While the IndyCar season includes some outstanding races, none is bigger than the Indianapolis 500, which actually pays the winner more than the bonus given to the IndyCar Series champion.
As IndyCar enters its second season as a unified series, the competition level should be higher -- now that the transition teams have had a season to work with the cars. That should boost drivers like Graham Rahal and Will Power to the contending ranks as they look to compete with Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Danica Patrick.
Here, then, is SI.com's IndyCar Primer In Fives.
93rd Indianapolis 500
Attending the Indianapolis 500 in any year is special, but this year is the 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There is no other race in the world that has the tradition, the history and the spine-tingling drama of this race. It's not just a race; it's an event of epic proportions. Thanks to unification, last year's 500-mile race generated tremendous interest and a packed house at the Speedway. According to IMS officials, ticket sales for this year's race are ahead of last year despite the sluggish economy.
What makes the Indianapolis 500 great is its history, which can't be duplicated by other tracks. But throw in 33 sleek, high-powered IndyCars whipping around the four-corner, 2-1/2-mile oval at speeds over 225 mph and it's enough to send a shiver down your spine.
Texas Motor Speedway
The Bombardier Lear Jet 550 is a chance for IndyCar racing to be showcased under the bright lights of Texas Motor Speedway, which has become the second home to IndyCar since its debut in 1997. Texas Motor Speedway president and general manager Eddie Gossage is one of the best promoters in sports and understand the value of promotion and publicity. The Dallas/Fort Worth market has embraced this race, which has drawn as many as 129,000 fans and continues to attract crowds between 70,000 and 80,000. The high-banked, 1-1/2-mile oval allows the IndyCars to race in large packs featuring side-by-side racing. What is most impressive is that IndyCar drivers are able to get through this race without calamity. That said, expect a few crashes here and there. It is also the home to some of the closest finishes in IndyCar history.
Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
The first street-course race in IndyCar Series history was this event in 2005, and it has been a smash hit ever since. Usually the second race on the schedule, it's the season-opener this year as Homestead-Miami Speedway will now host the season finale. St. Petersburg offers sun and fun by the bay as the course winds through the downtown streets with the main straightaway the runway of the Albert Whitted Airport. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker is IndyCar's No. 1 fan in this city, and his support has turned this into a gigantic party on Florida's Gulf Coast, giving race fans their own version of Spring Break.
Long Beach Grand Prix
Another street course race makes the list this year as the IndyCar Series competes in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for the first time. Last year's race gave IndyCar points, but with the regular teams from the year before in Japan, it was promoted as the Champ Car Series finale.
This is the most successful street race in the United States and one of the best street events in the world. Just as the Indianapolis 500 is an annual ritual for race fans, the Long Beach Grand Prix is a rite of Spring.
For the past few years, this track has hosted the IndyCar Series season finale. This year the race moves from early September to late August and will be held on Saturday night. It will be the first night-time IndyCar race at this 1-1/2-mile track, which has featured some of the most dramatic finishes in IndyCar history. A large crowd attends this race because it's part of a season-ticket that also includes July's NASCAR Sprint Cup race. But with Indiana 30 miles to the East, a large contingent of IndyCar fans from the Hoosier State make sure this race is well attended.
The defending Indianapolis 500 winner and IndyCar Series champion, Dixon is simply the best of a group of talented drivers. His coolness under fire combined with his extraordinary talent, make him a special driver at just 28-years-old. Last year, he tied an IndyCar record with six victories in the season, including the Indy 500, and he's on pace to break Sam Hornish Jr.'s career victory total of 19.
He won his first IndyCar title in 2003, when it was still called the Indy Racing League and was an all-oval series. His second title, in 2008, came in a much different series that included street- and road-course in addition to a variety of ovals. He has matured into one of the best IndyCar drivers of his generation, and until another driver picks up his (or her) game, Dixon is the one they are all gunning for.
Fierce and determined, Kanaan is a pit bull on the race track. The 34-year-old Brazilian is called "The Big Gorilla" because of a tattoo under his arm that signifies his love for monkeys that began as a kid. He's a gorilla on the race track, too, because the sight of Kanaan's No. 11 race car is enough to intimidate many drivers. Kanaan is highly competitive and has won 13 races in his IndyCar career. If he gets off to a fast start, he is one driver who could challenge Dixon for IndyCar supremacy.
Back after a year in NASCAR, the 2007 Indy 500 winner and IndyCar Series champion joins Dixon at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing to become the first team in IndyCar history to feature the past two Indy 500 winners and series champions on the same team. Franchitti will admit he struggled in NASCAR, but he is back where he belongs in IndyCar, where the Scotsman knows how to be fast and smooth. After a one-year layoff, he hopes to regain that combination in 2009.
It's hard to think of this driver as a 20-year-old because he is poised beyond his years. Rahal made history in last year's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg when he became the youngest winner in major racing history (19 years, 93 days). He also joined the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya and Dixon as a winner in his first IndyCar Series start.
Although success came quickly to young Rahal at St. Pete, his progress was slower on the ovals as he tried to learn the new form of racing. But the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal started on the outside of the front row at Milwaukee and finished his first season 17th in points.
With one year of experience and an enormous amount of talent and potential, Rahal is ready to contend for more races wins in 2009 as the lead driver at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing.
There are many reasons to keep an eye on Danica Patrick. Just pick up a copy of the last two Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions to understand why this driver has appeal in more places than on the track. But Patrick has the talent to win races. She is also a magnet for controversy because she isn't afraid to show a little temper when she is upset or soften her words when she takes a shot at another driver. She confronted fellow driver Milka Duno on pit lane after a practice session at Mid-Ohio last July, and got a towel thrown in her face, nearly starting a brawl. She also stormed down pit lane in the Indianapolis 500 in an attempt to confront Ryan Briscoe after he took her out of the race in a crash.
Even if she doesn't win races, Patrick is a bonafide star of the series because of her ability to bring attention and publicity. She combines sexiness with speed and a fighter's attitude, and that has become a winning combination for her sport.
The Helio Situation
As Helio Castroneves is being tried in Miami federal court for tax evasion charges, there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty regarding his future. If Castroneves is convicted and sent to prison, his racing days in the United States are over. But if the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Dancing with the Stars champ is cleared of all charges, what does Team Penske do?
One possibility would be to have three cars in the Indianapolis 500 for drivers Briscoe, Castroneves and his replacement, Will Power. Beyond that, the team could shift Power over to the Rolex Grand American sports car series for the remainder of this season. One thing seems certain. In today's economy, it's unlikely Team Penske would field three cars for the entire IndyCar Series season.
Does Chip Ganassi Have A Super Team?
With the last two Indianapolis 500 winners and IndyCar Series champions, team owner Chip Ganassi has the makings of a super team in IndyCar. Dario Franchitti, who swept both prizes in 2007, is back after a season in NASCAR. Scott Dixon, who won Indy and the IndyCar title in 2008, could be even better this season.
Although parity could develop this season because of some new driver/car combinations, this is the team that will set the standard to start.
Penske Racing Goes Down Under
Until the Castroneves situation is settled, Team Penske has an all-Australian lineup that includes Briscoe and Power. Team owner Roger Penske hopes the boys "Down Under" can get him "Back on Top" of IndyCar. The last time Penske had two drivers from the same country was an all-Brazilian lineup from 2000 to 2003 that featured Gil de Ferran and Castroneves.
With that duo, Castroneves won Indy 500 titles in 2001 and 2002 and de Ferran won at Indianapolis in 2003.
Danica's Final Year at AGR?
There is no doubt that Danica Patrick is a sponsor's dream because she doesn't even have to win on the race track to generate enormous interest. Patrick is in the final year of her contract with Andretti Green Racing but that doesn't mean she is leaving to go to NASCAR. Patrick said she remains motivated to win the Indianapolis 500 before considering any career move. But she's also smart enough to keep all options available. By the time it is over, look for her to extract even more money to remain at AGR.
Can AGR Keep From Imploding?
This is the first time that all four drivers from the previous season return to Andretti Green Racing, but there were several instances last year when it became "Team Turmoil." Consider that the team features the owner's son, Marco Andretti, the IndyCar starlet, Danica Patrick, tough competitor Tony Kanaan and Japanese driver Hideki Mutoh and anything can -- and does -- happen with this group. During last year's race at Edmonton, Andretti punted Patrick off the race course, which led to a one-hour closed-door meeting between the team owners and all four drivers.
Sometimes this team needs a psychologist as much as another engineer to keep all the egos in check.
Engine Manufacturers Roundtable Discussions
While the results of talks between the IndyCar Series and worldwide automakers won't be seen on the race track until the 2012 season, it's a step toward the future for this form of racing. It will be the return to turbocharged engines and the possibility of Volkswagen joining the series to battle with Honda. There are already differing viewpoints, however, as Volkswagen prefers a four-cylinder, inline turbocharged formula while Honda wants a V-6 turbocharged motor. Volkswagen also wants a gasoline-ethanol blend while IndyCar currently uses 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol.
While this may be a little technical, it will dramatically impact the sport on the track and in marketing and promotion.
When unification with the former Champ Car Series came to IndyCar before the 2008 season, the car count was boosted to 26-28 cars for every series race with the exception of the Indianapolis 500, which had a 33-car field. There were even hopes for an IndyCar expansion in 2009 before the economy tanked in September 2008. But IndyCar has always been able to use a streamlined and efficient business model, mostly because it had to in order to survive after the sport split beginning with the 1996 season.
By having to run lean and mean, IndyCar is actually well-suited to weather the economic downturn because it takes less money to compete in the 17-race schedule than the massive amount required for a NASCAR Sprint Cup team.
Dario Franchitti's Return
When Franchitti returned to the IndyCar Series to replace Dan Wheldon at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, it marked the end of his brief tryout in NASCAR. Franchitti gives IndyCar another big name driver in its lineup. The driver from Edinburgh, Scotland, also brings some additional glitz to the track in the person of his wife, actress Ashley Judd.
IZOD Dresses IndyCar For Success
One of the big business coups for IndyCar was bringing clothier IZOD into the series as the "Official Apparel Sponsor." Why is that so important? IZOD is spending a lot of money to promote its brand and IndyCar on both VERSUS and ABC -- which telecast the IndyCar Series. Also, IZOD is taking out ads in such publications as Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine and USA Today, just to name a few.
It has also started a promotion with Macy's stores nationwide, which includes driver appearances in key markets and at flagship stores. There's also a promotion centering on the Centennial of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Driver Ryan Hunter-Reay is the national IndyCar spokesman for IZOD.
The Driver Domino Effect
When Tony Kanaan was courted by team owner Chip Ganassi midway through last season, before deciding to sign a five-year contract to remain with Andretti Green Racing, it triggered one of the most fascinating domino effects in recent IndyCar Series history. Kanaan stayed put but Dan Wheldon realized his time at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing had come to an end. So he struck a deal with team owner John Barnes to return to Panther Racing, where he replaced Vitor Meira. With Meira available, team owner A.J. Foyt released Darren Manning and signed the likeable Brazilian to drive the No. 14.
With the No. 10 entry at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing now open, 2007 Indianapolis 500 winner and IndyCar Series champion Franchitti decided to end his NASCAR experiment and return to the type of racing he loved the most. And later in the year, when the famed Team Penske No. 3 entry previously driven by two-time winner Castroneves became available, Power grabbed it.
Blame it all on Kanaan.
Dan Wheldon Will Win A Race For Panther
Back where he began his IndyCar career in 2002, Wheldon will put the Panther Racing entry in victory lane for the first time since Tomas Scheckter drove to victory at Texas Motor Speedway in 2005. One year ago, Wheldon was one of the leading contenders to challenge for the IndyCar Series title, winning two races for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.
Curiously, the driver from Emberton, England, is sponsored by the National Guard. Maybe the Royal Air Force was not available.
IndyCar Will Build Up Its Entries Throughout The Season
Because of a poor economy, some IndyCar Series teams cut back from two cars to one, which means 22 cars will be on the grid at St. Petersburg instead of the 26 that competed last year. But there are several more driver/car combinations that will develop throughout the season, which should increase that number. Tomas Scheckter is involved in discussions with Team 3G to turn that into a two-car team, where he would join rookie driver Stanton Barrett.
The Indianapolis 500 Will Be Near Capacity
While auto racing attendance is declining in all forms of racing because of economic conditions, fans are saving up their money to attend the big events. This year's Daytona 500 NASCAR race was a sellout while the races that have followed have run before less-than-capacity crowds. Ticket sales for the Indianapolis 500, however, remain strong and Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials are confident the crowd will approach last year's throng, which was the largest attended Indy 500 in the past eight years.
Rahal Letterman Will Be Back
The IndyCar Series lost one of its stalwart teams when Rahal Letterman Racing lost Ethanol as its sponsor. But the team plans on competing in the Indianapolis 500 with a driver yet to be named. According to team owner Bobby Rahal's son, Graham, the team will return to the series when proper sponsorship develops. Bobby Rahal won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 and is a three-time CART champion. His love for the sport will eventually provide the motivation to return his team to the series.
Danica Patrick Will Win Another Race
When Danica Patrick drove to victory at Twin Ring Motegi last April, it ended the question: "Are you ever going to win a race?" But after becoming the first female winner in a major closed-course racing series, it wasn't long before Patrick heard: "So, when are you going to win another race?" Sometime this season, the breaks of racing will fall in her favor and she will race across the finish line first. She's competitive in the series but falls into the echelon of drivers below the Dixon, Kanaan, Franchitti category. But Patrick has the fierce drive and determination to get back to victory lane.