Annual checkup finds IndyCar in good health
Today's local and vocal Long Beach Grand Prix/IndyCar edition of The Sporting Muse:
Taking the temperature of IndyCar has become an annual endeavor that for too many years was the equivalent of cleaning your teeth with a shard of glass.
The Champ Car/Indy Racing League split, the failure of both spinoffs to reclaim an audience, and the slide in media attention far behind NASCAR were just three of the aches for a sport that clearly had no business trying to split the business.
But IndyCar has made strides. Even with the 2012 schedule featuring just 16 events, there are a lot of positive signs that the sport has regained its footing.
For starters, the series that makes its annual stop in Long Beach next weekend has a full complement of teams and cars a few years after fields often creeped as low as 16 entries and the number of thriving race teams could be counted on a four-cylinder engine, with a cylinder left over.
There are 16 race teams in 2012. As always, the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti teams dominate with 10 cars between them, but there are 11 one-car teams featuring prominent drivers and tradition.
Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais, winner of three consecutive Long Beach Grand Prix titles (2005-07), is driving for Dragon Racing and he had a ninth-place finish last week in Alabama, the best yet for a team using the Lotus engines that are technically running behind engines made by Chevrolet and Honda.
Brit Mike Conway, the 2011 Grand Prix winner, is driving for A.J. Foyt Racing. American JR Hildebrand, who was one turn away from winning last year's Indy 500 before hitting the wall, is with Panther Racing, and France's Simon Pagenaud, who last raced on the circuit in 2007 and finished eighth in the Champ Car World Series, has a fifth- and sixth-place finish in the first two races for Schmidt-Hamilton Motor Sports.
The Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan team - and Bobby Rahal was a fan favorite here in the grand days of Champ Car - is back, too, with Takuma Sato behind the wheel and plans to expand his stable to two or three cars during 2012.
The Ganassi and Penske teams won 75 of 99 races between 2006 and 2011 and they will likely dominate the podium as always, but it's no longer easy to dismiss the one-car teams.
There were a few times during the lean years when finding an American in the field was like finding Waldo in a Grand Prix crowd.
This year? There are 12 different countries represented in the field of 26 and seven are Americans. There are four Brits, three boys from Brazil, two drivers from Australia, Canada and France, and one each from Japan, New Zealand, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland and Venezuela.
The vision of the Indy Racing League, the regrettable Tony George creation that caused the split, was to feature oval racing, but there are only five ovals on the schedule - the Indy 500 and races in Texas, Milwaukee, Iowa and the season-ender in Fontana, which was a late add-on to the schedule. There's also a road race in Qingdao, China.
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard has already promised 19 to 20 races in 2012 with an emphasis on adding more ovals. One of the issues is that many of the existing ovals were built for NASCAR and are either short or have a user-unfriendly track for open-wheel racing.
Houston has already been signed as a new venue for 2013, and there are a dozen other tracks or road courses that have expressed interest in being included in 2013.
Two road courses on the 2012 slate have been advised to upgrade their facilities; a race in Milwaukee put together by Michael Andretti has just a one-year deal; and Fontana's chances of a return in 2013 will depend on the fan reception, which was very modest the last time IndyCar ran there.
As a result, the 2013 schedule could look nothing like the 2012 slate, with the obvious exceptions of Long Beach and Indianapolis.
More good news: There are 33 spots available for the Indy 500, seven more than the existing 26 entries, and at least 10 drivers are talking with race teams about entering if they can put together a sponsorship and land one of the new engines being used in 2012.
That list includes Paul Tracy, Buddy Rice, Tomas Scheckter, Michael Jourdain and a couple of hot young names in the sport, Italian Luca Filippi and Bryan Clauson, a 22-year-old from Sacramento who starred on the IndyLights circuit in 2011.
Rahal/Letterman, Dreyer & Reinbold and Panther are current one-car teams that plan to run a second car at Indy.
So it's possible there could be some actual bumping during qualifying - last-ditch qualifying attempts to make the field of 33 - which used to be one of the main attractions at the Indy 500.
A lot will depend on the engine manufacturers. They've been produced on an as-needed basis and there isn't what one would call a lot of inventory. As it is, Lotus is way behind the other two manufacturers and has also had technical issues.
China has more than its own IndyCar race. There's a young Chinese driver named Ho-Pin Tung - who is actually half-Dutch and was born in the Netherlands - who drove in the IndyCar Sonoma event last year and is expected to get a ride from Panther Racing later this season leading up to the China date.
Pagenaud has "named" his car, and in a sign of the times, the car, "Matty77," has its own Twitter account. Long Beach Press Telegram