As INDYCAR continues to build packed grandstands, bigger TV numbers, and more recognition for its talented drivers, 2012 can be looked back upon as a pivotal year. The core element – the racing – has become stronger than ever.
Thoughts of the preceding five-and-a-half months may skew a little rosy after a stellar season finale on Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway that closed with fan-favorite Ed Carpenter taking the race win and Ryan Hunter-Reay clutching the Astor Cup as the IZOD IndyCar Series Champion.
“This hasn't sunk in yet,” said Hunter-Reay, who became the American champ that many of the sport’s fans had been craving for since Sam Hornish Jr. won his third, and ultimately final, IndyCar title in 2006.
“I just drove 500 miles for my life. I can't believe we're IndyCar champions…My dream has come true. This is unbelievable."
It was as good a result as INDYCAR could’ve hoped for. But beyond the American sweep in Fontana, there were several other reasons for them to be pleased about 2012.
After a shaky off-season of testing, expectations were low for the new Dallara DW12 chassis going into its inaugural season. But it turned out to be an instant boost for INDYCAR’s on-track product across all types of courses
Whether it was squeezing multiple passing zones out of road circuits that previously had none, yielding the most lead changes in the history of the Indianapolis 500, or helping save open-wheel racing at Texas Motor Speedway, the car proved worthy of its initials honoring the late two-time Indy 500 champ Dan Wheldon.
The DW12 also played a role in a shake-up of the paddock's pecking order.
With Hunter-Reay leading the way, Andretti Autosport returned to championship status, while after four consecutive series titles, Target Chip Ganassi Racing finally faltered. One-car teams also made some noise; examples included Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports making a dramatic jump upwards with Simon Pagenaud behind the wheel, and, of course, Carpenter earning a victory in the first year of being his own boss.
In addition, the return of engine competition added juice to the proceedings. Chevrolet stood tall in 2012, utilizing their performance and team depth to come away with 11 victories, the driver’s title, and the manufacturer’s title. However, Honda managed to not only take the Indianapolis 500 with Dario Franchitti, but followed that up just one week later with a 1-2-3 finish in Chevy’s backyard at Detroit’s Belle Isle Park.
Finally, there’s Hunter-Reay, the All-American boy whose perseverance and talent got him to the top after a decade of trying.
“I always believed that if I got the right opportunity and worked hard enough that I could be in this position or I could be in the position to win races,” he said on Saturday. “But then you go from winning races to competing for a championship, and that comes with another level of consistency.
“And I've been saying it. That comes from the continuity and a team that believes in you, and a group like we have in the 28 car where things are working. And you build on that year after year. That's why we're in this position now. So just never give up. That's how it's always been for me on and off the track. It's really nice to have this now to make that all come to fruition.”
So, now we head into a winter that holds many questions outside the usual ones of ‘Silly Season.’ Amongst them, the following:
-Bernard has been working toward expanding his series’ schedule, but where will the new tracks come from -- and will we indeed see doubleheaders on certain weekends?
-Now that a year of experience has been had with the DW12, will the well-resourced “Big Three” of Andretti, Penske and TCGR use this offseason to re-open a gap between themselves and the rest of the field?
-Can Honda bolster its ranks and find the performance needed to overthrow Chevrolet as top manufacturer?
The INDYCAR project continues on. But this season, we saw legitimate forward movement.