INDIANAPOLIS -- Is this the year that Indy car racing finally makes a comeback?
Twenty years after Tony George announced his intention to split Indy car racing, and seven full unified seasons after the sport came back together following a crippling civil war, the newly renamed Verizon IndyCar Series has a golden opportunity for growth in 2014.
IndyCar is last out of the gate among major racing series, yet it will be the first to determine a champion, before the calendar even turns to September. Eighteen races are packed into 23 weekends, including three doubleheaders and -- for the first time -- two races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway: the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the IMS road course and the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Charismatic four-time series champion Dario Franchitti has called time on his career, but into the void steps former Indianapolis 500 winner and CART series champion Juan Pablo Montoya. Five former Indy car champions are in the 2014 field, including Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and three-time and defending series champion Scott Dixon.
The rulebook has given engine manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda a little more leeway for development, so expect more horsepower and higher speeds at Indianapolis. Chevy and Honda are also working on new aerodynamic packages to be implemented in 2015 that will give the standard Dallara chassis unique manufacturer identity.
But the entitlement sponsorship by one of America's most recognizable communications companies is the biggest and best news the IndyCar Series has gotten in many years. Verizon is a much more mainstream brand than recent Indy car sponsors, including apparel maker Izod, which just ended a four-year association. The brand attributes of technology, speed and reliability are a perfect match, and it is hoped that Verizon's considerable market share, brand awareness and aggressive marketing give the IndyCar Series a boost.
"I think of this day as a game‑changer for IndyCar -- for the series, for our fans, the teams and our drivers," Hulman Motorsports CEO Mark Miles said. "I think it represents a kind of confirmation of the strategies we've put into place and where we intend to take the sport. This is the beginning of the next phase of IndyCar's growth."
IndyCar's product hasn't been the problem. The racing is close and competitive week in and week out, and the championship consistently comes down to the wire without any kind of contrived playoff system.
The problem is that nobody is paying any attention. Whether it's the every-one-looks-the-same spec cars or the lack of connection with a new generation of open-wheel stars, IndyCar has struggled to produce the kind of media attention and television numbers that attract blue-chip sponsors.
Because the Verizon sponsorship was announced just two weeks prior to the start of the season, there is unlikely to be much immediate impact. Clustering ABC's five races, including the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the full month of May at Indianapolis -- the Grand Prix, Indy 500 qualifying and the 500 itself included -- should help the series build more respectable first-half numbers that will help sell sponsorships for 2015 and beyond.
"Verizon, as an institution, is one of the most compelling companies in this country," Miles said. "It isn't lost on us that they have a pretty substantial advertising budget, and they're so good at the development of their company and their brand. I just don't know how we could have a better partner in terms of what they stand for as a company and what they bring to us in the way of an informed sponsor."
The challenge now is to create a more informed and interested American public when it comes to IndyCar's 200 mph wheel-to-wheel ovals, slam-bang street courses and technical road races, and bring recognition to a solid field of drivers that includes the above-mentioned titlists, plus former championship contenders Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe and Justin Wilson, and race winners Marco Andretti, Charlie Kimball, Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal, Ed Carpenter, Takuma Sato and Mike Conway.
The depth of the field and the possibility of taking the cars back to the performance levels of the 1990s brought back Montoya, who shot through Indy car racing like a comet for two years in 1999 and 2000 but departed for a long and mostly successful career in Formula One and NASCAR.
At age 38, the Colombian is Indy car racing's most interesting veteran wild card in many years.
"If I look back at everything I've done, the most fun and best racing I've done in my career, it's been in IndyCar," Montoya said. "This was the perfect time to do it. I felt like two years from now, [I] wouldn't be able to do it. Timing-wise, it was ideal."
Indy car racing's potential resurgence even captured the attention of Jacques Villeneuve, the 1995 CART champion who has been an outspoken critic of the sport since he left to race in Formula One in the mid-1990s.
Villeneuve, who went on to win an F1 World Championship, is running this year's Indianapolis 500 and won't rule out a full-time return.
"I'd been watching the IndyCars last year, and it looked extremely exciting with the new cars, to the point where I was angry and jealous that I wasn't racing," he said. "I just wasn't considering going back to something I'd already done mostly because there's been a few dark years for IndyCar.
"But the whole group behind the series have been working really hard and done a tremendous job because it's getting back to the glory days with the races exciting, and the field of drivers is becoming more and more impressive every year again."
Almost every form of auto racing is struggling to keep up with the changing sports and media landscape. Changes for the IndyCar Series are relatively minor, because the racing itself is as good as it has ever been.
The prevailing hope is that Verizon -- the first proper match in decades for Indy car racing in the qualities it brings as a title sponsor -- can help again make it a vibrant and relevant form of motorsport.