INDIANAPOLIS — Forget all the initial complaints about Indy’s new cars.
The drivers are warming up to the idea.
On Monday, the first of a two-day state of the IndyCar Series summit, drivers repeatedly acknowledged how much had been accomplished during a busy offseason of testing with rave reviews for the new cars and the way series officials handled the controversy.
“It kind of felt like when you go to a movie and people tell you that it’s not too good, and then you go, and it’s like ‘C’mon man, it’s pretty cool,'” three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves said before the real action began inside a downtown theater. “It’s still developing, but that’s the beauty of it.”
Drivers were introduced to a near-capacity crowd after walking through smoke with strobe lights flashing on stage.
This was not just some high-wire act, though.
Clearly, things had improved dramatically on the race track since three-time defending series champion Dario Franchitti said he was concerned about the weight distribution of the car last fall.
“It wasn’t just talking about a bad car, it was a bad car,” said Franchitti, Target Chip Ganassi’s top driver.
The overwhelming negativity prompted IndyCar leaders to provide more leeway in fixing problems.
The changes drivers have made in just a few months, Franchitti said, have reduced lap times on road and street courses by 1.5 to 2.0 seconds. The cars could be going even faster by next month’s season opener at St. Petersburg, and with everyone starting over, there’s no telling who may wind up in Victory Lane.
The lingering question is how the cars will work on ovals — something drivers are eager to find out during next week’s test at Texas.
But even the earliest and most outspoken detractors are falling into line.
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said two-time runner-up Will Power complained to him after one of the early tests. Following last week’s test at Sebring, Power had a completely different perception.
“It’s a little lighter, and it’s very good on the rear weight distribution,” Power said. “I’m very happy with the engine.”
The new cars have more horsepower and more grip, a combination favored by drivers such as Power and Marco Andretti. They also have new safety features to protect against side impacts and three inches of extra foam around the driver’s seat and one inch of foam underneath to reduce injuries.
One concern for the teams which have done extensive work is others may show up in St. Pete virtually untested. The good news is most believe it won’t take much time to adapt because they drive like European cars or those that IndyCar drivers grew up driving.
Cars won’t be the only new IndyCar feature in 2012.
The 16-race schedule features only five oval races. Some drivers acknowledged scaling back the number of oval races, at least temporarily, was a necessary safety move after Dan Wheldon died in a crash last October in Las Vegas. The next day’s awards ceremony was postponed because of the fatality and the awards were not handed out until Monday’s presentation.
“Yes, in Vegas, it was the pole that killed Dan, but in my opinion, it was the pack racing that led to that,” Andretti said.
Safety is expected to be discussed in more detail during Tuesday’s session on technical issues.
After finishing his brief remarks, Bernard told reporters he doesn’t plan to add more races to this year’s schedule though he plans to include more ovals on a 2013 schedule that he hopes will have 19 races.
What else is going to be different in 2012?
Brian Barnhart, the oft-criticized head of race control, is leaving the control tower and will be replaced by new race director Beaux Barfield. On Tuesday, series officials are expected to announce two-time Indy winner Arie Luyendyk, former Indy starter Johnny Unser and former CART director Gary Barnard as race stewards.
“First of all, I never had anything personally with Brian, it’s always been sort of in the heat of the moment, things like that,” said Castroneves, who was fined last year after referring to Barnhart as a “circus clown” on Twitter. “I’m glad Brian is still involved in IndyCar because he’s a person who understands racing. But now, with Beaux, you’ve got to give the guy a chance to do his job.”
“You know we’ve had ex-drivers up there before, and I say, yes, it’s always good to have someone up there that knows what’s going on because he’s been in the car,” Castroneves added.
But for now, the biggest challenge is simply shaking down the new car.
“From November till now, they’re massively better on road courses. There are still a couple of bugs to be worked out,” Franchitti said. “We knew we could fix it if they allowed us to fix it, and fortunately, they listened to us and allowed us to do that.”
NOTES: IndyCar officials also announced that ABC will televise six races this season, one more than it did in 2011. The addition is Mid-Ohio. … IndyCar also has extended its contract with Firestone to provide tires to the series through 2014. … The series is bringing three new corporate sponsors on board. Discover will introduce the new IndyCar credit card later this month; Lids, a sportswear company, will begin merchandising series memorabilia; and Fuzzy’s Vodka, a company owned by former pro golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, will be the official vodka of the series.