Series news and notes 2009-04-02

Today's IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights headlines 1. Tale of the tape: IndyCar Series and Major League Baseball share Opening Day 2. Faces in new places 3. Drivers eager to start season at St. Petersburg 4. Firestone Indy Lights debuts...

Today's IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights headlines
1. Tale of the tape: IndyCar Series and Major League Baseball share Opening Day
2. Faces in new places
3. Drivers eager to start season at St. Petersburg
4. Firestone Indy Lights debuts new qualifying format at St. Petersburg
5. Gregory & Appel Insurance sponsors Securing Tomorrow Award
6. Carpenter, Conway keeping tabs on NCAA tourney

1. Tale of the tape: IndyCar Series and Major League Baseball share Opening Day: The IndyCar Series and Major League Baseball will open the season on the same day in 2009.

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2. Faces in new places: An offseason that featured numerous drivers switching teams came to a climax in the final days leading up to the IndyCar Series 2009 season opener April 5 at St. Petersburg. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Darren Manning and Alex Tagliani used the final days before the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to solidify rides in the race.

Hunter-Reay, who courted and was courted by several teams throughout the offseasn, locked up a fulltime ride with Vision Racing, while Manning and Tagliani secured rides for St. Petersburg with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Conquest Racing, respectively.

"I'm used to jumping in cars at the last minute, with the pressure on with no practice," said Hunter-Reay, who drove for Rahal Letterman Racing since the midway point of 2007, earning Bombardier Learjet Rookie of the Year honors in 2007 and his first series victory in 2008. "That's what I did with Rahal in '07 and that worked out well.

"I haven't been in the car at all, so the first session in St. Pete, depends on how much we need to change around. The braking, the steering rack, all these things are fitted to the driver and the driver's preferences, so we might have to climb through some of that. But there's no reason why we can't be very competitive this weekend. It's a street circuit, and this is probably the best venue I could ask for to start out because I feel at home there."

Manning and Tagliani are glad to be competing at St. Petersburg and hopeful they can work deals to compete in additional races.

"I guess I've been on the minds of (team co-owners) Dennis (Reinbold) and Robbie (Buhl) since the end of last year," said Manning, who spent the last two seasons with A.J. Foyt Racing. "I got the call, and fortunately I wasn't doing anything else.

"I know St. Pete very well and can offer the team and their primary driver, Mike (Conway), a good head of experience and hopefully some good speed and a good performance that I've always had."

Tagliani started the final three races of 2008 with Conquest Racing, finishing fourth in the non-points race at Australia.

"It was definitely a fantastic opportunity for me last year to join the IndyCar Series for the first time and have the opportunity to do it with Conquest," Tagliani said. "We gelled well. We went to Australia, and we had a great weekend, very competitive. So we're motivated. This event unfortunately happens really late, but we're working on something for the rest of the year, and it's really important that we join the IndyCar Series in St. Pete, and we feel that with everybody on board and with the group of people that Conquest has, we could have a good car and definitely do a good showing in St. Pete, even if it's difficult conditions."

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3. Drivers eager to start season at St. Petersburg: IndyCar Series drivers arrived in St. Petersburg April 2 in anticipation of the opening practice session on April 3. This is the first time that the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be the season-opening race. Below are select comments from drivers about the weekend:

Marco Andretti (No. 26 Andretti Green): "I can't think of a much better place to start the season. You have the setting, hopefully you have the weather. The track is quite enjoyable for the drivers. Obviously what makes the event is the city's support and the fans." (About AGR's chances to win) "I think it's going to be super tough. I think the top 10 is going to be stacked, super-competitive, super-close. Having said that, we've really been working on our road course cars in the offseason and I've been working on my road course game as well, just staying fresh. I think we'll be right in the middle of it. Hopefully we hit the ground running with a decent baseline and just tune it in and make the right changes."

Tony Kanaan (No. 11 Team 7-Eleven): "It's a great event. I've finished on the podium every time I've been here, so for me it's been a good place to be. It's great to open the season here. The atmosphere that the city brings, it's such a beautiful place. There couldn't be a better place to start."

Graham Rahal (No. 02 McDonald's Racing Team): (About coming back to the site of his first win) "I'm still not sure that's it's actually hit me. Maybe the first time I get introduced as the defending champ it might hit. Truthfully, my focus is just to do it again. More than anything that's what I want to happen and that's what I've set my sights on. I'm biased toward St. Pete. I enjoy being here. I think it's a great race, so I'm looking forward to getting the season started here." (About having more confidence with a win under his belt) "We thought we could win last year, but certainly we were surprised. We hadn't really ever turned a lap in a road course in these cars, and so for us to come in and make it happen certainly wasn't expected, but we knew if there was a shot for us to win an IndyCar Series race early on it was going to be here. This was our best shot, so fortunately we made it happen. This year, our cars are pretty good on the road course, in testing they've been pretty strong. I've been pretty happy with them, pretty comfortable, so from that standpoint I think we all should be more confident coming into this season. Obviously not overconfident because there's still a lot of work to do. I think the Penske boys are very good, and so it's definitely going to be a tough weekend, but we should have a shot."

E.J. Viso (No. 13 PDVSA HVM Racing): (About returning to St. Petersburg, the first track he'll race at a second time) "I think it's great. Last year we started the championship with no references, no data, no knowledge, nothing. So coming back to a track that I've been to before is a big relief. I know what to expect, where to push. I know where we were strong last year, where our weaknesses were. We know where we need to start working as soon as we hit the track. We're a lot better prepared, and we're in a better position."

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4. Firestone Indy Lights debuts new qualifying format at St. Petersburg: A new street course qualifying format will greet Firestone Indy Lights teams when preparations for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg begin on April 3.

Teams will be split into two groups with the fastest overall time determining the race's polesitter. The fastest car from the non pole-winning group will occupy the other front-row starting spot with the remainder of the polesitter's group occupying the odd positions, while the outside polesitter's group will make up the even positions.

"With 28 cars entered for our races, we felt like this was the fairest way for everyone to have a chance to compete for pole," said Tony Cotman, vice president of competition for the Indy Racing League, sanctioning body of Firestone Indy Lights and the series' race director. "This format mimics the system used by IndyCar Series where we've seen that splitting the field increases the opportunities for a clean lap in qualifying."

The qualifying format is one of many new looks for the series in 2008, which features one of the deepest lineups in series history. Eighteen drivers will be making their first start on the streets of St. Petersburg alongside 10 series veterans, including two past champions and six previous race-winners.

"I'm really excited to get the 2009 season started," said J.R. Hildebrand, who moves from RLR/Andersen Racing to the championship-winning Andretti Green Racing/AFS Racing team . "We have done a great deal of testing this off-season and things have been going very well, especially with our non-oval program. The AFS/AGR crew has been working really hard this offseason so I hope to be able to show them their hard work paid off."

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5. Gregory & Appel Insurance sponsors Securing Tomorrow Award: Gregory & Appel Insurance will again sponsor the Gregory & Appel "Securing Tomorrow" Award for the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights season.

The "Securing Tomorrow" Award is a $5,000 cash prize given to the Firestone Indy Lights driver who wins the most races during the season. Past winners include Wade Cunningham (2006), Alex Lloyd (2007) and Dillon Battistini (2008).

"We are excited to continue our tradition through this award of rewarding the best rising stars within the sport," said Darren Hickey, vice president and head of the motorsports practice at Gregory & Appel. "As we've seen in years past, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights championship will be another exciting series that often comes down to the final race of the season."

Based in Indianapolis, Gregory & Appel has a nationally-recognized motorsports practice that represents drivers, teams, marketing firms, transportation & logistics companies and other professional racing-related entities.

"The Indianapolis Motor Speedway turns 100 years old this year, and Gregory & Appel Insurance turns 125, so we appreciate the history and importance of the motorsports sector. Darren's thought-leadership in motorsports risk management continues to keep us at the forefront of this unique industry," said Steve Appel, vice president, corporate development for Gregory & Appel.

"We are excited to be partnering with Gregory & Appel Insurance for the 2009 season," said Roger Bailey, executive director of Firestone Indy Lights. "Gregory & Appel has been a consistent partner over the past several years, helping us maintain the high level of competition and excitement that characterizes Firestone Indy Lights racing. We appreciate their continued support and look forward to a great season."

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6. Carpenter, Conway keeping tabs on NCAA tourney: After two weeks of tournament play, four teams remain in the battle for the men's college basketball championship. Two IndyCar Series drivers, Ed Carpenter and Mike Conway, remain in contention to win a bracket contest among drivers.

Carpenter, an American and admitted fan of Butler University, leads by two points. He has Connecticut and North Carolina remaining, with a prediction that UConn will win it all. Conway has Michigan State remaining and can win the contest if both Michigan State and Villanova win on Saturday.

"UConn looked really good all year, but coming into the tournament I think they were the lowest-seeded No. 1 seed." Carpenter said. "I don't think you ever want to be the person that everyone's looking at, so they may have been overlooked a little bit. North Carolina is probably the most talented, but I don't know that they've played the best consistently all season long.

"I will be rooting for Michigan State just the fact that they're a Big Ten school, being from Indiana, but hopefully I still win the pool somehow."

Pulling an upset would be ironic to Conway, a native of England who has never followed college basketball.

"I knew nothing at all about it, basically went by the numbers as to who looked best," Conway said. "I saw a couple of the games last weekend. It was pretty interesting. If I win, it would be like going fishing for the first time and catching the biggest fish - rookie's luck."

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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 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.

-credit: irl

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Series INDYCAR , INDYLIGHTS