Today's IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights headlines
1. Champions pose with sand-sculptured trophy prior to Open Test
2. Twelve Firestone Indy Lights rookies test
3. Four IndyCar Series rookies set for first test
4. Vision Racing brings back Firestone Indy Lights team
5. IndyCar Series public relations on Twitter

1. Champions pose with sand-sculptured trophy prior to Open Test: IndyCar Series champions Scott Dixon (2008), Dario Franchitti (2007), Dan Wheldon (2005) and Tony Kanaan (2004) posed with a large sand sculpture of the IndyCar Series championship trophy as the series prepares for the start of the 2009 season, which will begin and end with races in Florida.

The season opens April 5 on the streets of St. Petersburg, and the 2009 champion will be crowned Oct. 10 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The four drivers will begin their preparations with the season's first Open Test Feb. 24-25 at Homestead-Miami.

Quotes from today's event:

Scott Dixon: (About starting the season at St. Petersburg) "I think it's a great way to start the season. First we go to St. Pete and then Long Beach and Kansas before the season gets into the grit of it. I think for road course or street course lovers like us it's a great way to start it off. I'm definitely looking forward to St. Pete. It's a fantastic race. I haven't had the best luck there the last few years, but I'm definitely looking forward to going back."

Dario Franchitti: (About returning to the IndyCar Series) "A big part of my decision was the fact that it is one unified series. I've never been part of one unified series. When I went to NASCAR it got back together. Becoming one unified series was the first step. We all knew it needed to be made for open-wheel racing. We needed one series to get going again, so it's pretty cool that we've done it."

Dan Wheldon: "I always look forward to going to Homestead-Miami Speedway. I've always been incredibly successful there. St. Pete is always a great event, too. It's one of the biggest on the IndyCar Series calendar. I think it's a good way to start and lead into the Indy 500. If you want to open up a season leading up to Indy, I think St. Pete is great. There's a lot of great on-track activity, and there's a lot of great off-track activity for all age ranges. It's more of a festival atmosphere which will fortunately suit the first race of the season."

Tony Kanaan: "I think we're as strong as last year. We have a great series. We have sponsors supporting us. If we can bring some joy to the people having financial problems, that's what we're going to do. The series is as strong as it was before, and we have loyal fans who stick with us."

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2. Twelve Firestone Indy Lights rookies test: A dozen Firestone Indy Lights drivers successfully completed rookie testing Feb. 23 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, clearing the way for them to compete on ovals during the 2009 season.

"All of the rookies ran very smoothly," said Firestone Indy Lights race director Tony Cotman, who oversaw the rookie testing. "There are some excellent drivers in the group and others that can be as good with additional seat time, but overall it was a very successful test day. I look forward to seeing them in traffic tomorrow."

Though their goal was to focus on seat time rather than outright speed, Panther Racing's Pippa Mann topped the speed charts with a lap of 28.4996, 187.592 mph in her No. 16 Panther Racing car.

"It's one thing to be fast when you are on your own, but I need to run in traffic," Mann said. "I hope we can get some of that tomorrow when everyone else is on the track tomorrow."

Brazilian Mario Romancini, testing the No. 5 car for RLR/Andersen Racing was second at 187.380 mph, followed by AFS Racing/Andretti Green Racing's Sebastian Saavedra (187.069 mph), Panther Racing's Martin Plowman (186.741 mph) and Guthrie Meyer Racing's Ali Jackson (186.391 mph).

Seven veteran drivers, plus Canadian rookie James Hinchcliffe, will join the Open Testing session on Feb. 24 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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3. Four IndyCar Series rookies set for first test: While 12 Firestone Indy Lights rookies tested on the oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway Feb. 23, four IndyCar Series rookies stood champing at the bit, waiting for their turn on the 1.5-mile variably-banked oval.

Stanton Barrett, Mike Conway, Robert Doornbos and Raphael Matos were scheduled for bonus test time later that evening. Some in the diverse group, such as Barrett, have had significant time on ovals but never in an IndyCar Series car. Others, such as Conway and Doornbos, have a lot of open-wheel experience but not on ovals. Matos, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion, has the benefit of running all the circuits on the IndyCar Series schedule in a similar car.

All spent the day preparing for their maiden voyages of the 2009 season.

"I did a lap with Al Unser Jr., so he gave me some tips," said Doornbos, a former Formula One driver who will drive the No. 06 Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing entry. "And Arie Luyendyk will join me tomorrow, so I think learning from the masters is going to be good. I'm excited because I've been talking so much about this deal and now it's finally here."

Conway took a hot lap with veteran IndyCar Series driver Davey Hamilton.

"It's been a long time coming," Conway said. "Since we signed with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing we've been looking forward to getting on the ovals. We've got to experience it for ourselves, see what it feels like. Hopefully we can get up to speed quickly and start making changes, see what they do to the car, find the limits."

Conway's only previous experience in an IndyCar Series car came last summer on the road course at Infineon Raceway.

"(The IndyCar Series car) is a little bit heavier than what I've driven in the past," he said. "It's a good, fun car - handled really well, reacted well to the changes. It was good fun."

Barrett is preparing for his IndyCar Series debut following a NASCAR career that includes more than 170 starts dating back to 1992.

"I've been waiting for a long time for this," said Barrett, who will drive the No. 98 Team 3G entry. "I'm super excited and a little bit nervous at the same time. I have an idea of what it's going to be like, but it will be a whole new experience. I'm used to trying new things and figuring it out real quick. It's going to be really cool."

The rookie session is scheduled from 5-10 p.m. ET Feb. 23. All IndyCar Series teams and drivers will be permitted to test from 4-10 p.m. Feb. 24-25.

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4. Vision Racing brings back Firestone Indy Lights team: For the first time since its inaugural season in 2005, Vision Racing will field a full-time Firestone Indy Lights entry. James Davison returns to the series as driver of the No. 21 car for his second season and the team's second go-around in Firestone Indy Lights competition, adding to the team's technical partnership with Firestone Indy Lights newcomer Bryan Herta Autosport that was announced last month. Both teams will operate out of Vision Racing's 32,000 square-foot facility in Indianapolis.

"The challenge of the 2009 season has created some new opportunities at Vision Racing," said team co-owner Tony George. "While we continue to pursue a second entry for our IndyCar Series program, we are planning to take full advantage of our relationship with Bryan Herta and Bryan Herta Autosport. I have always been a proponent of supporting the development of Firestone Indy Lights and in particular young drivers. Bryan and I share a desire to establish his program on a firm footing, and Vision working with BHA will help accelerate the results we are all looking to achieve.

"I watch with interest most every Firestone Indy Lights race and think that the combination of James and (BHA's) Daniel (Herrington), working together with the teams that are being assembled, should prove formidable. I look forward to sharing more detail around our plans as they develop."

"Bryan Herta Autosport welcomes the news of Vision Racing's Indy Lights entry," Herta said. "This move will further strengthen the relationship between Vision and BHA as it will provide both entries with all the competitive benefits associated with a two-car operation. James Davison has already spent some time with us at our shake down test two weeks ago at Firebird (Phoenix), so I know he will be a great compliment to Daniel Herrington and the groundwork we have already laid for our Indy Lights assault."

Davison is coming off a rookie season that produced one win (Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course), one pole (Nashville Superspeedway), a second place finish (Kentucky Speedway), three top-five drives, five top-10 finishes and 34 laps led in 15 starts with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

"I am very excited to join Vision Racing as their Firestone Indy Lights driver in partnership with Bryan Herta Autosport," said Davison, 22. "It was apparent last season that the teams aligned with IndyCar Series operations showed significant benefits, especially with regards to car speed. The series really went to another level. Although some good results were secured in my rookie season, I was disappointed last year as I felt there were too many that got away while running up front. I feel very fortunate to be working with Lee Dykstra and Bryan Herta that combined with the resources at Vision Racing, we are out to feature at the forefront come St. Petersburg and Long Beach."

Vision Racing has made 23 starts in Firestone Indy Lights, all in 2005, with four drivers. The team's best result was a second-place finish with Nick Bussell.

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5. IndyCar Series public relations on Twitter: The IndyCar Series public relations department will send out periodic updates to media members from racetracks this season via the social networking service Twitter. Updates will include information during practices, qualifying and the race that will also be included in the Daily Trackside Report at the end of each day.

The IndyCar Series has a fan-focused Twitter feed under the user name "indycarnation."

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The 2009 IndyCar Series season opens April 5 with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. The race will be telecast live at 2 p.m. (EDT) by VERSUS. The 2009 Firestone Indy Lights season begins with a doubleheader race weekend April 4-5 at St. Petersburg.

-credit: irl