HOMESTEAD (AP) – The most memorable thing about the first event in American open-wheel racing's new era might have been what didn't happen.
March 29’s Gainsco Indy 300, the opening race of the newly unified IRL IndyCar Series, went off with little fuss and solid runs by most of the eight entrants from the recently absorbed Champ Car World Series.
“I think every one of those guys should be very proud,” said winner Scott Dixon, a former IRL series champion who was duly impressed by a race that featured 25 starters – the biggest field outside the Indianapolis 500 in six years – and yet only three caution flags
in 200 laps.
That was surprising, considering that most of the newcomers had little or no experience in oval racing.
The deal that finally ended the 12-year rivalry between the two American open-wheel series came a month ago, meaning the new IRL teams had little time to take delivery, build and test their new Dallara Hondas.
Almost everyone, including several IRL officials, expected – and dreaded – a crash-filled event on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway oval, where the speed differential between the top IRL drivers and the slowest of the newcomers was nearly 10 mph.
While Dixon and fellow IRL veterans Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon were lapping the track at speeds up to 210 mph, the former CART entries were turning laps as slow as 201.
“Yeah, I learned a lot,” said Oriol Servia, who led the newcomers with a 12th-place finish.
The Spaniard is the most experienced of the former Champ Car drivers, having raced on a number of ovals. But the IRL's Dallara Hondas are a very different animal from the Panoz Cosworths that were raced in Champ Car last year.
“I learned a lot about the car – what happens when you have five cars in front of you in a superspeedway and you have no downforce,'' Servia said.
“These are scary feelings. I think there's going to be plenty of those this season.”
Still, he added, “It was good fun and I can only imagine when we're up to speed how fun it's going to be.”
The race appeared to belong to Kanaan, another former IRL champ, who was ahead of Dixon by more than 2 seconds with eight laps to go.
But HVM Racing rookie Ernesto Viso, one of the transitional drivers and 10 laps off the leader's pace, apparently punctured a tire and spun in front of Kanaan, who almost made it past.
Instead, Kanaan clipped the rear of Viso's skidding car and knocked his right front tire askew.
During the ensuing caution period, Kanaan stayed on the track, leading the race for several more laps with a car basically running on three wheels. But he headed for the pits when the green flag waved on lap 197, giving the lead and the win to Dixon.
“I've been around a long time and the race is not finished until the checkered flag,” Kanaan said. “With 10 laps to go, I was looking around and I was thinking, ‘This looks too easy.’ ”
Dixon, who lost the 2007 IndyCar title to Dario Franchitti when he ran out of fuel on the last turn of the last lap at the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway, was feeling a whole lot better after starting the new year with his 11th IRL win, this one coming from the pole.
And he did it with a car that didn't handle very well.
“For a bad day, we still came away with maximum points,” the New Zealander said. “That's what we've got to do. We've got to hit the start hard and gain as many points as possible because I think, last year, that's how we lost it (with a slow start).”
Andretti, who had failed to finish in his first two tries at Homestead, led a race-high 87 laps and wound up second, followed by Wheldon, whose string of Homestead victories ended at three, and Castroneves, the last driver on the lead lap.
Now it's on to the temporary street circuit in St. Petersburg next weekend, where the former Champ Car teams could be more competitive.
“Yeah, I'm excited about going to St. Pete,” Servia said. “I think there's a little bit too high expectations for the transition guys just because it's our kind of track. We're still fighting these big teams that know this car for five years.”