Welcome to the semi-official start of the 2009 IndyCar Series: the so-called "Spring Training" of pre-season media work and initial oval-track testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It was the first time the full IndyCar field has assembled since the end of the '08 season, nearly six long months ago, and everyone was raring to go.
Even the tedium of photo shoots, interviews, and taping feature bits for the TV season to come was greeted with - if not wild enthusiasm - at least acceptance by the normally impatient drivers. Fortunately, most of this PR "grunt work" was completed the day before the start of official testing. So, almost everyone except Dan Wheldon, who missed the first day for a charity event in D.C. - his Panther Racing team received a private test day in return - was on the race track.
Wheldon's Tuesday-night event - a fund-raiser for the National Guard Youth Foundation - was rated a big success. Wheldon himself managed to do some on-stage negotiation to give away two VIP trips to the Indy 500, complete with two-seater rides and suite passes, to double the amount of money that the Guard received to help troubled youth.
We had a total of 20 drivers and cars out on Tuesday, and then added Wheldon for 21 the following night. It was a pretty good turnout considering the state of the economy the last 12-18 months. Still, there are a lot of veteran drivers - Paul Tracy, Oriol Servia, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Bruno Junqueira, Buddy Rice, Alex Taglaini and A.J. Foyt IV among them - on the sidelines. And even more mechanics, engineers and truckies, either still looking for work or "back in the real world", at least for now. The number of available jobs in the paddock has definitely shrunk in recent years, making it harder for everyone to break into the sport. Tough times, for sure.
But with a little bit of luck, we'll add a couple of more entries in the next couple of weeks and start the season with 23-24 cars. You can take a look at my usual "cheat sheet" at the bottom of this note to see our likely field for 2009, along with some part-time efforts already announced and potential Indy 500 additions.
In 2008, we started the season with 26 regulars (and lost one of the two Roth Racing entries as the season went on), so a net reduction of two or three actually looks pretty good when compared with many other major racing series - and that's thanks in no small part to the efforts of HPD and IndyCar management in providing some creative financing alternatives for some of the smaller, struggling teams.
But - even more than car counts, even more than the change to the Versus TV network as the new primary television partner, even more than the usual pit-lane gossip of who's gone where (or is going soon) - THE initial topic of conversation on Tuesday night was just that: for the first time in anyone's memory, you actually COULD have a conversation in pit lane - while cars were on the track - without screaming your lungs out to a person inches away from you, who likely would still have trouble understanding what you were saying.
Yes, folks (and a sincere "thank you" to everyone at HPD who had a hand in this), the new exhaust/muffler system works. The engines are not only quieter, they have a more pleasant, "racier" sound to them. For the first time since Honda joined the IRL, I could actually take off my headset without fear of imminent tinnitus, and that's quite a change from years gone by.
In addition, the Indy Lights cars - which, believe it or not, actually used to sound even WORSE than IndyCars, with a truly horrid "blat" coming out of the exhaust - have improved their sound by switching to a 180-degree flat-plane crankshaft. Good times, indeed, and something I hope you will all appreciate when the Grand Prix of Long Beach comes 'round next month.
Otherwise, probably the biggest news to come out of Homestead was a lack of news. We got through two nights of IndyCar practice without a single spin, tire "whitewall", crash or major mechanical failure.
We DID have a large number of "cut tire" caution periods, but this isn't all that unusual for Homestead, where a combination of sea shells in the asphalt aggregate and some sharp edges where asphalt ends and concrete begins in pit lane always seems to lead to a lot of these calls. Throw in a few of the usual bits - such as unfastened 10-32 screws - falling off, and perhaps a bit of pre-season over-caution on the part of Race Control, and we had fairly regular "yellow(s) for track inspection". If that's your biggest worry over two days (and it was), you've got nothing to complain about.
We have noticed something interesting on the weekend schedules for the early season races, which are out now at IndyCar.com (look under each individual event). On Fridays, there are an extra 30 minutes of IndyCar Series practice that have been designated for "Rookies and Entrants outside the Top Ten in Points."
This is interesting. With testing fairly limited between races this season, it could be a good way to help level the playing field a bit. This 30-minute session is extra, and it does mean that cars in this situation will get 30 minutes of additional practice time that they can use as a "test" before the entire field hits the track.
How much difference will it make? Probably not a ton, as the really fast cars often just sit on pit lane for a bit early in the race weekend, waiting for the track to get some initial rubber laid down. Or you can look at it this way: the "cannon fodder" outside of the top ten will get to clean the track for the fast cars - but hopefully learn something to help their programs in the process.
In a welcome change for Kansas (and likely some of the other oval tracks), the Sunday morning practice session will return after several years of "no race-day warmup". At Kansas, this will be a one-hour session with the field split in two groups.
The reason given for this by the IRL is that with the Truck and ARCA races on the same weekend, the IndyCars just aren't able to get quite enough practice in before race time. This should also provide the benefit of cleaning up the track under a practice situation, instead of having the cars navigate stock-car rubber at the start of the race. It's not an "all skate" like previous morning warm-ups, but it is at least a chance to get some track time on race day before the green flag waves.
Another welcome change for 2009 is the addition of a championship point for qualifying on the pole. About fracking time, I say. Leading the most laps will still net you points as well, but just two now, instead of three as in the past. Now, how 'bout awarding a point for passing the most cars on track during races?
Other changes of note: Justin Wilson, out at NHL due to lack of sponsorship, has apparently landed at Dale Coyne Racing, which also has added ex-Walker/Target engineer Bill Pappas. Chris Mower, a second-generation racer and former team manager at Conquest, is now team manager at Panther Racing, where it looks like Andy Brown will also return to the road team as Dan Wheldon's race engineer.
If anyone is going to give the "Big Three" (AGR, Penske, Ganassi) a tough time on the ovals this year, the Panther/Wheldon combination would be a good bet to do so.
The other team that should become a regular front-runner on road courses - and perhaps the ovals as well - is Newman Haas Lanigan. There's no doubt that Rahal and Doornbos are already very good - and only going to get better. In addition, assuming the funding coming into the team from "Bobby D" and Ms Duno is as significant as has been rumored, this former multiple championship-winning Champ Car team could well become a fourth IndyCar title contender.
Also on the "People Magazine" front, as I think most of you know, Dan and Susie Wheldon had their first child in February, a boy named Sebastien Daniel. They join Justin and Julia Wilson and Ed and Heather Carpenter in the new parent department; while Scott and Emma Dixon will be welcoming their first bambino sometime in July.
Back on Track
The goal at Homestead, and all of the banked "Big Ovals", is getting your car around the track in the shortest possible distance, as close as possible to the white line which circles the bottom of the track. But, like most big tracks other than Indy, Homestead also requires decent handling and grip, which makes it challenging and, in some ways, like a short track.
Ganassi's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti appeared to have the best solution and were consistently quickest when running without a draft, although Dario tried some different things the second night and backed up a bit as a result. Penske's Ryan Briscoe was quickest in the test, but he appeared to have some "help" on his fastest laps.
The surprise of the test was KV Racing Technology and its new driver, Mario Moraes. Despite the team's relative lack of combined IndyCar experience, Moraes is fast and brave. He showed a lot of improvement over the course of the season last year at Dale Coyne Racing. Meanwhile, as run by Jimmy V[asser] and Mark Johnson, KV is a well-organized outfit with decent funding; results are likely to follow in 2009.
One Final Plug
Be sure to keep up with Robin Miller's regular contributions to the SpeedTV.com website (his weekly "mailbag" column is a must) and a new IndyCar columnist, HVM engineer (and my old wheel-banging friend from Formula Ford days) Mike Cannon. His first column, from Homestead, was EXCELLENT. Dario and Tony Kanaan also are putting up "driver diaries" on the Speed site, and they're definitely worth a read, too.
That's about all for now. I'll have more for you after the next test at Barber Motorsports Park and at regular intervals throughout the '09 season. Enjoy, and I hope to see you at the races.