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FUMES #438

March 26, 2008

After years of frustration, major league American open-wheel racing is back.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

The Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series finally makes its debut this weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, FL, as a unified, major league, open-wheel racing entity. After years of frustration (and enough rampant stupidity to last us all a lifetime), U.S. open-wheel racing fans finally have one racing series to focus on for the first time in a decade. Though expectations are being downplayed, it's good to see that the powers that be in the IRL are keeping their heads down and keeping their focus. They understand that this unification thing is not going to click overnight and that they have a long, long way to go before the series is on an even keel, let alone begin growing again.

I'm not going to regurgitate the laundry list of problems that the IRL faces, because we should all know what they are by heart by now. I'm going to set all of that aside and talk about the actual racing for a change.

Needless to say, the former Champ Car teams are going to have their hands full for most of 2008. It's not just about learning how to attack the ovals for the ex-Champ Car drivers, it's the nuances of the car set-ups that will vex the Champ Car teams for a time too. That's only to be expected.

At the same time, to expect any team other than Andretti Green, Penske or Ganassi to contest for the series championship is unrealistic. The usual suspects - Helio Castroneves (Team Penske), Tony Kanaan (AGR), Scott Dixon (Ganassi) and Dan Wheldon (Ganassi) - are expected to go right down to the wire for the big prize at the end.

The GAINSCO Auto Insurance Indy 300 to be run Saturday night (8:00PM on ESPN2) will be the eighth IndyCar Series event conducted at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Former Miami winners expected to participate include Scott Dixon (2003) and Dan Wheldon (2005, 2006, 2007). Something to consider is that the winner at Miami has gone on to win the IndyCar Series championship four times in the last seven seasons. Wheldon, the 2005 IndyCar Series champion, will attempt to make IndyCar Series history as he goes for his fourth straight win at Miami. Wheldon returns for his third season and final contract year with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and it is expected that he will attempt to put his lackluster 2007 season behind him - in a hurry.

Helio Castroneves desperately wants to deliver an IndyCar championship for Roger Penske in 2008 and add to his two Indianapolis 500 wins. Miami will mark Helio's 94th start in the series (he's tied with Scott Sharp with posting victories in seven consecutive seasons). And Tony Kanaan becomes the undisputed team leader for AGR now that his good friend Dario Franchitti has made the transition to the NASCAR grind. Kanaan becomes the father figure to his AGR teammates – Marco Andretti, Hideki Mutoh and Danica Patrick - after becoming an actual first-time father himself over the off-season as he and his wife Dani welcomed the birth of their son Leonardo. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion has 12 wins and 55 top five finishes in 81 starts, and that does not include his five years spent competing in Champ Car.

IndyCar history also gets a boost with open-wheel unification, as the next generation of open-wheel racers add luster to their families' competition legacy. Marco Andretti, son of Michael Andretti and grandson of Mario Andretti enters his third season of IndyCar Series racing. A.J. Foyt IV, the grandson of four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt, returns for his second season with Vision Racing after showing some definite improvement last season. And Graham Rahal, son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, enters his first season of IndyCar Series competition with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing.

As I mentioned earlier, drivers from the three leading IndyCar teams - Penske, Ganassi and AGR - will compete for the championship. Scott Dixon, the 2003 IndyCar series champion, is a popular favorite to win it all this year. My personal dark horse pick, however, is Marco Andretti (AGR), whom I expect to have a breakout year in 2008.

And watch Ryan Briscoe (Team Penske). He won't win the championship, but I don't think anyone realizes yet just how good this kid really is.

Major league American open-wheel racing is back. A little tattered and beat up, but back nonetheless.

And all in all, that's a very good thing.

Publisher's Note: In our continuing series celebrating the "Golden Era" of American racing history, here is another image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD

(Ford Racing Archives)
Le Mans, France. June, 1967. Dan Gurney prepares to enter his Ford GT MKIV during a pit stop at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Gurney and co-driver A.J. Foyt would go on to victory, the second of four consecutive victories for the Ford Motor Company at the storied French endurance classic.