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2011 A Season of High and Lows
December 31st 2011 - By: Mark W. Theisen

WEST BEND, WISCONSIN December 29, 2011: This time last year I was eagerly awaiting the 2011 Indianapolis 500 which was the 100th Anniversary running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Auto Racing”.

There was so much to look forward to:  2011 was the last year for the current Dallara Chassis and with eight years of manufacturing the same chassis there were plenty of cars to be had and technology had spread throughout the field thus making it a possibility of a wide open field and different race winners. Also, with more cars, came more teams and drivers and more new events on the schedule.  The hoopla surrounding the Anniversary 500 made the expectations for the event that much higher.

The 500 did not disappoint.  The events leading up to it to were unprecedented and the race itself will go down as one of the most exciting with the surprise last corner win by Dan Wheldon , a popular and emotional win that was seen as a catapult to re-vitalize the series.

Alas, that did not happen!

The races on the Indy Racing League schedule that followed were marked by poor attendance and ever poorer officiating.  The return of the series to the Milwaukee Mile in June was poorly promoted and the resulting attendance was dismal.  The new IRL race in Baltimore was not much better.  The road and street course races were some what better attendance wise but it was clear that the series had problems.
 
We knew all along of the new Dallara chassis for 2012 and that it would be ultimately built in a new facility near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and as the year progressed that goal was achieved culminating with teams receiving there new chassis in December.  As the year went along Wheldon tested the new chassis at various tracks around the country and was pleased with its speed and handling albeit somewhat less on the ovals versus the road and street courses.

Chevrolet and Lotus joined Honda as engine suppliers to the series in 2012 and as the season progressed announcements as to which teams will use what power came out.  Penske Racing was selected by Chevrolet as the “house team” while Ganassi was selected by Honda as it’s flagshjip team and Lotus going with Dreyer & Reinbold, Bryan Herta Autosports and HVM to start out with.  Subsequently Chevrolet announced Andretti Autosports, Panther Racing and KVR as additional partners, while Honda has announced just its association with A.J. Foyt with more to follow.

The season ended on an incredible low at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when Wheldon lost his life in a horrendous accident that was termed the “perfect storm” by race officials after an intensive six week examination of the circumstances leading up to the horrific crash.  What was to have been a championship celebration weekend ended with Dario Franchitti wining his 4th series title over Will Power after the event was cancelled after the accident and standings entering the race were official.

RL chief steward Randy Barnhardt was removed from his duties by series president Randy Bernard in an effort to stem the tide of controversy over his officiating of some races but in the eyes of many the damage had been done by not only this but the tragic death of Wheldon.

So what does 2012 hold?

16 races are on the announced schedule as of today:  8 temporary street courses, 4 road courses and 4 ovals.  This includes a return to the oval track at Fontana, California and an event in China replacing the race in Motegi, Japan.  Bernard hopes to add another race to equal the 17 of 2011.

Gone of course is Las Vegas, which was still deemed to fast a race course even for the new generation of Indy Car.  A return to the track was left open at some point in the future if the car develops enough to race on the ultra fast oval.

Penske Racing returns with its 2011 lineup of  Power, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe in tact.  Ganassi also brings back Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball.  Andretti, after losing Danica Patrick to NASCAR was expected to bring in Wheldon to drive the GoDaddy car and that is all on hold.  In the meantime Mike Conway, an Andretti driver, bolted for the Foyt team and brings his road and street course prowess to that team.

Sarah Fisher Racing got several “boosts” in recent months.  First Ed Carpenter got his and the team’s first win in Kentucky in October only to announce shortly after that he was leaving the fledgling team for his own team for 2012.  Fisher soldiered on announcing that Indy Lights champion and a USA native, Josef  Newgarden would be her driver for 2012 in, as yet to be finalized, number of races.  In addition long time team benefactor, Willie “Wink” Hartman became an announced partner in the now titled, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.  His largesse will enable to the tam to build a state of the art racve shop right next to the new Dallara factory in Speedway, Indiana.  Out of a depressed mode after Carpentor’s departure, Fisher ahs hit the ground running for 2012.

Andretti Autosports has not come forward with any announcement to this point in time.  We know Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay are set in their cars and that Go Daddy is committed to a third team car and that a driver search is under way for that slot.  What is not known is if there will be a fourth car to replace Conway or if the team will stay with three for 2012 as sponsors are so difficult to find these days.

To get to 26 cars for each week and 33 for the 500 is still a stretch, but in the months to come hopefully sponsors will come forward to get this a done deal.  Dallara has assured it will have enough chassis to fill the 500 field and then some so it

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has some big shoes to fill if it is to duplicate the excitement of last year and perhaps a cooling off is in order as they really did too much in 2011.  The car show the opening week of the track in May will return as its 250 car extravaganza was a highlight last May.

Wheldon had emerged as the new “face” of the 500 after his win last May.  He was all over the media and when he was selected as the development driver for the new Dallara chassis he gained additional exposure and at every turn he touted the 500 and the series.  He will be missed as will Patrick, who had her detractors, but did bring a lot to the series.  The IRL got a lot of attention because of here presence in the series as will NASCAR in the years to come.

Someone needs to come forward to spearhead the 500 and the series forward, someone who can bring the exposure these two took with them.  Any ideas?

As additional drivers, teams, sponsors, and perhaps races are added, I will let you know.  

The 500 will live on, it is the series that I am worried about right now!

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Indianapolis became the center of the short track world for the third straight year this month when it hosted the International Motorsports Industry Trade Show, (IMIS) at the Indiana Convention and Trade Center in downtown Indy.

Titled the “Hardcore Racer’s” show, the event did not disappoint as 283,000 square feet of the center was filled with manufacturers and sellers of every kind of part that a racer would need.  From simple suspension to complete chassis, from spark plugs to engines,  it was all there and over 20,000 racers took advantage of the show to buy what they needed for 2012.

The show is open only to racers as it is a selling show and those open for business at the show reported record sales.  From short track stars to nationally known drivers they were all there to make this the best of three events thus far and insure that the show will return in 2012 and beyond.

For drivers and owners looking to attend in 2012, mark December 6th through the 8th as the dates and go to www.imis-indy.com to register.

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I hope you all had a great Christmas and I wish everyone a great 2012 in whatever racing endeavor you pursue.