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Friday, April 30, 2010

IndyCar Race Preview: Road Runner Turbo Indy 300

With the first road course segment of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season in the books, its stars and cars will begin a segment of oval runs that runs into the early summer. Kansas Speedway serves as the lone oval tune-up for the Indianapolis 500, and the lone information gathering weekend for the race.

Of course, what little we do know came when the weather cooperated, as rain sabotaged testing last weekend and early practice sessions this weekend. Ryan Briscoe won the pole, attempting to assert his presence on Team Penske after falling somewhat off the pace of his teammates in points. Immediately behind him, however, were his Ganassi rivals, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.

Qualifying fourth is Hideki Mutoh, as Newman/Haas Racing returns to a track at which it won a pole with Graham Rahal last year. Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, was Alex Tagliani's fifth place run, further asserting FAZZT Race Team as a legitimate contender in the series.

Three drivers will be making their oval track debuts on Saturday. Takuma Sato will start 11th, Simona de Silvestro will line up 18th, and Bertrand Baguette will begin in the 19th spot.

Carroll Joins Andretti, But In What Car?

Former A1GP champion Adam Carroll will join esteemed IZOD IndyCar Series team Andretti Autosport for a limited schedule of races in the second half of the 2010 season.

Carroll's name had come up in the rumor mill earlier this season as a potential IndyCar driver after talks with two Formula 1 teams fell through. He had not been linked to any potential teams.

In 2005 and 2006, Carroll ran full-time schedules in the GP2 Series, the Formula 1 equivalent to Firestone Indy Lights. He finished 5th and 8th in points, respectively. In 2007, he missed the first few rounds of the season, but still managed to finish 7th in points, winning twice. Overall, Carroll scored five wins in GP2 Series competition.

He moved to A1GP for the 2008-09 season, racing for his native country of Ireland. Despite a disastrous opening round at the Netherlands, Carroll rebounded by scoring points in all but one race over the rest of the year. He won five races, including a sweep of the sprint and feature races at Brands Hatch, to secure the championship.

While Andretti has not announced sponsorship or a car assignment yet, Carroll may take over the No. 37 car when Ryan Hunter-Reay's sponsorship runs out. Hunter-Reay will race through Texas, and then return for the Toronto event and the season finale at Homestead. If Hunter-Reay finds sponsorship, however, Carroll will likely take over the No. 43 car that John Andretti is driving this month.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dissecting the New Two-Title Format

With the announcement of a new two championship format in the IZOD IndyCar Series, awarding prizes to the best oval driver as well as the best road/street course driver, I have taken the liberty to go through all open wheel racing in America since the creation of CART in 1979. I've run the numbers to determine who would have won these championships in the past, and some of the results are pretty interesting.

The data includes all CART seasons from 1979 to 2003, the Champ Car World Series from 2004 to 2007, and the IZOD IndyCar Series from 1996 to today. From 1996 to 2004 in IndyCar, no road course races were held. In 2007 in Champ Car, no oval races were held. In these cases, the overall series champion is listed as the winner in the series' specific discipline.

In a majority of seasons since CART's advent in 1979, one of the two titlists would go on to win the overall title as well. The exceptions in CART were 1985, 1988, 1990, 1996, and 2000, with a teammate of the title winner taking at least one title in each year except for 1998. The only exception in the IRL came in 2006, and that year, oval champion Dan Wheldon actually tied Sam Hornish Jr. for the overall title in points, but lost the tiebreaker on two fewer wins.

In only a few cases has a driver gone on to claim both titles. In CART, Rick Mears did it in 1981 and 1982, while Al Unser Jr. did it in 1994. Sebastien Bourdais did so in Champ Car in 2005 and 2006, but those seasons featured oval schedules of two and one, respectively. So far no driver has won both titles in the IRL.

Mears asserted himself as the most versatile driver in CART's early years by winning oval titles in 1979, 1981, and 1982, alongside road course championships from 1980 to 1982, inclusive. He also won the oval championship in 1989, the year of his last Indianapolis 500 victory, giving him a grand total of seven titles, the highest total of any driver. Bourdais is tied for second with six, the same amount as Al Unser Jr. has, though it is important to note again the insubstantial nature of Champ Car's oval offerings.

Michael Andretti won five titles in six years for Newman/Haas Racing, scoring the 1987 and 1988 oval crowns, as well as the 1990 through 1992 road course crowns. He won four more championships as an owner, including the 2004, 2005, and 2007 oval titles in the IRL, and the IRL's 2005 road course crown. In each of those seasons, Andretti's oval-winning driver would take the overall IRL title.

The closest foil for Andretti as a driver would be Scott Dixon, who has five championships over the past seven years. Dixon won all of his five titles in the IRL, securing the 2003, 2008, and 2009 oval crowns and the 2006 and 2007 road course honors. Not only does Dixon consistently pace the field at one discipline almost every year, but he also moves from domination of one discipline to the other, much as Andretti did in the prime of his career. They even won at a similar clip: Andretti 24 times in six seasons for an average of four a year, Dixon 21 times in seven for an average of three. The main difference is that Dixon was first a road course star and became an oval ace, while Andretti stepped up his game at right turns after mastering lefts only.

An early indicator of Dixon's prowess came in the 2002 CART season, the last for that sanctioning body (or its later Champ Car incarnation) with more than two ovals on the schedule. Under CART's points system, which only afforded the top 12 drivers any points, it was difficult at best to score points in every race under a given discipline. Only three drivers managed to score points in all five oval events that year: oval champion Bruno Junqueira, runner-up Dario Franchitti, and Dixon. It is this kind of consistency that has driven Dixon to multiple IRL titles.

For the most part, three teams have dominated the schedules since 1979. Team Penske holds the lead for the most overall crowns with 19, including nine oval championships (though none since 1997) and 10 road course crowns, usually coming towards the turn of each decade. Newman/Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing are tied for second with 13 total championships apiece. Newman/Haas has three on ovals (tying two cars in 2005) and 10 on road courses. Ganassi's balance is much more even, with seven oval crowns and six on road courses. Ganassi has more titles since 2000, however, by a tally of nine to eight.Al

Opinion: Dual Title Format Another Innovative Concept

Yesterday, the IZOD IndyCar Series announced its intent to award championships to drivers based on their mastery of the series' two types of tracks. The driver who scores the most points on ovals, as well as the driver who scores the most points on road and street courses, will be awarded cash bonuses. Of course, the series' overall champion will still receive the biggest prize at the end of the year. The two trophies will be named in a fan vote after two open-wheel icons.

The dual championship format is the brainchild of IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who wanted to find a way to engage and bring together the two different demographics of open-wheel fans in America - the oval fans who are more inclined to spend IndyCar off weekends tuned into NASCAR, and the road and street course fans who likely spend some of their time watching sports car racing. Bernard wanted to play up the immense diversity of the IndyCar schedule, which, with its even split between the two types of tracks, is like no other series in the world.

On one hand, awarding extra championships begins to saturate the series. It awards certain drivers for proficiency on one type of track, while almost admitting to their lack of skill on the other. For example, drivers like Danica Patrick and Ed Carpenter would be able to contend for the oval title, but wouldn't stand a chance for the road course championship; meanwhile, Justin Wilson and Will Power should be among the top drivers in road course points, but may struggle on the ovals.

Also, nobody has ever legitimized this sort of thing before in any other sport. Sure, unofficial tallies are often made, especially in NASCAR. During last weekend's NASCAR broadcast from Talladega, the broadcasting crew noted that Elliott Sadler scored the most points in the four superspeedway races last year. Similarly, fans keep track of the best road course and short track drivers, and so on and so forth. But NASCAR does not, and never has, awarded some sort of bonus for being exceptional at one type of track over another.

On the other hand, however, this is a daring move that contributes to Bernard's making his mark on IndyCar, a sport which desperately needed a breath of fresh air at this time last year. Other series have their own championships-within-a-championship, such as the Michelin Green Challenge in the American Le Mans Series, which awards bonuses to the teams with the most efficient and environmentally friendly cars over the course of the season. But only IndyCar can award this sort of championship based on two very different styles of tracks.

It's also almost a given that the eventual winner of at least one of these titles will be the IZOD IndyCar Series champion at the end of the year. IndyCar.com posted a table with the drivers who would have won these bonuses over the past five years. In 2005, 2007, and 2008, the overall series champion scored the most points on ovals, and last year, champion Dario Franchitti scored the most points on road courses. In the only exception year, 2006, oval champion Dan Wheldon actually tied series champion Sam Hornish Jr. for overall points, but Hornish won the title tiebreaker on more wins. In effect, one of the two winning drivers is almost guaranteed to take away the big prize at the end of the year.

The only conceivable way that the oval or road/street course champion wouldn't win the big prize at the end of the year is convoluted at best, and involves some quirks. Because the series has nine oval races, compared to eight road and street course events, the season finale at Homestead/Miami Speedway is left off of the oval championship. To win the overall title without winning one of the smaller ones first, one driver would probably have to be in second place in both disciplines, and then have a great Homestead weekend while the oval and road/street course champions would falter. (Because the best drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series usually run up front at all tracks, because they more often than not drive for Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi, it's highly unlikely to expect the oval champion to be poorly ranked on street courses, and vice versa.)

This new dual championship format also opens up marketing ideas for low-budget teams looking to put together solid overall programs. If a team is torn between two drivers, one an oval ace and the other a road course maverick, they can split the schedule between the two and attempt to run for the individual championships. It probably won't happen, sure, but if somebody fails to get oval clearance a year or two down the road, it may be an attractive option for a team to consider.

The jury is still out on how the first dual championship season will play out in the IZOD IndyCar Series, but the idea holds up to the high standards of innovation that Randy Bernard has set in his brief tenure as the sport's leader. If it improves the storylines as much as Bernard hopes, we may see the trend spread across other racing series. For now, though, we can only speculate.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Weekend Roundup: April 25, 2010

A collection of news clippings from around the IZOD IndyCar Series over the past few days:

- The team formerly known as Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing will return to its original team name, Newman/Haas Racing. Team officials have not commented on the reasons behind the name change.

Founded in 1983 by actor Paul Newman and businessman Carl Haas, Newman/Haas won eight CART/Champ Car championships, including four consecutive from 2004 to 2007. The team gained a new partner in 2007 when Illinois businessman Michael Lanigan bought into it. Lanigan owns Mi-Jack Construction, which sponsored open-wheel racecars from 1992 to 2006.

Newman/Haas has fallen on some tough times recently, losing top drivers like Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson, and Sebastien Bourdais in the past three years. It also lost sponsor McDonald's after last season, forcing the team to run a single car in 2010 for pay driver Hideki Mutoh, a huge step down from the three they had originally planned to campaign.

- Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will welcome Tomas Scheckter back into the fold for this year's Indianapolis 500. He will drive the No. 23 Dallara-Honda, which has not seen the track since Ana Beatriz drove it in Brazil. While the team claims it will make its sponsorship announcement on April 27, the sponsor is all but certain to be Mona Vie, an acai berry juice company for whom Scheckter does extensive promotion.

Scheckter first secured the Mona Vie sponsorship early last year, taking it to a second car for Dale Coyne Racing in last year's 500. There, he drove alongside former Coyne driver and current DRR leader Justin Wilson, qualifying 26th and finishing 12th. Based on his Indy performance and personal sponsorship contract, DRR signed Scheckter to run ten races for them, either in the No. 23 or No. 43 cars. Scheckter had three top-10 finishes, including a best finish of sixth at Iowa. He finished 20th in points, second best of all drivers running limited schedules.

DRR still has one seat open for Indianapolis, that of the No. 25 car. Beatriz could drive it; other ex-DRR drivers still looking for May employment include Buddy Lazier, Darren Manning, Buddy Rice, and Roger Yasukawa.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

2010 Preliminary Indy 500 Entry List Released

The 2010 Indianapolis 500 preliminary entry list was released today, with 40 teams looking to qualify for 33 spots. Thus far, 34 drivers have been announced to join those 40 teams, with plenty of good seats still left open.

Of course, the entire full-time 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series field will attempt to qualify for the race, totaling 24 of the 40 cars on the list. Among the teams that already participate in IndyCar full-time, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Andretti Autosport, de Ferran Luczo Dragon Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, FAZZT Race Team, KV Racing Technology, and Panther Racing will expand their programs for Indy. Foyt and DRR will each add two cars to their stable for the race, while the rest will add one. These teams account for nine more of the hopefuls for the race, bringing the car count up to 33.

Many of the drivers joining these teams have plenty of open-wheel experience. Those hired thus far include John Andretti, Ed Carpenter, A.J. Foyt IV, Davey Hamilton, Bruno Junqueira, and Paul Tracy. These drivers have a combined 40 wins in major open-wheel racing, and many have been IRL and CART mainstays over the past decade.

Sarah Fisher Racing will have both of its cars participating in the 500-mile event, with Fisher and Jay Howard behind the wheel. Kansas will mark their respective season debuts, and it will serve as a tune-up for the month of May. Former IndyCar competitors Rahal Letterman Racing and Team 3G will also return for the 500, campaigning cars No. 17 and No. 98, respectively.

And finally, three Firestone Indy Lights Series teams will move up to attempt IndyCar's biggest race. Sam Schmidt Motorsports will return to the 500 with Townsend Bell, who finished fourth last year, and sponsor Herbalife. Bryan Herta Autosport will take Sebastien Saavedra to the big leagues with William Rast sponsorship on his No. 29 Dallara-Honda. Finally, AFS Racing will take a No. 27 car to the track, although whether it will be run as a sixth Andretti Autosport car or not remains to be seen. The two teams have partnered to take the last two Lights championships.

Just as interesting, however, are some of the teams not on the entry list. Hemelgarn Johnson Racing may end a streak of attempting to make every Indianap[olis 500 since the IRL began running it in 1996; their No. 91 is not on the entry list. There is also no second car for HVM Racing, which had previously looked to field two all season, or for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, which will focus on Hideki Mutoh's program.

Plenty of drivers are still looking to land a ride for the race, however. IndyCar participants from the past year that could make appearances include Richard Antinucci, Stanton Barrett, Ana Beatriz, Buddy Lazier, Jaques Lazier, Darren Manning, Kosuke Matsuura, Nelson Philippe, Graham Rahal, James Rossiter, Tomas Scheckter, Oriol Servia, Scott Sharp, and Roger Yasukawa.

Rahal will likely displace Servia at his father's team, while Antinucci will probably get the call for Team 3G. Scheckter brings sponsorship from Mona Vie again this year, while Beatriz' Brazilian-only deal could be extended to put her back in a DRR car. Beyond that, everything is simply guesswork.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pennzoil and Penske to Reunite

Longtime NASCAR team sponsor Shell/Pennzoil will leave Richard Childress Racing for Team Penske in 2011, where it will adorn the hood of the No. 22 Dodge of 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch. Pennzoil will thus enter a direct business relationship with Roger Penske and his many companies.

This deal has an effect on Penske's IZOD IndyCar Series team as well. It will spell the end of Penske's relationship with Mobil 1, a partnership that is currently in its 20th year. However, it will also reunite Penske with a brand that backed his cars for eight years in the 1980s.

It will also mark the return of the Pennzoil brand to the Indy Racing League. Pennzoil was one of the first big primary sponsors in the original IRL, maintaining a presence from 1996 to 2005 before focusing their sponsorship dollars on NASCAR. They sponsored Panther Racing from 1998 until their exit, and among the drivers to pilot the yellow No. 4 was Sam Hornish Jr., who won championships with the team in 2001 and 2002. Ironically, Hornish now drives for Penske in NASCAR.

The return of the Pennzoil brand to open-wheel racing is not without significance. A Pennzoil-sponsored car competed in every Indianapolis 500 from 1979 to 2005, with a total of four teams taking the yellow colors to the track. Chaparral Cars, the sports car constructor founded by Texas oil magnate Jim Hall, carried the sponsorship from 1979 to 1982, winning the 1980 race and CART championship with Johnny Rutherford.

In 1983, the brand aligned itself with Penske and Rick Mears, and the results were phenomenal - between 1983 and 1990, Mears won 10 races in Pennzoil colors, including the 1984 and 1988 Indianapolis 500s. Pennzoil-lubricated Penskes also won the 1985 and 1987 races with Danny Sullivan and Al Unser, respectively.

From 1991 to 1995, the sponsorship returned to Hall and his VDS Racing. The team scored four top-10s at Indianapolis in those five years, with their best finish John Andretti's fifth place in 1991. When CART and the IRL split in 1996, the sponsorship went to Pagan Racing and Roberto Guerrero for two years, before finding a home with Panther.

There is no word on whether Pennzoil will re-assume a primary role with one of Penske's IndyCars, or just a secondary role, as Mobil 1 currently holds.

25%: Penske Renaissance Paces IndyCar

When your name is Roger Penske, winning is not a goal, it's an expectation. Your race teams prepare meticulously for battle on any given weekend. Failure is not an option. If you underperform, you will be released from your contractual obligations, and your entire team may even be shut down. And next year, somebody else will come in, replace you, and do your job better.

2009 was a so-so year for Team Penske. Its NASCAR operation featured one solid car and two laggards, and its Grand-Am operation was never quite as strong as it was in the American Le Mans Series in previous seasons. For the third consecutive year, Penske's IndyCar team failed to win the championship, as Ryan Briscoe's incident in Motegi helped wipe out what should have been a comfortable lead.

This year, Penske's NASCAR operation has flourished as the only Dodge-backed team, placing cars in victory lane in each of the top two series and asserting itself as an early championship contender. The Grand-Am operation was converted into a third IZOD IndyCar Series team for Will Power, and he has responded by winning two races and finishing no worse than fourth. Helio Castroneves won the third race of the season, and Ryan Briscoe was strong at Brazil.

All of this came after the Penske trio, in their first season without Marlboro livery on the cars, dominated preseason testing.

That's how you run a race team.

Power has led laps in every race thus far this season, making him the only driver to do so. In fact, he has pretty much dominated from the get-go. It's a good thing, too, as his relative lack of oval experience may prove a factor if his massive points lead begins to slip.

Castroneves has been solid if not spectactular, backing up his win at Barber with three more top-10 finishes. He currently sits second in points, 42 markers behind his teammate. But of drivers on the "big two" teams, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, Briscoe brings up the rear, sitting seventh in points. He threw away the win in Brazil, but had he not crashed out of that race, he'd have 137 points to Power's 162, and the championship would be a little tighter, with Penske cars running 1-2-3.

That's how strong they've been.

The next four races of the season, all ovals, should pose little threat to that dominance. Last year, Castroneves won at Indianapolis for his third 500 win, and Penske's 15th win at the speedway. He also won at Texas. At Kansas, Texas, and Iowa, a Penske car finished second, with Castroneves taking silver at Kansas and Briscoe doing so at the other two events. Their 1-2 finish at Texas was the team's lone sweep of the season and first since Sonoma in 2008. Power's lone start on these four tracks last season was at Indy, where he finished fifth.

If history holds true, and if its early season form holds up, we should see Team Penske continue to do what it does best over the next couple of month of the season - win, win big, and win just about everything there is to win. All three drivers are legitimate championship contenders, and it will be nothing short of a major disappointment if one of them does not take the title.

The Cooldown Lap: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

A collection of thoughts sparked by Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach:

GOOD TO SEE: Ryan Hunter-Reay score a victory and bring Andretti Autosport back to the top step of the podium. Everybody deserves a little job security - the ability to run the full season - and maybe this win will either A) bring in the necessary corporate sponsorship, or B) convince team owner Michael Andretti to fund RHR out of pocket.

DISAPPOINTED NOT TO SEE: More passing. I love Long Beach. It's one of my favorite tracks on the IndyCar schedule. But for Will Power to basically give the win away because he hit the pit road speed limiter was kind of sour.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Mario Moraes finishing sixth and picking up where he left off at the end of last year. I predicted that he'd have a breakout season this year... and so far I've been wrong until now.

LEAST SHOCKING: Jimmy Vasser, Moraes' team owner, winning the Pro/Celebrity Race. I mean, come on, the dude's actually won the open-wheel race before, he knows what he's doing.

THE ESTROGEN REPORT: Long Beach was not a good weekend for the ladies of IndyCar; Danica Patrick finished an abysmal 16th, racing Simona de Silvestro for the last two spots on the lead lap. Sarah Fisher lost a car to an accident. And let's be brutally honest, Milka Duno hasn't done anything all season to merit her inclusion in the series. They had all better hope for a better race at Kansas.

UNDER THE RADAR: Raphael Matos is ninth in points. He's less than 20 points off of the lowest Team Penske car, beating two Andretti Autosport drivers, and is ahead of former series champions Dan Wheldon and Panther Racing. But because Matos' de Ferran Luczo Dragon Motorsports team is one of the series' smaller outfits, we hear very little about Rafa. So here's a shout out to the little team that could... though it certainly helps that a former Indy 500 winner (Gil de Ferran) and Roger Penske's son (Jay) are involved.

IF I HAD A MILLION DOLLARS: I'd have run Paul Tracy at Long Beach. Hey, four wins and a second place (and an Indy Lights win in 1990) seem to suggest that he knows the place better than, oh, I don't know, Milka.

NEXT YEAR'S RACE: ...will be just as beautiful, highly attended, and obsessed over by the fantastic Long Beach crowds. But I'd like to see less than a five second gap for the win next time.An

25%: Slow Start For Ganassi a Letdown After 2009

(Note: 25% is a series on how some of the top teams in the IZOD IndyCar Series have done through the first quarter of the season, heading into the second quarter of oval races.)

Somewhere, Chip Ganassi is disappointed in his race teams.

After winning the Daytona 500, his NASCAR teams have underperformed this season, both sitting outside the top 20 in points. His Grand-Am team may be leading the points, but it has not yet faced the level of strong competition normally present in the series. And worst of all, his bread and butter, his IZOD IndyCar Series teams, sit tied for fifth in points, far off the pace of rival Roger Penske's team.

Granted, with the level of competition currently present in IndyCar, the top five is something to be proud of. But for the team with the past two series championships, and the drivers with the past three, it's dramatically underwhelming. While Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti actually got off to a slower start last year, each failing to finish one of the first four races before unleashing torrid runs for the title, they had a win apiece, with Franchitti taking the checkers at Long Beach and Dixon doing so at Kansas.

This year, they opened the season with Ganassi's first failure to score a top five with either car since Kentucky last year. Dixon crashed out at St. Petersburg, and Franchitti placed a middling 12th in his attempt at defending his Long Beach crown. It was, to say the least, not the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team that we expected.

In a pre-race interview with Versus at Long Beach, Dixon suggested that the Ganassi cars are actually running better than their Penske counterparts, but poor qualifying has brought them down. The argument actually has some merit; since Franchitti's pole in Brazil, the Ganassi cars have slid down the time trial charts, but have led laps in every race but the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Even there, they finished second and third. Helio Castroneves, despite his second place points standing, only has one podium, his win at Alabama. Ryan Briscoe is off the pace of the top cars after crashing to throw away a win in Brazil. But up against Power, neither Dixon nor Franchitti has really had any strong stuff.

So where's the team that won ten races last year?

The ovals coming up on the schedule may bring out the best in the Ganassi team. Last year, six of their ten wins came on oval tracks, including victories at two of the next four races on the schedule (Kansas and Iowa). Four of the five times that both drivers had podium finishes came on oval tracks, including both 1-2 finishes (Richmond and Motegi). At Kansas and Indianapolis, Dixon led the most laps in the race, and Franchitti won the pole at Texas.

You can also bet that their Indianapolis 500 program will be more focused than ever before, now that pole qualifying counts for half race points. Last year, Franchitti qualified third, while Dixon started fifth. Both led at least a quarter of the race, and Dixon led the most laps with 73. But Dixon was passed on a restart by Castroneves after Franchitti lost track position, and the team had its first race of the season where both cars failed to finish in the top five. The team's third car for Alex Lloyd, run in partnership with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, ran 13th after starting 11th.

This year, Ganassi has replaced Lloyd with Townsend Bell, who finished a surprise fourth in last year's race for KV Racing Technology. With a history of strong finishes, Bell will provide a better foil for the team's two lead drivers, as they attempt to win Ganassi's third Indianapolis 500 and first since 2008.

Monday, April 19, 2010

IndyCar Race Review: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

Four races was all it took for the partnership between Ryan Hunter-Reay and Andretti Autosport to pay dividends.

After a near-miss at the season opener in Brazil, in which they finished second, the all-American team took victory at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, for Hunter-Reay's first win since Watkins Glen in 2008. It was also the first win for team owner Michael Andretti since 2008 at Richmond, and the first for the team since an offseason restructuring transformed the former Andretti Green Racing team.

Hunter-Reay started the race in second, behind only Will Power, already twice a winner this year and the champion of this race two years ago. Power entered the race with a daunting 32-point lead over teammate Helio Castroneves, and added a bonus point for his third pole of the season. Justin Wilson took third in qualifying, setting up a battle between three ex-Champ Car stalwarts for the victory.

Power took an early lead in the race, followed by Hunter-Reay and Wilson, and at the start it appeared likely that he could win his third race of the season. But on lap 17, coming out of the hairpin, Power made an uncharacteristic mistake. He hit the pit road speed limiter inside the cockpit, and because the car was going under 50 miles per hour in one of the slowest zones on the track, the limiter engaged and slowed him down. By the time he was able to bring the car back up to full speed, Hunter-Reay and Wilson had gotten by. They ran in that order for much of the rest of the event.

All told, Hunter-Reay led 64 of the race's 85 laps, while Power paced the field for 19. Scott Dixon led the other two.

The only caution of the day came when Graham Rahal and Mario Romancini got into a tire barrier after completing 58 laps. Three other cars retired due to mechanical failures. 17 of the 25 cars finished on the lead lap, with Danica Patrick and Simona de Silvestro, the last two, separated by less than a second.

Power, despite throwing away Sunday's race win, still sits pretty atop the points standings, having expanded his lead over Castroneves to 42 points. In fact, Power would have to finish last at Kansas, while Castroneves would have to win from the pole and lead the most laps, for the points lead to change hands. Even then, that margin would be a single point. Power looks to assemble a dominating campaign on par with those of Sebastien Bourdais in the later days of the Champ Car World Series. He is the only driver to score top five finishes in all four races thus far this year.

In Firestone Indy Lights, James Hinchcliffe made the most of his second pole of the year, winning an accident-filled race for his first victory in the division. It was Team Moore Racing's second Lights victory, and their first since 2008. Also of note, 1996 Long Beach race winner and current IndyCar team owner Jimmy Vasser took the checkers in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, beating Brian Austin Green to the finish line. Vasser's top driver on Sunday was Mario Moraes, who overcame a 15th place start to finish sixth.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

IndyCar Race Preview: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is one of the most prestigious events in all of North American open wheel racing. Having hosted Formula 1, CART, and Champ Cars in the past, it is now under its second year of IZOD IndyCar Series sanctioning. Last year's running was won by Dario Franchitti, for his victory after a year in stock car racing.

Franchitti will have some work to do to repeat, however, as he starts a dismal 12th, nearly a second off the pole pace.

Instead, the front of the pack will look much like it did in the first two races of the season, with Will Power leading Ryan Hunter-Reay and Justin Wilson to the green flag. All three competed at Long Beach in Champ Car's history, and Power won the final Champ Car-sanctioned event in 2008.

Power's Team Penske looks to continue its three race winning streak regardless of who takes the checkers, however, as teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe qualified fourth and fifth, respectively. Castroneves won last weekend at Barber, while Briscoe challenged for the win at Brazil.

Andretti Autosport also has a formidable trio of cars in the top 10, with Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan in sixth, and Marco Andretti ninth. Andretti cars have led laps in each of the first three races this season, with Andretti having paced the field in the past two. The offseason restructuring has paid early dividends, as three of the team's cars are now in the top 10 and are steadily moving up.

In Firestone Indy Lights, James Hinchcliffe earned his second pole in three races, beating J.K. Vernay, who has been the class of the field in the season's first two races. Vernay's best lap was quicker than Hinchcliffe's, but due to a caution on the track that lap was disallowed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

ICONIC Committee Announced

The ICONIC (Innovative, Competitive, Open-Wheel, New, Industry-Relevant, Cost-Effective) Committee, IZOD IndyCar Series chairman Randy Bernard's committee for the 2012 IndyCar formula, was formally filled out this afternoon. Led by William Looney III, a retired 4-star Air Force General, the group is comprised of seven members, six of whom were selected by Bernard and one of whom was selected by a paddock-wide vote.

The six members chosen today were Brian Barnhardt, Tony Cotman, Eddie Gossage, Rick Long, Tony Purnell, and Neil Ressler. The seventh, Gil de Ferran, was chosen weeks ago as the owners' representative to the group.

While three of the newly-announced names (Barnhardt, Cotman, and Gossage) should be somewhat familiar to the modern IndyCar fan, the other three may not be so easily recognized. In fact, only Long has any prior IndyCar experience; he began developing engines in 1973 with the Turbo Offy program and has also worked on engines for Buick, Chevrolet, Cosworth, and Judd. He now works for Speedway Engine Development Inc., which builds engines for Firestone Indy Lights and several USAC teams.

Purnell and Ressler are former employees of the Ford Motor Company, both of whom have experience with the former Jaguar Formula 1 team. Purnell was the founder of Pi Research, a globally recognized electronics company that was purchased by Ford in 1999, while Ressler served a multitude of different roles for the company.

The committee will help decide the future of the sport, including which new formula teams will utilize, as well as whether or not it should act on a recommendation to wait until 2013 to implement the new cars.

Among the chassis manufacturers looking to score the exclusive contract are established organizations Dallara, Lola, and Swift, as well as new endeavors BAT and DeltaWing. Engine companies in discussions include Honda, Fiat (perhaps through its Alfa Romeo brand), and Volkswagen AG (through either the Volkswagen, Audi, or Porsche brand). Firestone will continue to supply tires exclusively to the series.

The Cooldown Lap: Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

(Ed's note: This feature used to be called "Morning After," but due to events out of my control, I couldn't exactly get it out in time yesterday. As such, instead of taking responsibility, I will simply change the name of the column to "The Cooldown Lap" and give myself two days from now on. I love being my own boss.)

A collection of thoughts sparked by Sunday's Indy Grand Prix of Alabama:

GOOD TO SEE: Marco Andretti contend for a victory. The series needs some strong American drivers, and with Ryan Hunter-Reay looking for sponsorship to run full-time, Graham Rahal looking for a job, and Danica Patrick suffering from Dale Earnhardt Jr. Syndrome, it looks like the youngest Andretti may have to be the one to step up. He hasn't been the same since that Indy 500 flip, that's for sure, but he's gotten more consistent over the years.

DISAPPOINTED NOT TO SEE: More variation in the top six. Besides Andretti, who fell to fifth after pitting, the rest of the top six cars were all owned by Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske. We're reverting to the domination of years past. That's bad.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Did Mike Conway really beat Will Power out of the pits at one point? Kudos to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for that. They've taken some quantum leaps forward this year. Honorable mentions: No cars crashing out of the race, Marco's lap 15 pass on Helio, pit strategy screwing Will Power as much as it did.

LEAST SHOCKING: Takuma Sato finishing last. To be fair, though, this time he didn't have an accident, and that's a start. One of these days he'll start getting the hang of it. Honorable mentions: The "Park Milka" trend on Twitter, almost no passing, Danica Patrick at the back of the pack.

THE SIMONA REPORT: After being featured in an IndyCar video on YouTube that showed her drawing the track blindfolded, Simona de Silvestro finished 21st at Barber after being spun with five laps to go. She now ranks 20th in points. For the record, Simona's blindfold trick is cool but not totally unique - if you've ever watched DTM broadcasts on the Speed Channel, often times they will show a driver in the series analyzing the track with a blindfold. To her credit, though, Simona's one of the most accurate I've ever seen.

NEXT YEAR'S RACE: ...needs to feature a lot more passing, especially up front. I don't care how beautiful Barber Motorsports Park is - I think we've all gotten over that. We don't want a Formula 1 event every year.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

IndyCar Race Review: Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

Helio Castroneves took the checkers in the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, for his first IZOD IndyCar Series win in 14 starts. It was Castroneves' 15th career IZOD IndyCar Series victory and 21st overall in American open-wheel racing. It was also the third consecutive win for Team Penske, which scored the other two with teammate Will Power.

Helio's first win of the year was never a certainty, however, as he did not hold the lead until late in the race. In fact, Marco Andretti held the point for the majority of the event, and Power, strong as his car was, led in the early stages.

Power and Mike Conway started on the front row. The start was clean, save for Scott Dixon's early jump, as was much of the race. Drivers found the new racetrack to have very few passing zones, and only the most daring were able to perform solid overtakes.

As such, many felt that an alternate pit strategy could help facilitate a solid run. Many drivers were banking on a race with a lot of long green flag runs, setting up whoever had enough fuel to go to the end to take victory. Drivers who decided to pit early included Alex Tagliani and Dan Wheldon.

In another stroke of bad luck for Takuma Sato, his car lost power early in the race. The KV Racing Technology crew managed to get him going again, however, and returned him to the race 21 laps down. Sato lost another lap before the finish, but at least salvaged a race with the car completely intact.

Sato was the only driver to finish more than four laps down, however. In fact, nobody crashed out of the event, though Milka Duno and Hideki Mutoh found themselves involved in off-track excursions, and Simona de Silvestro was turned around late in the race.

Under the Sato caution, Power, Conway, and many of the other leaders pit, facilitating a changing of the guard at the front of the field. The two pit again on lap 42, with Conway taking on the red alternate tires and beating Power out of the pits. Their pit strategy, however, got them caught behind a lot of cars for much of the race, and neither were really factors in the finish.

Marco Andretti took the lead after a daring move on Helio Castroneves and held on for an extended period of time. The triumvirate of Andretti, Castroneves, and Scott Dixon maintained their positions for a while, turning the race into a Formula 1-esque parade. Dario Franchitti settled in fourth, while Power pushed his way up to fifth. It appeared that Andretti could win his first race since 2006, as he was in the lead for a race-high 58 out of 90 laps.

But Andretti had to pit with eight laps to go, falling to fifth and handing the lead to Helio as Dixon attempted to cut the interval. But the lapped car of Rafa Matos appeared to impede Dixon's progress, until de Silvestro's spin and subsequent full-course caution with five laps to go bunched the field again.

Castroneves and Dixon broke away from the pack on the restart, but the Iceman was unable to catch the Spiderman.

Penske and Ganassi domination, while uncertain early on, ended up ruling the day, as Andretti was the only driver outside the top six not to drive for the series' top two teams. Andretti Autosport and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing each had two cars in the top 10, while the 10th and final spot was filled by Tagliani and the young but formidable FAZZT Race Team.

Power maintains his points lead, with 136 points, and a 32 marker advantage over teammate Castroneves. Franchitti is third with 94, Justin Wilson holds fourth with 85, and Dixon is fifth with 80.

Next weekend, the series heads to southern California for the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Power won the event in 2008, the final time it was held under Champ Car regulations. Last year, he finished second to Franchitti.

Twittography: Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

Here are some of the photos taken by IndyCar drivers and teams and posted to Twitter during race day at the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

Plowey - New helmet for the weekend
AJFoytRacing - Vitor Meira signing autographs
Plowey - Lunch
IndyCarNation - Hello, beautiful
SarahFisher67 - Graham Rahal signing autographs
IndyCarNation - Liza Markle and Davey Hamilton in the pace car
ssaavedra29 - Helmet techs
IndyCarNation - Pace cars on track
DRRIndyCar - Mike Conway and Justin Wilson talking to VIPs in the paddock
FollowAndretti - Indy Lights driver intros
IndyCarNation - Charles Barkley in the KV Racing Technology garage
FollowAndretti - Martin Plowman's Lights car
FollowAndretti - Tony Kanaan and Michael Andretti monitoring the Lights race
RyanBriscoe6 - Meet Charles Barkley
IndyCarNation - Bertrand Baguette
AJFoytRacing - Vitor interview
IndyCarNation - Backstage at driver intros
NicoleMBriscoe - Nicole's in the pits with the Team Penske boys
curtcavin - Dario's car
curtcavin - Team Penske
IndyCarNation - Above the track
IndyCarNation - Look at all these race fans!
IndyCarNation - Helio in the winner's circle
IndyCarNation - The podium
IndyCarNation - The winning Penske crew

IndyCar Race Preview: Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

Round three of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season takes us to the beautiful Barber Motorsports Park, site of IndyCar preseason testing and the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. The series hasn't actually raced here before, so all we have to go off of in picking the race is those preseason testing results, momentum from the season's first two races, and this weekend's practice and qualifying charts.

They all scream one name: Will Power.

The Aussie has paced the field all year, with no sign of stopping now. Power has a chance to become the first driver to win the first three races of an open-wheel season under Indy Racing League sanctioning if he can win from the pole at Barber. The last time anybody achieved such a feat in another series came in 2006, when Sebastien Bourdais did it in Champ Car.

But despite our throwing our hands up in the air and conceding the win to Power before the race even starts, plenty of other drivers and teams in the field will have a say in the finish. In Firestone Fast Six qualifying, five teams were represented (Team Penske being the only one with two cars in the top six). Among the biggest surprises was Mike Conway, one of last year's backmarkers, who earned his first career front row start. He was among the top five in every qualifying session in which he took part, and had the fifth fastest time in warm up.

Another driver looking to surprise will be Takuma Sato, starting sixth. Sato was generally fast during preseason testing, and kept his car towards the front of the pack in qualifying. Sato was second in his group in the first session and fifth in the second session.

There are five rookies in the field, with Sato the highest-qualifying of them all. The lowest will be Bertrand Baguette, starting last due to his time being the slowest in his initial qualifying group. Baguette, however, contributes to one of the tightest IndyCar fields in years, as his lap is only about 1.3 seconds off of Conway's lap in P2. (Power, of course, is half a second faster than everybody.)

In Firestone Indy Lights, don't be surprised if J.K. Vernay wins his second consecutive race in two career starts. Vernay, who won in his debut two weeks ago at St. Petersburg, scored the pole position at Barber as well.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Carpenter, Vision Return At Indianapolis

After shuttering operations earlier this year due to lack of sponsorship, Tony George's Vision Racing team will make a triumphant return to the track at the Indianapolis 500, again with driver Ed Carpenter at the wheel of its No. 20 Dallara-Honda.

Carpenter and Vision will work with Panther Racing as a teammate to Dan Wheldon. According to the Vision Racing Twitter account, the cars will be provided by Vision, while the crew and engineering will be handled by Panther. So far, no sponsors have been announced for the effort.

This means that 34 cars have submitted entry blanks for the race, and we're not even halfway through April. Seeing as plenty of last-minute deals usually come together over the course of the month, this year's may be the largest Indianapolis 500 field in years.

As for Carpenter and Vision, it will be their latest and greatest chance to finally make it to Victory Lane. Carpenter will, if he qualifies, make his 100th career IZOD IndyCar Series start. His best career finish is second, at Kentucky last year, which helped propel him to a career-best 12th place finish in points. Ovals have always been his forte, especially Indianapolis, where he finished 5th in 2008 and has four finishes of 11th or better in the last five years.

Joining forces with Panther was about the best move that Vision could make, as Panther's cars have finished second in the prestigious event in each of the past two years. This will be the fourth consecutive year that the team has expanded for the month of May, although the second car did not appear on track in 2008. Last year, the second car was driven by Scott Sharp, the 1996 IndyCar co-champion, who finished 14th.

It will also return George to the track that he ran throughout most of the past two decades. George's contributions to the speedway were immense; while the race lost prestige for a few years as top open-wheel teams preferred to stay in CART, he did raise the American open-wheel driver count exponentially, and brought NASCAR, Formula 1, and IROC to the fabled course. While only NASCAR remains, the Brickyard 400 is considered one of the sport's crown jewels.

Indianapolis 500 practice opens May 15 with rookie orientation. The field will be set on the weekend of May 22-23, and the race itself taked place on May 30.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Where Are They Now? Champ Car World Series

Three years ago tomorrow, the Champ Car World Series commenced its final season on the streets of Las Vegas. It was the first in a planned 17-race schedule, though three races were eventually cancelled, and was won by a young Australian driver by the name of Will Power.

It was Power's first career win in major American open-wheel racing, and it foreshadowed his successes to come, taking victories in open-wheel in every season since. It seems fitting now, as Power dominates the early stages of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series, to take a look back at that last season of Champ Car, its participants, and its races, in memory of the "other" form of American open-wheel.

The opener at Vegas heralded a new era for the series: new cars, new teams, new drivers, a new track, and a new TV contract. Power's domination also made it look like a new face would run up front, replacing the old guard, three-time defending champion Sebastien Bourdais. Bourdais had a difficult weekend, qualifying 16th of 17 and failing to complete the final 38 laps.

Of course, however, Bourdais proved that Vegas was simply an aberration by winning the next three races, eight of the season's 14 events, and the championship by 83 points over Justin Wilson. Bourdais parlayed that success into a Formula 1 ride, but a season and a half of poor luck and being outperformed by his teammates led to his dismissal.

Bourdais moved on to the Superleague Formula, a European racing series sponsored by soccer clubs that uses a chassis descended from the Champ Car Panoz DP01. There, too, he has seen success, winning one race in each of his first two events, and returning for the full 2010 season.

Indeed, Superleague Formula has proven a refuge for multiple former Champ Car competitors. Tristan Gommendy found a home there after Champ Car's 2008 demise and has never looked back, winning events in each of the past two seasons. But a stronger competitor in the 2007 championship than Gommendy has also made his place in the young division.

Robert Doornbos won Champ Car's Rookie of the Year award in 2007 after winning twice and finishing third in points. "Bobby D," as he is known, was unable to find an IndyCar ride in 2008 when Minardi pulled out of the merged series. He went to Superleague, winning two events and finishing third in points. Last year, he bounced between Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and HVM Racing, two former Champ Car teams, and had a miserable season, before watching his sponsorship money fall through for 2010. With no other option, Doornbos will compete against Bourdais again in Superleague this year.

Some drivers have made their way into sports car racing, instead of carrying on in the open-wheel ranks. Among them are eighth-place Simon Pagenaud, who competes in the American Le Mans Series; ninth-place Neel Jani, who concentrates on the 24 Hours of Le Mans; and 21st-place Matt Halliday, now racing in the Porsche Supercup. Perhaps the biggest sports-car triumph of an ex-Champ Car driver came this January, however, when Scot Ryan Dalziel was a part of the team that won the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona.

Katherine Legge, the series' lone female driver, took a similar route by switching her focus to the DTM, Germany's premier touring car championship. There, however, she has languished in the back, with 10 DNFs in 21 starts and a best career finish of 12th, twice.

For a sad majority of ex-Champ Car drivers, however, open-wheel racing in North America remains their goal. With only so many seats to go around, some prominent names are left on the sidelines for the majority of races. Former stars like Bruno Junqueira and Paul Tracy only have rides lined up for the Indianapolis 500 thus far. Oriol Servia and Dan Clarke are out of work entirely.

The biggest travesty of all befell Graham Rahal, who finished eighth in IndyCar points last year but lost a lucrative sponsorship deal with McDonald's. He now runs a limited schedule with Sarah Fisher Racing, with the intent of assembling a full-season deal somewhere to give him a shot at contending for the title. It really says something about the state of the sport in North America when its top American driver not named Danica Patrick can't find a full-time job.

As for the drivers who can count themselves among the employed, however, they're currently running very well. Both Justin WIlson, the 2007 Champ Car runner-up, and Alex Tagliani, who placed tenth, have shown teeth in the first two races of the season. Wilson has won an IndyCar race in each of the past two years, and Tagliani nearly won last year's Toronto race. Jan Heylen currently competes in the Firestone Indy Lights Series and finished in second in the season opener at St. Petersburg.

Power, of course, leads the pack. His story is well-known by now: drafted in by Team Penske last year as a temporary replacement for Helio Castroneves, and given a limited ride after the Brazilian's return, performing excellently in every race. Then, a practice crash at Sonoma sidelined him for the rest of the year with a back injury. He rehabilitated in the offseason, vowing to come back stronger than ever, and thus far the results have been phenomenal.

Of the ex-Champ Car teams now running in IndyCar, many have taken on pay drivers to survive. Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, Rahal's old team, is one of them, now running Honda-backed Hideki Mutoh. Dale Coyne Racing campaigns the underwhelming Milka Duno. The team in the best shape is KV Racing Technology, which now runs three cars and has backing from the powerful Lotus Cars brand.

Conquest Racing and HVM Racing are the teams that best retain the spirit of the old Champ Car World Series, by bringing European talent over to America and giving them a shot. Mario Romancini and Bertrand Baguette, Conquest's two rookie drivers, competed against one another in the European Formula Renault 3.5 series in 2008. Last year, Romancini ran Indy Lights, winning races, and Baguette won the Formula Renault title.

HVM also has a rookie driver, Swiss standout Simona de Silvestro, who may prove to be the final graduate of the Atlantic Championship, Champ Car's old feeder series, which shut down earlier this year. Last year, she won four of the series' 12 races and nearly took the championship after leading in points for much of the year. De Silvestro led laps in her IndyCar debut in Brazil and is looked at by many as a serious Rookie of the Year threat.

Of the other four teams to compete in Champ Car in 2007, two - Forsythe Racing and Pacific Coast Motorsports - no longer actively campaign cars in any series. Walker Racing currently runs Indy Lights with Jonathan Summerton, and RSports - now known as Jaguar RSR - campaigns a Jaguar XKR GT2 in various endurance races worldwide. Dalziel, in fact, was one of its drivers in this year's 12 Hours of Sebring.

The diaspora of the old Champ Car World Series is extensive, with many of the former parties unlikely to ever compete against one another again. But its final season provided open-wheel fans with plenty of memories, including those of a fantastic racecar, the early success of some future IndyCar stars, and one of the most dominating season-long performances in open-wheel history by Bourdais. While the infrastructure may be gone, the memories still remain for a small legion of devoted fans.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Andretti Pacifies Retirement; Indianapolis Looming, Future Of Open-wheel Looks Strong

Today's news out of the paddock is that Mario Andretti, now 70 years old, will return to open-wheel racing for a one-shot deal at this year's Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport. The race will mark his first IZOD IndyCar Series start, and his first major professional open-wheel race of any kind since 1994.

He last tested an IndyCar in 2003, flipping end over end in a run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and retired from the sport then and there. But after so many years out of the cockpit, the itch returned, and he successfully petitioned son Michael for another chance at Indianapolis victory.

In 29 Indianapolis 500 starts, Andretti won only once, in 1969. He nearly won the 1981 race on a technicality, after a penalty to race winner Bobby Unser briefly gave Andretti the honors, but the penalty was overturned four months later. Andretti was notorious for having no luck at the speedway, as everything from crashes to mechanical failure contributed to the coining of the term "Andretti Curse."

Sponsoring the car will be longtime Andretti backers Firestone. The car will carry the number 70.

"I still feel like I have some unfinished business at the speedway," Andretti told reporters. "I had so much bad luck there in the past. And I've always wanted to see how I stack up against my grandson, and how these new cars handle versus the older vehicles that I won my championships in."

"Sure, I'm nervous for him," son and team owner Michael Andretti told the news media. "But I know this is what he wants to do. He's always wanted to race against Marco, and I know he wants to see if he's still got it."

Andretti couldn't have picked a better time to return to the sport.

Just a day ago, his nephew, John, announced that he would also join Andretti Autosport for races at Kansas and Indianapolis. That announcement put two Andrettis in the Indianapolis field, and helped pique Mario's interest. When Michael decided against un-retiring himself, Andretti made a couple of quick phone calls to secure Firestone backing, and in the span of a few hours, the deal was set.

Open-wheel racing in America has been suffering as of late anyway, with many top American drivers failing to land rides. Teams have been eschewing these popular and talented, but sponsorless, drivers for drivers from Brazil and Venezuela that bring their own sponsorship to the teams.

KV Racing Technology owner Jimmy Vasser had nothing but good things to say about Andretti's return. "What can I say? Mario Andretti is open-wheel racing in America. He's done everything there is to do for the sport, and then some. It's even more special for me to see him return to the track, as our new sponsor Lotus was behind him when he won his Formula 1 title in 1978. I look forward to competing against him at Indy. Heck, I might even have to un-retire myself!"

Even in a less prominent open-wheel environment than America saw during his heyday, the return of Mario Andretti to the Indianapolis 500 will be sure to turn heads during the month of may. Sure enough, he will be everybody's sentimental favorite to win this year's running.


Read the first letters of each word in the title and of each paragraph. Have a fun day!