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Does IndyCar still have the excitement?

By Dave Kallmann Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT) • Updated Mar 29, 2014 at 12:31 AM

By the time IndyCar rolls into the Milwaukee Mile — and that’ll be a lot later this season than we’re trained to expect — many questions will have answers . . . or at least the seeds of answers.

Does Juan Pablo Montoya still have it? Will new scenery help Tony Kanaan or Sebastien Bourdais get back to the top? Is this when Marco Andretti or Graham Rahal emerges or when a real, next-generation rivalry finally blossoms? Who’s the next new kid to turn heads, the next new winner, the next new contender?

And how will the myriad changes — to the schedule, now relentless, to qualifying, to Indianapolis in May — be perceived? How helpful or harmful will they be?

Most importantly, will any of that matter? 

For all the swapping of personnel and engines and formats and race dates, for all the preseason excitement and anticipation, IndyCar remains a series with entertaining competition, interesting personalities, a diverse assortment of racetracks and unfortunately little interest.

I mean, that’s the reason behind another sweeping series of tweaks leading into this weekend’s opener, right? To add excitement. To draw attention. To engage the fans who already care and attract people who, let’s face it, don’t.

New series sponsor Verizon will help. A lot. It has to. IZOD had long been transparent, which is the last thing a series treading water needs from its marketing partner. Now, here’s a techie company already familiar with the product through time as a team sponsor and oh, by the way, one of its key competitors just happens to back NASCAR’s biggest series. There’s a purpose to Verizon’s fight. Granted, this deal has a new car smell. Still, there’s every reason to believe that when that wears off, IndyCar still will be thrilled with what it has.

But a cellphone company can’t make anyone love a sport. While Verizon may bring it to more people’s attention, it’s IndyCar’s responsibility to keep their interest.

To that end, new CEO Mark Miles and his team have thrown out so many different ideas you have to wonder what might have been rejected. 

A compact schedule will keep the series from falling so easily into the background after it opens Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla., and will lead to a champion being crowned before the NFL season kicks off.

Milwaukee, where Indy cars typically raced in June, moved to Aug. 17, a week after State Fair. 

While unfamiliar, the date does give the historic Mile a chance to have a noticeable effect on the championship, as only two races follow. It would have been more if not for the announcement last week that the 500-mile races — as the finale in Fontana, Calif., is — would pay double points.

Indianapolis is similarly affected, but you’d like to think the Indy 500 would stand out regardless of that. More noticeable there are the switch of pole day from the Saturday to the Sunday before the May 25 race and the addition of race on the facility’s road course on May 10. The road race might be viewed two ways, as further erosion of the Indy tradition or as an opportunity to add a week back into the month of May.

Technically speaking, the changes are far less dramatic. Engine manufacturers will have a little more leeway, and Honda joins Chevrolet with the twin-turbo. Aero kits designed to provide some differentiation are still a year away, meaning the cars will still elicit the same complaints that they’re ugly, uninteresting and worst of all identical. (Talk about your enduring traditions.)

Then, we come to the drivers.

Montoya’s move is the most interesting. The 38-year-old Colombian won the 1999 CART title and 2000 Indianapolis and set off on an odyssey that included seven wins in Formula One and two in Sprint Cup. He came back grayer and wiser, fitter than in his NASCAR days, and he concedes he still has a lot to learn about driving these cars.

With Montoya, three-time runner-up Will Power and three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves together full time, Team Penske would be a disappointment if it didn’t contend every weekend.

Kanaan, who won Indy last year, has a fresh start with Chip Ganassi and teamed with three-time and defending champion Scott Dixon. Targeted as a teammate of old pal Dario Franchitti, the 2004 champion instead became Franchitti’s replacement when the four-time champion and three-time Indy winner was forced to retire. The dynamic has changed and the engines too — from Honda to Chevrolet — but the fact remains, Ganassi is good at winning titles. The team owns six of the past seven.

Kanaan’s move opened up a spot for Bourdais to get back on the path that took him to consecutive Champ Car titles from 2004-’07. Bourdais, side-tracked by an ill-fated Formula One try, managed three street-course podiums with underdog Dragon Racing last year and has become the focus at KVSH. The team has shown it can win. Battle for a title? That’s another question. 

Simon Pagenaud and Takuma Sato both celebrated maiden IndyCar victories last season. Whether they continue to climb or simply stall is the biggest question facing both. Same for Josef Newgarden and for Ed Carpenter’s team, which will take the unique approach of having Carpenter drive the ovals and Mike Conway the road and street courses. 

Andretti Autosport looks similar on the surface, with 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay looking to rebound, James Hinchcliffe hoping to keep the good of 2013 while eliminating the bad, the young Andretti intending to build on a career-best fifth-place season and fearless Colombian Carlos Munoz eager to break out as a rookie.

Most intriguing would be if Andretti were to reach his potential. As much as it’d be fun to see him in a weekly wheel-to-wheel rivalry with Rahal, two victories in eight years for Marco and one in six for Graham are hardly the numbers that scream, “look at us” for two Americans racing cars like their fathers drove in an American-based series. Not in a good way, anyway.

So another season opens this weekend, the 19th since IndyCar launched as the Indy Racing League and the seventh since the contentious open-wheel split ended.

As always it starts with plenty of questions, and it has five months and 18 races for the answers to develop.

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