get under people's skin, and most importantly, they need to win races, or challenge for the championship.

Could it be a reinvented J.R. Hildebrand, as a hotshot rookie with Panther Racing? Could Marco Andretti live up to his family name? Could it be Alex Tagliani, Mario Moraes, or Paul Tracy? Hell, could it even be Danica? There are plenty of possibilities.

But until somebody steps up, I guess we have to focus our disgust on corporate entities. That'll totally get us somewhere.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Opinion: IZOD and Penske a Good Fit?


There's no question that IZOD is the biggest marketing power the IndyCar Series has ever seen. Since taking over title sponsorship of American open-wheel racing's top category in 2010, IZOD has done more to raise awareness of the sport than any other sponsor ever has, from driver meet-and-greets in big cities to the primary sponsorship of Ryan Hunter-Reay's ride at Andretti Autosport.

Today, however, we've seen a major, surprising shift in their strategy. IZOD will leave Hunter-Reay, their lead spokesman for the sport since 2008, and Andretti behind for a new, multi-year deal with Team Penske and driver Ryan Briscoe. The deal will involve primary sponsorship in a handful of races, including the Indianapolis 500, and is the second major IndyCar deal for Penske this week, following Shell's commitment to Helio Castroneves.

Now, it's no question that any alliance with Roger Penske is a significant upgrade in the ownership department. I'm simply concerned with two things: whether or not Briscoe is going to be an upgrade from Hunter-Reay, and how healthy it is for the sport when sponsors abandon the smaller teams for the big ones.

For the past two years, Hunter-Reay has been the undisputed face of IZOD in IndyCar. The series' best American driver (a key selling point) has done more than his share to promote the brand, looking just as good in commercials (including last year's "Race to the Party" campaign) as he has on the track (winning last year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach). He developed as strong of a brand association as pairs like Tony Kanaan and 7-Eleven, Scott Dixon and Target, and Danica Patrick and GoDaddy.com, in a fraction of the time. He was undoubtedly one of the catalysts that got Philips Van Heusen marketing head Mike Kelly interested in primary sponsorship of the series in the first place.

Now, IZOD will put their money behind Briscoe, an Australian driver who's developed a bit of a reputation for choking since blowing the points lead at Motegi in 2009. Last year, he threw away what could have been easy wins at Sao Paulo and Indianapolis by overdriving the car into the wall, and there were even rumors that his seat was in question for 2011. Some sources suggest that Hunter-Reay would have been headed to Penske as part of the deal if Andretti hadn't exercised an option on his contract, but that's a moot point now.

The other issue is sponsorship consolidation. Undoubtedly, the companies that are interested in marketing through motorsports want to be with the best teams, usually utilizing a lesser team to get their feet wet before jumping up the ladder. They're completely within their rights to do so under a free market.

But how good is it for the sport when your top teams are simply poaching sponsors from the lesser ones, forcing them to be the ones to attract new money? This is the second ex-Andretti Autosport backer, Meijer being the first, to defect to the Captain's organization this year. That leaves Michael Andretti in a massive sponsorship hole, even though he has the third best team in the sport.

It's similar to the issues plaguing the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where sponsors almost invariably head to JR Motorsports after a year or two in order to work with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver. It's not important that Earnhardt Jr. only drives in one or two races for that given sponsor per season. The point is that these sponsors get to say they're endorsed by Earnhardt Jr., and it's the same way with Penske's new sponsorship coups.

Of course, at least we're not talking about a team like Dale Coyne Racing losing its sponsor. Were it a smaller team than Andretti, we might have seen one fewer car on the grid in 2011; at least we had already known for a while that Hunter-Reay was going to be back with Andretti, and the IZOD primary sponsorship deal on that car was going away. Their commitment had gone above and beyond the previous stated goal of six to eight races anyway, expanding all the way to 15 events. That won't have to happen at Penske, who can certainly bankroll all three of his cars for the full season if he so chooses.

It's a shame, though, that it will have to come at the cost of the brand's relationship with Hunter-Reay, who had the two most important characteristics necessary for marketing success in American racing: be American, and be able to win. One wonders what RHR would have been able to do in Penske equipment. One also wonders if the brand's campaign will be as successful with Briscoe in the driver's seat.

Only one thing is for certain: IZOD wants to be the best and classiest in motorsports sponsorship. And there may be no better way to do it than to ally with the one of the best and classiest teams in motorsports.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Opinion: A Quantum Leap Back Towards Legitimacy


Those of you lamenting the recent unqualified ride-buyer trend in the IZOD IndyCar Series, take note.

IndyCar's TEAM program - which allocates about $1.3 million to full-time teams in lieu of purse money in 16 of the series' 17 events - has been restructured to accommodate 22, instead of the previous 24, teams.

Those sitting on the sidelines? The second cars of Conquest Racing - which saw five pay drivers take the reins this year - and Dale Coyne Racing, who employed the relentlessly mocked and embarrassingly slow Milka Duno.

With that single step, IndyCar drew a hard line in the ground between who deserves to be there and who doesn't.

Granted, the reality is slightly more complex than that for Conquest. They started the season with Mario Romancini and added Bertrand Baguette in a second car after missing the series' first two events. As the season went on, Romancini yielded to other drivers with more money, and Baguette became the team's lead driver, the two cars' numbers - 34 for the lead car, 36 for Baguette - swapped in reflection. But in the end, the 34 (now Baguette's team), the more deserving team, got paid, and the 36 didn't.

Of course, it seems like a slap in the face to longtime owners Dale Coyne and Eric Bachelart, ex-CART drivers and Champ Car owners. And in a way, it is. These guys have their own side of the story - neither are big-time owners with multi-million dollar sponsorship contracts like Chip Ganassi or Michael Andretti. Neither can afford to employ too many drivers that don't bring at least some money with them.

But, at the same time, they chose to bring on drivers who were clearly miles off the pace. Duno drew the ire of competitors for her consistently slow times, as she has since joining the series. Meanwhile, Bachelart brought on the previously unknown Francesco Dracone, who wasn't much faster in his brief audition with the team, and followed him with Tomas Scheckter and Roger Yasukawa.

Understanding that drivers like this weren't going to cut it if IndyCar ever wants to approach NASCAR again in legitimacy, Randy Bernard and Brian Barnhart had to act quickly. They started by putting Duno on probation over the summer and threatened not to renew her license for 2011; she's not likely to be back. Now the TEAM parameters have been adjusted to penalize the two owners most guilty of hiring unqualified talent last season.

Don't think the rest of the sport isn't taking notice.

While Jimmy Vasser is attempting to retain all three drivers from last year's horror show at KV Racing Technology, he's also talked enthusiastically about putting Paul Tracy, the 2003 CART champion, into a full-time ride after two years of limited schedules. Panther Racing is looking at J.R. Hildebrand, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion, for their lone seat. Chip Ganassi appears poised to start a two-car satellite team out of ex-drag racer Don Prudhomme's shop with young American standouts Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball.

And perhaps best of all, after a dismal 2010 that saw the team suffer through poor runs with Hideki Mutoh and only employ Rahal for five races - a long way to fall from their seventh place performance in 2009 - Newman/Haas Racing is testing 2010 Lights runner-up James Hinchcliffe and longtime Champ Car stalwart Oriol Servia at Sebring International Raceway in mid-December with the intent of bringing both to the series in 2011.

There's not a single driver on that list that doesn't have the confidence and respect of the majority of the IndyCar paddock. Most have taken victories in IndyCar, Champ Car, or Indy Lights. The only one who hasn't, Kimball, had four runner-up finishes in Lights this year.

That's a huge jump forward from Duno, Dracone, and Mutoh, and an even bigger jump forward from past backmarkers like Marty Roth, Kosuke Matsuura, and Enrique Bernoldi.

It also puts potential sponsors in a bit more of a pressing position. It's still a free market, under which they can shift money to whomever they please. But in order to tap into IndyCar's highly populated markets, desirable fan demographic, and recent positive momentum, and to make sure that the team they work with gets paid at the end of the season, they have to hire a driver with the chops to put on a good show and not stink up the back of the grid.

And, like it was in the sport's heyday, the only ones lamenting will be the ones who aren't fast enough to make the cut.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Opinion: Sarah Fisher's Groundbreaking Transition


Today's big IZOD IndyCar Series news came out of the Sarah Fisher Racing camp, as team namesake Sarah Fisher announced her retirement from IndyCar competition. While her No. 67 Dollar General Dallara-Honda will return to competition next season for nine races, Ed Carpenter will be its new driver.

Fisher steps aside after 25 years competing in various forms of racing, dating back to her early childhood. Ever since her early start, she's been a go-getter and an overachiever, scoring everything from multiple World Karting Association championships to IndyCar drives, all the way up to a Formula 1 test with McLaren-Mercedes in 2002. Off the track, she's even written a book, entitled "99 Things Women Wish They Knew Before Getting Behind the Wheel of Their Dream Job". You name it, she's done it.

She first began contemplating a transition out of the car earlier this year, when she gave Graham Rahal a three-race deal to drive the No. 67 to keep him in practice as he looked for more consistent employment. With three full seasons gone by since her last top-10 finish, a seventh place in IndyCar's first Iowa event, and a family-owned team running a part-time schedule against such superpowers as Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, her prospects for taking the checkers as a winning driver were slim.

But Fisher showed that she could still hang up front with the big boys at Chicagoland this year. She took the lead under caution thanks to an alternate pit strategy, holding it for 10 laps. Although Ryan Briscoe got by her soon after the green flag waved again, she managed to hold her position in the top five for quite a while afterward. If anybody ever doubted that she still had the skills to run up front, even after her brief NASCAR sojourn in the middle of the decade, Chicagoland was their rebuttal.

Now, Fisher transitions into her most difficult and important role yet: full-time team owner.

Yes, this will be Sarah Fisher Racing's fourth IZOD IndyCar Series season, so it's not as if Fisher hasn't had to face those difficult ownership decisions before. Things will certainly be less tense around the SFR shop than they were in 2008, when she and husband Andy O'Gara formed the team out of pocket. That year, a sponsorship disaster with RESQ Energy Drink and an Indianapolis 500 accident nearly sidelined the team for good before it could even get off the ground.

Things have been looking up ever since Dollar General stepped in for two late 2008 events. The team expanded to two cars for 2010, adding Jay Howard to a limited slate of events, and of course had the popular Rahal compete in three events.

Now with Carpenter behind the wheel for the team in 2011, and the elimination of the perpetually off-the-pace second car, Fisher can fully focus on building a strong race team that will compete for IndyCar wins and championships for years to come. Carpenter and Fisher alike have been featured in successful and popular IndyCar marketing programs over the past few years; while Fisher has become a prominent face in Dollar General marketing, Carpenter has represented longtime Indy sponsor Menards and newcomer Fuzzy's Vodka in the past few years. The tandem of two affable American racers with old-school roots (both came from USAC backgrounds) should prove interesting to new potential sponsors.

Of course, Fisher's transition to full-time ownership represents a step forward for IndyCar for more reasons than that. Most forms of motorsport have never seen a top team led by a female owner, IndyCar included. Fisher has the potential to do that with SFR.

IndyCar has already asserted itself as a predominant form of racing for minority drivers, especially women; a record five female drivers attempted to qualify for the 2010 Indianapolis 500, with four - Fisher, Danica Patrick, Simona de Silvestro, and Ana Beatriz - competing on race day. But of the four, only Fisher was financing her own car (not counting Patrick's equity stake in her Andretti Autosport team). And Fisher almost put two cars in the race, with Howard only failing to make the race due to faulty Bump Day strategy. That's a big deal for such a small team, no matter how many cars show up.

Fisher has been embracing the ownership role more than that of driver as of late, anyway. Putting Rahal in the car was a solid move that led to the team's first-ever top-10 finish, a ninth place run at St. Petersburg. It was a decision to improve her team's performance, not to feed her ego and keep her in the car, and it paid off. Fisher gave her sponsor a top-flight driver and a chance to make some noise in their brief time together, and garnered a lot of respect from IndyCar fans and competitors - not only for employing the best driver not to have a full-time ride, but also for knowing when to step aside for the benefit of her team.

Now, the team has a chance to score some underdog oval wins with Carpenter, who came tantalizingly close to pulling out another surprise Kentucky victory this year. And Carpenter has another chance to learn the road courses, his longtime Achilles' heel in IndyCar competition.

Who knows, a strong 2011 season could attract enough sponsors for full-time competition in 2012, when new chassis and engines debut. And in the mess that comes with a blank slate, you never know what a little team could pull out of its hat.

Could Sarah Fisher be the first female owner to win an IZOD IndyCar Series race? Perhaps even the first to win an Indianapolis 500? Don't doubt it. She's never been one not to accomplish her goals.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: E.J. Viso


2010 may not have been the breakout season that E.J. Viso hoped for, but he certainly moved up a rung or two on the IZOD IndyCar Series ladder.

After spending two years with the underfunded HVM Racing, including a horrid 2009 sidetracked by seven consecutive DNFs to start the year, Viso moved to KV Racing Technology, widely accepted as one of the best ex-Champ Car teams in IndyCar. Joining ex-Formula 1 pilot Takuma Sato and the returning Mario Moraes, Viso looked to have a strong 2010.

In reality, it was anything but, as accidents and bad luck kept the Venezuelan driver 17th in points despite a handful of shining performances.

The first instance of bad luck came at St. Petersburg, where Viso briefly led due to clever pit strategy. Unfortunately, transmission issues knocked him three laps down and he finished a disappointing 17th. Either way, Viso carried the team's banner through the first few road course races of the season with his consistency and lack of DNFs, a far cry from his 2009 struggles.

When the series began its oval slate, Viso's luck briefly changed, as wrecks at Kansas and Indianapolis marked his first two of the year. But he rebounded with a respectable 11th place at Texas, before scoring his best career IndyCar finish at Iowa, coming home third.

The next five races were a mixed bag; decent finishes at Watkins Glen and Edmonton were juxtaposed against crashes in Glen practice and during the race at Mid-Ohio. Combined with the frequent accidents of his teammates, Viso and KVRT were hanging on a thread by the end of the season, which saw Viso finish no better than 15th in any of the final six races.

When the smoke cleared (in the case of KVRT, quite literally), Viso had his best career points position (17th) and had scored 262 points, improving on his 2009 total by 14. However, he was still 24 off his 2008 total, which remains his career best. After a year together, though, Viso and KVRT, who will likely pair up again next year, should be able to ascend the standings further in 2011.

IndyCar Season Review: Alex Lloyd


After years spent in search of an IZOD IndyCar Series ride, Alex Lloyd finally made good on the promise he had shown in Firestone Indy Lights in 2010.

A two-time Indianapolis 500 veteran, Lloyd had been in line for a seat at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing this year due to his Her Energy Drink sponsorship, but the company pulled out. Lloyd searched for another open seat and found it at Dale Coyne Racing, where he would pilot the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Dallara-Honda that Graham Rahal turned down on a race-by-race basis. Lloyd converted the opportunity into full-time employment, a 16th place finish in points, and the 2010 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Award.

Given the season's first five races, Lloyd's award was anything but predictable; he suffered DNFs at Brazil and St. Petersburg, and ran no better than 19th at Alabama, Long Beach, or Kansas. Lloyd was also a second-day qualifier at Indianapolis, starting 26th.

But two years of experience at the Speedway paid off for the Englishman. He was able to avoid trouble all day and came home an impressive fourth, beating former race winner Scott Dixon, Danica Patrick, and ex-Coyne driver Justin Wilson, among many others. The Indianapolis finish (and paycheck of over $400,000) gave the team some momentum heading into the next couple of oval races; they finished eighth at Texas and 13th at Iowa.

But switching back to the road and street courses, the team again fell to the back. Lloyd spun out Dan Wheldon in Watkins Glen on the way to his third of five DNFs on the year. Indeed, at the beginning of every quarter of the season, on each switch from one discipline to the other, the team struggled. Lloyd would wait until Mid-Ohio to once again break the top half of the field, and until Sonoma to snag his third and final top-10 of the season.

Towards the end of the season Lloyd once again posted some decent finishes, running 13th at Chicagoland and 12th in the series' final race at Homestead. Overall his record was good for 266 points and 16th overall in the series' final standings. He won the Rookie of the Year title over the more-hyped and more-recognized Simona de Silvestro by 24 points.

While Lloyd has not signed a contract extension for 2011, most indications have him returning to Coyne and the Boy Scouts ride, where he and the team will attempt to build on the chemistry they attained this year.

Silly Season Roundup: November 24, 2010


This week's roundup of potential driver changes in the IZOD IndyCar Series for 2011:

- On this week's edition of the SPEED Report, Robin Miller reported that Graham Rahal is a likely candidate to drive for a satellite operation of this year's championship outfit, Chip Ganassi Racing. Rahal has secured a major personal sponsorship deal with Service Central, which backed Sarah Fisher Racing and Jay Howard for a handful of races this year.

The satellite operation would utilize current Ganassi personnel and basically be a Ganassi team in all but name, an arrangement that some claim is owed to Target's naming rights deal with the team. If the rumors are true, the new outfit would be a two-car operation (fellow American Charlie Kimball is the other potential driver) based out of Brownsburg, in the former Prudhomme Racing shop. Don Prudhomme, the ex-NHRA owner and driver who shut down his operation in January, attended some late-season IndyCar events with Chip Ganassi.

- FAZZT Race Team held a well-publicized test this week with Dutch-Chinese driver Ho-Pin Tung with the help of team sponsor Bowers & Wilkins. Tung tested with the team at Sebring International Raceway in a No. 88 Dallara-Honda, and many indications suggest the team will attempt to bring him on full-time in 2011.

This is not Tung's first flirtation with American open-wheel - he had previously looked to join Champ Car in 2007. The 2006 German Formula 3 champion has held rides in almost every major open-wheel series the world over; in the past four years alone, he's won in Superleague Formula, competed in A1GP and GP2, and held test driver seats in Formula One.

The team's current driver and part-owner, Alex Tagliani, seems confident that Tung will be their second driver next year. Previous statements from owner Andre Azzi had indicated that the team would like to remain an all-Canadian outfit.

- Sarah Fisher Racing will make an announcement about the team's future on November 29. Various rumors suggest that the team will employ a single full-time American driver next year, with Fisher herself only running selected events in a second car. J.R. Hildebrand is one of the top available American drivers, but plenty more are available - Ed Carpenter, Jonathan Summerton, and Townsend Bell among them.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Silly Season Roundup: November 18, 2010


A muddy IZOD IndyCar Series silly season picture for 2011 has begun to clear up, as big names begin to sign contracts, or at least line them up, with major teams.

Since the future appears bright, with Chevrolet and Lotus joining the fray in 2012, it's easy to forget that IndyCar has another season of spec racing ahead of it, and plenty of driver contracts to be signed along the way. But just this week, we saw the confirmation of two drivers returning to their teams from 2010, and another setting up a ride with an old friend for 2011.

Justin Wilson announced his return to the No. 22 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Dallara-Honda for 2011 last Thursday, turning down offers from a handful of other teams. He'll continue a relationship that yielded an 11th-place points finish in 2010 and shone on the road and street courses all year.

Meanwhile, E.J. Viso confirmed to Yahoo! Sports Argentina that he will remain in IndyCar next season, likely returning to KV Racing Technology as the team's relationship with Lotus expands. Previously, team owner Jimmy Vasser had suggested to SpeedTV.com that the team's driver lineup would remain the same in 2011 as in 2010, although this year was a hellish season for the team that saw a plethora of wrecks.

For those who like to speculate, the article also mentioned Takuma Sato as a KVRT driver, but not Mario Moraes. Lotus has also confirmed full-time sponsorship commitment of only two cars for next year.

Meanwhile, Tony Kanaan and Gil de Ferran are a few steps closer to working together next season. Kanaan recently spent time in a de Ferran Dragon Racing car, with the intent on critiquing the team's engineering progress thus far. But de Ferran's previous driver, Raphael Matos, just finished the second of a two-year deal, and the ever-popular Kanaan is heading to Brazil, his and de Ferran's home country, to seek out sponsors. The 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner is adamant that he will employ the 2004 IndyCar champion next season.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lotus Steps Up For 2012


The addition of Chevrolet to the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series engine manufacturer lineup was a monumental revitalizing moment in the series' history, bringing back engine competition to the sport for the first time since 2005 and exciting plenty of fans along the way.

But if Chevrolet's announcement last week planted a seed, consider today's announcement one that asserts the series fully in bloom.

Group Lotus, which has recently announced the rapid expansion of its motorsports programs and had already been planning on an IndyCar aero kit for 2012, chose the night before the public opening of this year's Los Angeles Auto Show to announce their foray into IndyCar engine production. Group Lotus CEO Dany Bahar, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, and 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones were among those in attendance.

A longtime Formula 1 competitor, Lotus debuted their rear-engined, Ford-powered cars at Indianapolis in 1963, where they finished second to Jones with driver Jim Clark. Clark won the Indianapolis 500 in 1965 with the car, although Lotus pulled out a relatively short time later. The brand returned to the sport this year, backing Takuma Sato's effort with KV Racing Technology.

Specs on the engine were not yet released, suggesting the brand may look to ally with another company, or even still be mulling its own engine design.

While KVRT partner Kevin Kalkhoven owns Cosworth, a longtime IndyCar engine builder with a dozen Indy 500 wins, and Fords powered the Lotus Indy entries of the past, representatives from no other engine suppliers were present at the announcement. If Lotus goes its own route, it may open the door for Cosworth to produce an Alfa Romeo powerplant, as has been rumored in recent days.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

RIP, Silent Pagoda

I don't normally write this way on this blog. I go for the newsy-type stuff, the occasional opinion piece, some ill-received photo posts, you know, stuff like that. It is with great infrequency that I write as myself, but this is one of those days.

Today, the IndyCar community welcomed a brand new race car factory to Speedway, IN, as Dallara broke ground on a factory that will produce the safety cells for the sport starting in 2012. It was a monumental day for the company, the city, and the sport, helping bring all three into the future.

But for us bloggers, this beautiful sunny day was not without a subsequent torrential downpour. Today we received word that the Silent Pagoda, that wonderful bastion of humor that was "only vaguely related to IndyCar", would be shut down, its proprietor Roy Hobbson posting a fond farewell to the blogosphere this morning (or, mourning, if you prefer).

The loss hit us all like a ton of bricks. To call Roy a "valued member of the community" would be a grossly inappropriate statement for two reasons: first of all, because his posts were absolutely batsh*t INSANE, and second of all, because he was far more important to us than that.

We call ourselves fans of an intensely political sport, which has seen its share of problems to that end for decades. In my lifetime, we've seen everything from this year's Twitter wars between the Briscoes and EVERYBODY to the CART-IRL split way back when I was in preschool. We've seen all sorts of controversy, from the Penske Mercedes 500I at Indy in 1994 to the Delta Wing this year. And we've seen good races, like those at Chicagoland and Road America, say farewell, while boring races, like those at Infineon and Mid-Ohio, remain on the schedule.

To Roy, a self-proclaimed IndyCar outsider, nothing was sacred. He spent the better part of three years tearing apart all of the idiocy that exists in our sport, and he created some amazing characters along the way - most notably of all himself. He turned Cameron Haven into a world-changing time-traveler, E.J. Viso into The Most Interesting Man In The World, and Scott Dixon into the subject of a mood finder. And most of that was just in the second half of this season.

We'd been keen on the possibility of losing the Pagoda for a little while now, since about the day of this year's season finale. "It's not 'in question.' It's over. (Probably.)", he tweeted to one person. But we held out hope after reading this year's Paggies, the annual awards post detailing the best of the best (and the worst) in the sport this year.

But we heard nothing else about it for a while. "Everything's up in the air right now with the Pagoda," he tweeted to me last week. "Indecision is fun!" Then came today.

Personally, I idolized Roy. Maybe it was because I'm a college-aged male, or the perfect candidate to do plenty of the stupid things described in his posts. Maybe it was because he never had anything but nice things to say to me, even as I felt my own comment contributions to his wonderful site were subpar. Maybe it was because the man could turn a post about remodeling his bathroom into a call to IndyCar fans to get over all the damn politics and pretense and get excited for this season's finale at Homestead. Maybe it was all of that and then some.

I want to reference a favorite Pagoda post here, but there are too many that I want to link to. It was consistently absolutely hilarious. And in the few instances when it wasn't, it was because it had something to say that none of us in our narrow IndyCar-based worlds would have come up with in a thousand years. Humor was the Pagoda's forte, like the Coyote chassis was A.J. Foyt's. But Foyt built engines... and the Pagoda had plenty to teach us.

So Roy, if you're reading, know that we're going to miss your wit and the Pagoda. She WAS a good site. And if you don't tag onto somebody else's site for next year, and are looking to get back in the game, give me a call - I'll buy the damn website, and all the trademarks, from IndyCar for you, and she's all yours. I mean it.

Chris

Sunday, November 14, 2010

2012 Engine Deadline Fast Approaching


Tony Cotman, the man entrusted with the development of the new car formula for the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012 and beyond, released his monthly update on engineering progress to RACER magazine.

Unfortunately, the article is not optimistic on further engine announcements for the 2012 season.

Cotman reiterated a November 16 deadline for manufacturers to confirm participation in the first season of the new formula. Right now, Honda and Chevrolet are the only two who are involved in engine development. In effect, any deal for the 2012 season would have to be confirmed over the weekend, signed, and announced with about a 48 hour turnaround.

Cotman did mention about three or four potential deals that had been in the works for a while, of which he suggested Chevrolet was not one. The Chevrolet deal only came together very recently, he said. Initially, rumors had been suggesting Ford, Cosworth, Mazda, Lotus, and Alfa Romeo as potential suppliers.

The Chevrolet deal puts the pressure on Ford to join the series, for which it has never been a factory supplier of engines. Fords have not competed in IndyCar since 1996, the first year of the Indy Racing League, when the cars were older CART models. That year, a Ford engine won its eighth Indianapolis 500, with Buddy Lazier behind the wheel. Ford did remain in CART and Champ Car until the middle of the decade, when it dropped its badging of the series' Cosworth engines.

Lotus has been mentioned as a candidate based on their relationship with KV Racing Technology, whose part-owner Kevin Kalkhoven is the owner of Cosworth. Lotus and Cosworth have had a relationship before. However, Mazda also works with Cosworth in other series, and another rumor that has taken off as of late suggests that Cosworth will partner with Alfa Romeo - or even provide the same engine to multiple teams with different badging.

Friday, November 12, 2010

IndyCar History: Chevrolet


In celebration of today's announcement that Chevrolet will return to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012, a look back at Chevrolet's open-wheel history:

The name Chevrolet has been present at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since the earliest gestations of the Indianapolis 500. French-American brothers Louis, Gaston, and Arthur Chevrolet all took starts in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Arthur was the first to compete, in 1911; Louis debuted in 1916, while Gaston made the first of his two starts in 1919. Gaston was, by far, the most successful behind the wheel, taking the win in 1920 behind the wheel of a Frontenac, the race car company owned by the Chevrolet brothers.

The Chevrolet Motor Car Company itself had been founded in 1911, but founding brother Louis sold his share in it in 1915. As such, Chevrolet the brand was less associated with the speedway than its namesake. As Miller, Offenhauser, Ford, and Cosworth engines began to dominate the sport and the Indianapolis 500, there seemed like less and less of a place available for the famed bowtie at the speedway, besides appearances as the pace car.

When CART was established in 1979, Cosworth engines continued to dominate the day, but Chevrolet took the first non-Cosworth win in the series when Mike Mosley won at the Milwaukee Mile in 1981 in Dan Gurney's Pepsi Challenger. It would mark the only non-Cosworth win in the series until 1987.

Roger Penske, then a five-time Indianapolis 500-winning car owner, began fielding a Chevrolet in selected events in 1986 for Al Unser, the defending series champion. Unser's lone finish in five starts came in the season finale at Miami, where he placed 15th.

The next year, Chevrolet powerplants found their way inside the cars of some of the sport's top teams and drivers. Mario Andretti took a season-opening win at Long Beach for Newman/Haas Racing with the motor, as Penske and Pat Patrick also opted to outfit all of their cars with the new powerplant. The brand took four wins that year, with former Formula 1 champions Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi each scoring two.

Unfortunately, the new engine was still no match for the established Cosworths. Chevrolet could muster no better than fifth in the CART championship that year, with Rick Mears, as the brand's top drivers - Andretti, Mears, Fittipaldi, Danny Sullivan, and Kevin Cogan - were plagued by mechanical problems. Adding insult to injury, Unser's Indianapolis 500 win for Penske that year came in a March-Cosworth that had previously been used as a showcar.

1988 was the first year that the Chevrolet brand truly began to shine in CART. Taking the first six wins that season, 12 of 15 overall, and its first Indianapolis 500, Chevrolet scored its first championship with Sullivan in a Penske-Chevrolet. Sullivan scored an incredible 11 top five finishes and led laps in all but two events that season. Meanwhile, Mears won his third of four career Indianapolis 500s, pacing the field once dominant teammate Sullivan crashed out after 101 laps.

1989 through 1993 represented a remarkable five-year stretch for the brand, which won the Indianapolis 500 in each of those seasons and the CART championship in the first four. Chevrolet-powered cars won 66 of the 80 CART-sanctioned races over the course of those five years, sweeping the 1990 and 1991 seasons and winning 41 events in a row from September 1989 to June 1992.

But 1992 represented the first challenge to Chevrolet's established open wheel authority, as defending champions Michael Andretti and Newman-Haas Racing switched to new Ford Cosworth power. Andretti mounted a series challenge for the title, losing to Bobby Rahal by only four points. But the IndyCar wars were now at full strength, as Andretti took five wins with the new powerplant.

Andretti left CART for an ill-fated Formula 1 experiment in 1993, but his replacement was no slouch either. Defending F1 champion Nigel Mansell slid into Andretti's seat after a falling out with Williams F1 and won his debut event in Queensland. At the top of his game, the Brit won a season-high five races and the title despite missing the second race of the year at Phoenix due to injuries suffered in a practice crash. Chevrolet, Penske, and Indianapolis 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi were defeated by eight points.

At this point, Chevrolet decided that enough was enough. On September 14, 1993, the manufacturer decided to end its relationship with the sport and with engine manufacturer Ilmor, citing the rising costs of going to war with Ford.

2002 marked the brand's return to open-wheel racing. General Motors had been the premier engine supplier in the Indy Racing League since 1997, running engines badged with its Oldsmobile Aurora brand. But as Oldsmobile was being phased out at GM, the powers that be decided to replace the badging with that of Chevrolet. Few were surprised by the brand's dominance that year, winning 14 of 15 races and easily taking the top nine spots in IRL points.

Unfortunately, that dominance was short-lived. Honda and Toyota decided to abandon CART for chances at Indianapolis 500 glory, bringing most of the sport's top teams with them. Chevrolet quickly fell to third in a three-horse race, even after replacing their original engine with a new Cosworth-built motor. Of the 18 races that Chevrolet won in IndyCar between 2002 and 2005, only four came in those last three years; all were with Panther Racing.

The brand pulled out of the sport once again in 2005, as did Toyota, with both focusing their American racing programs on NASCAR first and foremost. But with the new engine formula adopted by the IZOD IndyCar Series for 2012 and beyond, and the brand seeking a new opportunity, a deal for Chevrolet to return to the sport with Penske and Ilmor appears imminent.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chevrolet-IndyCar Announcement Imminent


IndyCar has scheduled an announcement at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday at 10:00 AM Eastern time regarding manufacturer competition in the IZOD IndyCar Series for 2012 and beyond.

This announcement will be a confirmation of Chevrolet's re-entry into the sport, a rumor buzzing around the sport's blogosphere since last week. The famed engine manufacturer exited the series in 2005 after a four-year run that yielded 18 victories and the 2002 championship with Sam Hornish Jr.

The rumors also suggest that, during the 15-minute announcement, Chevrolet will announce alliances with Roger Penske and Ilmor Engineering for 2012 and beyond. Ilmor will produce the 2.2-liter V6 engines for Chevrolet, and Penske will be the brand's top owner, after rumors of an alliance with Chip Ganassi were shot down.

Team Penske was a champion of Chevrolet power in CART in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Chevy Indy V8 won every Indianapolis 500 from 1988 to 1993. When the brand left the sport after 1993, engine builder Ilmor continued to build the engines with a Mercedes-Benz nameplate.

Ilmor eventually evolved into Mercedes' high-performance engine division, but founder Mario Ilien and Penske re-established part of the company in 2005 to build engines for Honda. But Honda Performance Development appears likely to build their own IndyCar engines under the new formula, which calls for nothing larger than a turbocharged 2.4-liter V6.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Silly Season Roundup: November 10, 2010


Marshall Pruett reports today on SpeedTV.com that KV Racing Technology is closing in on finalizing their 2011 plans, helping clarify the IZOD IndyCar Series silly season picture, if only marginally.

According to team owner Jimmy Vasser, the team is working on a deal to rebrand the team Lotus/KV that will also see the team run retro paint schemes from Lotus' Formula 1 and Indianapolis 500 heyday.

Vasser also hopes to return all three of his team's full-time drivers from 2010 - Takuma Sato, E.J. Viso, and Mario Moraes - despite a trying season that saw the team wreck nearly enough cars to fill the Indianapolis 500 by itself. Paul Tracy has also been mentioned as a candidate for a fourth ride, although some of his funding has been knocked out of whack with the cancellation of the Honda Indy Edmonton.

Vasser mentioned that the long-term deal will mostly be incentive-based, meaning the team cannot quite go out and hire whomever it wants. He has also praised the team's current core of drivers, chalking up last season to inexperience and significant bad luck. However, the team is waiting to hear what some top free agents will be doing for next season, including Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan, Justin Wilson, and Dan Wheldon.

Rahal, according to Pruett, hopes to finalize and announce his plans within the next ten days. Rumors have suggested a third car at Chip Ganassi Racing, though Ganassi himself has denied the rumor. Rahal's Service Central sponsorship contract is sizable, however, and should land him at a top team.

Kanaan has been rumored to join just about every team under the sun, a testament to his strong driving talent. As Curt Cavin has been saying for weeks, de Ferran Dragon Racing seems like the strongest possibility now, as Vasser appears set at KV and Newman/Haas Racing is still searching for sponsorship. Wilson has talked to a handful of teams, including his 2010 team, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

Panther Racing is also a possibility for Wilson, as Wheldon more than likely will not be back with that team. Panther plans on holding a "gong show" test in December for their lead car, and will decide from there whether or not to expand. Meanwhile, Wheldon is considering opportunities in NASCAR, perhaps driving for Kyle Busch's Truck Series team. Wheldon and Busch share sponsorship from NOS Energy Drink.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chevrolet to Make IndyCar Return in 2012?


Rumors have swirled around the IndyCar blogosphere today that Chevrolet, as part of a major recommitment to motorsports by parent company General Motors in 2011 and beyond, will return to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012 with a V6 engine to compete with Honda.

The announcement will supposedly be made on Friday, November 12, and also includes expanded GM commitments to sports car and drag racing.

Chevrolet withdrew from IndyCar in 2005, taking its last win at Texas in June of that year with Tomas Scheckter.

The marque replaced Oldsmobile in 2002 as GM's brand of choice in the series, taking all but one win in that season. But as the larger-budgeted Honda and Toyota programs shifted over from CART, Chevrolet engines were rendered increasingly uncompetitive, until the unthinkable - a partnership with longtime Ford engine supplier Cosworth - occurred in 2005. All in all, Chevrolet engines won 18 IndyCar races, although only four came from 2003-05.

Panther Racing carried the torch for Chevrolet initially, winning the 2002 championship with Sam Hornish Jr. on Chevrolet power. But this time around, if the buzz is to be believed, the leader of the bowtie brigade will be Chip Ganassi, who won NASCAR's two biggest races - the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 - with Chevrolet power this year.

But Ganassi was not high on the food chain with GM in NASCAR; Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, and Stewart-Haas Racing are among the more notable Chevrolet teams in that series. Rival manufacturer Ford swooped in with a lucrative offer, intent on making Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing their number two team.

According to reports, Ganassi had intended to sign with Ford until learning of GM's commitment to go back to Indianapolis in 2012. As open-wheel racing has always been Ganassi's bread and butter, he reconsidered.

Nothing has been confirmed as of yet. In particular, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard called the news "pure speculation." Though it is standard practice not to confirm any big deals such as this before their official announcement, the tone of Bernard's comments suggests that there may still be a long way to go before any engine deals are signed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Honda Indy Edmonton Dead; IndyCar Seeking Replacement


For the past six years, the Edmonton City Centre Airport has played host to a major North American open wheel race.

No longer.

The city of Edmonton and Octane Motorsports Group, the event's new promoter, were unable to reach important agreements regarding the payment of $3.2 million CDN to help repave a closed runway that would be included in a new course layout in 2011. As such, the Honda Indy Edmonton, one of two Canadian events on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, has been cancelled outright for 2011.

The old course was rendered impossible to use for 2011 after the city shifted air traffic to a different set of runways late this year. To maintain the old course would be to shut down all air traffic in Edmonton for the entire race weekend, which was set to run July 22-24.

This year's event, run on July 25, ended in controversy when Helio Castroneves was penalized for blocking in the race's final laps. The stewards' call handed the race to Scott Dixon. Meanwhile, an irate Castroneves grabbed IndyCar security chief Charles Burns by the collar, drawing a $60,000 fine for his actions.

Octane was set to promote the event from 2011 to 2013 after a city council vote earlier this year. They took over race promotion from Northlands, under whom the event lost millions of dollars every year. Octane entered IndyCar with a strong background, as the Montreal-based group currently promotes the Formula 1 and NASCAR events at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.

Octane officials will meet with IndyCar officials next week with the intent of establishing another western Canadian race. Previously, the group had been looking to expand into Calgary in 2012; currently, there is no word on whether they will attempt to make good on that promise a year early.

The intent remains to have two Canadian events on the schedule for 2011, and to utilize the now-open July 24 weekend. If another western Canadian event is not established, the Montreal circuit, which is open that weekend and once hosted a Champ Car event, is a possibility. Circuit Mont-Tremblant has also hosted Champ Car racing and could be an option.

Meanwhile, politicians in Quebec City have also been keen on hosting an IndyCar race through the lower part of the city. The original target date had been 2012, but with the opening city politicians may look to accelerate their plans.

If another Canadian event is not established, IndyCar may look to race venues that had been considered for the 2012 schedule. In particular, series brass has discussed resurrecting former Champ Car events in Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, and Road America.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Mario Moraes


Mario Moraes hit a wall in more ways than one in the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season.

After a stretch of strong finishes to close out the 2009 season, Moraes looked like an up-and-coming hot property in IndyCar with KV Racing Technology. In fact, before the season, many were saying that KV had, as a team, surpassed many others in the garage, and were poised for a strong run with Moraes this year.

But Moraes was initially not brought back by KVRT, replaced in the team's flagship No. 5 with ex-Formula 1 pilot Takuma Sato. Much of Moraes' family backing, coming from of Brazilian conglomerate Votorantim, was lost with the death of his father in the middle of the 2009 season. When the team finally brought him back in a third car, the No. 32, it was only days before the season opening race at Sao Paulo.

Moraes had not tested an IndyCar all offseason, and his rust showed in a spectacular first-corner wreck. As the field kicked up dust and bunched in the first corner, Moraes misjudged the braking zone, lost control of his car, and landed on top of Marco Andretti.

That event proved an omen for the rest of the season. Moraes wrecked six times this year, up from only four in 2009. Five of the six came in the first half of the season, all but killing any chances of a solid season.

Notable incidents included wrecks on the fourth day of practice for the Indianapolis 500; an accident 17 laps into that race; a frontstretch crash with Helio Castroneves at Texas; and a hard crash at Motegi that sent Moraes to the hospital with back pain. It was part of a nightmare season for KV, which saw its three full-time cars fail to finish 21 times in a combined 51 starts.

His season-ending DNF at Homestead, coming off the hard Motegi wreck, was attributed to mechanical failure, not a surprise given the amount of damages the entire KVRT team accrued over the course of the year. The final two races were especially disappointing given that Moraes had finished fifth and seventh in the same two events last year.

Worse, his third place finish at Chicagoland in 2009 would remain his career-best performance. In 2010, Moraes could muster no better than a fifth place finish at Watkins Glen, though he also had top-10s at Long Beach, Kansas, and Edmonton. It all amounted to a 15th place run in the final standings, down one position and 17 points from last season.

It was far from the 2010 season that many were expecting Moraes to have. Granted, it wasn't his fault that he wasn't able to test before the season, that his team may have over-expanded, or that his teammates had similar problems staying out of the garage on race day. Nonetheless, had Moraes continued progressing as in 2009, a top-10 finish in points should have been attainable.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Opinion: Andretti Going Out on a Limb for 2011 and Beyond


Ryan Hunter-Reay chose to break the news on Twitter.

"Thanks to all of you! Very happy to continue with a great team. Lots of work to do now, we're up for it," Hunter-Reay tweeted to his nearly 10,000 followers, after signing a two-year deal to remain in the IZOD IndyCar Series with Andretti Autosport, the team that picked him up at the beginning of this season.

Hunter-Reay will look to improve on a 2010 season that saw a victory in the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and a career-best seventh place points finish. To that end, he will spend time testing at Barber Motorsports Park for the next couple of days. "Testing in October is a first for me," he joked, referring to his longtime career path of signing one-year contracts just before the season's start.

But as Andretti retains one of its top two drivers from the previous season, the other one says farewell. After eight years spent driving the No. 11 7-Eleven Dallara-Honda, Tony Kanaan will say goodbye to the team. Kanaan leaves behind a record of 14 wins, over 100 top-10s, and the 2004 IndyCar championship.

Kanaan was, for the past few years, the undisputed leader of the four-car Andretti brigade, at least as far as seniority was concerned. His help with car setups proved immensely valuable to his teammates, and he is perhaps the best mid-pack starter in the sport, frequently passing half a dozen cars on the first lap after subpar qualifying runs.

This year, however, was an unpleasant one to say the least for the Andretti brigade. After a winless 2009 season, an offseason restructuring was designed to strengthen Andretti's racing operations. The team scored two wins, but as had happened for the past few years, driver infighting threatened to tear the team apart.

The Andretti dream team of 2005 they were not. Kanaan, Marco Andretti, and Danica Patrick once again proved that they were an unstable combination prone to feuding on the track and off. Kanaan's frustrations with Patrick - and vice versa - were well-documented all season. Only Hunter-Reay really managed to keep out of the mess and go about his business while maintaining solid relationships with all of his teammates.

That's why he's back for 2011 and beyond. Unfortunately for Kanaan, he became a victim of the money in racing. Despite being the bottom two performers on the Andretti team, Patrick and Andretti have two of the biggest sponsorship contracts in the sport tied to them.

Hunter-Reay, like Kanaan, went into the offseason with no sponsorship, with both of their 2010 primary backers shifting their marketing dollars to Patrick's car, allowing them greater exposure at a lower price. But at a similar level of performance and assumedly a much lower price, Hunter-Reay was easier to retain.

Therefore, it was easy to figure out whose $3 million contract was going to be terminated.

Now Kanaan becomes the most coveted open-wheel free agent in years. Just about every mid-level team in the sport is looking at him with designs on how he can take him to the next level. Kanaan is a warrior that knows how to set up a racecar, weave through traffic, and take a car to the end. Plenty of teams would love to have him to mentor their young drivers.

He'll be in IndyCar in 2011, undoubtedly. KV Racing Technology has two fully-sponsored seats open for next year, carrying the Lotus backing, and after this season's crashfest, owner Jimmy Vasser would certainly love to have a driver that doesn't tear up equipment in one of his cars. Brazilian countryman and Kanaan's former CART rival Gil de Ferran, who leads de Ferran Dragon Motorsports, would love to have Kanaan to mentor another young Brazilian, Raphael Matos, who could really use a teammate. The possibilities go on and on.

The real question is, what will Andretti do without a bona fide lead driver?

Let me rephrase. Performance-wise, Hunter-Reay is lead driver-caliber. He's a proven race winner and will be a championship contender for years to come. But he doesn't quite fit the leader role the way that Kanaan does, in that he's not at the stage of his career where other Andretti drivers are going to look up to him as their mentor. He's been at Andretti the shortest amount of time, for one, and he's also only been in IndyCar about as long as his teammates.

But Andretti doesn't look likely to find a replacement for Kanaan in the fourth car. There is no setup driver anymore. There's one championship-caliber race car driver and two decent drivers that have less than stellar reputations with the IndyCar faithful. Marco still gets criticized from time to time about his level of commitment to the sport. Danica gets it no matter where she turns, especially with her NASCAR experimentation.

Simply put, team owner Michael Andretti has a lot of guts going with the team he has right now for 2011 and beyond.

Perhaps it won't matter. Perhaps with less infighting, the entire team will take its performance up a notch. Kanaan was a different breed of driver than Patrick and Andretti. He was undoubtedly the best driver, statistically speaking, on the team. But he had different expectations and needs than everybody else. Not that those needs were any better or worse intrinsically than those of his teammates, they just didn't mesh.

And perhaps, as the undisputed leader on another team, Kanaan will take somebody else to the upper echelons of the sport, or at least a top-10 spot in the final standings. Maybe Raphael Matos, Mike Conway, or some other up-and-comer will benefit far more from Kanaan's advice and leadership. Maybe they'll be more patient and easier to work with than Patrick and Andretti were.

It's always sad when any sort of long-term relationship ends. But maybe, just this once, things will work out better for both sides. Maybe the current Andretti trio will mesh beautifully. Maybe Kanaan will be more appreciated elsewhere.

And maybe, we'll see one of the best rivalries that IndyCar has had in a long time next year.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Kanaan Officially Out at Andretti


Tony Kanaan and Andretti Autosport announced today that they have agreed to conclude an eight-year relationship in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

In 131 starts with the Andretti team, Kanaan scored 14 IndyCar victories, the most recent coming at Iowa this year. Over that eight year span, Kanaan and Andretti never finished worse than sixth in the season standings, owing to by 102 top 10 finishes and only 18 DNFs.

Their best year together came in 2004, as the pairing won the title. That year, Kanaan won three of the 16 races on the schedule, and scored top five finishes in all but one of the other events (the season opening Homestead race, where he finished eighth).

2007 was another high watermark year in Kanaan's tenure with Andretti, as the pairing scored five victories, more than any other team in the series. Kanaan finished third in the championship standings that year, behind teammate Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.

Kanaan remained loyal to Andretti and sponsor 7-Eleven in late 2008, when he spurned Chip Ganassi Racing to remain the driver of the No. 11 for Michael Andretti. Instead, Franchitti, returning from a rough time in NASCAR, took over the second Ganassi car and has won the past two championships.

Meanwhile, things had been rocky at Andretti the past two years, especially for Kanaan. He has had difficulty working with teammates Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti, with issues dating back to 2008. Team owner Michael Andretti has often compared running his team to babysitting feuding children.

This year, Kanaan and Patrick did not get along so well, with the climax coming in a heated battle for second place in the closing laps of this year's finale at Homestead. Patrick won the battle, and then the war - 7-Eleven announced they would be scaling back their IndyCar commitment and moving to Patrick's car as a major associate sponsor, leaving Kanaan without a ride.

Fans have made motions to help, and Kanaan worked to promote for the Mars candy corporation as he drove a Pretzel M&M's-sponsored two-seater at Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier this month, but no sponsors stepped up.

Thus, the second longest-tenured driver and team combo in the sport, behind only Helio Castroneves and Team Penske, has decided to call it quits.

Kanaan's options are plentiful, however. Few drivers are able to win consistently in IndyCar, and Kanaan is one of them. He's one of the most coveted free agent drivers in years, so he's been rumored to join just about every team in the garage that could use a veteran driver to take them to the next level.

KV Racing Technology is looking for a driver that won't tear up equipment; de Ferran Dragon Racing, led by Kanaan's countryman Gil de Ferran, is looking for somebody to mentor Raphael Matos and take him to the next level; Dreyer & Reinbold Racing may be looking to replace Justin Wilson if he departs. All are strong possibilities for Kanaan in 2011 and beyond.

Andretti, meanwhile, will likely let the No. 11 fade away unless a talented pay driver shows up with major sponsorship money. Graham Rahal, one of the few drivers that fits that bill right now, looks poised to join Ganassi in a third car, and few other options have been suggested. It's more likely that Andretti will shrink to a three-car stable, with Patrick, Marco Andretti, and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Interview: Sebastian Saavedra - IndyCar's Next Big Thing


For the past two years, Sebastian Saavedra has been establishing himself as one of the brightest young talents heading up the Road to Indy ladder.

Since coming stateside in 2009, joining the illustrious AFS Racing program in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, Saavedra has posted two wins and two top-10 finishes in the championship, coming third in 2009 and eighth this year. This year's finish was even more remarkable considering the fact that he missed the final two races of the season after leaving Bryan Herta Autosport.

Saavedra made his IndyCar debut in the 2010 Indianapolis 500 for Herta's team, and returned to the series at the end of the year with Conquest Racing. After a strong American debut in 2009, Saavedra spent much of 2010 assembling a strong team of advisors; his new manager in America is longtime IndyCar mechanic and team owner Derrick Walker, while two-time Indianapolis 500 runner-up and Colombian countryman Roberto Guerrero serves as a driver coach.

Saavedra is currently home in Colombia relaxing after a hard-fought 2010 campaign, while also attempting to put together a program that will see him compete for IZOD IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year honors in 2011. In between travel obligations, Saavedra agreed to an interview with us, and we're happy to provide the transcript below.

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First things first: how and when did you get your start in auto racing?

SS: I started when I was 8 with an uncle who bought me a go-kart. My dad wasn't very into the idea of racing so I needed to wait couple of years before he got the bug. I did the racing school and surprised many heads around so my career started right away here in bogota, colombia.

You’ve taken wins in Formula BMW, Formula 3, and Firestone Indy Lights cars. How do these very different cars compare to one another? Was one type of car easier to drive than the others? Faster?

SS: I would say there's no easy car to drive. They all have their secrets and their way to be driven. Of course the speed changed with each class cause of the HP but they all had their charm. I really enjoyed the F3 as it was the nicest, lightest and with more Down-force.

You drove for Andretti Autosport in 2009 before moving to BHA this year. How were the two teams different from one another? Did you have to work with one team differently than with the other?

SS: They were both very professional teams with a particular goal in hand. Win. As a driver you need to change with the situation and scenery. Andretti was a very interesting experience in every way.

By now everybody knows that your season with Bryan Herta Autosport in Indy Lights did not end as well as either side would have hoped. Can you explain why things went downhill, and how your relationship with the team ended?

SS: The relationship never ended, things happened and were unfortunate. We were more focused on the IndyCar program than Indy Lights and sometimes it hurt but I enjoyed driving for a great driver I followed when i was younger and he gave me the opportunity to do the Indy 500 which I will never forget.

Do you have any regrets about the way that things ended with BHA?

SS: Not at all. This is a very professional bussiness and we both understand the paths we need to take to keep our success. Bryan is an amazing guy with lots of future, maybe not with me.

After that, you worked with Conquest Racing and Derrick Walker for this year’s season finale at Homestead. Were you pleased with the way things went at Homestead? What was it like working with a new team for only one race weekend?

SS: Was by far the nicest experience I've had in a long time. Was very risky as we left it all in the table but thank god all went our way. Conquest Racing gave me the right material and engineering to show all my potential which I'm very thankful. Derrick Walker managing me from now on is a big honor aswell as I admire his working scenario and ethics.

Do some of the things you learned driving in Indy Lights translate to the bigger IndyCars, or are they completely different?

SS: I got to say that the Firestone Indy Lights was the best school possible to move up into the IndyCar. It's very close on the way of driving the cars and gives you a very good idea on how its going to be when you get to the big cars. So yes it does translate many things.

Looking forward to next season, you have said that you will be racing full-time in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Do you have sponsorship lined up already? Can you give us any insight on which team you might be driving for? Are Conquest and Walker options for next year?

SS: Mr. Derrick Walker is not part of Conquest Racing, he is my manager. We are still working very hard on getting the right sponsorship and we have good team options that we are already finishing with but thats as much as I can give you right now ;)

Growing up in Colombia, I’m sure you had some different racing idols growing up than some American drivers did. Who are some of the drivers that have influenced you?

SS: For sure Montoya was one of the big drivers I followed since I started as he put the sport on the map here in Colombia. I've always been a big fan of TK and as I lived in Brasil for cuople of years he became very big for me.

Obviously IndyCar is mostly an American series, so you spend a lot of time in the States during the racing season. How often do you travel home to Colombia during the racing season?

SS: I'm living in Indianapolis the complete season. I like this as I can keep very focused on my gym and engineering. I usually go to Colombia when theres a sponsor event or any important deal going on, so usually I hope to go down a lot. HA

Your management group includes Derrick Walker, and earlier this year you had former Colombian IndyCar driver Roberto Guerrero as a driving coach. How much does it help to have two people with that much experience in IndyCar helping your career along?

SS: It's great to have such an interesting group of people behind me as they give me great confidence with the amount of experience they have to give. Im very pleased on their work and want to continue close together for a long time.

Anything you’d like to tell your fans?

SS: There's something very important I've been giving my fans and its the pleasure of dreaming! When you dream very hard and wish something, with lots of work everything is possible.

Finally, what are your goals for the future? You’ve said that an Indy 500 win is one of your goals, but beyond that, are you looking to go to Formula One someday? Any other championships or races you’d like to win?

SS: F1 for sure is my big goal. Something I've often heard its just too hard to get but my dad has always said.." if it was easy anyone could do it' I go by that principle and work on it. I want to win more than one IndyCar championship and be a positive Colombian figure to follow.

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Thanks once again to Seb for agreeing to do the interview, and we at OWA wish him the best of luck in 2011 and beyond. Check out his personal website at http://www.ssaavedra.com, and be sure to follow his Twitter account at @sebsaavedra.