Here's what to watch in IndyCars
Every racing fan knows what's supposed to stop when the green flag drops. Now after a four-month offseason with limited testing, 22 IRL IndyCar Series competitors will find out this Sunday what's real and what's fantasy when the field takes the rolling start for the season-opening Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
To many observers who list an Indianapolis zip code, the IndyCar Series is riding high, with strong sponsor and manufacturer support and a growing 17-race schedule -- anchored by the Indianapolis 500 -- that features road- and street-course events for the first time in IRL history. Critics of Tony George's series dwell on the IndyCar Series' rapidly increasing costs and small car count, tepid attendance and poor television ratings.
But no matter where one stands on the subject, the start of a new season is always an exciting event. Here are a few trends to look for this weekend at Homestead as well as throughout the 2005 season:
ONE Engine To Have -- Honda had a demonstrable advantage throughout 2004, though Toyota started to close the gap toward the end of the season. Preseason testing in January and February ended with Honda-powered drivers consistently fastest, while Chevrolet's two drivers were generally as quick as the Toyota contingent.
Honda's turbocharged Champ Car engine powered six consecutive CART Champ Car champions and with a solid corps of teams, the IndyCar Series may be looking at a similar era of Honda dominance. The teams that fielded those six CART champs -- Ganassi Racing and Penske Racing -- are now both in the Toyota camp but all of their know-how may not be enough to beat raw Honda horsepower.
Chevrolet has been fielding a Cosworth-designed engine since mid-2003 and should certainly not be written off. Reports out of Europe indicate that Cosworth has made massive gains on its Formula 1 V-10 as used by the Red Bull team, and Cosworth's new owner Kevin Kalkhoven is keen to demonstrate to the IndyCar Series what his company is capable of doing. If Tomas Scheckter learns how to finish races, he could spring a surprise.
TWO Ways to Watch -- Television ratings for American open-wheel racing have been in a downward spiral for 10 years, conspicuously offset by massive gains for NASCAR in that same timeframe. So the IndyCar Series and its television partners at ESPN and ABC are shaking things up. Todd Harris is the new play-by-play man, Brent Musburger will serve as studio host for the Indianapolis 500 and Gil de Ferran will provide expert commentary.
More radical changes are planned for the way the broadcast looks. For the first two races of the year (Homestead and Phoenix), the IndyCar broadcast will not cut away to commercials. Instead, a split screen effect will be used, with live action from the race viewed within a smaller screen in the lower corner of the main screen. At Homestead, a simulcast on ESPN2 hosted by Gary Gerould and Kenny Brack will predominantly feature in-car camera angles.
The IndyCar Series also has ramped up its marketing and is currently staging a 13-city Green Flag Tour that teams longtime series advocate Jack Arute with a selection of team principles and drivers. The League is also counting on female racer Danica Patrick to impact the nation's awareness of open-wheel racing.
THREE Races Within a Race -- The first third of the season -- basically through Indianapolis and the Month of May -- can make or break a driver's championship aspirations. That's particularly important within multi-car teams, which must eventually decide which of its drivers to back if the championship is closely contested down the stretch with a driver from another team.
This will be particularly fascinating to watch at Andretti Green Racing, which fields four bona-fide championship contenders. Tony Kanaan will be looking to retain his IndyCar Series crown, while Dario Franchitti is in position to mount his first serious assault on the IndyCar title after learning the ropes the last year and a half. Meanwhile, Dan Wheldon feels he is ready to step out of the shadow of his more famous teammates and Bryan Herta is arguably the most consistent driver on the grid. Will smiles, back-slapping and practical jokes still be a hallmark of AGR in October?
On a similar level, Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish are likely to be closely matched at Penske Racing. And how will the arrival of Ryan Briscoe affect the chemistry at Ganassi Racing?
FOUR Or More Corners --The IndyCar Series drivers, manufacturers and teams demanded road racing, and the League is delivering. The first official, points-paying right turns for IndyCar machinery will occur in early April at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) street course christened by Champ Car in 2003. Much later in the season, when there could be a serious impact on the championship, the series races on the natural terrain road courses at Sonoma (Infineon Raceway) and Watkins Glen.
Road racing is still somewhat controversial within a league originally dedicated to the preservation of open-wheel oval racing. Many of the former CART teams that have dominated IndyCar racing in the last few years are openly enthusiastic about the advent of road courses, while IRL stalwarts like A.J. Foyt are outwardly upset.
Andretti Green Racing reportedly has had a road course development program up and running since early 2004 and its drivers have been consistently fastest in early road course testing. Meanwhile, someone like Sam Hornish Jr. -- whose road racing skills are not sharp after several years of exclusively running ovals -- could see a potential championship run go down in flames at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
If the foray into road and street courses is successful in terms of attendance, look for additional road racing events to be added in the future -- at the expense of ovals that underperform commercially.
FIVE Drivers to Watch -- My pick for the championship this year is Dario Franchitti. At 31, the Scotsman is in the prime of his career, and he is probably the best classic road racer in the series. In the second half of 2004, Dario dominated on the short tracks where driving ability counts most. Franchitti's championship campaign will be based on those so-called "handling tracks" and with a full year of IndyCar competition now under his belt, he will have the confidence to race for wins on superspeedways.
Within the Andretti Green Team, I suspect defending IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan will also be a factor in the championship chase, though repeating is often difficult. And Dan Wheldon is desperate to show that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as his senior teammates.
Helio Castroneves has won races for Team Penske in each of the last five years, but the Brazilian has never won a championship. How would the man best known for climbing fences after victories celebrate an overall season championship? His chances are heavily dependent upon Toyota.
Finally, Scott Dixon now knows that his racing future is in America, so the focus he showed on the way to the 2003 IndyCar Series crown should return in force. But like Castroneves, Dixon's fortunes may rest in the hands of his Toyota engine builders.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.