Brant James
Wednesday April 8th, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Ryan Hunter-Reay was barely in his 200th lap -- ever -- with Vision Racing on Sunday when, between shifting, braking and wrangling his race car around the 14 turns of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street course, he found a moment for a cogent observation. He and competing driver Justin Wilson were on the verge of something spectacular as the field prepared to resume green-flag racing and chasing after leader Ryan Briscoe.

"It was the second-to-last caution, I'm looking at the top three," he said. This is funny, both Justin and I, both race winners from last year are in the top three, and we were unemployed, both of us unemployed, a month ago."

It led to another thought.

"This is what racing is about," he said. "This is why people love it, and this is why IndyCar is so great, because you can put something together in that amount of time, and if you get the right people together, you can challenge for a race win against teams that are spending $15 million a year, $20 million a year. It's a very neat thing, a very cool series that way."

It made for an interesting final few laps and two intriguing, heartening storylines for not only two mid-level teams but Indy Racing League officials on Sunday in the season-opener.

Briscoe, the new lead driver for the league's landed gentry, Team Penske, won the race, but Hunter-Reay, who officially signed on Wednesday with modestly successful Vision and first slid into his race car on Friday before practice, was second. Wilson, signed recently by eight-crewman Dale Coyne Racing, finished third. Both finishes were the best ever for their new teams in the IRL.

For Wilson and Hunter-Reay, it was a redemptive moment for drivers who won IndyCar races in 2008 but lost jobs with more successful teams this off-season because of sponsor issues. For the IRL, it was sign that smaller teams with talented drivers can compete, at least on street and road courses, which could dramatically increase competition with seven of 17 events off ovals this season.

It was invigorating, Hunter-Reay said, to "punch above your weight." NASCAR spent millions trying to concoct parity by developing and introducing the Car of Tomorrow, which passed millions of dollars in cost along to teams that saw fleets of inventory become instantly obsoleted. Most teams have rationalized that the versatility of the new Sprint Cup machines will eventually yield savings, but it has yet to yield a more balanced field. Power teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway continue to dominate the series, winning 36 of 43 races since the new car deployed full-time.

The IRL, meanwhile, may have happened onto balance by adapting to change it would have rather not made. The series has utilized the same chassis -- with a few modifications since 2003 -- and the same Honda engines through a lease program since 2006 after Toyota and Chevrolet pulled out. Because Honda technicians oversee those engines, gains come through aerodynamics and handling. And that information is readily available, Briscoe said.

"It's a great chassis, but it's been so long that it's really given everyone the chance to know all the secrets, know what setups to put on, and there's not really much you can invent right now to go faster," Briscoe said. "Where maybe bigger teams with newer equipment may be able to make that slightly bigger difference, with this car right now I think anyone who goes out looking for the information can find it and make a competitive car."

Until the IRL introduces a new car or new competing engine, driver are the real difference-maker in the sport

That fact, and a horrific climate for acquiring and retaining sponsorship, made this offseason a buyers' market. Wilson -- one of just two transitional Champ Car drivers to win IndyCar races last season -- lost his ride with legendary Newman Haas Lanigan when his McDonald's sponsor was moved behind 20-year-old American star Graham Rahal.

"They signed Graham a couple months before (my contract) was due and in the meantime the economy crashed and they couldn't commit to paying two drivers," he said. "So they had to take a second driver who could bring some funding."

The American ethanol industry's decision to shelve its motorsports entitlements shut down not only Hunter-Reay's race-winning car, but it also sent the Rahal Letterman IndyCar program into dormancy. Will Power, who won the final Champ Car points race -- the Long Beach Grand Prix -- saw his team evaporate.

Former Indianapolis 500-winner Buddy Rice is still looking for a sponsor. Though one of her representatives said that Milka Duno still has the support of Citgo -- which has backed most of her racing ventures, including parts of the last two IndyCar seasons -- it did not sign on to support her when she landed a test with NHLR.

Robert Doornbos, the 2007 Champ Car rookie of the year, had to agree to bring money to the NHLR job he eventually landed. He's still looking -- hard -- because he said he's tired of hopping series and wants to commit to the IRL, he said. Doornbos was forced to return to Europe to race in the A1GP and Super League series in 2008 when his Minardi Champ Car team folded early in the year. It was a humbling experience, he said, especially after he became the main tormentor and impediment to Sebastien Bourdais' eventual capture of a fourth-straight Champ Car title. It was impossible, he said, not to scan the IndyCar driver lineup and see jobs he thought he deserved.

"For sure," he said. "Every driver probably thinks that. I couldn't judge the oval racing, but looking at some of the guys, thinking I can beat these guys. I was thinking, 'I have shown it. Why am I not there?' You shouldn't think about it too long. The competitiveness in the racing world is so, so tough. In Formula One there are only 20 guys. In IndyCar only 25 guys. If you look at soccer players, there are thousands. Everyone is fighting for the top seat and some time, for the team bosses to decide on a guy with less talent, but bigger pockets or megatalent and normally they don't have big sponsors.

"It's definitely a frustrating thing and sometimes it's ridiculous to explain to people. Even my friends back home in Holland, they were like, 'Man, your '07 season was mega. Why are you not back in the States?' Just to explain that the team goes bankrupt at the last moment and there is no other ride available, it's very hard to understand."

Roger Penske noted on Saturday that before he signed Power to replace (at least on an interim basis) Indy 500-winner Helio Castroneves, Wilson was on his short list. And Penske presciently predicted that smaller teams are in a better position to compete this season.

"I think people miss that in this series, from the top to the bottom is a small step," he said. "It's because the cars are the same, the rules are consistent and the costs are in line. Dale [Coyne] can come in and get the right driver in the car [and he can compete]."

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