IndyCar Series roars back to life

Ryan Hunter-Reay became the IndyCar Series' first American champion since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's time for the IZOD IndyCar Series to get back on track -- literally and figuratively.

After a six-month offseason, Indy car racing spools up the turbochargers this weekend for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first round in an expanded 19-race championship.

It's important for the IndyCar Series to be out there racing because the product is its strength. The on-track action in 2012 was often exceptional, with the championship once again decided in dramatic fashion at the final race of the season without the introduction of a playoff system.

But the lengthy offseason produced too much noise from the boardroom and not enough from the engine room.

With spec cars and a strict offseason testing ban, the focus shifted to politics -- chiefly, the ouster of popular former series CEO Randy Bernard and the results of a report commissioned from Boston Consulting Group by INDYCAR owner Hulman & Co.

BCG's fundamental message was simple: The product is good. But awareness is lacking.

That's not a surprise to anyone who follows Indy car racing. Even though Indy car has become spec car racing (engines aside), it's very good spec car racing. On every kind of track.

The championship has been a down-to-the-wire nail-biter every year since 2006. Without a Chase, or a Countdown, or a wild card.

The drivers are, frankly, daredevils. It takes extraordinary bravery to race an open-wheel car at 220 mph on a superspeedway. Yet they are personable and accessible to fans.

Still, five years into Indy car racing's unified era, people are not paying attention.

The changes set for 2013 were no doubt finalized long before Bernard's October departure.

A little sleight of hand bumped the schedule up from 15 to 19 races via three doubleheader weekends, with full races run on Saturday and Sunday on the Detroit, Toronto and Houston temporary courses.

The Houston street race, winding around Reliant Park, was part of the Champ Car series in 2006-07. The other new venue is an old friend -- Pocono Raceway, which last hosted an Indy car race in 1989.

There's reason to believe television ratings will rise. It is hoped that NBC Sports Network's acquisition of Formula One will benefit IndyCar, and one of Bernard's last acts was to cluster all six of the races televised on ABC in a six-week period, starting with the Indianapolis 500. The ABC package also includes a Saturday night prime-time show from Texas Motor Speedway as well as the 400-miler from Pocono in July.

What viewers see on track and on television will be mostly unchanged. The Dallara DW12 spec chassis returns, with no options in terms of alternate bodywork. Lotus has disappeared from the scene, leaving Chevrolet and Honda to split the 25-car field almost equally in terms of engine supply. Firestone remains the series tire supplier.

The controversial 10-position grid penalty for an engine change carries over into 2013, but the only key rule change is the introduction of standing starts for selected road races later in the season.

Here's a team-by-team guide to this year's contenders:

Andretti AutoSport


1. Ryan Hunter-Reay, USA, DHL/Sun Drop (car number, driver, country, sponsor)
5. E.J. Viso, Venezuela, CITGO/PDVSA
25. Marco Andretti, USA, RC Cola
27. James Hinchcliffe, Canada, GoDaddy.com

It's not the heyday of the Franchitti-Kanaan-Wheldon-Herta superteam, but Andretti Autosport reestablished itself as one of the IndyCar Series' premier teams in 2012. Hunter-Reay's championship had team owner Michael Andretti's signature all over it, right down to Andretti's brilliant strategy call at Baltimore that helped RHR win the pivotal race in the title chase. Having finally emerged as a team leader and a star, Hunter-Reay could be on the verge of bigger things. Second-year teammate Hinchcliffe is on the verge of stardom, his résumé lacking only race wins. With just two career wins to his credit, Marco Andretti is entering 2013 with a more analytical approach to improve his street course technique, which included working with a mystery driving coach in England. Viso was a late offseason addition to the team, the Venezuelan electing to put off plans to form his own team.

Team Penske


2. AJ Allmendinger, USA, IZOD
3. Helio Castroneves, Brazil, Shell/AAA
12. Will Power, Australia, Verizon

IndyCar's benchmark team pares back to two full-time entries in 2013. Ryan Briscoe, Indianapolis pole-sitter and Sonoma race winner a year ago, turned down a part-time third Penske car, opening the door for Allmendinger's return to open-wheel racing. The American will contest at least two races, including his Indianapolis 500 debut. Three-time championship runner-up Power returns as the logical title favorite, especially with the schedule weighted even more in favor of road racing. On the heels of a return to form in 2012, Castroneves enters his 14th season with the Penske organization in search of his record-tying fourth (and Penske's 16th) Indy 500 win.

Panther Racing


4. JR Hildebrand, USA, U.S. National Guard

Now in their third season together, Panther is working with JR Hildebrand for greater consistency to build on the driver's undoubted promise. The team's working relationship with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and driver Oriol Servia is the perfect opportunity for Hildebrand to learn from one of the best teammates in the sport.

Dragon Racing


6. Sebastian Saavedra, Colombia, TrueCar
7. Sebastien Bourdais, France, McAfee

It's been a messy few months for Dragon Racing owner Jay Penske, with an arrest for alleged lewd conduct and an unpleasant parting with 2012 driver Katherine Legge. But Dragon enters 2013 in far better shape than it was in a year ago. One of the first teams to jettison the uncompetitive Lotus engine in favor of Chevrolet, by the end of the year Bourdais was beginning to emerge as a regular front-runner. The four-time Indy car champion under Champ Car sanction could be one of the major surprises of the season. Saavedra lacks experience, but should help the team take a step up in performance.

Ganassi Racing


9. Scott Dixon, New Zealand, Target
10. Dario Franchitti, Scotland, Target
83. Charlie Kimball, USA, NovoLog

As the lead Honda team, Ganassi Racing's fortunes for the new year are heavily dependent upon whether the engine manufacturer has upped its game. Last year, Chevrolet engines won 11 of 15 races and its engine was generally superior in all aspects -- power, fuel economy and drivability. With three extra street courses counting toward the 2013 championship, drivability was the focus of development, to the approval of past series champions Dixon and Franchitti. Dixon was usually the top Honda and Ganassi runner in 2012, and the New Zealander must be hoping for a better overall reliability record after suffering more 10-position grid penalties than any other driver last year. Franchitti had a miserable year by his recent standards, scoring just one win (albeit at Indy) and finishing seventh in the standings. After two years, the Ganassi B-team experiment -- with separate race shops in Indianapolis and Brownsburg -- has ended and a consolidated three-car team including Kimball will be run out of the main Indianapolis base.

KV Racing Technologry


11. Tony Kanaan, Brazil, HydroxyCut
78. Simona de Silvestro, Switzerland, Nuclear Entergy

Major management changes include the departure of general manager Mark Johnson. Imran Safiulla, who has managed de Silvestro's career, follows his driver to KVRT as a team principal. It's a tremendous opportunity for the popular female driver to benefit from a multi-car team for the first time in her career. The arrival of the "Swiss Miss" should also light a fire under Kanaan, who returns for his fourth campaign with KVRT.

A.J. Foyt Enterprises


14. Takuma Sato, Japan, ABC Supply Co.

This seemingly odd pairing has the potential to spring a few surprises. Foyt appreciates drivers in the flat-out style of Sato. The Japanese ace nearly won the Indianapolis 500 last year with Bobby Rahal's team, so he's clearly got oval skills. His challenge -- as always -- is to finish more races.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing


15. Graham Rahal, USA, Midas/Big O Tire
16. James Jakes, England, Acorn Lifts
17. Mike Conway, England

Driving for Bobby Rahal and the "family" team could work out very well for Graham Rahal. It's hard to believe that he's still just 24 years old, so polished and well-spoken out of the car. But Rahal is under pressure to perform; a two-year stint with Ganassi Racing ended without a victory or much sign of forward progress. Bobby Rahal's team sometimes showed the speed to win in 2012, and this year's driver is an upgrade on paper. Jakes moves across from Dale Coyne Racing as Rahal fields a full-time second car for the first time since 2006, and the team will occasionally run a third car as well.

Dale Coyne Racing


18. Ana Beatriz, Brazil
19. Justin Wilson, England, Sonny's BBQ

Coyne goes racing the old-fashioned way -- on a low budget, without fanfare or pizzazz. It's amazing what a small, tight-knit team can do when a top driver is inserted into the mix. Wilson won't be on the pace every weekend, but in certain races he'll be a strong contender for victory. And not just on road courses, as evidenced by his impressive performance at Texas Motor Speedway last year. Brazilian racer "Bia" is likely to share duties in Coyne's second car with Wilson's younger brother Stefan, an Indy Lights graduate.

Ed Carpenter Racing


20. Ed Carpenter, USA, Fuzzy's Vodka

With some help from Derrick Walker, Carpenter has put together a very solid, race-winning team. Carpenter believes he should have been in position to win more than one oval race in 2012 and vows to improve his road-racing form.

Panther DRR


22. Oriol Servia, Spain, Dad's/Mecum

One of the best guys in the paddock is delighted to return to the same team for one of the few times in his career. Once Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (now Panther DRR) switched from Lotus to Chevrolet engines midway through the 2012 season, race pace wasn't a problem for Servia. But he needs to qualify better in 2013 to turn that pace into podiums.

Sam Schmidt Motorsports


55. Tristan Vautier (R), France
77. Simon Pagenaud, France, Hewlett-Packard

Here's a team that could emerge as a giant-killer. Pagenaud's first IndyCar race win is a matter of when, not if. And Vautier, the reigning Indy Lights champion and a fellow Frenchman, has been very impressive in testing. It could add up to a very big year for Schmidt's growing team.

Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing


67. Josef Newgarden, USA, Century 21

This has got all the hallmarks of the feel-good story of the season. Fisher is raising her team's game -- check out the new race shop going up on Main Street in Speedway, Ind. And her driver, the 22-year-old Newgarden, has a heck of a lot of raw talent. The key now is developing that talent and producing consistent results on a weekly basis.

Barracuda Racing


98. Alex Tagliani, Canada, Barracuda Networks

Bryan Herta and Steve Newey have built a strong, Indianapolis 500-winning team (Dan Wheldon in 2011) and enjoy the backing of a creative commercial partner. Tagliani can still pedal with the best of them.