FORT WORTH, Texas -- Just a few days removed from its inaugural doubleheader road racing weekend, the IZOD IndyCar Series features another novelty Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway:
The series' first prime-time race broadcast on free-to-air network television.
Night races are nothing new for IndyCar or TMS, but having the Firestone 550 featured on one of TV's "big four" networks is a coup for a form of motorsports looking for new ways to reconnect with its fan base.
The 228-lap, 550-kilometer race will be televised at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
Saturday night races traditionally haven't been a ratings bonanza for NASCAR, but INDYCAR needs to take advantage of every opportunity it can get to be on network TV. Prior to his ouster, former series CEO Randy Bernard put together a package that clusters six of seven races between the Indianapolis 500 and the July 7 Pocono IndyCar 400 on ABC.
"We're on the way, on a climb, as far as bringing other fans back," said Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan. "The credibility that ABC gives to us being in prime time, for sure it's helping that. It's showing that the series is growing.
"We can see people are making movies about us now [DreamWorks' "Turbo," set for release July 17]. I think we have plenty of personalities as far as drivers. We have plenty of competition as far as the cars. It's a great product. This is some exciting news."
More exciting news for Kanaan: His Indy win helped him and KV Racing Technology pick up a four-race sponsorship from Sunoco. His No. 11 DW12/Chevrolet will feature a paint scheme mimicking one of the featured Indy cars in "Turbo."
Fans who haven't tuned in to an IndyCar race at Texas in a couple of years may be in for a shock. The pack racing that was a product of the league's engine/chassis formula from 1997 to 2011 is a thing of the past, to the great relief of the drivers. Last year's Texas contest, won by Justin Wilson of Dale Coyne Racing, was more reminiscent of speedway races in the defunct CART-sanctioned Indy car series, with the cars sliding around more and not running so dangerously close together on the track.
Tire management proved crucial in last year's event. Graham Rahal held the lead into the final laps only to make a small error with two laps to go, brushing the Turn 4 wall hard enough to allow Wilson to pass.
"We continue working with series officials to supply tires that put a premium on tire management by teams and drivers," said Firestone Racing executive director Al Speyer. "We saw the perfect example of that in 2012 when Justin Wilson made his Firehawks last to the end and he won the race.
"The action at Texas is fast and furious, and Firestone Racing has developed a new Firehawk tire specification for this year that we believe will contribute to the excitement."
Rahal finished second to Wilson, but it was a crushing defeat for the son of three-time Indy car champion Bobby Rahal and he's clearly motivated to make up for his mistake this year.
Graham Rahal revealed on Twitter that he finally watched a recording of the 2012 Texas race this week. He's now driving for his father's team instead of Ganassi Racing.
"I still think about it occasionally," he said. "I want to win, and it would have been so nice to get my second [IndyCar victory] that night. But it is what it is, and I moved on. A race win this weekend would certainly help."
"I felt great last year," he added. "We worked very hard on a good race car, and I thought we ran very well in the race at the beginning and end. We faded midrace with some handling issues, but it quickly came back to us. I take last year as a great learning lesson for myself, and I look forward to getting back there this year."
Wilson's victory was slightly tarnished after his car was found to be carrying an illegal aerodynamic blanking plate in postrace inspection. The Coyne team said the plate was an oversight, and Wilson's Honda-powered DW12 had passed through tech several times throughout the weekend without INDYCAR officials noticing or pointing out the offense.
Wilson finished a charging fifth at Indianapolis two weeks ago with one of the fastest cars on the track at the end of the race, and he arrives in Texas as a favorite to repeat his 2012 victory.
Other former Texas victors entered this weekend include Team Penske's Helio Castroneves, who is the active leader with three wins at the 1.5-mile speedway in Fort Worth. Kanaan and Scott Dixon have also won full-length IndyCar races at TMS, while Dario Franchitti and Will Power scored wins in the one-off twin half-length races staged in 2011.
That Texas win is the only oval victory of Power's career. The Australian, who was a championship favorite entering the 2013 season, is embroiled in an 18-race winless streak and ranks 16th in the standings.
"The racing at Texas last year was tremendous," Power said. "They really did a great job with the setup, and it was the best racing I've had on an oval. The Verizon Chevrolet was as good as any that day, and we really had a shot to win the race."
Power was instead penalized for blocking Kanaan on a restart, dropping to eighth place at the checkered flag.
"The team is now really starting to hit its stride," Power said. "We may not have the results to show it yet, but we've had some great cars. Our focus is to go all out this weekend at Texas and continue to fight our way up the points standings."
"I'm excited to be heading to Texas for what is always a high-intensity, action-packed race," Hunter-Reay said. "We were sidelined with mechanical issues last year early in the race, but [Andretti Autosport teammates] Marco and James Hinchcliffe had pretty good cars, so I'm optimistic for Saturday night.
"The DHL Chevy is four spots higher in the championship standings than we were at this time last year, so we're right in the title fight."