INDIANAPOLIS -- It sometimes felt more like six years, but the Verizon IndyCar Series' six-month offseason is about to come to an end.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has run 15 races since Aug. 30, the previous time the IndyCar Series was on the track. The NHRA has staged nine events, Formula One another seven.
"Out of sight, out of mind" might as well be IndyCar's motto these days. But Monday, when the 2015 model cars rebodied by Chevrolet and Honda hit the track for the first open test of the season at Barber Motorsports Park, open-wheel racing fans can celebrate -- and prepare for a jarring sight.
In an attempt to shed the spec-car stigma, IndyCar has opened up limited areas for the series' two engine manufacturers to produce their own bodywork for the basic Dallara IR-12 chassis. The results are polarizing, to say the least; the Honda design, with at least 20 additional winglets and spats hung onto the front and rear wings and sidepods, looks particularly outlandish.
Given that there wasn't much wrong with the actual racing produced by the stock Dallara package during the past three years, the big question is whether this festival of carbon fiber can help revive interest in a form of racing that, with the exception of the Indianapolis 500, has fallen off mainstream America's radar the past 20 years.
It's billed as a whole new era for Indy car racing, and as such, expectations are high. Honda and Chevrolet are betting big, because they are the financial backbone of the sport in the modern era. On top of the millions of dollars they have already invested in the development of the 2.2-liter turbocharged V-6 engines that power the cars, the two manufacturers bankrolled the wind tunnel research to create the radical new aero kits. But they are required to sell the kits to teams at a set price -- $75,000 for the first kit for each car, going up incrementally for additional kits, which surely represents a substantial loss.
IndyCar is hanging its hopes on the many wings that sprout from these crazy Batmobiles, and if my 8-year-old son's reaction when I showed him pictures of the Honda car is any indication, it may be onto something.
"It looks awesome!" he exclaimed. "It's epic! It looks so cool."
With the season opener set for March 29 in St. Petersburg, Florida, we'll get indications as to whether IndyCar is headed in the right direction.
Here are several storylines that will start to develop at the Barber test next week:
• Chevy versus Honda -- Chevrolet dominated the 2014 season with 13 wins to Honda's five, but it's no longer all about engines. Not only does the new campaign offer either manufacturer the opportunity to catch up where it may be lacking in terms of horsepower, fuel mileage or drivability, a superior aero package could overcome any potential engine shortcomings. The other element to this equation is the driver and team affiliations, where Chevrolet holds a strong upper hand, its effort anchored by star-studded multicar efforts Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. Andretti Autosport is Honda's top team, with 2013 IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay arguably Honda's only A-list driver.
• New faces and new places -- Fans will notice substantial changes to the driver and team lineup in 2015. Simon Pagenaud moves from Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports to Team Penske, which will run four full-time Indy cars for the first time in the 50-year history of the legendary team. Out at Andretti Autosport, James Hinchcliffe landed the SPM ride, teamed with James Jakes (ex-Dale Coyne Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).
Simona de Silvestro, back from an attempt to break into Formula One, will drive for Andretti at St. Petersburg but nothing is in place after that. Similarly, 20-year-old Ganassi development driver Sage Karam is confirmed for St. Pete but subsequent races depend upon sponsorship being found.
Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing merged; Carpenter will drive the oval races for CFH Racing, sharing the car with Luca Filippi. Fisher's driver, Josef Newgarden, is full time in the other Chevrolet-powered CFH car, a key loss of a developing young star for Honda. Newcomers include GP2 graduate Stefano Coletti (KVSH Racing) and Indy Lights champion Gabby Chaves (Bryan Herta Autosport).
• Barnhart is back -- IndyCar insists that the return of Brian Barnhart as the race director in a multi-steward system of checks and balances will be met with a thumbs-up from drivers, instead of the double middle-finger salute that defending series champion Will Power memorably unleashed in his direction in 2011. It's going to be a challenge for Barnhart to gain (or regain) confidence and credibility from the drivers after his controversial departure in 2011, and it is critical for the series to not have to diffuse any officiating controversies, especially in light of his reinstatement to such a high-profile position.
• The football-friendly schedule -- Running from March 29 to Aug. 30, the IndyCar Series has the shortest season of any major form of motorsports. This year's slate is down to just 16 races, including two at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course and the Indianapolis 500 on the oval) and a doubleheader weekend at Detroit. The one new event, set for April 10-12 at NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans and promoted by Andretti Sports Marketing, has the potential to be a hit.
IndyCar CEO Mark Miles says the goal for 2016 is to start the season in mid-February, immediately after the Super Bowl. He remains firm about ending the year on Labor Day weekend, citing marketing research that concluded that interest and television ratings for the series drop substantially after the start of football season.
No matter how memorable a season the drivers and the new cars from Chevrolet and Honda produce on the track during the next five months, IndyCar's biggest challenge is to somehow remain fresh and relevant in people's minds in the six months of inactivity that follow.