The Frontstretch: The Winds Of Change by Matt Stallknecht -- Wednesday March 13, 2013

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The Winds Of Change

Open-Wheel Wednesday · Matt Stallknecht · Wednesday March 13, 2013

 

The season is finally upon us, ladies and gentlemen. In just two short weeks, the IZOD IndyCar Series will be back in full swing for the first race of the season on the St. Petersburg Street Circuit. There will undoubtedly be a great deal of pomp and circumstance from IndyCar officials surrounding the event, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the folks in charge will cheerily gloat about how all is well in the world of IndyCar and this season will be the “best season in years” despite organizational in-fighting that could derail that very goal. Will this season deliver on the inevitable promises made by series higher-ups? Before we can answer that, we have some catching up to do in terms of you may have missed over the off season.

On the driver and team front, there have been some off-season moves which have shuffled the deck in terms of who is where. The most high-profile driver to make a change was Graham Rahal, as he departed from Chip Ganassi Racing in order to join forces with his father at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Rahal’s new teammate will be James Jakes, who will also be running for Rahal after a stint with Dale Coyne Racing. Takuma Sato departed from the above listed Rahal team in order to join the ranks of A.J. Foyt Enterprises. A.J. Allmendinger is making a return to the series with Penske Racing, as he will be racing a part-time schedule that includes the Indianapolis 500. Rookie Sebastien Saavedra will be piloting a car for Dragon Racing, and Simona De Silvestro will be taking her talents to KV Racing Technology. Finally, the biggest winner in silly season was E.J. Viso, who landed a plum full-time gig with Andretti Autosport.

Following on the numerous driver and team changes made in the offseason, INDYCAR officials also ushered in a variety of rule and regulation along with other general changes to the series as a whole. Most notably, another round of downforce reductions on the cars was made in a continued effort to put the racing back into the hands of drivers. For better or for worse, doubleheader races will be making a comeback, with the races at Toronto, Belle Isle, and the new Houston street circuit all being two-day/two-race affairs. Speaking of the race Houston, it will be joined by Pocono Raceway as tracks that are new to the schedule in 2013, with the Pocono race being designated as a Triple Crown event. Oh yeah, did I mention that Triple Crown? It’s back, and in addition to the Pocono event, the Indianapolis 500 and the season finale at Auto Club Speedway will all comprise this new promotion, and IndyCar will award a $1,000,000 bonus to any driver who can win all three events.

As for the on-track racing, this may just very well be the best season in years. The DW12 platform that debuted last year proved to be a rousing success. Not only was the on-track product improved by the new car, but it more importantly proved to be an improvement in terms of safety. After the tragic death of Dan Wheldon at the end of 2011, the sport absolutely needed to take a proactive and forward-thinking approach to safety, and it did just that. Many kudos must be given to INDYCAR for putting safety first, and to see that the new car raced well to boot was just an added bonus. Expect to see much of the same in 2013 as teams have had a full year under their belts in terms of getting these cars up to speed. The oval races will be absolutely scintillating, especially the newest oval to join the schedule, Pocono, as the drafty but driver-input-sensitive DW12 proved to be arguably the best car the series has ever raced with on such tracks. The above mentioned downforce reductions ought to make the racing even hairier on such tracks as drivers search and struggle for grip. There are undoubtedly still far too many road and street circuits, but the DW12 raced well enough on such tracks last year that the racing on the twisty circuits ought to be passable.

But alas, despite the general optimism provided by a new car and some great racing, fans of the IndyCar world were left in a state of peril at the season’s end. In case you missed it INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard was abruptly fired after the season late last year, leaving many to wonder about the future of the sport. Rumors swirled that the series was in major financial trouble, and some insiders even warned that the series was close to going under. Where is this fine sport heading? Is American Championship Open-Wheel Racing on a path for failure? Those will be the questions asked continually throughout the season, as INDYCAR once again finds itself in a state of flux. The organization has had a nasty habit over the years of finding creative ways to shoot itself in the foot, and it has done so, once again. There is no getting around that. Bernard’s replacement (who is only an interim, tell me that’s not an indicator of how disorganized INDYCAR leadership is) is Jeff Belskus, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Hulman & Company, the group which owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Nothing against Mr. Belskus, but how are fans supposed to have any sort of faith in the direction of the sport if an actual, long-term CEO could not be found despite the sanctioning body having four months to do so? How can this organization be trusted to make the right moves? Off-track matters, both of organizational and financial in nature, will most definitely be underlying stories each and every week. Expect to hear some nasty rumors, organizational shuffling, and eventually a new CEO. INDYCAR’s greatest challenge this season will thus lie in the marketing department as they try to put the on-track racing at the forefront of the media’s attention while simultaneously burying all of the inevitable off-track closed doors shenanigans.

With another new season comes a whole new set of challenges. INDYCAR will try it’s best to weather the current storm it is ensconced in at the moment. If INDYCAR is able to work it’s way out of the mess it is currently in financially, the sport could begin a golden age, as the on-track product is the best it has been in years. The racing is hot and heavy, and the current crop of drivers is as diverse and talented as ever. However, if the organizational and financial pitfalls of the sport’s offseason continue, INDYCAR could very well vanish completely. The fate of the sport thus currently rests in the hands of a select few shadowy individuals led by Jeff Belskus. If they can steer the ship in the right direction they will be hailed as saviors. But if that ship could sink if they are not careful, and it could sink fast. This is INDYCAR in 2013 ladies and gentlemen, and just about anything could happen. Buckle up, because it is going to be a bumpy ride.

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tim h
03/13/2013 09:01 AM
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Jeff Belskuis answers to Mark Myles. From everything I’ve read (I’m a huge fan of the Indycar series) we need to put our faith in Myles. He’s the actual defacto leader of Indycar and whomever he places as CEO of Indycar will have autonomy to do the job but still need to answer to Myles