It's been nearly two months since Sam Hornish Jr. clinched his record third IRL IndyCar Series championship at Chicagoland Speedway. But almost five more months will pass before the competitors of the Indy Racing League hit the track for anything other than a limited amount of testing.
Just as the IRL schedule was streamlined for 2006, there is a strong possibility that the IndyCar Series field will be downsized next year. The difference is that the schedule reduction was intentional. It's never good news for any racing series when participants close up shop or transfer to another form of racing.
We're admittedly a long way from the start of the 2007 campaign, but at least one team (Fernandez Racing) is in the process of shutting down its IndyCar operation, while the future commitments of A.J. Foyt Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing are in question. As things stand right now, the IRL is in danger of assembling only 15 or 16 cars for the season opener set for the night of March 24 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
That worst-case scenario is unlikely to play out because IRL management realizes that a low car count reflects badly on the formula and series founder Tony George certainly has the financial ability to prop up the field with a couple of additional entries if necessary. The rival Champ Car series has proven that even a slim 18-car field can put on a competitive and entertaining race -- as long as most of the entries are still running at the finish.
Still, it appears that the "ocean" of car owners that George once predicted was ready and willing to support the IRL has dried up. And with Champ Car scheduling a race in China in the middle of the month of May, the IRL appears to be facing an impossible task in terms of finding 33 car/driver/crew combinations to fill the Indianapolis 500 field.
With that in mind, let's take an early look at what the IndyCar Series field might look like when the season opens at Homestead next March.
There are changes in store even for the IRL's current champion team, which will no longer be known as Marlboro Team Penske. The cars will still be orange and white and the money will still roll in from the company formerly known as Philip Morris, but the side pods are likely to be advertising Penske Performance Products.
Series and Indianapolis 500 champion Hornish returns for what might be his final full open-wheel campaign. The Ohioan plans to run a pair of NASCAR Busch Series races in November in a Penske-prepared car as he ponders making the move down South in the wheel-tracks of Juan Pablo Montoya and A.J. Allmendinger. Two-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves, a Penske driver since 2000, continues in the No. 3 car in pursuit of that elusive first series championship.
No major changes are expected for Chip Ganassi's squad, which saw drivers Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon finish second and fourth respectively in the 2006 championship while providing Penske's only real competition. Ganassi's focus will be on improving its performances on short ovals.
Andretti Green Racing
Bryan Herta has voluntarily stepped out of his IndyCar seat to lead AGR's entry into the American Le Mans Series LMP2 class with a Courage-Acura prototype. Andretti Green will still run four cars in the IRL, with media darling Danica Patrick (and a lucrative Motorola sponsorship package) joining the returning Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Marco Andretti. Franchitti will have his road racing jones somewhat satisfied by a few outings with Herta in the ALMS car.
As one of the IRL's staunchest supporters, look for AGR to run as many as six cars at Indianapolis. The team recently underwent a minor management reshuffle, and in other news, announced that Herta and Patrick will co-host the Andretti Green Racing Hour on XM Satellite Radio beginning in February.
Co-owner Tom Anderson confirmed this week that Fernandez Racing has laid off its IndyCar staff of 27 and will focus on an Acura ALMS program in 2007. He added that the IRL operation could be up and running again in as little as two weeks if sponsorship can be found.
Panther, which ran without a sponsor for much of the 2006 season, will be happy to land Matsuura and his Panasonic sponsorship even if it brings a little crash damage.
Vitor Meira, who turned in some nice drives in 2006, will carry over in the lead car.
Rahal Letterman Racing
Bobby Rahal's team is set to regroup and get back to the basics after a disappointing 2006 campaign. Buddy Rice is pursuing a Champ Car drive, while Patrick, whom Rahal "discovered" and mentored since 2001, landed a big-money deal with Andretti Green and Motorola.
That leaves Jeff Simmons in the ethanol-sponsored (and now ethanol-powered) car, teamed with Sharp, who is reportedly bringing sponsorship from a new brand of tequila.
An announcement of the team's 2007 plans is set for Nov. 15.
Because he is team owner Tony George's stepson, Ed Carpenter is guaranteed to return in one Vision Racing entry. But Tomas Scheckter has not yet been confirmed for the second seat. He should be safe, and Vision boss Larry Curry may be asked to run additional cars to help the numbers.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
Team co-owner Robbie Buhl attended a number of Champ Car races over the summer and D & R is taking a hard look at switching open-wheel series. The fact that they just hired most of the Fernandez Racing engineering staff shows they are serious about the future and if the team remains in the IRL, look for an effort built around Sarah Fisher.
A.J. Foyt Enterprises
Foyt's team has slipped to the back of the IRL field, just like in the CART days. A.J.'s son Larry Foyt is taking a bigger role in the management of the team, which will probably soldier on with one car in 2007.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.