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May 3rd 2013 -
By:   Mark W. Theisen
WEST BEND, WI   May 1, 2013:  Eleven days until the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opens for the month of May 2013, with a plethora of events leading up to the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 26th.

     Since I last wrote the IZOD Indy Car series has contested two events, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 7th and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 21st.  The fourth and final prelude to the 500 comes this Sunday in Brazil.

     Continuing a competitive trend that began late last season the IZOD Indy Car series has seen three different winners in the first three events of the season with 8 different drivers on the podium out of a possible nine.  The new in 2012 Dallara DW77 chassis brought the field tightly together with the end result being highly competitive racing with the winner no longer coming from the major teams and that end result is expected to continue on as the season progress.

     2012 Indy Car series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay won the pole for the Alabama race conducted at Barber Motorsports Park on April 7th and led the first 26 laps of the race in his Andretti Autosports entry before giving way to Will Power driving for Penske Racing.  

     The Barber race was put under caution only once from laps 2 thru 5 for debris on the track in turn 9.  The rest of the race went caution free and placed emphasis on race strategy and perfect pit stops.

     Power led for four laps until pitting giving the top spot back to Hunter-Reay who controlled the event again until pit stops saw Charlie Kimball lead for the first time in 2013, then Power again followed by Helio Castroneves and when the final stops were concluded Hunter-Reay was again in front and he held off a hard charging Scott Dixon at the end to show that his 2012 title was not a fluke and that he truly ranks as a title contender for 2013.  Castroneves finished third followed by Kimball, Power and Simon Pagenaud.  Marco Andretti, Justin Wilson, Josef Newgarden and rookie Tristan Vautier completed the top 10.

     The first 21 cars all finished on the lead lap with exciting racing throughout the field.  Hunter-Reay gave Chevrolet its second straight win in 2013 but Honda bounced back from a poor first outing in St. Petersburg, Florida in March to place 6 of its cars in the top 10.

     The premier street race of the season in Long Beach produced a surprise winner that was “heard around the world” as Takuma Sato became the first Japanese driver to ever win an Indy Car race and he did so behind the wheel of A.J. Foyt’s ABC Supply sponsored Honda.

     The diminutive Japanese driver gained fame on the final lap of last year’s Indy 500 when he made a first turn pass attempt of leader Dario Franchitti that resulted in a spin and contact with the wall sending Franchitti to his third Indy 500 win.  Sato’s career had been marked by determination but he could never close the deal.

     Many thought that his chances for a win went awry when he left the potent stable of cars from K V Racing Technologies’ at the end of 2012 for the Foyt seat but both Sato and Foyt saw something in each other and remarkably they wound up in the winner’s circle after only the third race together as a team.

     And Sato’s win was no accident.  Qualifying fourth he trailed Franchitti, Hunter-Reay and Power early in the event but when pit stops were completed following a crash on lap 30 by Kimball and Alex Tagliani it was the highly reorganized and rejuvenated Foyt team that had their driver in front and he stayed there the rest of the race!

     Sato’s Dallara gave Honda its first win of 2013 and he was followed by Graham Rahal and Wilson to give the supplier a sweep of the podium.  Franchitti, who suffered misfortune in both of the season’s races came back to win the pole and finish fourth in hopes that this has turned his dismal season around.  JR Hildebrand was fifth in the first Chevrolet of the race followed by Oriol Servia, Marco Andretti, Pagenaud and Simona de Silvestro.

     This top 10 was completely different than Alabama giving full credence to the level of competition that moves from top to bottom in the Indy Car Series right now.

     In 2006 Larry Foyt was named team director of the Foyt team and he acknowledged that he didn’t fully grasp the idea of him calling the shots over the legendary A.J. but the team soldiered on with several drivers albeit no wins but Larry Foyt continued to look for answers. 

     With the addition of Sato and the potential he brings to the team Larry Foyt went out and brought in new people, key people with fresh ideas.  Don Halliday a respected and successful engineer who calls New Zealand home was hired a race engineer and then Larry Foyt went to Spain and hired Raul Prados to be the assistant engineer. With a Japanese driver this gives the famous Foyt Racing a truly international perspective and the results have been instantaneous.

     For years the Foyt team operated with a cadre of professionals loyal to A.J. but as retirements happened they have been replaced by younger more agile crew members that follow a fitness regimen much like the major teams in all of racing.  The pit stops at Long Beach outclassed even those of the legendary Penske team and that difference alone proved to be the key to Sato staying in front for the final 50 laps of the race.

     The only negative of Sato’s win was that A.J. Foyt himself was not on hand to witness the team’s first win since Airton Dare drove a Foyt owned car to victory on July 7, 2002 at Kansas Speedway.  A.J. remained in Houston suffering from back pains that were corrected by successful surgery on April 23rd that will allow the senior Foyt to fully participate in all activities in Indianapolis in May.  So significant is this win for the Foyt team that it is the team’s first road/street course victory since October 1, 1978 at Silverstone in England with A.J. himself driving.  The Long Beach win was of major proportions for this team!  

     This race will be remembered for much but most importantly it was a watershed race for the small teams that make up the Indy Car Series race.  A win can now be had by anyone; it should be truly exciting the rest of the year in the series.

     The Indianapolis Motor Speedway formally opens on Saturday May 11th for the 2013 event and it will feature the re-scheduled rookie orientation program for the year.   Terrible weather in the mid-west in April forced re-scheduling of the rookie tests twice with it finally ending up on opening weekend as it had been the previous two years.

     Indianapolis officials and those of the Indy Racing series had hoped to have the rookie tests completed prior to the opening weekend to devote as much time as possible to practice for all teams in the week leading up to pole qualifying runs on Saturday May 18th but the fickle weather and the race in Brazil all figuring in on the decision to return the rookie portion of the program to opening weekend.

     A.J. Allmendinger of Team Penske; Conor Daly of A.J. Foyt Racing; Carlos Munoz of Andretti Autosport and Vautier of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports are scheduled to participate in the program which is designed to provide first-year Indianapolis 500 drivers with an informal opportunity to get acquainted with the 2.5 mile oval through laps turned at thee speed phases as set by Indy Car and under the watchful and tutoring eyes of many previous 500 champions and drivers.

     With only four rookie drivers scheduled at this time it is felt that the test can be concluded in short order giving the track to the rest of the competitors as soon as possible.  The number of those in the program could grow depending on last minute entries to the race.

     Speaking of entries, much to my chagrin the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has not released a formal entry list.  I can not ever remembering this happening but we are living in a changing world right now.  Interest in auto racing in this country is on the decline.  It can be seen looking at your television screen and seeing the grandstands not full at many national racing events.  This apathy has carried over to the television ratings which fuel team demands for sponsorship dollars.

     When ratings are down so is interest in sponsorship at this fact has hurt Indy Car more than others as it is a relatively small operation compared to its rivals.  Thus competition for money is tight and this is reflected in the fact that as of this writing we have only 31 cars confirmed for the 500 with a few potentials “out there”

     As optimistic as I was in March I still believe we will have 34 cars for the 500.  Alas that would mean the drama of only one “bump” on the final day but we have to live with what we have.

     And what we have is Chevrolet and Honda being able to furnish 17 engines each for the 500, thereby 34 total engine packages available.  The final 4 engines are available as the rush to find that elusive sponsorship hits high gear with just 10 days remaining before the Speedway “opens”.

     A sufficient number of Dallara chassis are available and it has been reported in other media that the Lotus driven by Jean Alesi in last year’s 5000 is under renovation as to be ready for the 500 if money can be obtained by former 500 champion Buddy Lazier to driver it.  It was reported that the car would operate out of the Ed Carpenter Racing shops as Carpenter himself, said it would be the only way he could field a second car, his operation being too small yet to handle another car.

     So the unofficial entry list for the Indianapolis 500 that I have on my clip board as of May 1st is as follows:
     Andretti Autosports, 5 cars:  Marco Andretti, Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, E.J. Viso and Munoz.

     K V Racing Technology, 2 cars:  Tony Kanaan and De Silvestro.

     Penske Racing, 3 cars:  Power, Castroneves and Allmendinger.

     Ganassi Racing, 4 cars:  Franchitti, Dixon, Kimball and Ryan Briscoe.

     Dale Coyne Racing, 3 cars:  Wilson, Ana Beatriz and Pippa Mann

    Rahal, Letterman, Lannigan Racing, 3 cars:  Graham Rahal, James Jakes and Michel Jourdain Jr.

     A.J. Foyt Racing, 2 cars:  Sato and Daly

     Schmidt Racing, 2 cars:  Pagenaud and Vautier

     Dragon Racing, 2 cars:  Sebastian Saavedra and Sebastien Bourdais

     Panther/Dryer Reinbold Racing, 2 cars:  Hildebrand and Servia

     Fisher Hartman Racing, 1 car:  Newgarden

     Barracuda Racing, 1 car:  Tagliani

     Carpenter Racing, 1 car:  Carpenter

     That is my 31 total gleaned from press releases the past month, as I stated it is not official by any means just an educated observation.

     16 of the above are Honda powered with 15 being of Chevrolet so we have room for one more Honda and three Chevrolets to get to the 34.

     Carpenter is Chevrolet and Lazier has ties to Chevrolet going back to his 500 win so if his deal can be done that would be 16 for the Bow-tie brigade.

    I truly felt Buddy Rice has a shot at the third seat at Panther/DRR, a Chevrolet operation but now that Townsend Bell’s deal with Fisher/Hartman could not materialize I think he may be in here and Rice, a former winner again on the outside.  This is the 17th engine for Chevy and they are maxed out/

     So if the above deals materialize we have 33 with one Honda engine open.  I’m not hearing or reading anything right now but I think Rice, Bryan Clauson or perhaps (?) will appear to make “Bump Day” at least, interesting.

     The 2014 Corvette Stingray Coupe will be introduced tomorrow as the pace car for this year’s 500.  It will be the 12th time since 1978 that the Corvette will pace the 500 at the start.

    It’s nearly here; the Speedway will be soon open, look for reports from opening day on.