Bruce Martin
Thursday March 27th, 2008

For the first time in 30 years IndyCar racing is unified, creating a sense of optimism that open-wheel racing can regain is prominence in the sporting world.

It's the first time since 1978 that the drivers, teams, series and the Indianapolis 500 are controlled by the same sanctioning body.

Back then, IndyCar racing was controlled by the United States Auto Club. But a series of issues involving scheduling, prize money and lack of emphasis on a true national championship led a group of car owners, including Dan Gurney, Roger Penske and Pat Patrick, to form Championship Auto Racing Teams, which began competition in 1979.

What ensued was an uneasy alliance between the CART teams and the big race, the Indy 500, which continued to be sanctioned by USAC.

Things came to a head in 1994, when Tony George created a new racing series known as the Indy Racing League, which began competition in 1996. After CART teams boycotted the Indy 500 because it was an IRL race, the two series became bitter rivals.

CART would eventually go out of business only to be revived as Champ Car. And the IRL continued to operate with the Indy 500 as its cornerstone event, guaranteeing its future.

But after three decades of bickering striking at the foundation of this sport's very existence, IndyCar racing can finally look forward to the future -- beginning with the 2008 season.

It all starts with Saturday night's Gainsco Auto Insurance Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with 26 cars expected to take the green flag in the reunified IndyCar Series opener.

So with the season set to begin, here's a look at the many storylines that promise to make this one of the most significant IndyCar seasons in history.

Fives Races to Watch | Five Drivers to Watch | Most Intriguing Storylines | Changes That Will Impact Season | Five Bold Predictions

92ND INDIANAPOLIS 500

There is no race on earth which can touch the history and tradition of this event. Nothing can reproduce the electricity felt in the air during the moments leading up to the start the Indy 500. This is the one true race which reaches deep into the mainstream of public consciousness.

While the Daytona 500 is NASCAR's premier event and has surpassed the Indy 500 in terms of television ratings, Indianapolis continues to have a bigger worldwide reach in terms of public awareness.

There are several things that make the Indianapolis 500 stand above any other race in the world. The race started in 1911 and, over the years, has created tremendous brand awareness. The second is the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself, which will celebrate its centennial in 2009. It's more than a race track; it is a Cathedral of Speed. It is the world's largest sports stadium attracting crowds approaching 350,000.

Attending an Indianapolis 500 is a memorable experience. First-timers at the Speedway can become hooked on this event and many make annual returns.

It is also the signature sporting event of a great American holiday. For close to 100 years, it's how America celebrates Memorial Day, whether it's at the race in person, in front of a television set or near a radio listening to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network during a family picnic.

For a driver that wins the Indy 500, they become part of history. It's like winners of The Masters in golf: They forever join "The Club."

There is also the element of danger that lurks around every corner of the massive two-and-a-half mile oval. Although few would ever want to promote that, the battle between man versus machine at speeds exceeding 225 miles per hour turns the participants into superheroes, men looking danger squarely in the eye and not flinching.

That's as much a lure to this event as anything.

But the Indy 500 is also about the time-honored traditions. Jim Nabors singing "Back Home Again in Indiana" with thousands of multi-colored balloons drifting into the Indiana sky. The famous opening command: Gentleman, start your engines. The roar of the crowd. The unmistakable noise and the visual sensation of seeing 33 cars roar into the first turn. The traditional bottle of milk that goes to the winner and the Borg-Warner Trophy.

These all play a part in the Indy 500 experience, which makes it a spectacle as much as a race.

And with the addition of the best teams from Champ Car, the starting lineup has become more complete, putting aside the question of who's in the race and who isn't.

BOMBARDIER LEARJET 500

This is the best of the non-traditional races on the schedule and has been one of the most thrilling and competitive events on the IndyCar Series schedule. Eddie Gossage, president and general manager of Texas Motor Speedway, has turned the first Saturday night in June into a Texas-style spectacle.

When IndyCars competed at this track for the first time in 1997, fans marveled when Tony Stewart and Buddy Lazier drove the high-banked track side-by-side for three laps, just inches apart. That has become commonplace at this track and it's one of the big reasons by nearly 90,000 fans come to this race each year.

And leave it to Gossage and his staff to generally come up with an outrageous promotion to generate attention. Last year, it was the "Rumble at the Speedway" which pitted Danica Patrick against Dan Wheldon one week after the two nearly squared off on pit lane at Milwaukee.

What will it be this year?

PEAK ANTI-FREEZE INDY 300

This is the IndyCar season finale and it takes place on a Chicagoland Speedway track that has rivaled Texas for its close finishes and fantastic racing. It's the home of some of the closest finishes in IRL history. It was hard to top this race for last year's championship battle, which wasn't decided until the last turn of the last lap when Dario Franchitti drove by Scott Dixon's race car after it had burped and run out of fuel.

Franchitti not only won the race but also clinched the title with that dramatic turn of events.

Located in great Midwest, this is a fitting place for the Indianapolis-based series to crown its season champion.

HONDA GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG

The first street race of the season isn't known for passing on the track -- a fan would be lucky to see more than three or four lead changes in this event -- but the city does an outstanding job of making this a memorable engagement. The party environment on the banks of Tampa Bay makes this a "can't miss" event.

There are few ways for a race fan to spend a warm spring weekend any better than downtown St. Pete the first weekend of April.

SUNTRUST INDY CHALLENGE

One of two "short tracks" on the IndyCar schedule, this is a high-speed traffic jam in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is IndyCar's one visit to the heart of NASCAR country and it's been very well supported with crowds of over 50,000 . Although it's just three quarters of a mile, these cars are in traffic for practically the entire racing, yielding many close calls and some ending up in the wall.

Many IndyCar's heroes from the past came up through the Saturday Night Short Tracks such as A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.

Scott Dixon

He came oh-so-close to winning his second IndyCar title last season only to run out of fuel in the last turn of the last lap. With four victories last season, including three-in-a-row with Watkins Glen, Nashville and Mid-Ohio, this talented New Zealander is back to add another IndyCar Series championship to his 2003 title.

Dixon may be one of the best-kept secrets in American racing because of his "fly under the radar" personality which is almost like a stealth aircraft -- by the time you realize it is flying overhead, it's already too late.

Dixon has taken that approach one step further by getting his private pilot's license during the offseason in addition to getting married to his lovely bride Emma.

Dixon finished second to Franchitti in last year's Indianapolis 500. With Franchitti out of the way, look for Dixon to be a leading contender on Memorial Day Weekend.

TONY KANAAN

Fiercely determined, Kanaan brings a street-fighter's mentality into IndyCar racing. He is not afraid to mix it up on the race track, as evidenced by last year's race at Infineon when he ran interference for his then-teammate Franchitti in an attempt to help him in the points race.

Kanaan won the 2004 IndyCar Series title and has come close to winning the Indianapolis 500 but it continues to elude him. He was third in 2003, second in 2004, eighth in 2005 and fifth in 2006. He appeared destined to win last year's Indy 500 and was in the lead when rain stopped the race after 113 laps. When the race was restarted four hours later, Kanaan would eventually crash in the fourth turn, finishing 12th after leading 83 laps.

A new father in the offseason, Kanaan is one of many workout kings in IndyCar and a tri-athlete. He also admits to a love of monkeys since he was a youngster in Brazil. So when he was 13, he had a tattoo of a gorilla under his arm.

"When I was younger, my dream was to have a monkey -- a real one -- but I couldn't get it," Kanaan said. "What I did, I got a tattoo. At least I can carry on the monkey for the rest of my life."

HELIO CASTRONEVES

This driver is "Mr. Personality" of IndyCar racing and, after winning ABC's Dancing with the Stars in the offseason, he has gained a whole new cadre of fans. It's hard not to like this guy -- but he is more than just another pretty face.

He is a warrior on the race track and a two-time Indy 500 winner. He also invented "fence-climbing" as his victory ritual, even though NASCAR's Tony Stewart has borrowed the concept.

The engaging Brazilian also brings a boyish exuberance to his craft. Although he won just one race in 2007, Castroneves won seven poles last season.

With Sam Hornish Jr. moving to Team Penske's NASCAR Sprint Cup team, Castroneves is the undeniable lead driver, teaming with Ryan Briscoe this season.

With two Indy wins, the one thing missing from his list of accomplishments is an IndyCar title. It is one thing that fuels Castroneves' passion -- that and a third Indy 500 win.

DAN WHELDON

Another recent newlywed, Wheldon took the checkered flag in the 2005 Indy 500, becoming the first British driver to win the event since Graham Hill in 1966. He also won the IndyCar title that season for Andretti Green Racing and then left the team for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.

He finished second to Hornish in the battle for the 2006 title and appeared primed for another championship at the start of the 2007 season, winning two of the first four races. But Wheldon's season started to slide at the Indy 500 and he was unable to regain his early season promise.

A recharged and rejuvenated Wheldon is always capable of winning at Indy and the title so look for his red Target Dallara to be near the front again in '08.

TOMAS SCHECKTER

Although he doesn't have a full-time ride for the 2008 season, Scheckter is driving for Luczo Dragon Racing, which is owned by Roger Penske's son, Jay, in a select number of racing this season including the Indianapolis 500.

Scheckter is the son of 1979 Formula 1 world champion Jody Scheckter and has an awesome amount of talent -- but just two wins in a career that began in 2002.

Scheckter's speed has often gotten him in a lot of trouble, including two crashes while leading the Indy 500 in his career. But with the right tools, Scheckter could become an Indy 500 winner in 2008.

Will The Fans Return?

While Race Day at the Indianapolis 500 still attracts a huge crowd, the month of May at the Speedway has diminished for practice and qualification days. Many blamed the open wheel split for turning off the fans but, now that it is one group, will some of them return for the full month of practice and time trials?

WHAT IMPACT WILL THIS HAVE ON NASCAR?

Probably very little because NASCAR fans are a breed unto themselves, completely devoted and absorbed with the daily and weekly soap opera of the sport. IndyCar fans are far fewer in number but tend to be attracted to stylish trends and technology. NASCAR will continue to be the 800-pound gorilla of motorsports but at least now IndyCar has an opportunity to become relevant again.

ANDRETTI, FOYT AND RAHAL

With Marco Andretti, A.J. Foyt IV and Graham Rahal as the next generation of IndyCar drivers, can they live up to the high standards set by the fathers and grandfathers? In Foyt's case, probably not because Grandpa A.J. was the first four-time winner of the Indy 500 and holds the career record for most IndyCar wins with 67. Marco Andretti has a chance to continue the Andretti legacy begun by his grandfather, Mario, and father, Michael, but will have to rebound from a miserable sophomore season in 2007.

The one driver who has the potential to exceed his father's accomplishments is Rahal, the 19-year-old son of 1985 Indy winner and three-time CART champ Bobby Rahal.

Young Rahal drives for the powerful Newman-Haas team, which won eight championships in CART/Champ Car. Once this team figures out the new equipment, it is more than capable of making an impact in this series.

HOW THE SCHEDULE EVOLVES

In the past, the IRL sometimes struggled to complete a full-season schedule as it tried to find venues that wanted to host its races. Now, IndyCar has to pick and choose from a large list of tracks and road courses that want the unified IndyCar at its facilities. So expect to see a major overhaul on the schedule beginning in 2009.

STAR POWER

The two most popular drivers in the series are Danica Patrick and Helio Castroneves. After posing in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, Patrick has shown the beauty that's concealed by her helmet and driving uniform. Castroneves literally danced his way into America's living rooms by winning Dancing with the Stars. In Patrick's case, now she must back it up on the race track with her first victory.

As for Castroneves, does he add dancing to his victory ritual after climbing the fence?

It's All One Happy Family

After three decades of division, including a 12-year war between the Indy Racing League and CART, Champ Car, etc., it's all one happy family in IndyCar racing. One series should help provide clarity in the marketplace which will generate more interest among fans, sponsors and media. That can help IndyCar racing regain some of its lost glory.

WE NEED MORE PARTS

One of the downsides to unification is the supply and demand of equipment. The Champ Car teams had to scrap all of their cars and engines in order to participate in IndyCar. Tony George, the CEO of IndyCar, gave the new teams a Dallara chassis and Honda engine lease for the transitional season but cars and parts have been in short supply at the start of the season, leading many of the new teams scrambling.

LEFT TURNS

Many of the new drivers from Champ Car have little or no oval racing experience which makes the transition to IndyCar a challenge at the start of the season. But over time, these drivers will pick up the pace and make the series more complete.

DRIVER/CAR WEIGHT RULE

While many want to call this the Danica Rule, the IndyCar Series will mandate a minimum driver/car weight. With Patrick weighing in at 100 pounds, some of the drivers believed that she had a distinct advantage when it comes to speed because the weight difference could mean as much as 1 mph on the race track. Now weight will be added to have all cars and drivers meet a minimum which has yet to be determined.

Another technical change is the addition of paddle-shifting, which means drivers never have to take their hands off the steering wheel to shift the car into gear, which can be quite an asset on street and road courses.

WILL HORNISH AND FRANCHITTI BE MISSED?

Sam Hornish Jr. was the best driver ever to be developed by the IndyCar Series bolted for NASCAR after three titles and an Indy 500 win. Dario Franchitti did the same thing after winning the 500 and the IndyCar title last season, saying he needed a new challenge. Now that there is one unified series, perhaps this will stop the migration of IndyCar drivers to NASCAR, especially if some big-name sponsors come into this sport and make it a destination series once again.

DANICA PATRICK WILL WIN HER FIRST RACE

This will finally answer question, Will she ever win? which has been tossed around after she burst onto scene in 2005, nearly winning the Indy 500 in her first attempt. Last season was her best complete year, as she finished a career-high second at the Belle Isle Grand Prix. She drives for the potent Andretti Green Racing team and with another year experience, Patrick will finally get over the barrier to score a victory. Her best bets could come in the biggest race of the year, the Indianapolis 500, where she had displayed a real knack for that track.

ATTENDANCE AND TV RATINGS WILL INCREASE

One series may be just the bump this sport has needed to attract more fans.

A SERIES SPONSOR WILL BE FOUND

Sources indicate the unified series has attracted interest from companies that wanted to be involved in the sport but were afraid to choose one group over the other. Now that IndyCar has absorbed Champ Car, they don't have to make that choice which has already brought attention from such companies as Coca-Cola and DirecTV.

RAHAL-ANDRETTI WILL BE FUTURE RIVALRY

With 21-year-old Marco Andretti and 19-year-old Graham Rahal both in the same series, this will be the rivalry of the future. That's just what IndyCar needs to bring back fans that like to pit one driver over the other, similar to the glory days of the A.J. Foyt-Mario Andretti rivalry.

BRISCOE WILL MAKE AN IMPACT

After leaving the IndyCar Series when he was fired by Target/Chip Ganassi Racing in 2005 due to a high number of crashes, Ryan Briscoe has returned to the series for Team Penske. With Roger Penske's confidence and the team's immaculate equipment, the young Aussie will score a win or two this season.

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