The smell of ethanol is back in the air, and fresh rubber is being laid down as the stars of the IZOD INDYCAR Series return to begin their assault on the 2011 season. This will be the last year of the current car formula with the entirely new body kits beginning in 2012 and several engine combinations starting next year as well.
The main thing this means to the series for 2011 is that parts will be cheaper for teams, and we may see more drivers get chances late in the season. It also means the development advantage of Ganassi and Penske will shrink even further, and we will see more parity in the series than we have seen in the recent past.
So for the start of the season, I have decided to semi-coherently rant about some random news, notes, and features for the 2011 season. Enjoy!
Rant 1: Holy Shifting Drivers Batman!
In a silly season that truly lived up to its name, drivers were shifting everywhere in the INDYCAR world during the off season. Nearly every team in the series has a new driver piloting at least one of their cars. Tony Kanaan lost his ride at Andretti due to sponsor issues, and then we all thought he had a great ride with DeFerran Dragon. They close up shop with just a few weeks to go, and he sneaks his way into KV Racing just before the gun, taking the Geico sponsorship that Paul Tracy has had in recent years.
Andretti replaces him with former Dreyer and Reinbold driver Mike Conway, while Dreyer and Reinbold replaces him with Ana Beatriz.
Ganassi adds two more drivers in Rahal and Kimball in his attempt to dominate all things that spin tires in the racing world. Saavedra joins Conquest, FAZZT is bought by Sam Schmidt, Servia returns to the series with Newman Haas, and Ed Carpenter moves over to Sarah Fisher. Hildebrand rocks the National Guard sponsor for Panther, Matos joins AFS, and SeaBass returns to American Open Wheel driving with Dale Coyne. Oh yeah, and some kid named James Jakes is sporting the Coyne flag too. Pure craziness in the off season, and it is nowhere near over yet with Paul Tracy, Dan Wheldon, James Hinchcliff, JK Vernay, Davey Hamilton, and a host of others looking to join in on the fun.
Of the teams from 2010, only Penske and Foyt return with the same driver lineup. That is four drivers out of roughly thirty. Certainly an eventful off season.
Rant 2: The Revolution will not be Televised
INDYCAR announced that live streaming video of practice, qualifications, and races will no longer be available on www.indycar.com. This means that we will all be forced to deal with the limited television coverage during the week or tune into IMS radio to get our fix. INDYCAR says they were violating the contract by doing this in the past, and cannot do so in the future (ignoring law school training here). What this means though is the hardcore fans who want to watch every turn, every spin, every hot lap will have to board lots of planes, trains, and automobiles, because it will not be available from the comfort of your lazy boy.
This especially bothers me during ABC race weekends. ABC takes more, longer commercial breaks than the VERSUS races, and generally do a poorer job of covering the sport. I would always have my stream up during ABC races, but not for VERSUS. While it is an attempt to drive TV ratings higher, it will have little effect on that, and only anger the die hard fans.
My solution to the problem for ABC/Versus is as follows. Throw up all the content you don't plan on putting on TV on ESPN3. ESPN3 ran the 12 hours of Sebring a couple weeks ago, and I watched some Caribbean Cricket on there last month. If these events can run on the 3, then certainly INDYCAR can find a place there too.
Rant 3: Flip-flopping is for more than gymnasts.
Randy Bernard no longer walks on water or can magically cure the sick. His first season as the head man for the INDYCAR series went great, with tons of new ideas and some great marketing, and it was very clear to everyone that Bernard could help the series grow.
Then came the last offseason, where Bernard attempted to run the series in an interesting way. He would announce rule changes, and then change his mind the next week after fans, drivers, and owners told him he was crazy. This included new pit rules, 'lucky-dog' restarts, and most recently a 26 car limit to the field. All of these ideas (which basically came straight from NASCAR) were widely rejected by the INDYCAR faithful.
So we learned that Bernard is a great marketer, but should probably keep his hands off the rulebook. We also learned he can shoot his mouth off a bit, leading to a fight with the ultimate loud mouth Paul Tracy. Bernard must appear above the fray to be the true leader of American Open Wheel racing in the future. Hopefully he will learn from his mistakes.
Rant 4: Firestone drama, better than Daytime Soaps?
Firestone racing has been attempting to get out of racing for several years now, and nearly pulled out of INDYCAR this year. A late offer by the owners to give them more money and require less marketing saved the 'magic rings' for a few years. The owners were willing to do this in order to keep a constant in 2012, when the new car and engine comes into the series. Safety was the main concern, and breaking in a new tire company with all new equipment was deemed too hefty a task.
In the end, it worked out well for Firestone and INDYCAR, but INDYCAR lost all their bargaining ability with Firestone. They will need to look to a new tire supplier in the future, and will get the chance to audition them in the feeder series over the next couple of years.
Firestone and INDYCAR have had a great partnership for many years, but Firestone has decided to change their company strategy. INDYCAR must show they are a strong enough series to weather the storm and come out stronger on the other side.
Rant 5: LETS GO RACING!
Enough ranting and raving. There are likely another 45 topics we could all rant about, but at 12:30 tomorrow afternoon, it will all be an afterthought.
This is likely to be the most competitive year in INDYCAR since Penske and Ganassi joined full time. There are new drivers all over the place, several new tracks joining the series this year, (Baltimore road race, New Hampshire oval, Milwaukee is back!, and I'm headed to Vegas baby!) and it all adds up to a very exciting 2011 season for the IZOD INDYCAR series.
Penske and Ganassi are still the teams to beat, Dario is still the Champion to beat, but there will be no easy path to the championship this year.
So strap in, throw on some fresh tires, keep your tanks full and prepare for a whole new season of INDYCAR racing!