(by Tim Harms indycar.com 2-18-09)
Let the real first season begin.
IndyCar Series teams return to the track Feb. 24-25, marking the first time since unification was announced last February that all teams will participate together at an Open Test.
With last year's unification announcement coming just days before pre-season testing, teams and drivers new to the IndyCar Series spent months playing catch-up. They missed the February Open Test at Homestead-Miami and had a separate Open Test at Sebring, Fla. They went deep into the season preparing back-up cars and learning the nuances of the chassis and diverse racetracks.
Through those challenges emerged standout performances from the teams/drivers that transitioned to the IndyCar Series, including victories by Graham Rahal in his first race and Justin Wilson.
Overall, there were five first-time winners and a series record-tying nine winners. Thirteen drivers earned a podium finish and 21 recorded a top-five finish. The upcoming season, which kicks off April 5 with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, looks to be more competitive.
"It's definitely going to be tougher," said seven-year veteran Vitor Meira, who moves to A.J. Foyt Racing in 2009. "With the off-season that we have, the new teams have had a lot of time to think, a lot of time to correct their mistakes. Since their learning curve is higher than ours, they're going to be able to start in better shape than last year."
Schedule alterations include the addition of two street courses with long, successful histories in Long Beach, Calif., and Toronto. Winners in the 25-year Indy car history at Long Beach include Mario and Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Helio Castroneves and Will Power. Indy car racing in Toronto dates to 1967 with winners including A.J. Foyt, Michael Andretti (seven times) and 2007 IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti.
"Unification was the best thing that could've happened for open-wheel racing in North America," said Will Power, who signed with Team Penske for 2009 after recording five top-10 finishes in 2008. "With one series, I think it's created a lot more interest in the sport and I see that momentum building even stronger in 2009. We now have the best drivers competing in one series, and that's caused all of us to really step up our game to be the most competitive we can be out on the track."
Franchitti returns to the IndyCar Series after competing one year in stock cars as teammate to 2008 champion Scott Dixon, marking the first time consecutive Indianapolis 500 winners and series champions will be teammates.
"I'm very excited to be coming back to the IndyCar Series," Franchitti said. "I think the unified series is excellent news. I think the schedule was a big part of my decision, plus the chance to drive for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, which is a great team.
"I watched a lot from a distance last year to see what was happening. You saw the potential of the new teams, with Graham winning at St. Pete. I think as those teams get more and more used to the regulations in the IndyCar Series, you're going to see the field get even more competitive, the drivers get more used to driving on ovals. It's going to be tough. I said to Scott recently, 'We're going to have to have everything together.' "
Off the track, unification's benefits include an uncluttered sales landscape, additional television exposure and increased marketing opportunities for the series, tracks and sponsors.
"From a commercial standpoint, unification continues to bring unparalleled successes," said Terry Angstadt, president of the commercial division of the sanctioning Indy Racing League. "Previously, half of our battle was trying to explain the differences between two racing series. That battle is gone and doors are opening much easier now.
"On the television side, we have redefined our partnership with ESPN/ABC and added a partner in VERSUS. For the first time, we're going to see a significant amount of programming in the month leading into our season and a significant amount of ancillary programming during our season. This unprecedented exposure will pay immense dividends."
Tracks and sponsors also benefit by having more time to promote more drivers on their materials.
"2008 was very exciting, a history-making season," Angstadt said. "We think 2009 will be even more so."