If Indy is the first oval, how many others are there?
Just four. Texas comes two weeks after Indy, and is followed by Milwaukee and Iowa in consecutive weeks. That's it for left-turn-only tracks until IndyCar returns to race at Fontana – for the first time since 2005 – for the season finale on Sept. 15.
Whoa, back up there! The final race is mid-September?!
Yup, despite having a 16-race schedule, the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series is spread over slightly less than a six-month span. Randy Bernard says: “I think putting more races back to back will only help us with our TV ratings. When we've had races every other weekend, we've lost a lot of momentum… So I think tightening our schedule – we now have five races back to back and a couple months later we have three more back to back – is a good thing. And I think the fewer events that have to go up against the NFL is a good thing.”
Plausible, but a hectic season for the teams. From Indy (2.5-mile road-like oval spec), to Detroit (street race on Belle Isle) to Texas (high-banked oval) to Milwaukee (one-mile flat oval) in the space of four weeks? That's a lot of car conversions to be making. And how about Qingdao street race in China to Sonoma road course to Baltimore street course in consecutive weekends? That's a lot of work and travel.
This will have an additional effect: teams who make engineering breakthroughs with the new cars will hold onto that advantage for longer – or rather, for more rounds – than if the races were two weeks apart.
Fewer ovals than street races, then?
Yeah, a couple more ovals wouldn't go amiss, but as Bernard avowed, the IZOD IndyCar Series will not hold events that are proven not to work because of promoter lethargy or fan apathy. Apart from Indy, no circuit of any type has an automatic right to a place on the schedule. Auto Club Speedway will work hard to make the Fontana finale a success, Andretti Sports Marketing will do similarly with Milwaukee having seen how not to do it by last year's promoters, and the Qingdao event, on a 2.84-mile street course of fairly smooth surface and major elevation change, is being pushed hard in China. Roger Penske and Chevy should ensure Belle Isle's return is a hit, and Baltimore was a slam-dunk first time around – the Long Beach of the East was not a misguided nickname – Randy B. was determined to find new promoters to keep it alive, and did so.
Please tell me he also found a new president of competition.
Yes, calm down. For 2012, it's Brian Barnhart out, Beaux Barfield (RIGHT) in as president of competition and race director. The former American Le Mans Series Race director will oversee but not micromanage track and pit action with common sense, little ego and no favoritism. He hated the “false racing” rules once imposed, which in a two-car battle, forced the driver ahead to take the racing line, holding the door open for his opponent to dive up the inside. Now, a driver can take anticipatory defensive action by holding the inside lane. What he can't do is make a reactionary move, if the car behind pulls out to pass him.
So will there be less passing?
There are two schools of thought. Ryan Hunter-Reay warns: “IndyCar drivers could become very good at running in the middle of the track and making their cars 40-feet wide,” but his Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti counters with: “A guy who takes a defensive line is compromising himself. I want someone defending against me because that means he's not taken the quickest line so I'll get a run on him down to the next corner.”
Carbon brakes, new for this year, again provoke opposing views. While some say the resultant shortened braking zones will hurt the racing, others expect them to prompt a lot of mistakes on street courses, where stopping power will exceed front-end grip when the car enters a bumpy braking zone.
Who's going to win the championship?
Stay tuned later in the week for full predictions, but we expect a wider variety of drivers visiting Victory Lane this year, partly through engine attrition, partly because everyone is starting over with a new car and because the best engine for road/street courses may not be the best for the very different demands of oval racing.
With just a few days to go, we don't know much, so celebrate the fact that there may be 15 potential winners on a given weekend. But above all, as we said earlier, expect the unexpected.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, you'll need the April 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands.. CLICK HERE to subscribe.