Tuesday, March 27, 2012

IZOD Indycar Opener to Helio: Dancing with Danny

Helio and daughter at Indy 2011
The first Indycar race of the new era is now in the books, stirring memories of the late champion Dan Wheldon throughout the weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida. In one of the most stirring Indycar moments in years, Helio stopped in Turn 10 on the course during his victory lap, and climbed the fence on Dan Wheldon Way, overcome by emotion as he pounded on and pointed to the street name sign on the portion of the circuit where Danny made the winning pass in the Inaugural St. Pete GP in 2005 which kicked off his Indycar championship season. The pre-race salute to Dan during the ABC broadcast was monumental, and his sister Holly Wheldon waved the green flag, and later handed out the winner's trophy, to cap an Indycar weekend full of promise for this new era.

Dan Wheldon, Indy 2011
Nearly stealing the show before it even began was James Hinchcliffe, who donned a long brown wig during driver introductions before the race as "Manica" made an appearance in the GoDaddy colors. In a remarkably clean race, Helio made an outside pass on Scott Dixon in Turn One and led the final 25 laps to take his third win at St. Pete. No one else has won this race more than once and after Helio failed to score a win in 2011, he was one happy camper afterwards. Seven different drivers led laps Sunday led by Scott Dixon's 37, who has now finished as runner up to Helio each time Helio has won on the streets of St. Pete. Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe both finished where they started (in 3rd and 4th respectively) and Helio's teammate Ryan Briscoe rounded out the top five. The drive of the race, however, was put in by Simon Pagenaud who finished 6th from 16th on the grid after his team made an unapproved engine change after Saturday's qualifying and was hit with a ten-spot grid penalty for the start of the race. It looks like Indycar's new "sheriff" Beaux Barfield is all business after enforcing this penalty, along with making the car of EJ Viso carry an extra 15 pounds of ballast after a random weight check of the driver revealed a discrepancy from his pre-season weigh-in.

Given the past history of this event where first turn shemozzles have routinely taken out numerous contenders,  it was expected that there would be lots of  car contact but it never materialized, even with the larger bodywork and massive front wings on the new Dallara DW12 design. Only James Jakes found the barriers during the race, so now everyone is in good shape heading for Barber Motorsports Park this weekend and the quick turnaround should make everyone more comfortable for their second race with the enw equipment. The flipside is that teams will have less time to work out electrical and gearbox gremlins which took out Tony Kanaan and others. Lotus clearly has more work to do to get on par with Chevy and Honda, but should surprise no one that Penske and Chevy are leading the way so far this season with Ilmor as their engine building. All those years of Honda experience are clearly being put to use with the new twin turbo that carries the Chevy badge. No one should forget what Ilmor was able to do for Penske in years past, as "The Captain" continues to seek the "unfair advantage" while somehow always managing to stay within the rules. Honda will need to step up its game and respond to competition with a little more agressive approach as Honda's history of super reliability may not help them win many races in this new era of engine competition.

It's a good thing the Indy 500 is still 61 days away so the teams can continue to fine tune their gear. The cars sure looked gorgeous on television and in the pictures I checked out on the PaddockTalk and Trackside Online websites (who my friends shoot for). If I can't be at the track, these are the folks I go to for Indycar photos and information since I know who's behind them, but Twitter has become the best source of "in race" chatter for me. If you want to know more about Indycars, then  these are the people behind the media who  I follow on Twitter; check them out:  https://twitter.com/#!/alleygroup/indycar-media

Until next time, keep those cards and letters coming race fans. The next one I get will be the first one! See you at the track.

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