Crossing fingers for IndyCar Series

Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda Dallara DW12 waits...

Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda Dallara DW12 waits in the pits during testing for the IZOD INDYCAR Series which starts Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla. (GETTY IMAGES)

Dean McNulty, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:09 PM ET

The start to the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season goes Sunday at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

It will do so with a heavy heart at the loss of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon who was tragically killed in a crash at the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — and with a ray of sunshine for a new beginning for beleaguered open wheel racing in North America.

For the first time in almost a decade there will be real competition among auto manufacturers in IndyCar racing with Chevrolet and Lotus joining Honda as engine builders for the series.

IndyCar will also debut a new race car — the Dallara DW12 — named in honour of Wheldon who had done the majority of testing in the car last season.

St. Petersburg will be a fitting place to start this season as it was also Wheldon’s American home base, away from his beloved England.

But it will be the racing that will set the tone of whether IndyCar can make it back into the mainstream of professional sports on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Since the disastrous split of IndyCar and CART back in 1996, open wheel racing has faded to the point that other than the Indianapolis 500, it is at best an afterthought in the world of big time auto racing.

NASCAR has, in the 16 seasons since the CART/IndyCar split, dwarfed open wheel racing in the U.S. and Canada in popularity.

Even stock car racing’s second tier series — the NASCAR Nationwide Series — regularly out-draws IndyCar in live attendance and television ratings.

This season, however, IndyCar boss Randy Bernard and his officials feel the combination of a new car and new engines will draw fans back to races like the Honda Indy Toronto and Edmonton Indy where attendance has dropped over the past few seasons.

Here’s hoping that they are right.

BRINGING BACK BRISTOL

The shock at seeing Bristol Motor Speedway at less than half capacity for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Food City 500 this past Sunday has prompted owner Bruton Smith to contemplate massive changes to bring back the beating and banging that was the racing norm before the track was re-configured in 2007.

At one time the Tennessee half mile oval was the toughest ticket in sports, with 20 years of consecutive sellouts before attendance began to drop in 2010.

Smith told Associated Press this week he thinks the new track shape — that allows more side-by-side racing — and the threat of rain on Sunday both played a part in the poor turnout.

Smith said if fans tell him they want the track back to its original configuration — less banking — then he would have the bulldozers in there immediately.

“We are going to take a very hard look at it this week,” Smith said. “We have everything in our computers that shows us what the track used to be and what it is now.”

He said he is waiting to hear what the fans want.

“A lot of them say, ‘Well, we like the old track the way it was,’” Smith said. “We’re going to concentrate on that, and whatever the fans want, we’re going to do it.”

He said he expected to make an announcement on the track changes as soon as Friday.

But in spite of track attendance woes television ratings for the race on FOX were up 3% from last season.

FINISH LINES

The new McLaren Mercedes outfit showed its class at the Australian Grand Prix, but team bosses say the competition hasn’t seen anything yet. McLaren’s team principle Ian Whitmarsh expects an even stronger performance his week in the Malaysian Grand Prix with its sweeping high speed corners. “If you looked closely at ourselves in testing at Barcelona, we were pretty good in the high speed corners,” he told autosports.com. “We looked like we were quickest in the high speed corners and, if anything, Red Bull was beating us in (low speed) traction areas.” ... You have to be impressed with Brain Vickers’ return to Sprint Cup racing, placing fifth in the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota at Bristol. This came after almost a whole season recovering from serious blood clots.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca

 


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