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Track Talk: IndyCar Series

Season kicks off in sunny central Florida

Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013 12:29 p.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, March 21, 2013 12:47 p.m. CST

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The IZOD IndyCar Series may be based in the Heartland of America, but it will be far from the still-wintry weather of Indiana when all the stars and cars of the nation’s premier open wheel racing series kick off their 2013 season in St. Petersburg, Fla., this weekend.

The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is essentially a huge street festival, annually drawing winter-weary fans to the summerlike climate of central Florida. Nestled alongside Tampa Bay, one of Florida’s most picturesque bodies of water, the 1.8-mile racecourse winds its way through city streets adjacent to St. Petersburg’s harbor and yacht club, and renders an upscale atmosphere for the IndyCar faithful.

Though it may seem an interesting choice for a season opener in a series that made famous such gritty open wheel racing legends as A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock, the St. Petersburg street race is clearly in keeping with the course set by IndyCar in recent seasons: Diversity of tracks, including seven temporary street circuits, three road courses and six ovals. 

In a break from tradition, the street circuits of Detroit, Houston and Toronto have scheduled back-to-back races on their respective event weekends. And three countries, the United States, Canada and Brazil, are represented in a western-hemisphere-trotting race schedule unlike any other series in the world.  

Among IndyCar purists, however, the oval tracks represent both the history of the series, as well as the heart and soul of the sport, and the continuation of a century-old tradition of Memorial Day weekends at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500. In keeping with those deep historic roots, the iconic 2.5-mile, three-corner Pocono (Pa.) Raceway will return to the IndyCar fold this year after a 23-year hiatus.

What was old is new again, and IndyCar has found ways and means to retain longtime fans, while attracting a whole new fan base to the sport with their revitalized schedule of events.

Other oval tracks on the 2013 schedule include the 1.5-mile “quad-oval” at Texas Motor Speedway, the storied, flat, one-mile fairgrounds oval in Milwaukee, the two-mile tri-oval at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and our own Iowa Speedway here in Newton.

At 7/8-mile, our fast, progressive-banked tri-oval is clearly the shortest track of any type on which the IZOD IndyCar teams will race in 2013. But, according to the drivers and team owners I hear from, they really enjoy the close and intense racing at “America’s Place to Race.” Iowa Speedway is renowned for being the short track that races like a superspeedway, and the drivers love putting on a great show for our fans.

The stars of IndyCar are a study in diversity as well.  The Brazilian connection has been well documented, with Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan leading a South American contingent that has captured the imaginations of North American race fans. Ditto the Boys from Down Under, with the ultra-talented Kiwi, Scott Dixon, and the accomplished young Aussie, Will Power, winning races and fans around the circuit.

But the one thing many American fans said they would like to see a bit more of – successful American IndyCar drivers – has come about in a very big way.  Ryan Hunter-Reay, a Texan cut from the mold of Foyt and “Lone Star JR,” won three races (including the Iowa Corn Indy 250) last year, securing the first unified IndyCar championship for an American driver since Al Unser Jr. did it in 1994. A natural racecar driver, Hunter-Reay is also confident, articulate and great with the fans.

And then, of course, there is the newly resurgent Ed Carpenter. Born in the Midwest, raised in Indianapolis with a love of the Indy 500 instilled in him at a very early age, Carpenter formed his own team at the end of the 2011 season, and came back strong to win the last race of the 2012 season at Fontana. Look for him to be tough on ovals, particularly here at Iowa where he has always been very fast, as well as on many of the street circuits and road courses.

Back in St. Petersburg, with Iowa still chilly on the first weekend of spring, the palm trees will be gently swaying in the balmy gulf breeze, and they will be ready to start the engines on another season of IndyCar racing. You can catch all the action on NBC Sports Network, starting at 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 24.

But if you’re looking for the ultimate IndyCar experience, you won’t have to venture much further than your own backyard. The Iowa Corn Indy 250 weekend returns on Saturday, June 22 and Sunday, June 23, and the excitement will be non-stop. Tickets to Iowa Speedway’s ultimate open wheel weekend are on sale right now at www.iowaspeedway.com, and we’ve saved a seat for you!

Finally, in closing, Track Talk will now be a monthly feature in the Newton Daily News, with the next edition of this column appearing on Thursday, April 4, and then on the first Thursday of every month thereafter. I have heard from so many of you who enjoy this “insider” view of motorsports, and it will be my pleasure to continue bringing you my thoughts and opinions on the State of the Sport. Your appreciation is gratifying, and I thank you all for your support.

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