STEAM CORNERS, Ohio -- Catch the Verizon IndyCar Series while you can.
Sunday's Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is the first of four IndyCar Series races in August, with the championship wrapping up Aug. 30 in Fontana, California. After that, expect radio silence in America for the next six months, whether or not the series is able to follow through with hoped-for non-championship races outside the United States before the St. Petersburg GP, set for March 29.
Mid-Ohio, an Indy car venue for more than 30 years, is a great place to catch any kind of racing. What's the best corner to watch from? Any of them, because you can walk a lap of the 2.25-mile circuit during the course of an hour-long practice or qualifying session. Rent yourself a golf cart, and venture away from trackside to soak up the atmosphere in the campsites that line the hilly and wooded venue.
The IndyCar Series drivers love Mid-Ohio, too, because it's a true test of man and machine. The 14 corners pretty much blend into the natural landscape, meaning lots of elevation and camber change, and unique combinations like the banked, up-and-down esses.
As the 15th race of 18, Mid-Ohio comes at a critical time in the IndyCar Series championship. Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power had mixed results in the Toronto doubleheader, but they still managed to edge away from their closest title competition. Castroneves increased his margin over Power from nine to 13 points, but Ryan Hunter-Reay (minus-69), Simon Pagenaud (-71) and Juan Pablo Montoya (-105) all lost ground with the season winding down.
Mid-Ohio has been a good track for Castroneves over the years; he won back-to-back CART-sanctioned races in 2000 and '01 in Team Penske's mighty Honda-powered Reynard, and he has earned three podiums since the IndyCar Series returned to the venue in 2007.
"I have great memories of winning at Mid-Ohio in the early 2000s," Helio said. "It's a course where I've always run well and I'm looking forward to running there this year. We tested there last week and it was a bit of a mixed bag. We learned a lot -- both good and bad -- but learning nonetheless."
Castroneves is chasing his first Indy car title after a long and successful career that includes three Indianapolis 500 victories, and he has been in the position of late-season championship leader before. He hopes to put that experience to good use this year down the stretch.
"Of course it was great to extend the points lead in Toronto, even if it was by just a few," he said. "I am not too concerned about the championship at this stage. We have strong pace everywhere we go.
"I'm focused on bringing the car home as best I can, and the championship will figure itself out," he added. "The schedule might say that we only have four races left in the season, but that's a lot, especially when the finale at Auto Club Speedway is for double points."
Power is often acknowledged as the fastest road racer in the IndyCar Series, yet he has never won at Mid-Ohio.
"It's a fast, technical circuit that requires a lot of attention to detail in terms of the set-up," observed the Australian. "There has certainly been no lack for speed in the Verizon Chevy this year, so I see no reason why we can't be fighting for the win.
"If you look at the way we finished the season last year, we are definitely right where we need to be in the standings," Power added. "I love all of the upcoming circuits so we should be right there. As long as we can run clean races we will be in a good position."
Chip Ganassi Racing has dominated the Mid-Ohio event since its return to the open-wheel calendar in 2007, winning six of the seven races. Scott Dixon, in particular, is a master of the tricky venue, scoring four wins in 2007, '09, '11 and '12. He won the 2009 race by nearly 30 seconds.
Last year, Charlie Kimball scored a memorable first IndyCar victory when he ran flat-out on a three-stop strategy to outrun the majority of the field who were in fuel-saving mode. Ryan Briscoe, now driver of Ganassi's fourth car, was the only recent non-Ganassi winner (at Mid-Ohio in 2008 while running for Team Penske).
"You have to give a lot of the credit to the team for the success we've had," remarked Dixon, who is a three-time IndyCar Series champion. "The thing that is out of our control is that it changes each year -- the tires are a little different, we changed manufacturers to Chevy this year and development of dampers and the setup is constant. There are always things you can improve on."
A Mid-Ohio victory for Dixon, coupled with a poor result for Power or Castroneves, could gain the New Zealander as much as 40 points in the championship chase. He's sixth in the standings, 146 points behind Castroneves.
Regardless of whether he defends his 2013 title, Dixon believes it has been a good season for the IndyCar Series in its first year with title sponsorship from Verizon.
"INDYCAR is definitely on the upswing, whether it's [television] ratings or putting buns in the seats," he said. "[This year] has been up and down with so many different drivers winning, and even a rookie winning. It's strong for the sport and fun for the fans to see different cars at the front.
"The competition is the deepest it's ever been, and I think it's exciting."