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Barrichello Joins the Indy Racing League
Author: Mark W. Theisen
March 5th 2012 - The month of March is here and the opening the 2012 Indy Car Racing Season is just 24 days away with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg set for Sunday March 25th in St. Petersburg, Florida and much has happened since I last wrote.

Of the many “announcements” that have come out in recent weeks concerning the Indy Racing Series two have significant importance in my mind.

The first is that Formula One standout Rubens Barrichello has been able to put a deal together that will put him in a car owned KV Racing Technology for the entire season with sponsorship from a Brazilian based company.  He will team with his friend Tony Kanaan and E.J. Viso in a three car effort from the team that will see Chevrolet power in the new Dallara chassis for this year.

This is news worthy on many fronts.  First Barrichello, at the urging of Kanaan took a test in the team cars in February and liked it so much that he wanted another and after that hurried back to his native Brazil to seek sponsorship.  Not only was Barrichello impressed with the car but how he was openly welcomed by everyone in the series.  He would later say that camaraderie of that type does not exist in Formula One and he was impressed.

With the death of Dan Wheldon and the moving on of Danica Patrick the series needed someone else to “talk” about and Barrichello is such a topic.  He was a winner in Formula One and good enough to be hired by Ferrari to race alongside perennial world champion, Michael Schumacher.  His name, while not on the lips of many “state siders” is recognized world-wide.  His following is tremendous and his record is mentioned along with past Formula One greats.  He will bring attention to the series around the world.

Is this a good thing for the series, yes it is.  Open wheel racing does not command the attention it should in the United States outside of Indianapolis.  This will help.  It might mean more IRL races outside the good ole USA but that is an economic issue and if it helps make the series stronger, attract more attention and be a success, than all is good.

Originally it was thought that Barrichello would race only on the road and street course events but he is set for all 16 races including the ovals and, of course, Indianapolis.  The walls at Indy and around ovals are not a threat to him as was originally perceived.  Will he be a threat to win?  I don’t envision that right away as there is a learning curve but he is a racer and will adapt to the cars and the series and will be competitive because, after all, all winners are.

The second major announcement was that after months of nervousness, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing has an engine program and will contest the entire 16 race IZOD Indy Car series with driver Josef Newgarden and Honda power in the team’s new Dallara chassis.

Why is this so important?  Sarah has been a “face” of Indy Car Racing since her debut.  Her loyalty to the sport is unquestionable and her popularity is enormous. She has been the series most popular driver despite the presence of Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and others over her active career.  When she stepped into the roll of team owner along with her husband, Andy, she did so cautiously but admirably leading to the teams first win last year in Kentucky with Ed Carpenter driving.

Along the way Fisher received an ever growing amount of support from Kansas businessman Wink Hartman culminating with a major investment for the team’s new state of the art race shop to be built next to the Dallara chassis factory in Speedway, Indiana, just blocks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Whenever something was needed on behalf of the series or the Speedway Fisher was ready and despite this and a One Million Dollar commitment for an engine package the team needed veteran driver and car owner, Bobby Rahal to step aside on his need for a two car engine program from Honda to open the door for Fisher/Hartman.

Newgarden, the defending Lights Series champion, who earned this opportunity, be virtue of his title was almost on the outs as the start of the season approached but now this talented American will be able to showcase his talent in an American owned car.  This was shaping up to be a tragedy in the making but because of Rahal admitting difficulty in finding sponsorship for a second car and stepping aside he became a hero in many more eyes around the world by doing what he did.  It probably did not hurt that Fisher gave Rahal’s son, Graham, a ride in one of her cars early in his career.

By not having Fisher’s car in the field, Indy Car faced an incredible black-eye that was rectified in the 11th hour.

Now did this happen in the first place?

When the IRL announced it would have Chevrolet and Lotus joining Honda as engine suppliers for the 2012 season it was envisioned that each engine supplier would have ten cars to support and this what these three based their budgets on.  Slowly teams were announced by Honda and Chevrolet but as time wore on it was clear that Lotus would be unable to honor it’s commitment to 10, initially.  

Then, to everyone’s surprise, more and more teams came together and more and more found funding and soon their were more that 30 prospective cars.  Some of those 30 are not season long deals, such a oval track only teams, or Indy only teams, but in the end 26 cars were committed for the full season and not enough engines!

On the grid at St. Petersburg will be 11 Chevrolet cars:  Team Penske with Will Power, Ryan Briscoe and Castroneves; Andretti Autosports with Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe: Panther Racing with J. Hildebrand; Ed Carpenter Racing with the owner-driver; and the threes cars from K V Racing as outlined above.

Honda will have 10 cars:  Ganassi Racing with Dixon, Franchitti, Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball; Dale Coyne Racing with James Jakes and Justin Wilson; A.J. Foyt Racing with Mike Conway; Sam Schmidt Motorsports with Simon Pagenaud; Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with Takumo Sato and the Fisher Hartman entry.

Lotus will have five cars:  Dragon Racing with Sabastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge driving their two cars; HVM Racing with Simona De Silvestro; Dreyer & Reinbold Racing with Oriol Servia and Bryan Herta Autosport with Alex Tagliani behind the wheel.

It is hoped that Lotus can catch up to their initial commitment of 10 before long as teams such as:  AFS Racing, Conquest and Michael Shank are waiting in the wings for not only Indianapolis but for much of the season as well as sponsorship materializes.  In addition many teams are looking to add an additional car or two as Indianapolis need 33 to fill the field for the 500.

What was a very iffy season for the IRL as come together nicely in not only the car and driver count but the series has added Beaux Barfield as president of competition and race director to replace the embattled Brian Barnhart.  Barfield a veteran of race officiating within several major racing series will now be saddled with the responsibility of improving the on track action and has taken early steps such as a single file approached to restarts at Indy to begin his reign.  Look for significant improvement as the rule book is published and start and restart procedures are addressed and implemented.

Alabama on April 1st, Long Beach on April 15th and Brazil on April 29th prelude the Indianapolis 500 on May 27th and along the way the series will have a test this week at Sebring prior to the opener and then will test the new cars and engines on May 7th at Texas Motor Speedway to see if they will be too fast for that track or what have to be done to the cars to make them safe for the only track that concerns the drivers following the tragedy with Weldon at Last Vegas last fall.

The series is near and as additional news comes out you can read it here.