It has been a heady couple of weeks for IZOD IndyCar Series fans. The news rolling in seems to be anywhere from mostly positive to jaw-droppingly fantastic. For a racing series accustomed to disappointment over the past decade and a half, this off-season has many fans so happy that they almost don't know what to do with themselves.
Most of the rosiness comes from the anticipation growing about the 2012 IndyCar season. Sure, there is a lot to be optimistic about for 2011, but truth be told most people expect a renaissance of mythical proportions when the ICONIC committee's rules package takes effect. Whether that renaissance lives up to expectations remains to be seen, but there's no denying that in fans' minds the glass is not just half-full, it's nigh overflowing.
And why is that? Why is it that 2012 is not going to be a magic bullet or white elephant? What will it do (or not do) that is such a game-changer for IndyCar?
What 2012 will not do
- 2012 will not make the racing closer. The return of variable aerodynamics and multiple engine manufacturers is going to create gaps in performance among brands. In fact, some of the gaps could be fairly large, and until the manufacturers can compensate within the rules there will be significant disparity. Performance intervals that were measured in hundredths of seconds will now be measured in tenths - or, if a particular manufacturer doesn't do their homework, full seconds.
- 2012 will not make it cheaper to run a race team. Give ICONIC their due - it will be significantly cheaper to make a primary investment in a race team because of the drastically reduced engine, chassis, and aero-kit costs. But let's also be realistic; without a single engine manufacturer supplying the whole field and thus allowing for more reliable and less incident-prone powerplants, there are going to be more failures to worry about. Expect this to be a significant issue, particularly as other manufacturers push to make up lost ground to those that hit a "perfect" setup.
- 2012 will not end ride buying. Look, I'd love to say that the new rules will be so awesome that corporate America is going to vomit money all over IndyCar like Lindsay Lohan on a bender. But the new rules are not going to fix the global economy, so expect to see a complement of big-wallet shoes in race seats that might look better with some talent filling them.
What 2012 might do
- 2012 might create more buzz in the general populace. I'm not going to say it's a certainty, because there is so much involved in marketing and publicizing a racing series that a simple set of new rules is not enough on its own to make a big splash outside the motorsports fraternity. However, with the series switching to E85 ethanol and the advent of additional major investment partners such as General Motors who see a technological crossover to their consumer offerings, the IndyCar series could reap serious benefits from a level of advertising they haven't known for almost a decade.
- 2012 might see a greater influx of American talent. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard and his administration team are bent on making the Road to Indy something more than the ephemeral, philosophical one that it has been for years. The USAC National Champion's scholarship will ensure that at least one new American racer will see time in Indy Lights every year, and it seems dumb not to give that racer a shot at Indianapolis in May. That said, nobody can predict the hiring practices of IndyCar team owners, so the best we can do is hope.
- 2012 might be the impetus for even more new technological investment in IndyCar racing. This item is probably the closest to a sure thing without actually being one that we have in this list. We already know that Fiat was kicking the tires on a 2012 engine/aero-kit bid with their Alfa Romeo marque, so it seems nearly certain that they will be stepping up for 2013. There have been many rumors of other manufacturers - especially in the European ranks with companies like McLaren and Renault, who seem to like the bespoke V6 twin-turbo engine idea as well as the relatively cheap branding avenues that the aero-kit concept provides - but outside of "significant interest" declarations everyone's still in wait-and-see mode.
What 2012 will do
- 2012 will level the playing field between teams. ...at least for a while, until the voluminous resources of Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing allow them to pull away from the lesser lights again. But 2012 is the Great Erasure of Notebooks, which means everyone will have to start from the same bit of scratch as everyone else. For the first time in ages, the odds of a "red car" victory will be somewhat less than 99.9%. It will be more like 80%.
- 2012 will see more winners from previously unheralded teams. Only three teams won IndyCar races in 2010 - Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti Autosport - and 2011 is not going to give us a much better outlook. But in 2012, expect to see some new names and teams in Victory Lane - particularly those teams that take more risks in their vendor choices for engines and aero kits. Again, it won't be a complete cultural revolution; it will be more like the advent of glasnost that gradually but inexorably ended the Cold War.
- 2012 will crush the boring "spec racing" era. There are some who still feel like there aren't enough new combinations of engines and aero-kits available in 2012, but considering that there will only be one of each in 2011 (Honda and Dallara respectively), 2012 is going to be a revelation. Three engine providers and at least three aero-kit providers (as of this writing, the engine supplier deadline that has passed for 2012 does not apply to aero designers) will be on tap for 2012, and the potential combinations of engines and aero-kits are intriguing. The takeaway is that there will be a variety which will help IndyCar break the stagnation of the "spec era."
- 2012 will return a measure of validation and respect to IndyCar as a championship. Let's face it, folks. IndyCar has been a running joke in the racing community since 1996. It's a hard reality to face for hard-core fans but it's the truth. Whether it was Tony George, the Split, 25/8, the "crapwagons," Milka Duno, or the Danica Racing League, IndyCar's reputation has spent more than a decade on life support. 2012 will see a unified series with significant corporate involvement with IZOD and other sponsors, multiple technological partners, innovation in engine and aerodynamic development, consumer and industry relevance, and genuine interest from parties who not three years ago wouldn't have given IndyCar the time of day.
To conclude, 2012 is not the cure-all that will solve all of IndyCar's woes. You don't just wipe out the Split era in one year... or even five. What 2012 is is a concrete sign of momentum, of movement forward and upward. Those are directions that many in the sport forgot existed.
Momentum is what Randy Bernard expected to create when he was hired by the Hulman-George family to run the series. I would say that he has succeeded beyond most fans' wildest expectations. Even those who laughed and rolled their eyes at ICONIC with their "text your vote" and hologram weirdness appear to be seriously considering a seat on the bandwagon.
Those of you who are still skeptical, I understand. Fool you once, and all that. But it's okay to trust again. Randy B and his crew have definitely earned it.