On the surface things appear business as usual at IndyCar: Another championship for Dario Franchitti and Chip Ganassi Racing, a second Indianapolis 500 win for Dan Wheldon and first for at the Bryan Herta Autosport team with support from Sam Schmidt Motorsports, and a mostly fruitless campaign across the continents for the series' most visible face (and body) Danica Patrick.
Scratch a little deeper, though, and the year served notice that the familiars are losing their battle to time. Fresh and fast, the youngsters made themselves felt far too often for comfort in the rearviews of the powers that be.
The headlines that tell the real story of what happened in IndyCar 2011 began in Long Beach with a stunning victory by Mike Conway, now headed to AJ Foyt Racing. An accident in practice at Indianapolis proved a turning point in Conway's season—one that saw ups and downs aplenty—but didn't diminish the bright star-potential of the young Brit with the heavy right foot.
One would be hard-pressed to recall a more memorable Indy 500 moment than J R Hildebrand's nearly impossible-to-lose triumph at Indianapolis. Who can forget the forlorn look of an unhelmeted Hildebrand in the grass of Turn 4 on his way back to the start-finish line on foot. His second-place finish in the Greatest Spectacle of Racing eventually earned him Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors, a muscled-up Camaro and a new contract good through 2013 from Panther Racing's John Barnes, and household name familiarity that will be invaluable to the fresh-faced kid from Sausalito.
Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball made the most of their affiliation with Ganassi Racing. Both competed solidly and won renewals for the 2012 campaign. Rahal's ninth-place finish in the final championship points tally gave him his first top-ten result of his career.
With the announced one-year absence of Newman Haas racing ahead of the coming season IndyCar Rookie of the Year James Hinchcliffe becomes available for a spot with one of the league's premier teams. "Hinch" was easily the most visible young driver in the 2011 season, parlaying an easy warmth with fans and the media and a trend upward through the standings into a solid and much-needed revival of a competitive Canadian presence in the series.
Though he won only one race (New Hampshire) Andretti Autosports' Ryan Hunter-Reay was consistently at the front of the qualifications queue and the television camera. His seventh-place finish in the final championship standings were testament to Ryan's staying-power among the elite drivers of the series, a result that bested the fading star of Team Penske's Helios Castroneves by a whopping 35 points.
Hunter-Reay seemed in word and deed the veteran presence on the Andretti Autosports team, putting teammate Marco Andretti into the shadows for much of the year. Iowa changed all that, in a good way. For the first time, Andretti put everything together in one fine and polished package to claim an oval-track victory—one that needs no disclaimers or apologies.
Women drivers emerged as a viable alternative to Danica's superpower popularity. Simona de Silvestro won hearts for her bravery and grit at Indianapolis and onward into the heart of the season, and Pippa Mann followed suit through her travails at New Hampshire Speedway into the waning hours of the 2011 campaign.
Looking ahead IndyCar seems on the cusp of one of its most competitive seasons ever with a new car from Dallara, the DW12, and new engine development partners from Chevrolet and Lotus alongside the evergreen presence of Honda.
The series leaves (among others) Kentucky Speedway, Las Vegas and Twin Ring Motegi in 2012, opting for a race in China for the first time on a 3.87-mile street circuit in Qingdao. Returning is the curiously unpopular event at Belle Isle in Detroit and California Speedway in Fontana makes its debut.
The retirement of the current Dallara IndyCar chassis, victim of over-development by the top teams to the detriment of the rest of the field, and continued emphasis on new road and street course circuits should give new hope to proven feeder series stars Alex Lloyd, Rafael Matos and Ana Beatriz.
Finally, the death of Dan Wheldon cast a pall over the off-season that speaks volumes about the popularity of this immense talent with the mega-wattage smile. The renaming of the new Dallara chassis in honor of him is a fitting tribute that will insure his name and legacy remain stalwart in IndyCar going forward.
My personal memory of Dan was at Indy in 2006, when I was above the pits on a practice day—one of those slow days given over to school kids who are bussed in by the hundreds for a field trip to the Speedway—and noticed a huge gaggle of youngsters on the fan side of the fence along pit row at the Ganassi pitbox.
The object of their attention was, of course, Dan who was signing autographs at the end of a stint of runs on the track. It took me maybe ten minutes to get down from above the Formula 1 garages to pit row, where Dan was still standing in those crazy white rhinestoned racing shoes signing autographs for the kids.
He stood there until every last one of them had his signature, smiling and joking like a 12-year old himself with those kids. I'm not sure to this day who had the bigger thrill, the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion or the youngsters.
The only way to pay appropriate tribute to the memory of Dan Wheldon is to ignite the fuse on another IndyCar season, one which will no doubt further the inexorable march of time and youth to the front of the pack.
Rest in peace, Dan.
As for the 2012 season: Gentlemen and ladies "Start your engines”.