Dario Franchitti with the Astor Cup - courtesy INDYCAR
This week in Indianapolis, the IZOD IndyCar Series celebrates its past season and prepares for the 2012 16-race competition that features a new Dallara DW12 chassis, engine competition between Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus and the return - through the 2014 season - of tire manufacturer Firestone.
Because the final race was cancelled after the death of reigning Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway 1.5-mile oval, the drivers and teams never had the opportunity to celebrate achievements during the 2011 season. They did so Monday night giving kudos to now-four-time champion Dario Franchitti and his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team.
INDYCAR also celebrated Rookie of the Year and Tony Renna Rising Star award-winner James Hinchcliffe, Firestone Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden - who signed to drive the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Indy car in 2012 - also the winner of the Greg Moore Legacy Award.
When asked what it meant for Firestone to continue with the Indy cars and to sponsor the Firestone Indy Lights championship again this year, Firestone motorsports director Al Speyer came up with this zinger: "Job security!" Firestone's tires have been the most consistent part of Indy car racing over the past decade; they contribute greatly to the safety and security of the racers.
Race stewards Arie Luyendyk, Johnny Unser, Gary Barnard with Beaux Barfield - courtesy INDYCAR
The IZOD IndyCar Series has opted for consistent experience in Race Control for the 2012 season. Led by vice president of competition and race director Beaux Barfield, the team includes two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, 58, former Indy car competitor and Atlantic championship race steward Johnny Unser, 53, and longtime CART/Champ Car senior manager of competition Gary Barnard.
"It takes a group of eight or nine people to do specific jobs, whether that's communicating with corner workers or dispatching the safety team," Barfield noted. "All are necessary to provide a good officiating system. The stewards will really take a step back from being so involved in what the Race Director does."
The Race Director has a new wrinkle for the Iowa race June 22 that will see three heat races determining the starting order for that race, replacing single car qualifying. Practice sessions will then take on a new dimension as three groups will be determined by practice times earlier in the day. There will be one group for the top 10 to set starting positions 1-10, another for odd-numbered practice positions to set odd-numbered starting slots and a third for even-numbered practice to starting positions. This program complements the knock-out road-course qualifying procedures currently in place.
Barfield also stated double-file restarts remain part of all races except for Indianapolis, Texas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway, the high-speed ovals on the 16-race schedule. He also opined that standing starts "could" be introduced later in the year - but that's a long-shot as he doesn't want to confuse teams that are still coming to grips with their new cars and engines.
In broadcast news, ABC/ESPN have added a sixth race to their broadcast schedule, adding the MId-Ohio Sports Car Course round in early August to the first contest at St Petersburg, the Indianapolis 500, a revived Belle Isle race the week after Indy, The Milwaukee Mile and Toronto.
All other races are broadcast on NBC Sports Network (formerly known as Versus); the broadcaster will also cover qualifying weekend and Carb Day at the 96th Indy 500 and will produce a new show that highlights a single driver's 36-hours from pre-race to checkered flag, to be shown before the next race it broadcasts. The show is called IndyCar 36.
NBC Sports Network also announced a change to its on-air talent for 2012 as Indy 500 specialist Townsend Bell joins the broadcast team, replacing Lindy Thackston as a pit reporter. That may perturb some of the guys but should add knowledge to the 10 races NBC Sports Network broadcasts this year.