The 2007 Indy Racing League season begins March 24th at Homestead/Miami Speedway. Journalists and IRL drivers from both the IndyCar and Indy Pro Series gathered in Indianapolis on Thursday to forecast the season and have some fun as the season ramps up to a nighttime start in the tropics.
IRL President Brian Barnhart summed up the prevailing sentiment on the third floor of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center saying of the coming season, "We're very excited. We had two good tests down at Daytona on the road course and under the lights at Homestead on the oval with thousands of laps completed. The reliability and the performance are outstanding. The neat thing about it is the one hundred percent fuel grade ethanol and the seamless transition we've experienced-all credit to Honda for that."
"There are so many stories here," he continued. "We have Sarah Fisher coming back to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and they have Buddy Fisher in the lineup. There's Sharp at Rahal/Letterman, and Danica switching to Andretti/Green.and now we've got two tests under our belt and everybody's ready to go racing."
Sarah Fisher addressed the early-season guesses that she might not attempt the road course portions of the schedule with what sounds like a definite change of heart: "As far as it is up to me it's getting a lot closer to me running the road courses. I did the test on the road course at Homestead and man did I have so much fun! It was so cool! It was like driving a sprint car again. It was that much fun. Everybody's always asking me what series I truly miss and I always say "sprint car", but man that was really really fun."
One of two women who will compete full time in the IndyCar Series this year, Sarah has 50 career starts. She's also undeniably the IRL's most popular driver of all time, garnering long lines for autographs which she works tirelessly until everyone's got their prize.
Another new twist for race-watchers this year will be the presence of Kosuke Matsoura alongside Vitor Meira in the Panther Racing garages. "Panther Racing is one of the best teams in the IndyCar Series. I'm very happy to be here," said Matsoura. "As you know, Vitor Meira is one of the best drivers in this field. He's very helpful. He shares the data, he shares everything."
Kosuke looks to benefit greatly from the expertise around him, and he's already starting to identify the players at Panther that can make this a breakout season for him. "Billy Pappas, and my engineer, Brent Harvey, these two engineers, they have great, great experience. Also, team owner John Barnes--his determination is awesome."
"I think if we cooperate together it will be one of the strongest teams. Right now Penske and Ganassi are a little bit ahead of us. But I think we have a great car for the short oval and the road course, a little bit of struggling still on the 1.5-mile oval track, but we will figure out."
The big news on the Indy Pro Series side is that purses have been increased and the total payout for the season is now over four million dollars. That's a stunning four-fold increase in financial support to the series in the last two years alone, and it's attracted a number of new teams and drivers to the sport strictly on the basis of it is now a fiscal-pleaser for some.
Of the sixteen teams now active in the series, nearly half (seven) are teams new to this year. The sixth season of Indy Pro Series competition begins with the Miami 100 on March 24 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Sam Schmidt Motorsports' Alex Lloyd put his feelings about the new season succinctly: "Firstly, the decision to stick with the Indy Pro Series was a pretty easy one from my side. I felt that the series was very strong last year, but all the elements are in place to make it an even stronger series. It is certainly, in my opinion, the strongest feeder series in the United States right now in open-wheel racing," he said.
Alex will be teamed this year with newcomer Logan Gomez, an eighteen year old rookie at SSM, with second-year IPS driver Ryan Justice in the third works car for the season. Alex won two Indy Pro Series races last year, including the Liberty Challenge on USGP weekend.
"To be honest," he said, "that's where I wanted to be. It's shown I think in the early parts of this year that it's going to be even stronger with the increased number of drivers, all the talented drivers, not just from the U.S. but from Europe, Japan, and a lot of new big teams coming involved, the IndyCar teams."
One of those teams is Chip Ganassi Racing, who has joined the series with confident young speedster Chris Festa. Chris is returning for his third season in the series. He has an eye-popping 19 top-10 finishes in 23 starts. He's also just returned from the Daytona 24 hour endurance race where he partnered with Tomas Enge, Roger Yasukawa and Darren Manning a Daytona Prototype sportscar.
A newborn fitness freak, Chris is eager to grow into the big shoes around him at TCGR. "It absolutely makes me feel good, that Ganassi does everything 100%, and that's what it takes to win. It makes me feel very good because I know I'm going to have great cars underneath me and great personnel looking after me to give me the best opportunity to put it down on the racetrack. Somebody like me coming into their third season without a win, coming into it with somebody like Chip Ganassi Racing who is going to do it properly from their side really is a great feeling for me going into the season."
The Atlanta, Georgia native lists college football (he's a Florida State Seminole and wears Chief Osceola proudly on his helmet) as a favorite pastime, but has put tailgating on hold to strengthen himself mentally and physically for the coming IPS year.
"I'm working myself a lot harder in the gym to prepare myself physically for the car as well. Because with the competition getting better, I'm just going to have to work a whole lot harder within the car on the track as well as have my mind in the more proper state to compete against these guys."
There have been only a few technical modifications for either series; the most publicized the move of the IndyCar series to the ethanol fuel and Honda 3.5 Liter V-8. There's also been a reduction by one third in the size of the fuel tank on the IndyCars, to compensate for the better fuel mileage of ethanol, and maintain fuel windows and tire life expectations, and pitstop requirements, the same as they have been in the past.
What the drivers are talking about, though, are not the power plant of fuel- related changes but the aerodynamic changes coming this year. The new rules call for a front wing angle of negative five to positive five degrees angle of incidence. This subtly written phrase on a piece of paper promises to pack the field together into an even-more competitive atmosphere as teams manipulate the wing angle to compensate for lack of mechanical grip on the road course portions of the schedule or enhance the flow of air around the car and over the rear wing on the oval speedway courses. It's another equalizer that the IRL rules makers have thrown in to spread the competitive advantage over a larger number of drivers and teams this year.
The 2007 IndyCar Series season begins under the lights with the XM Satellite Radio Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 24. The race will be telecast live by ESPN2 at 8 p.m. (EDT) and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network. A Spanish-language telecast of the race will be carried by ESPN Deportes. The IMS Radio Network broadcast also is carried on XM Satellite Radio and on the IndyCar website. The sixth season of Indy Pro Series competition begins with the Miami 100 on March 24 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The race will be telecast at 5 p.m. (EDT) on March 28 by ESPN2.