LEEDS, Ala. -- Remember the Izod IndyCar Series?
It has been half a year since you saw the cars and stars of America's top level of open-wheel racing on track or on television. It may as well have been half a lifetime.
Out of sight equals out of mind, especially when the NASCAR and Formula One seasons run through the end of November and the stock car set starts up again barely two months later. Meanwhile, F1 maintains interest during the offseason with a series of new car launches prior to an extensive test schedule.
Meanwhile, IndyCar Series teams are prevented from testing their unchanged spec cars from a year ago and the offseason was dominated by politics, chiefly the ouster of popular former CEO Randy Bernard.
The best tonic for that unrest is to get back on track, which is what the IndyCar Series teams and drivers will do Tuesday and Wednesday with an open test at Barber Motorsports Park. INDYCAR also used the opportunity to host a media day, from which we learned a few things. Such as …
• INDYCAR really does still exist -- The IndyCar Series last raced on Sept. 15, 2012, meaning that it has been nearly six months since the series was on track and in the public eye. Testing has been severely restricted in an effort to cut costs, and Indy car racing's first American champion in six years got virtually zero publicity over the long offseason.
All of which is very much at odds with the fact that this year's IndyCar Series field is the strongest and deepest it has been since the heyday of CART in the 1990s. Twenty-six full-time entries have been confirmed for the season, and a couple more could still materialize. And there's not an unqualified driver among them, relegating the likes of Milka Duno, Marty Roth, Dr. Jack Miller and Dennis Vitolo into distant memories.
Although it is almost impossible to go up against the 38-week NASCAR juggernaut, INDYCAR must somehow find a way to keep itself relevant when it's not in action every couple of weeks -- especially when the offseason is longer than the season itself. This year's schedule extends to mid-October, which will help, but starting the 2014 season a month earlier would provide additional benefit. How about moving the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to February, maybe the week after the Daytona 500? The inaugural event was run on Feb. 23, 2003, so there is a precedent. And I'm sure some of the massive media corps on hand for Daytona wouldn't mind an extra week in Florida.
• Will Power is (again) the championship favorite -- Power has finished second in the IndyCar Series championship for three consecutive years, and the feeling exists that he should have at least one title to his name. Even though he may have grasped defeat from the jaws of victory in the past, Power still enters 2013 as the prohibitive favorite among media and his fellow drivers to take this year's crown.
The man himself doesn't feel any different. "My approach to the season is really no different than it's been the last three years -- we're just going to keep chipping away, and hopefully at some point we can get the thing done," Power said. "A week after the [2012 finale] we were back in the shop talking about next year already. I get to compete at a high level with probably the best team year after year and it's just an enjoyable thing to do. It's cool that we are always there in the hunt for the championship and it's a real motivation to try and get that done."
• Ignore RHR at your peril -- Ryan Hunter-Reay may be the IndyCar Series' forgotten champion, but that may work to his advantage. The Andretti Autosport team leader sneaked up on his competition during his 2012 championship season, and believe it or not he's still flying under the radar.
"I kind of wish IndyCar would have done more activation, but the team and the sponsors have kept me pretty busy over the winter," he said. "The best thing about winning a championship is that it's something I've been working toward all my life. But we're starting new again. We're definitely the defending champions, but that means nothing once the green flag flies at St. Pete.
"We need to live up to that No. 1 on the car every week," he added. "We know how to do it from last year and know what we need to do to be better. If we do that, we can make a serious run for this championship."
• AJ was missed -- AJ Allmendinger was a popular presence at media day, and the former Indy car racer seemed glad to be back among his open-wheel brethren. And his fellow drivers are genuinely happy to have back a driver who seemed destined for Indy car stardom until his career detoured into stock cars six years ago.
Allmendinger knows he has a lot of catching up to do, and likened his first time back in an open-wheel car to riding a unicycle. But no one doubts he has the talent and desire to regain the form that produced five wins during his final season in the Champ Car World Series.
"Did I think it would happen like this?" he pondered. "No, but I love the IndyCar Series. It's not like I left and stopped watching. I've still got a lot of friends in this series and I think this series has a lot of great things to offer. If it can just get put together the right way and go in the right direction, there's a lot of great things. It's fun to watch and to be a part of and there's so many great drivers in it. I don't expect to just come in and dominate -- it's going to be a lot of hard work. But I love the challenge and I'm excited and honored to have this opportunity. I'm going to do everything I can to make it right."
• Series of brotherly love -- Brothers have not competed in IndyCar for the same team since Bill and Don Whittington ran for the family team in the 1982 Indianapolis 500. That looks set to change this year as Dale Coyne Racing may campaign Justin Wilson's younger brother Stefan in selected 2013 races. Stefan Wilson is scheduled to test a DCR Dallara-Honda at Barber Motorsports Park on Wednesday and is likely to split duties in the car with Ana Beatriz throughout the season.
Incidentally, Justin Wilson still has not been officially confirmed as a Coyne driver, and he brought down the house as he diplomatically tried to verify that he will indeed drive the No. 18 car this year. Or will it be the No. 19 car? Nobody knows. "I'm going to have to talk to Dale about that this afternoon," he joked. "All I know is that I have a signed piece of paper that says I'm driving every race this year for Dale Coyne Racing." Even if it hasn't been announced.
• INDYCAR is still light-years behind NASCAR in terms of media presence -- The NASCAR media tour is a big deal. Roughly 200 reporters are shuttled around from race shop to race shop in the Charlotte area for a carefully orchestrated series of press conferences and glimpses into what goes on behind the scenes beyond what happens at the racetrack. And the Daytona 500 hosts a strongly attended media day as well.
Meanwhile, the much smaller corps that covers the IndyCar Series found itself battling Internet and PA issues in an unheated warehouse on a chilly, rainy day at Barber Motorsports Park, 500 miles from Indianapolis and the heart of the sport. Sure, two days of open testing on the Barber road course followed the day of interviews and photo ops. But is on-track action really necessary for the media, just 11 days before the start of the new season, after a six-month offseason?
I think it would make more sense to gather the media in Indianapolis, where the IMS Productions studios across the street from Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be ideal for TV and photo shoots. Reporters also could easily visit the majority of teams competing in the series to see what makes them tick.
There are many reasons why INDYCAR is seen as a minor league sport compared to NASCAR, and the impressions that media members take home from what came across to many as a rather rinky-dink media day contribute to that image problem. Barber is a beautiful facility, but moving media day to the series' home base would be more informative to the press, and probably a whole lot more professional.