Over the last couple weeks there have been a number of IndyCar Series signings as the grid for the 2009 season begins to take shape. The checkered flag flew at the final points round in Chicagoland only a month ago, yet already a number of drivers are on the move.
Firestone Indy Lights champion Raphael Matos advances to IndyCar next year, driving for Luczo Dragon Racing for the full season. In the last six years, Matos has won titles in Indy Lights, Formula Atlantic, Star Mazda and the Skip Barber National Championship.
"I couldn't be more excited about everything, it's an unbelievable opportunity," said Matos. "We have a very good team. All the pieces are in place. We just need to build a solid base through preseason testing, put everything together and go for it. I can't wait to get started."
The fledgling team started six races in 2008 with Tomas Scheckter, but failed to convert their speed into a result better than 21st in large part due to mechanical issues. What began as an offshoot of Roger Penske's operation at the 2007 Indianapolis 500 has now morphed into a full-time effort co-owned by Penske's son Jay and businessman Steve Luczo.
"This is an exciting day for our race team because not only are we taking that step to full-time status, we are adding a young driver who has proven to be a champion at every level he has raced," Jay Penske said. "Any time you can win four championships in six years like Rafa has done you have some special qualities. He is ready for the IndyCar Series, and we are so thrilled to have him."
Previous Indy Lights champions Alex Lloyd, Jay Howard, Thiago Medeiros and Mark Taylor have all dabbled in the IndyCar ranks but haven't had the staying power and/or backing to last more than a handful of races. Of that quartet, only Lloyd has a contract for next year as the development driver for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Matos had a fantastic 2008 season besides garnering the Lights title in his first attempt. In just a handful of sportscar events, he won races in both classes of the Rolex Series and competed in three American Le Mans Series events in the P2 class.
A couple weeks ago one of Matos' countrymen, Vitor Meira, left the unemployment line and found a home at A.J. Foyt Enterprises. Meira makes his debut aboard Foyt's traditional No. 14 entry in the non-points round in Surfers Paradise, Australia next month, as they figure out their bearings and prepare for next year.
"I finished second many times, but there were races where I finished fourth or fifth and I felt good about them because I gave 100 percent and we got the most out of the car that day," Meira said about his career statistics. "Whether it's in races or in the championship, if we are getting top fives it's because we are putting ourselves in position to win which is what you have to do before you can win. Then the wins will come."
Meira hopes to score that elusive first victory for a team that last won in 2002, with Airton Dare at Kansas. Despite racing seven seasons and starting nearly 100 events without a victory, the racing equivalent of baseball's Chicago Cubs, he's done plenty to stay afloat and in top rides throughout his IndyCar career.
In 2006 for instance, Meira finished best among those not with Penske or Ganassi Racing. The fifth in the overall standings beat all four Andretti Green cars. He made a dazzling pass on a restart at this year's Indianapolis 500, slicing through traffic like a knife through butter.
One doesn't finish second twice in the '500 by accident. Meira has enjoyed great success at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the race that still stands out more than any other in the modern-day world of IndyCar.
Also scoring a ride for the 2009 season, but probably not as likely to contend for wins, is NASCAR journeyman and professional stuntman Stanton Barrett. Barrett, 35, will drive for Greg Beck's revived team, operating under its new name of Team 3G Racing for 2009.
Beck partners with Indianapolis-area businessman Steve Sudler, and the trio combined are "three guys" that have a passion for the sport and are switching focus to open-wheel from stock cars. Barrett has no significant open-wheel, single-seater experience at this juncture of his career.