Thanks to Randy Bernard, IndyCar rising
For the first time in many years, Indy car racing fans truly have reason to be optimistic. The Izod IndyCar Series has been blessed by more positive developments in the past eight months than it was over the past eight years, leaving open-wheel racing in position to be one of the few major sports poised for growth in the future.
Unfortunately, many of the exciting elements of Indy car racing's future are still somewhat in the distance. There is a lot of anticipation for IndyCar's new 2012 cars and engines, but there remains the small matter of getting through 2011, the ninth and final year for the spec cars memorably dubbed "Crapwagons" by fans of the defunct CART/Champ Car series.
Still, the positives outweighed the negatives in the IndyCar Series over the past year, and the trend is undeniably positive. So here's a list of people and things from the world of open-wheel racing that I'm thankful for as we enter the holiday season
I'm thankful that Indy car racing somehow found a real leader, arguably for the first time in more than 30 years. Randy Bernard admits he knew nothing about auto racing prior to taking the reins of the IndyCar Series in March, yet his tireless enthusiasm and keen marketing savvy have already produced substantive results. A stagnant sport is truly being revived under Bernard's leadership, and morale within the paddock is better than it has been since the mid-'90s.
I'm thankful that the women of the Hulman-George family found the courage to remove Tony George from his position of power within Indy car racing and in the family's other business interests. Aside from squandering hundreds of millions of dollars of the family fortune, TG's actions did severe damage to Indy car racing, and to a lesser extent, to the reputation of the Indianapolis 500. Tony's sister, Josie, in particular, deserves thanks for recognizing Bernard's leadership potential and for convincing him to step away from his comfort zone running the Pro Bull Riders tour.
I'm thankful that Bernard quickly realized how far behind IndyCar had fallen in terms of determining its future technical direction and that he had the ability to manage the process of creating a new formula for 2012 in the space of a few short months. With a choice of three engines and several aero kits for a single basic chassis, the 2012 package doesn't represent the all-out open competition that fans were hoping for, but at least there will be different sights and sounds coming from the cars for the first time since 2005.
I'm thankful that Detroit resident Roger Penske did what any good neighbor would do by convincing General Motors and its Chevrolet division to return to Indy car racing as an engine supplier. Penske has his share of detractors, but The Captain has certainly done the sport far more good than bad during his 40-plus years of involvement.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who is thankful that Penske dug into his own pockets to run three cars in the IndyCar Series this year, truly launching the career of Will Power in the process. The Australian is one of the sport's genuinely nice guys, and someone who will be a championship contender for years to come.
I'm thankful to Kevin Kalkhoven, not only for his role in making sure that the remains of CART/Champ Car were a significant part of the unified IndyCar Series, but for bringing the famous Lotus brand into the series. Kalkhoven loves to have a good time, and he makes sure that everyone around him enjoys the ride too.
Speaking of Kalkhoven, I'm thankful this year that I was not a KV Racing mechanic tasked with rebuilding some 40 crashed race cars. If I was a KV crewman, the No. 1 item on my Christmas wish list would be for the team to hire a skilled, veteran driver or two -- like Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia or Dan Wheldon.
I'm thankful that Paul Tracy continues to make auto racing entertaining for fans, competitors and even journalists.
I'm thankful to Honda for its unwavering support of Indy car racing for the past five years -- and for its fine road cars.
I'm thankful that Tony Cotman has been put in charge of writing the rules and leading the development of the 2012 IndyCar. TC did a good job getting the 2007 Panoz DP01 Champ Car on track on a shoestring budget, and he'll have a lot more resources to work with this time.
I'm thankful that Dario Franchitti returned to Indy car racing after his ultimately, unsuccessful foray into NASCAR. I think two consecutive championships and another Indy 500 win are plenty of evidence that Franchitti is back where he belongs.
On a personal note, I'm grateful to Franchitti for inviting me out to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch him drive the Lotus-Ford in which his hero, Jim Clark, won the 1965 Indy 500. It meant flying back from Japan less than 24 hours after the IndyCar race at Motegi, but it was well worth the physical strain and the logistical hassle. I've been going to the Speedway for more than 35 years, and seeing and hearing that car run again ranks near the top of my many IMS memories.
I'd like to publicly express my thanks to the Speedway and the IndyCar Series for shedding the culture of arrogance that marked the Tony George era. By working with (instead of against) the media, folks such as Amy Konrath, Steve Shunck, Eric Powell, Arni Sribhen, Tracey Todd, Tim Sullivan and Dave Lewandowski make our jobs a lot easier. So do cooperative drivers such as Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Kanaan and Justin Wilson, and team principals such as Mike Hull and Tim Cindric.
I'm thankful that Milka Duno has (probably) made her last IndyCar start.
Although I'm disappointed that the series won't be returning to Watkins Glen, I'm thankful that Bernard immediately recognized that International Speedway Corp. and its tracks were generally not working in the best interest of the IndyCar Series. I'm also thankful that IndyCar can count on Speedway Motorsports Inc. and its tracks to give the sport the kind of effort and promotion it deserves.
I'm thankful that Indy car racing doesn't suffer the kind of tire problems that plague NASCAR. Every Indy car driver owes Firestone a debt of gratitude for making a dangerous sport as safe as it can possibly be.
In that vein, thanks should be expressed to Tony George for spending some of that family war chest on something that truly helped auto racing -- the SAFER Barrier. That was not a NASCAR development, despite what Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds would lead you to believe.
I'm thankful that I won't have to write any more stories about Danica Patrick this year.
Finally, I am ever so thankful to my family and friends for their love and support. As the single parent of a 4-year-old son, I couldn't do my job without you. So thank you, and happy holidays!
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.