(by Dave Lewandowski indycar.com 2-16-09)
(First of two parts)
"We are unified." The words hung in the hallways of the Indy Racing League office like smoke from an artillery skirmish (a metaphor occasionally used for the divergent paths traveled by the IndyCar Series and Champ Car the previous dozen years).
If there would have been champagne on ice that late Friday afternoon last February, office protocol would have been broken. A brief round of applause and congratulations offered to those who negotiated unification of North American open-wheel racing under Indy Racing League sanctioning sufficed.
"Everyone recognized that unification was the single most important thing that needed to happen to lay the foundation for the future growth of open-wheel racing," said Brian Barnhart, president of competition and operations for the Indy Racing League.
Inasmuch as positives would be far-reaching and long term, a multitude of tasks were immediate and imperative. Between the signing of the agreement Feb. 22 and the official news conference five days later during an Open Test at Homestead-Miami Speedway, mobilization of materials and paperwork necessary for former Champ Car teams to compete in the diverse 2008 IndyCar Series campaign (which had been set into motion weeks earlier) began in earnest.
The process wasn't without logistical headaches with the season quickly approaching. But the community spirit inherent in motorsports eased a mechanic's frustrations about a bolt gone astray or how part A fit into slot B without the use of a mallet, and 25 were on the starting grid for the highly-anticipated opening race.
"There was plenty of opportunity to have not lived up to anyone's expectations," said Tony George, the Indy Racing League's founder and its CEO. "Given the late opportunity, there was a tremendous amount of challenge to be overcome. But everyone pulled together and made sure that the equipment was in the hands of the teams so they could go about their business.
"After we got through the first couple of races, it was always my feeling that byIndianapolis we would really start to come together, and I think we did. Getting to Indianapolis, you had a couple of weeks of practice and four days of qualifying and then a 500-mile race with the big stage and the spotlight on everybody. I think it kind of settled everyone and that's when we started coming together as one."
New stars emerge
"One series, all the stars" was more than a moniker applied to the new face of the IndyCar Series. Certainly, the competition level increased with the infusion of numerous talented drivers, while personalities emerged to become instant fan favorites and capture worldwide attention.
That was driven home the second week of the season at St. Petersburg when 19-year-old Graham Rahal became the youngest race winner in IndyCar Series history. Two weeks later, Danica Patrick provided another historic moment by becoming the first female winner of a major closed-circuit auto racing event.
Overall, there were five first-time winners, two rookies posting their first victories and a series record-tying nine winners in the 17 races. Thirteen drivers earned a podium finish and 21 recorded a top-five finish.
Scott Dixon prevailed in the championship chase by a scant 17 points over Helio Castroneves - a season-long battle punctuated by the second-closest finish in series history (Castroneves edging Dixon by 0.0033 of a second) in the final race after Dixon held a 78-point advantage with three races remaining.
"When you look at the competitive nature on the racetrack, it just shows you the depth of the field and the quality of teams and drivers that are now in a unified open-wheel series," Barnhart said.
Unification on the track also meant 26 full-season cars and 14 full-season teams (28 cars was the high-water mark outside the traditional 33 at Indianapolis).
"A lot of those transition teams were very good teams anyway, and it didn't take them too long to be competitive," said Dan Wheldon, a two-time race winner in '08 and the 2005 IndyCar Series champion. "I just expect another competitive season, which the IndyCar Series always seems to produce."
Numbers increase across the board
Impressive numbers also were posted with stronger at-track attendance (12 of 16 events where the IndyCar Series raced in 2007 were up, according to media estimates), increased television ratings (up an average of 11 percent from 2007 across ABC/ESPN/ESPN2), a 25 percent increase in merchandise sales, a 33 percent surge in indycar.com visitors and several new corporate partnerships (Coca-Cola, PEAK Motor Oil, IZOD).
Each event on the 2008 IndyCar Series schedule featured an event entitlement, minus the Indy 500, and teams saw an increase in sponsorship interest and participation. Unification was the galvanizing factor in many of the increases and opportunities, which will continue to unfold.
"I think unification was a long time coming, but it's now behind us and we have a very deep and competitive field of cars," George said. "We're all looking forward to this next season. There will be some challenges pulling things together, but we've been through the biggest challenge and I think that was pulling it together at all."
One could say that the 2009 IndyCar Series campaign -- with everyone on a more equal field of competition from the start -- will be the true first season of unification.