'12 IndyCar Season Brings New Races, Cars And Chance For New Face To Replace Danica
The '12 Izod IndyCar Series kicks off Sunday with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and while the basic core group of teams, drivers and tracks returns to the sport -- "led by four-time series champion Dario Franchitti and Target Chip Ganassi Racing and anchored by the Indianapolis 500 -- just about everything else is new," according to John Oreovicz of ESPN.com. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard is "hoping that the 'new' factor for 2012 results in the addition of a complimentary word: Improved." Improved performance from the "new cars and engines." Improved safety. Improved television "ratings and attendance." But most importantly, "improved visibility and impact for Indy car racing as it fights for its place in the 21st century sporting landscape." In spite of the "extra costs associated with a wholesale equipment change and a less-than-ideal economic and sponsorship climate, a full grid" of 26 cars will race for Sunday's event (ESPN.com, 3/20). USA TODAY's Nate Ryan in a front-page piece notes Sunday will be IndyCar's first race since driver Dan Wheldon's death Oct. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and reminders will be "lurking everywhere in St. Petersburg -- Wheldon's adopted hometown and where" he was buried at the age of 33. After a prerace ceremony honoring Wheldon, his sister Holly will "drop the green flag and later present the winner's trophy." Driver Scott Dixon said, "The weekend is going to be hell for a lot of people emotionally" (USA TODAY, 3/23). In Indianapolis, Curt Cavin writes out of IndyCar's "October heartbreak springs hope but no assurance" (INDIANAPOLIS STAR, 3/23).
STREETS OR OVALS? ESPN.com's Oreovicz noted some "longtime Indy car racing observers are worried about the lack of ovals" on the '12 schedule, as there are only four. But that is "expected to be a one-year aberration as Bernard strives to achieve a 50-50 mix of oval and road racing events." In return, the IndyCar Series is "adding a street race in Qingdao, China, and heads back to Auto Club Speedway in Greater Los Angeles for the first time" since '03. The Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix "also returns after" a three-year absence. While "controversial in some circles, the move into China is popular with IndyCar Series title sponsor Izod." Phillips-Van Heusen and Izod Exec VP/Marketing Mike Kelly said, "Our Izod licensee in China, Dishang Group, has commenced opening stores under a plan that is expected to see over 500 Izod stores opened within the next five years. Exposing an iconic American sport to the world's largest population aligns perfectly with our brand messaging and in-store design" (ESPN.com, 3/20). In Houston, Russ Goodall cited a source as saying that the Grand Prix of Houston will announce Wednesday that it has "secured a title sponsor for the event." Bernard is "expected to attend the news conference, but it is not known when the Grand Prix of Houston would be added to the IndyCar Series schedule." The Grand Prix of Houston has not been run since '07 when it was part of the Champ Car World Series (CHRON.com, 3/22). IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard appeared on Bloomberg TV’s “Sportfolio” said IndyCar is “an American-based sanctioning body so what we really want to focus on is making sure we have a minimum of 14-16 races here in the United States on a yearly basis. But then we want to listen to our partners and our sponsors and make sure we’re really reaching out to the markets they want to see us in. The top two markets they wanted us in were China and Brazil” (“Sportfolio,” Bloomberg TV, 3/21).
INDYCAR'S NEXT TOP STAR: The AP's Jenna Fryer noted "despite limited results, [Danica] Patrick caught the eye of the causal sports fan -- often to the detriment of the other drivers." Now that she has "moved on to NASCAR, IndyCar has a wide-open opportunity to fill the void she left behind." Driver Will Power said, "You need 10 Danicas, not just one person who holds the series up, but 10 people who are very popular. There's some pretty interesting personalities in the series." Patrick had one victory and seven podiums in 115 career starts, but she had "unbelievable marketing support from sponsor GoDaddy.com." That sponsorship now goes to driver James Hinchcliffe. He said, "I don't think we need to replace Danica. I think what is important is to let fans know that there is more than just one face of this sport. ... I think she did great things for our sport and brought a lot of attention at a very good time for us. But, I think going forward it is important that we branch out and let people know that it is more than just one driver." IndyCar received a "boost last month with the addition of Rubens Barrichello." But the series "needs American drivers to truly appeal to the U.S. audience." There are currently seven full-time American drivers on the series, the most since '07 (AP, 3/20). USA TODAY's Ryan noted Barrichello, the "most experienced driver in Formula One history will begin his first full-time Izod IndyCar Series season Sunday." Bernard said that ticket sales for the Sao Paulo race spiked 40% "after the announcement March 1 that Barrichello would be paired" with fellow Brazilian driver Tony Kanaan. Franchitti said, "Rubens could go sit at his farm in Brazil and drink wine or go to Disneyland or whatever he wants to do. That he chooses to come here says a lot about the series and where it's going" (USA TODAY, 3/21).
NEW CARS, ENGINE SUPPLIERS: ESPN.com's Oreovicz explained the '03 Dallara IR03 car was "not intended to have a nine-year lifespan, but the tough economic climate and the changing landscape of Indy car racing over the past decade made that a necessity." While Penske and Ganassi have won 74 of the past 99 races, the introduction of the new Dallara DW12 chassis "could change that" (ESPN.com, 3/20). IndyCar VP/Technology Will Phillips said, "You can never eliminate all of the potential scenarios." But optimism "reigns, largely because of the new" Dallara DW12, which has a "host of revolutionary safety features." In a move to "reduce the possibility of cars launching, as Wheldon's did from tire-to-tire contact, bodywork extends wider than the wheels, with bumpers behind the back wheels" (INDIANAPOLIS STAR, 3/23). USA TODAY's Ryan also noted along with Penske and KV Racing Technology, the Andretti team has "switched to Chevrolet, which returns to IndyCar" after a seven-year absence. It "figures to mount a challenge to Honda, which will keep Ganassi in its fold this year." Lotus, which "doesn't have a first-tier team in its lineup, also is building motors this year" (USA TODAY, 3/21).
STAFFING OVERHAUL: In Indianapolis, Anthony Schoettle notes following October's season finale, Bernard replaced 15% of the series' front office staff and "overhauled the series' executive ranks." Officials said that the changes are "designed to improve communications across series departments and make sure everyone is accelerating in the same direction." Dreyer & Reinbold co-Owner Dennis Reinbold said, "I was kind of surprised by all of the staff changes, but so far I like a lot of what they're doing." Bernard promoted Marc Koretzky from Dir of Business Development to COO. Koretzky will be "responsible for much of the day-to-day operation of the series and will be Bernard's point person in transforming it." Though Bernard is "finalizing a search to fill a couple key executive posts -- including web and licensing positions -- he said he feels he has the team in place he needs to accelerate series growth." He said that he will "not downsize the staff of 60" (INDIANAPOLIS BUSINESS JOURNAL, 3/19 issue).