Road to IndyCar Series title will be a road-race affair starting at The Glen
Sunday's race at Watkins Glen is only the second road or street course event of the season. But with five of the final eight races on serpentine tracks, the road to the IndyCar Series title is on the roads, writes John Oreovicz.
Five of the next seven IndyCar Series events are road or street races, before the championship concludes with one final oval slugfest at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 7.
The road racing fun kicks off this weekend with the Camping World Indy Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International (Sunday 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), where Scott Dixon will try to become the first driver in IndyCar Series history to win the same race four times in a row. The IndyCar Series leader is undefeated at The Glen, rain or shine, since the series first raced there in 2005.
The fact that the majority of the races left on the docket require the IndyCar drivers to negotiate left and right turns -- and fast and slow ones, come to think of it -- not to mention accelerate, brake and shift a lot more than they have to on ovals has the potential to shake up the championship battle, where Dixon leads Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon by 43 and 52 points respectively.
Or maybe not.
After all, Dixon has been the most successful driver since the IndyCar Series added road and street racing in 2005. In 12 road racing starts, Dixon has notched four wins, two seconds and only one finish lower than eighth. That blemish came earlier this year at St. Petersburg in the IndyCar Series' only other road race in 2008.
Can the 27-year old New Zealander retain his perfect record at one of America's most historic road-racing venues?
"I think it's going to be very tough," Dixon said. "We've got to start focusing on different people than on the ovals. Helio's going to be very strong on the road courses and we need to try to build a bit of a buffer to them on the ovals.
"It's going to be tough racing, especially with all those other guys that came in this year from Champ Car. They've already proved at St. Pete that they can almost whip our ass on the road courses. But I'm personally looking forward to it."
Despite his gaudy IRL road-racing record, Dixon expects a stern challenge ahead of him at familiar tracks like Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Belle Isle and Infineon.
"We need to work on qualifying," he said. "We still won races, but we didn't qualify on the front row very often. I think Ryan Briscoe will challenge Helio more, and if you can push him a little bit more, he's going to be very tough to beat. He's already very tough and very accomplished and Briscoe is definitely one of the best at throwing a lap together on a road course. If he can last the distance in a race, he'll be tough.
"Last year was our first year running the Dallara on road courses and it was definitely a learning curve," Dixon added. "It's very hard to do on-track stuff because we can't test. We have a lot of stuff sitting on the bench to try, but whether it's good or not, we don't know."
The majority of the field is looking forward to the IndyCar Series' road race swing. In fact, the only team that does not have at least one road-racing ace in its driver lineup is Vision Racing, and rumors persist that superstar free agent Paul Tracy will be brought in to compliment regular drivers Ed Carpenter and A.J. Foyt IV, perhaps as soon as Mid-Ohio.
"I just started racing on road courses in an IndyCar last year and I feel like every time we go to another road or street course, I seem to get just a little bit better and more comfortable," Foyt said. "I hope the same will be the case again at Watkins Glen this weekend."
One theme comes out when you talk to the drivers trained in road racing: They believe it gives them the opportunity to hunt Dixon down in the points race.
"I think it really could mix up the championship a little bit," said Briscoe, whose road-racing skills were sharpened last year when he drove for Team Penske's American Le Mans Series Porsche team before being promoted to the IndyCar squad for 2008. "You look at guys like [Will] Power, who have been hanging in there through the ovals, sitting in the top 10.
"It's going to be a great opportunity for some of those Champ Car guys to really make a step up. Guys like Dixon, Castroneves, [Tony] Kanaan, and myself, hopefully we're all no slouches on the road courses. It's going to be very competitive, especially in qualifying.
"You saw at St. Pete how competitive it really was. It's going to be war."
At St. Petersburg, the "transition" contingent from the defunct Champ Car series surprised all by running at the front all weekend, culminating in rookie Graham Rahal's victory.
Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing's Justin Wilson, who led a practice session and qualified on the front row at St. Pete, predicts that the ultra-fast Watkins Glen circuit will be a tougher nut to crack.
-- Justin Wilson
"Hopefully we can have the same sort of performance, but it's a higher speed track than St. Pete so you get more into aerodynamics," Wilson said. "I'm hoping that the fact that we know how to turn left and right will help us. It's what we're used to."
Oriol Servia of KV Racing Technology was the most consistently competitive Champ Car driver during the recent string of oval races, including top-six finishes at Milwaukee and Richmond. He hopes to maintain that form in the upcoming road races.
"I'm looking forward to them just because we are behind in so many areas on the ovals," said the Spaniard. "I think on road courses we're still going to be a little behind, but at least we're going to be on the playing field."
Castroneves is a former Watkins Glen pole winner who wants to make up for crashing out of the lead a year ago, while Kanaan is also a regular frontrunner at The Glen who has never worn the winner's laurel wreath.
Since moving the Watkins Glen race from September to July, weather hasn't been much of an issue, though there is a chance of rain in the Sunday forecast.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.