Welcome to OpenWheelAmerica.com.

Follow us on Twitter @christopherlion or @OpnWhlAmerica
All images provided courtesy of the IndyCar Media site.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Opinion: CART II the Last Thing We Need... Sort Of

In the past couple of weeks, more and more IZOD IndyCar Series owners have been expressing their displeasure with the way that things have been shaping up for the 2012 season under the watchful eye of new series CEO Randy Bernard.

They've begun to complain about the costs of a new car, wanting it to be pushed back to 2014. They don't seem to have the prerequisite amount of trust in Bernard or new car czar Tony Cotman to make the new program a success. Worst of all, they seem to feel as if they weren't really consulted on the new car program, featuring smaller engines and a Dallara "safety cell" that can be outfitted with multiple aero kits.

Fortunately, the IndyCar nation - especially the blogosphere - have called out the owners on their complaints, leading plenty of them to back off. Tony Johns at Pop Off Valve wrote, "The general consensus was that with aging inventory and stagnant technology, the series would actually die if steps were not taken to change things... I can't possibly imagine how a complete turnover for Delta Wings is any different at all from a complete turnover for the 2012 ICONIC spec - except for who is holding the political reins."

Longtime IndyCar writer and Speed Channel correspondent Robin Miller added, "It’s sad enough to think they held a new car revolt meeting at Sonoma without inviting Bernard and it’s insulting to hear supposedly intelligent racers lead a witch hunt after six months... To think he busts his ass and may not have the owners’ unanimous support is as ignorant as it is maddening. Just remember this: he’s trying to clean up the mess you’ve helped make of open wheel racing. And six months ain’t nearly enough time to find a big enough mop."

Truth be told, the owners in CART did, for a time, manage to run one of the best open-wheel series America had ever seen in the mid-1990s, at least as far as on-track product was concerned. Perhaps it just looked better by comparison to the generally second-tier fields of the early Indy Racing League, but CART at one time had all the big manufacturers, the top chassis builders in the country, most of the best open-wheel tracks in North America (and popular stops in Brazil and Australia) and a list of drivers whose pedigree is unquestioned, save by a few Formula 1 fans.

What killed that series was serial mismanagement - poor investments, the decision to take the company public, not showing up to those first IRL events in 1996 and smoking the little guys, instead of boycotting the sport's biggest race as they did for years. While it's nice to think that the people running the race teams have some idea of what works and what doesn't, the past 15 years have done little to prove this theory.

From an outsider's perspective, the only logical reason why any of the current owners would boycott the new car program is because current series partner Dallara, and not the owner-bankrolled Delta Wing, won the contract. That's a lot of Chip Ganassi's money that went for naught in the end.

The general theory is that the owners are simply complaining about where they're writing the checks. Any business owner anywhere knows that when a large turnover cost is looming in the somewhat distant future, you set aside money for it. True, IndyCar's value may be lower than ever, with a miserable television contract, threats to the TEAM compensation system, and even the great Roger Penske looking for sponsorship. But the owners did it to themselves over the past 15 years.

Bernard and Cotman can solve this easily enough by calling up Ben Bowlby at Delta Wing and asking their help in developing the new car. Heaven knows Cotman doesn't need it - the Panoz DP01 that he oversaw was one of the most beautiful open-wheel racecars to ever see an American circuit - but the political implications would be huge. At the very least, it'd shut up some of the series' power players and make them feel like they were a bit better represented in the new car development. (What, Gil de Ferran's presence in ICONIC wasn't good enough for you guys?)

But while we're on the topic of CART, it's safe to say that at least some of the things that made that series so popular during its heyday should be analyzed and brought back in time for the new car. The option for multiple engines and aero kits, if not entire chassis, is a step in that direction; it adds a visual variable to IndyCar that we haven't seen in years of spec cars and single engine manufacturers. The single safety cell and ability to switch aero kits during the season also protects teams from getting stuck with massively underperforming cars, like the Eagle-Toyotas that All American Racers fielded in 1996.

CART had, for the first few years of the split, all of the better open-wheel races, other than the Indianapolis 500. While returns to Michigan and California seem unlikely (due to ISC's ownership of those tracks... and that's even another story), plenty of the other tracks and cities on the schedule hosted popular events. Surfers Paradise produced a different winner almost every year -how's that for parity? Remember Alex Zanardi's pass in the Laguna Seca corkscrew? Portland stayed on the schedule for over 20 years for a reason, and Cleveland would be even more fun to watch if the rumored plan of a doubleheader - one race on the old airport course, one on a new airport oval course - was instituted.

Yes, every track that I just mentioned is a road course, save the potential Cleveland airport oval. IndyCar - at least the IndyCar that Tony George founded - was devised as an oval series. A lot of the IRL apologists and purists have fumed over the series' decision to add more and more twisties over the years, but with Bruton Smith and SMI getting closer and closer to IndyCar, the series' oval fate should be in good hands. Bonus points are to be had if the series can find a way to resuscitate the Milwaukee Mile, shut down this year after a promoter dispute.

We're talking a massive series overhaul in 2012 - in the cars, the tracks, and maybe even the owners, if they're not willing to back down from the idiotic stance they've taken over the past couple of weeks.

The ideal 2012 IndyCar Series won't quite be CART II, at least insofar as the owners will not be the ones calling the shots again. But if Bernard, Cotman, and the race promoters have their way, everything that made CART great - visual on-track variation, competition between both drivers and manufacturers, the best tracks in the country (within reason), a handful of foreign events in countries that produce plenty of drivers, and (let's hope) a greater base of American talent - is attainable in the next couple of years.

All everybody needs is to get on the same page.

Monday, August 30, 2010

IndyCar Race Review: Peak Antifreeze Indy 300

If Saturday's Peak Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300 will go down in history as the final IZOD IndyCar Series race at Chicagoland Speedway, the fans in attendance and watching on television certainly got everything they hoped for in a finale.

Dario Franchitti held off a hard-charging Dan Wheldon after a daring call in the pits gave him the late-race lead, producing the 17th-closest finish in IndyCar history. His victory closed some of the gap on points leader Will Power, who had been leading late in the race but ran out of fuel with five laps to go to finish way down the running order.

All in all, the race featured a record-breaking 25 lead changes among 11 drivers. Ryan Briscoe dominated the early stages of the event, battling side-by-side with Marco Andretti for a good chunk of the race's early stages. Briscoe, the polesitter and defending race winner, led 113 of the race's 200 laps, though he could only muster an 11th place finish.

Meanwhile, the top four drivers in the finishing order - Franchitti, Wheldon, Andretti, and Ryan Hunter-Reay - all led at least two laps, with Franchitti's 28 tops among them. Franchitti actually did not lead until the very end of the race, when his team gambled by not taking tires under the final caution. While Briscoe could not keep others from leading laps while he was out in front, Franchitti managed to do just that

Some of the drivers who spent time up front were surprising, to say the least. Wheldon, Vitor Meira, and Alex Lloyd all led a handful of laps. Even the part-time entries of Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher spent time up front; Fisher stayed out under the race's second caution to gain the point, but managed to hold a top-three position for many laps after the green flag dropped.

Unfortunately for the little guys, nobody was really there at the end besides Wheldon. Meira salvaged a ninth place finish, but Fisher was the first car a lap down in 15th, Carpenter pulled out after 179 laps when his team couldn't get fuel into the car, and Lloyd crashed out to finish 21st.

Heartbreak was no stranger to the series' top team, either. Power nearly lost control of his car in the early laps of the race, making a fantastic save, a feat he would have to replicate a couple of other times before the night was over. Power drove his heart out all night, showing a level of talent we had previously only witnessed from him on the road and street courses, and was a contender for victory until the very end.

Unfortunately, Chicagoland left Power and his Team Penske crew with Indianapolis 500 deja vu: a fueler error ended all hope for a strong finish. At Indy, it was Power driving off with part of his fuel assembly; at Chicago, the team didn't quite get enough in the car to make it. To his credit, Power was surprisingly upbeat in post-race interviews, looking forward to the challenge of maintaining his points lead over the final three races.

With three races to go and Kentucky up next on the schedule, Power's points lead has shrunk from 59 to 23 over Franchitti. It may be a race between those two alone; third-place Scott Dixon is 85 points out, while no other driver is within 100.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Opinion: Schedule Realignment Scary, But No Series Killer

Tonight's Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway will probably be one of the most exciting races of this IZOD IndyCar Series season, just because Chicagoland races usually are. Remember Sam Hornish Jr.'s win in 2002 over Al Unser Jr., to this day the closest victory in IndyCar Series history? Helio Castroneves coming from last place in 2008? Ryan Briscoe over Scott Dixon last year?

Unfortunately, it may also be the last Chicagoland race for the IndyCars. A track staple since its opening in 2001, this race may go away after nine years, as has been discussed to death on many other fine blogs.

In case you've missed it, though, a key reason why Chicagoland may lose its IndyCar date has to do with schedule realignments in NASCAR. Chicagoland is owned by the International Speedway Corporation, which has strong ties to NASCAR. The Sprint Cup Series will now run the first race of its playoffs at Chicago in September, and the second-tier Nationwide Series will run at the track on June 4 - the week after the Indianapolis 500. To run that weekend would be to go against the series' deal with Texas Motor Speedway, owned by ISC rival Speedway Motorsports Incorporated, where that track hosts the first race after Indy every year.

In fact, most of the ISC tracks on the IndyCar schedule this year - Chicago, Homestead, and Watkins Glen (a race I normally attend) - may be gone next season, though Kansas will probably remain. Former races at Richmond, California, and Michigan are gone as well. Relations between ISC and IndyCar are not bound to be the finest anyway, as ISC clearly has NASCAR priorities, and also hired longtime Indianapolis Motor Speedway employee Joie Chitwood to run their flagship track at Daytona.

Meanwhile, an alliance between SMI and IndyCar, much like the one that existed in the sanctioning body's formative years, continues to get stronger. The new race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is bound to be popular with fans and drivers alike, even if partially serving as a surrogate for the Milwaukee Mile. Las Vegas will be a welcome addition and a wonderful series finale, if CEO Bruton Smith's plans come to fruition. Races at Texas and Kentucky are always fun to watch, and Infineon Raceway actually put on quite the show this year.

Randy Bernard said in IndyCar's Loudon press conference, speaking of Smith and SMI, "If you hang out with champions, you become a champion." Hitching a ride to SMI is one way to do that, especially when Smith is showing a strong willingness to work with the series, much in the way IZOD has been on the sponsorship front. A stronger IndyCar-SMI partnership also opens a gateway for returns to Atlanta, which only has one NASCAR race weekend next season, and Charlotte, now that Humpy Wheeler is gone and the track's 1999 incident is a distant memory, could follow as well.

ISC could lock IndyCar out of some of the top ovals in the United States, sure, but only Chicago, Kansas, California, and Michigan are really suited for IndyCar racing. The first two are 1.5-mile ovals that could be replaced by SMI tracks, while the latter two haven't really hosted IndyCar races in recent memory anyway.

While Watkins Glen will be a great loss as well, it's not as if IndyCar can't return to some of the other top road courses in the country. Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca tops the list of road courses that currently don't have events, and promoters in Cleveland, Houston, and Quebec City have expressed great interest in bringing IndyCar to their cities. In fact, the original plan for the Cleveland event was to run a doubleheader weekend, with one race on the old Burke Lakefront Airport road course layout and another on a new oval layout. That event would be one of the coolest on the schedule, and also serve (in a general sense) the midwestern market.

Yes, we could be losing a fantastic race in Chicagoland for next season, and as such, we ought to be savoring every moment of tonight's event. But while scary, the proposition of some new venues on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule is not going to set the series back, or send it into a death spiral. As long as the powers that be make smart and strategic choices, bringing the series to the right markets, we can do just fine without.

Friday, August 27, 2010

IndyCar Race Preview: Peak Antifreeze Indy 300

This weekend, the IZOD IndyCar Series enters the fourth and final quarter of the season, another oval run that begins with the Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 at the Chicagoland Speedway. Last year's race, won by Ryan Briscoe by about six inches over Scott Dixon, was yet another example of how exciting IndyCar racing can be when the series heads to the Illinois speedway, and nobody expects any different this year.

In the lone practice session preceding qualifying, Briscoe once again paced Dixon, though the gap was much larger. Briscoe's 217.874 mph best lap was a full mile per hour better than Dixon's best. Will Power, the series points leader despite only ranking eighth in the oval championship, had the third best lap, with the four Andretti Autosport drivers - Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Tony Kanaan - ranking fourth through seventh.

In qualifying, Briscoe took the pole over Dario Franchitti, teammates Power and Helio Castroneves, and Andretti. Dixon could only muster a 15th place qualifying run.

Patrick, in particular, has to be excited to return to the ovals, after ranking a dismal 15th in the final road course standings. She was the only Andretti driver to place outside the top 10. Meanwhile, she ranks sixth in the oval standings, with a runner-up finish at Texas her best run of the season.

The field at Chicagoland, a whopping 29 cars, will be the largest field of the season (excluding Indianapolis) and the largest in a non-500 field since 28 showed up for this race in 2008. Entries for Graham Rahal, Ed Carpenter, Davey Hamilton, Jay Howard, and Sarah Fisher have expanded the field from the 24 full-season entries.

Four times out of nine, the winner has come from the pole position, a feat Briscoe achieved last year, after Castroneves won from the last starting spot the year before. Penske drivers have won the past two events at Chicagoland, while perennial series power Chip Ganassi Racing has only one win at the track, by Dan Wheldon in 2006.

Monday, August 23, 2010

IndyCar Race Review: Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma

Just like last year, a single driver dominated yesterday's Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, the road course finale for the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season. What made this particular win special for that driver, however, were the circumstances surrounding it.

Will Power's fifth win of the season (all on road courses) came on a track where his career was put into serious jeopardy, after a freak accident in practice severely injured his back and prematurely ended his 2009 season. The win served as a victory parade for this year's winner of the Mario Andretti Road Course Trophy, an honor he clinched two weeks ago at Mid-Ohio.

Unlike Dario Franchitti last year, Power did not lead all 75 laps of the event; Scott Dixon, who finished second, led two laps in the middle stages of the event. But nobody really had anything for Power, who had won the pole and stretched some huge leads early on in the race.

While a top five completely populated by Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing cars doesn't suggest the most unpredictable or exciting of races, some of the action a little deeper in the field was more than exciting enough to keep the most jaded of fans interested.

Dan Wheldon's race ended before it began, with accidental contact from Bertrand Baguette at the start sending the No. 4 Panther Racing Dallara-Honda upside down in a wreck that almost looked like it came out of a video game. It was Wheldon's first DNF since St. Petersburg earlier this year, as well as his first finish outside the top 20.

Simona de Silvestro had an interesting day as well. First, contact with Alex Tagliani cut the Canadian's tire down, and then she nearly sent Raphael Matos upside down as well with an aggressive move early in the race. Finally, E.J. Viso ran into her not long after, spinning her out. De Silvestro continued on, eventually winding up 13th.

Hometown hero J.R. Hildebrand and 2006 race winner Marco Andretti got together on lap 37, ending Hildebrand's day. Not too long after, Andretti got into Mario Moraes in the same corner, eliciting a reaction from fans aware of the drivers' history with one another.

The final caution of the day came when Baguette, Matos, and Viso got together with under ten laps to go. Viso's KV Racing Technology car was able to continue on, marking only the fourth race all season where each of that team's cars finished the event. Baguette and Matos, however, were done for.

Dixon put the pressure on at the final restart, the drivers matching presses of the Push to Pass button, but the Australian managed to extend his lead once again. Francesco Dracone stalled in the final corner on the final lap, leading to a local yellow that brought down Power's margin of victory considerably, but the rule against passing during a local yellow, combined with the proximity to the start-finish line, ensured that Dixon would not have a chance to go by.

Franchitti was third, with Power's teammates Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves rounding out the top five.

Friday, August 20, 2010

IndyCar Race Preview: Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma

Will Power may have already clinched the Mario Andretti Trophy as the best road course driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series this year, but he'll have plenty of unfinished business when he takes to the Infineon Raceway for this weekend's Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Power's season ended here prematurely last year when a freak accident with Nelson Philippe landed him on the sidelines with two fractured vertebrae in his back. By now, most IndyCar fans know the story: originally a temp replacement at Team Penske while Helio Castroneves' legal issues were sorted out, owner Roger Penske found the money to run Power in a handful of other events last year, and his performance was stellar until the Sonoma incident.

Regardless, Penske took a chance on the Australian full-time this year, shutting down his sports car operation to make room, and Power rewarded the veteran owner by winning his first two races back this season. He has taken four of the eight road course races run thus far this year, and he hasn't finished any worse than fourth running on the twisties.

But just because he has the road course championship in hand, and a solid 41-point advantage in the overall standings, doesn't mean that a Power victory lap at Sonoma is a certainty. It's especially not the case when his top rival in all categories, 2009 series champion Dario Franchitti, led every lap to win from the pole here last year.

Franchitti got the best of Power during Friday practice, as the series' top two drivers were 1-2 atop the speed charts. 16 drivers posted laps within a second of Franchitti's best, a 78.297-second circuit. Alex Tagliani, Franchitti teammate Scott Dixon, and Justin Wilson completed the top five in that session.

J.R. Hildebrand, in 13th with a lap of 79.039 seconds, was the top rookie in the session. Wilson's teammate at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, and a California native who calls Infineon his home track, Hildebrand will attempt to top the injured Mike Conway's third-place finish in this race last year. He had nearly half a second on Bertrand Baguette, the second-best rookie.

In all, 23 of the 25 drivers attempting the race were within two seconds of Franchitti's best lap. The lone two exceptions were Francesco Dracone, making only his second career IndyCar start with Conquest Racing, and Milka Duno, who has been consistently off the pace all year with Dale Coyne Racing. The buzz around Duno gets stronger every week, with more and more fans calling for the IRL powers that be to park her. Last year, Duno had her second best finish of the season at Infineon, placing 17th.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Texas to Host First Open-Wheel Doubleheader in 30 Years

The 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule got a little more interesting yesterday, with the announcement of the Firestone Texas Two Step, to be held at Texas Motor Speedway on June 11 of next year.

What was once the Firestone 550k - a 228-lap, 342-mile race under the lights the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 - will become the Firestone Twin 275s, two full-field races that will each count for half points towards next year's championships. The series and track have not yet decided on how to set the field for either of the two races, nor have they settled on a time allotment between both races, though it seems likely that there will be a day race and a night race.

The race weekend has also been moved back one week, re-establishing the traditional off week between Indy and Texas that existed from 1997 to 2005. That slot was filled by Milwaukee from 2007 to 2009, assuming the track's former Champ Car date. Milwaukee was left off this year's schedule due to outstanding fees owed to multiple sanctioning bodies.

It will be the first American open-wheel doubleheader in nearly 30 years, the last coming on June 28, 1981 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway under CART sanctioning. Rick Mears swept both of those races. All in all, since 1967, 17 doubleheaders were held, the first 13 under USAC sanctioning. 10 of those 17 doubleheaders were swept by a single driver, including the first six USAC doubleheaders and three of the four held under CART sanctioning.

Doubleheaders are also a staple of many European feeder series to Formula 1. Usually, these consist of a sprint race and a feature race, though they normally award the same amount of points.

The idea of returning the doubleheader to IndyCar is not too strange, nor has it been all too long since it was last suggested. In fact, promoters for Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport were attempting to use the idea to bring open-wheel racing back to the track for the first time since Champ Car's final hurrah in 2007. The difference there, however, was that one race would take place on the traditional road course layout, while the other would be run on a brand-new oval layout.

Friday, August 13, 2010

2011 Indianapolis 500 Logo Unveiled

In a dual ceremony that took place at both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, some of the biggest names in Indianapolis 500 history unveiled the race's 2011 logo, celebrating the 100th running of the storied event and the 16th under IZOD IndyCar Series sanctioning.

Johnny Rutherford, a three-time winner of the event, helped IMS president/CEO Jeff Belskus reveal the logo at the track. The Pebble Beach ceremony was led by fellow three-time winner Bobby Unser, 1963 winner Parnelli Jones, 1985 winner Danny Sullivan, and open-wheel icon Dan Gurney.

The logo primarily features a blue banner with white letters, a black "500," and golden wings, with a red banner highlighting the 100th anniversary of the event. The IMS Creative Services department, which designed the logo, took various design elements from race logos used in the 1920s and 1930s.

Also present at the Pebble Beach ceremony was a restored 1965 Lotus-Ford, detailed exactly like the one with which Scot Jim Clark won that year's event. Its presence at the event further exhibits a revived fascination with Indy for the British company, which re-entered the sport this year as primary sponsor of Takuma Sato's No. 5 KV Racing Technology Dallara-Honda. Lotus has also announced its intention to build an aerodynamic kit for the Dallara safety cell that will be used in the 2012 IndyCar season and beyond.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

IndyCar Race Review: Honda Indy 200

Dario Franchitti posted his first IZOD IndyCar Series road course win in nearly a year in today's Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, holding off polesitter Will Power to the checkered flag.

Franchitti, whose last win on a road course came at Infineon last year, inherited the lead when Alex Tagliani made his final pit stop, put the power down for a few extra laps, and managed to beat Power out of the pits to retain the lead when stops cycled through.

Tagliani, for his part, drove one of his finest races of the year, scoring his best finish, a fourth place, between Helio Castroneves, who threw away the race at Edmonton two weeks ago on a blocking penalty, and Scott Dixon, who won that race. His pit crew, reading the race like a book, had him pit on lap 22, expecting a caution that would come almost immediately after. The Canadian led from lap 26, midway through the first caution, to his final pit stop on lap 56.

That first caution came when Justin Wilson, driving with an injured thumb from a Saturday incident with Ryan Briscoe, made an ill-advised attempt on passing E.J. Viso in the first turn on lap 23. Both cars went off track and were done for the day.

Almost immediately after the green flag flew after that caution, Takuma Sato brought the yellow out again, when a combination of cold tires and cold brakes caused him to careen off course, again in the first turn. That was just the icing on the cake for a bad weekend for KV Racing; not only were Viso and Sato out, Mario Moraes had given three of his pit crew minor injuries in an incident during race warmups.

Pit incidents were not out of the question all weekend, as a 27-car field meant that pit stalls had to be shortened to 35 feet. Normally, the Mid-Ohio pit accommodates 26 cars length-wise, and is also fairly narrow. Ryan Hunter-Reay became a victim of the tight space, getting sandwiched between the Penske cars of Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe during the first pit stops and having to return to the pits for damage repairs. He dropped back to 24th but recovered to finish 10th.

Two drivers made their IndyCar debuts during the race, but neither did all that much to impress. J.R. Hildebrand, last year's Indy Lights champion, was never a factor in a 16th place finish for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Meanwhile, Francesco Dracone caused the final two cautions of the race with two separate spins on different sections of the track. He finished three laps down in 22nd, beating only Milka Duno of the cars still on track at the finish.

On the other end of the spectrum, Simona de Silvestro and Bertrand Baguette were among the drivers who scored season-best finishes in the race. De Silvestro placed eighth in an older, heavier HVM Racing chassis that was able to chase down Penske cars in some points of the race. Baguette had a top-10 car for much of the race, but was bumped down to 11th by the checkered flag.

All in all, 21 cars finished on the lead lap, the last of them being Danica Patrick. Four cars did not finish the race: Wilson, Viso, Sato, and Jay Howard.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

IndyCar Race Preview: Honda Indy 200

Team Penske will once again be the team to beat this weekend at Mid-Ohio, as Will Power tied a series record by scoring his seventh pole of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season for tomorrow's Honda Indy 200.

Penske cars have been towards the top of the charts in every practice session, with Dario Franchitti also consistently posting solid runs. Franchitti qualified alongside Power on the front row, followed by strong runs for Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Row 3 consists of Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves, involved in controversy over the finish at Edmonton two weeks ago, when a hotly contested blocking penalty on Castroneves handed the win to Dixon. Castroneves was previously the lone record holder for most poles in an IndyCar season until this weekend.

The 27-car field is one of the healthiest in IndyCar all season, and by far trumps the meager 21-car field that the series mustered last year. Besides the increase in full-time cars from last year to this year, part-time entries for Graham Rahal, Adam Carroll, and Jay Howard have inflated the field. Carroll qualified 17th, Rahal 25th, and Howard 26th.

This race will mark the IndyCar debuts for two drivers: J.R. Hildebrand, filling in for Mike Conway at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, and Francesco Dracone, replacing Mario Romancini at Conquest Racing. They qualified 18th and 23rd, respectively. Hildebrand was the 2009 Indy Lights champion, while Dracone spent the majority of his professional racing career in Europe, primarily competing in the Formula 3000 Euroseries.

The race will be shown live on Versus at 2:30 PM EST on Sunday.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Conquest Introduces Dracone

Italian driver Francesco Dracone will replace Brazilian Mario Romancini in the No. 34 Dallara-Honda at Conquest Racing for the final two road course events of the IZOD IndyCar Series season. Dracone will drive the car at Mid-Ohio and Infineon with sponsorship from La Pasta and Halkin Jet.

Dracone has spent time racing in Euroseries 3000 (now AutoGP) for the past four years, improving his spot in the standings each of the past three years. Dracone's best finish in points was seventh place last season, with his best race finish coming at Monza, where he placed fifth.

Dracone has been inactive for most of this season, testing a Nissan LMP1 and an F3000 car in the past few months, but was not expected to drive an IndyCar this season until passing his rookie test at Mid-Ohio last week. Dracone is team owner Eric Bachelart's second strictly European driver signing of the season, with Dracone's teammate Bertrand Baguette a former Formula Renault champion.

Romancini currently ranks third in rookie points, behind only Alex Lloyd and Simona de Silvestro, while Baguette (having missed the season's first two races) ranks fifth. But Romancini has finished no better than 13th all season, has failed to finish in five of seven road course starts (crashing four times), and brings less sponsorship money than Baguette, who has his own Belgian backing. This is no small advantage, as team owner Bachelart is Belgian as well.

Romancini will most likely return to Conquest for the final four oval races of the season, as he was the highest-finishing rookie at Indianapolis and seemed to have his best luck in Firestone Indy Lights last year on the oval tracks.