Today's IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights headlines
1. Luczo Dragon, Team 3G ready to battle established teams
2. Third Florida venue to host season opener
3. Schmidt expands to four-car effort with past champ Cunningham
4. Drivers, media offer championship picks
5. Schmidt, Guthrie to race sail boats
6. Carpenter still atop NCAA bracket
1. Luczo Dragon, Team 3G ready to battle established teams: As the IndyCar Series prepares to throw the green flag on the 2009 season, not only are four rookies expected to compete, but two of those rookies are with teams entering their first full season of competition.
Raphael Matos will drive the No. 2 entry for Luczo Dragon Racing, while Stanton Barrett campaigns the No. 98 CURB/Agajanian/Team 3G entry. Fortunately for both drivers, the teams are owned and staffed by IndyCar Series veterans.
"Everyone on the team has a lot of experience," said Matos, the 2008 Firestone Indy Lights champion, who recorded three victories. "They were with Team Penske for a long time. It's just an awesome group of guys. The engineering side has been doing an awesome job. I think we're ready for the challenge. We're expecting many great results. It's a young team with great people and everyone is very motivated."
Co-owned by Jay Penske, the son of Roger Penske, and Steve Luczo, CEO of Seagate Technology, Luczo Dragon made its IndyCar Series debut with a fifth-place finish at the 2007 Indianapolis 500. Last year, the team competed in six races, qualifying in the top 10 in three.
"Our first two seasons we focused on ovals, and in 2008 we started to get some experience on the road courses," team co-owner Jay Penske said. "Rafa (Matos) is a very talented road course racer and that plus our work in the offseason should greatly increase our chances of having a well-balanced and competitive team for 2009."
Barrett also enters the season expectantly. The veteran of more than 170 NASCAR Nationwide series starts and 22 NASCAR Spring Cup starts is on a team co-owned by Greg Beck, who has participated in the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series in various roles dating back to 1991. The team is co-owned by Barrett and veteran motorsports marketer Steve Sudler.
"I think we're realistic in that we know Stanton has a lot to learn, especially on the ovals," Beck said. "He likes road racing, he understands it, he runs reasonably well in the NASCAR side of things with his road race cars. The tough part of the first two events is we can't go to those tracks and test, so it's something he's just going to have to learn. It's going to be steep for him as well as for us, because he's still obviously learning the cars.
"The on-track side of it, our expectations are that we need to go out there and learn. Towards the end of the season we can start competing a little more. I think it won't take him long to get the oval side of it down. It's really just changing his line and getting to know the car, getting to know the changes. Once he does that, we'll be pretty good."
Barrett will be relying upon the knowledge of Beck and engineer Owen Snyder as he adjusts to the IndyCar Series.
"It is a start-up team, and we don't have a ton of personnel or resources or depth that some of the other teams have, but the guys have been around. Owen and Greg - you have some very experienced team guys. It's the first time out, and we'll get there. Just try and minimize mistakes and not get in trouble, make laps and try and be competitive. I don't think we've set any real expectations of saying we have to do this or that. I think the best thing we do is do our best and set out to be smart about what we're doing, get laps and learn and try and be competitive as we can. I think we can do that."
2. Third Florida venue to host season opener: The streets of St. Petersburg will become the third Florida venue to host an IndyCar Series season-opening race when the 2009 season begins April 5 with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The IndyCar Series held its inaugural race in 1996 at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando and also opened the season at the facility from 1998-2000.
The series moved its season opener to Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2002 where it conducted seven consecutive season openers. Three drivers dominated those seven races with Dan Wheldon claiming three victories and Scott Dixon and Sam Hornish Jr. each claiming two.
St. Petersburg has been on the IndyCar Series schedule since 2005 when it was the third race of the season. It has been the second race of the year for the last three seasons.
Homestead-Miami Speedway will host the final race of the 2009 season.
3. Schmidt expands to four-car effort with past champ Cunningham: Sam Schmidt Motorsports will campaign four cars in Firestone Indy Lights in 2009, signing 2005 champion Wade Cunningham to drive the No. 11 Lucas Oil entry as a teammate to Ana Beatriz, James Hinchcliffe and Gustavo Yacaman.
"I'm honored to be a part of the team," Cunningham said. "There are big expectations placed onto the driver when they step into this seat because of the success that the Lucas Oil car has had, but I know that I'm more than capable to handle the expectations from the team and myself and to deliver the results that are needed."
Cunningham has five victories, seven poles and 32 top-five finishes in his Firestone Indy Lights career.
"To finally get this chance (to drive for Sam Schmidt) is exciting for myself because I've spent the last few years chasing them on the track," Cunningham said. "When I arrived into the series in 2005, those guys were the team to beat. To be in their car is exciting because I feel like I've got an opportunity to do things that their drivers have done in the past."
Sam Schmidt Motorsports will field four full-time cars for the first time. Team drivers won the championship in 2004, 2006 and 2007.
"We've got our hands full for this season, but being a Vegas resident, I'm an odds-man, and the more cars we have running at the front, the better our chances of winning the Firestone Firehawk Cup," team owner Sam Schmidt said. "For the past few years, Wade has consistently been one of our toughest competitors, and I'm pleased he'll be in the familiar Lucas Oil entry. Chris Griffis and Tim Neff have done an excellent job bringing in team members to support a fourth full-time entry, and I'm quite sure Wade's experience will pay dividends for the other three drivers."
4. Drivers, media offer championship picks: IndyCar Series drivers and members of the media were polled regarding their pick to win the IndyCar Series championship in 2009. Both entities favored reigning champion Scott Dixon to repeat with Ryan Briscoe, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan the other top vote getters. The results:
5. Schmidt, Guthrie to race sail boats: Firestone Indy Lights team owner Sam Schmidt, who is paralyzed from the chest down, will race out of St. Petersburg Yacht Club aboard a SKUD-18 sailboat April 2 and will race against Jim Guthrie, co-owner of Guthrie Meyer Racing.
"I am really excited to race against Jim once again," said Schmidt, who competed against Guthrie in the IndyCar Series in the late 1990s. "Jim and I both drove for Blueprint Racing in 1997, and Jim earned the title of Rookie of the Year in 1997."
"When Sam called me and asked if I wanted to race him in a sailboat, I said sure," Guthrie said. "But then I thought, wait he chose me, because I'm from the desert and don't know anything about boats or water. I'm going to have to Google how to drive/sail a boat so I know which end of the boat is the front."
Schmidt will be joined on his boat by two able-bodied sailors who will be trimming the sails, including Magnus Liljedahl, a gold-medal winner in the 2000 Olympics, Phil Smithies, a four-time International Masters Champion and coach to the bronze-medal winning SKUD-18 team in the 2008 Paralympic Games.
Schmidt will steer the boat using steering adaptations that are sensitive to his movements.
The SKUD-18, which will be supplied by Team Paradise, is one of three paralympic sailing boats that are used by the U.S. Disabled Sailing Team.
6. Carpenter still atop NCAA bracket: Vision Racing driver Ed Carpenter remains the leader among IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights drivers who filled out brackets for the NCAA tournament. Carpenter is two points ahead of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Mike Conway in the yahoo.com game.
Carpenter and Justin Wilson have Connecticut and North Carolina remaining - one team in each semifinal. Conway has Connecticut and Michigan State, opponents in a semifinal, but neither team in the other semifinal. Marco Andretti, Sarah Fisher and Raphael Matos did not pick any of the Final Four teams correctly.
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 in High Definition at 2 p.m. (EDT) by VERSUS. The race will air live on the IMS Radio Network, XM channel 145 and Sirius channel 126. The radio broadcast also will be carried on www.indycar.com. The 2009 Firestone Indy Lights season begins with a doubleheader race weekend April 4-5 at St. Petersburg. The races will be telecast at 6 p.m. (EDT) on April 6 by VERSUS.