Four Indy Racing League IndyCar series champions met Monday at the Fountainbleau Hotel in Miami to play in the sand and be informally chatty with the media. A sand sculptor crafted a large IndyCar championship trophy flanked by logos for the two Florida races – season’s opener at St. Petersburg and finale race at Homestead Miami Speedway.
The four champions were Target Chip Ganassi teammates SCOTT DIXON (2008) and DARIO FRANCHITTI (2007); Andretti Green Racing’s TONY KANAAN (2004) and DAN WHELDON (2005), returning to Panther Racing.
Monday through Wednesday this week is IRL’s Spring Training at Homestead Miami Speedway for its two series, Indy Cars and Firestone Indy Lights.
While the four champions were playing in the sand, four 2009 IndyCar rookies had their own test session at Homestead Miami Speedway in the afternoon and evening. ROBERT DOORNBOS/No.06 Newman Haas Lanigan Racing ran 111 laps. He is running the number run last year by his NHLR teammate, GRAHAM RAHAL, who will now run No.02 – the number used last season by JUSTIN WILSON, who is out of a ride at this point. The other rookies were STANTON BARRETT/No.98 Team 3G, MIKE CONWAY/Dreyer & Reinbold and RAPHAEL MATOS. Last weekend Barrett was at Auto Club Speedway for the NASCAR Nationwide race, where he started last and finished twenty-eighth. Barrett has considerable NASCAR oval experience dating back to 1992, but is a rookie in the Indy Car series. Conway and especially Doornbos have a lot of open wheel experience, but not on ovals. Matos has one leg up on the other three in that as the 2008 Firestone Indy Lights champion, he ran all the Indy Car circuits.
Wheldon’s Panther Racing Firestone Indy Lights teammate, PIPPA MANN, was the fastest of 12 rookie Indy Lights drivers Monday at Homestead Miami Speedway for the first day of the series testing. Her fastest lap on the 1.5-mile oval was 28.4996/187.592 mph in No.16 Panther Racing.
All sixteen IRL rookies passed their test.
All four of the Indy Car champion drivers touched on the economy and had the same take on the IRL situation – that IRL wouldn’t be as affected by the economic downturn as other series. Their reasoning was that IRL had been cutting costs and becoming leaner for the past few years. Testing had become more restricted each year, so the drivers didn’t feel they would be as affected by the new 2009 testing restrictions.
The common thread was leaner and meaner.
Dixon’s comments: “The teams are better prepared this year. It’s going to be an interesting season. There will be a lot of different winners on the road courses. It will be an exciting year.” He admitted “It will be tougher on the younger drivers with no testing. There are a lot of changes in the teams.”
Franchitti’s comments: “Now everyone has the same equipment and most everything is the same this season. We have good simulations and wind tunnel.”
“I was never one to do a lot of practice laps during the Indy 500 weeks, so I won’t miss the fewer Indy 500 practice sessions”. He did admit coming back to IRL after being with NASCAR last year, would be different without winter testing, so he was looking forward to Spring Training this week at Homestead Miami Speedway.
Franchitti said the “IndyCar teams spend less now than they did when I started in 1998. NASCAR just kept growing. I was surprised at the size of its organization.”
Kanaan’s comments: “IndyCar is really trying to cut costs. There are shorter race weekends. We were already cutting costs.
“The car count is a little down, but there are bigger problems out there. If we can bring joy to some people having financial problems, that’s what we’re going to do. The series is as strong as it was before, and we have loyal fans who stick with us.
“We have 22 cars now, down from 26 last season. That’s not much of a drop.
“The sport of racing is growing every day. It’s a show.”
Wheldon’s comments: “Economy forces teams to trim and look at the spending. IndyCar is controlling testing and it’s much more restricted now. In the last few years IndyCar has leaned out already. We look stronger. We have to make as much use as possible with our testing.”