For the first time ever, an American open-wheel championship will be decided at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Previously, the track was the site of the season opener whether it was for CART or the Indy Racing League. This is the fourth site in the short history of the IRL chosen to close out the season. I’m not even going to count that ridiculous convoluted 1996 season, which began in January at Walt Disney World and ended just four months later at the Indianapolis 500.
Beginning in 1997 (which really began with the next race that followed Indianapolis in 1996 – as crazy as that sounds) the IRL concluded its season in Las Vegas. In 1999, the second race at Texas motor Speedway was run in the daytime to decide the championship. It stayed that way through the 2005 season. When Texas secured a second NASCAR date, that spelled the end of the fall Texas race. For 2006, the season finale moved to Chicagoland where it stayed until this season. In an effort to try and boost lagging attendance at Homestead, the IRL decided to try closing the season out at the site of their traditional season opener; about six weeks before NASCAR crowns their champion at the same venue.
Homestead-Miami Speedway is a track that has struggled to find an identity. The speedway was a project designed to give a rebirth to the area devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Within one year, promoter Ralph Sanchez broke ground on the project in August 1993. The track was complete in 1995 and hosted a NASCAR Busch Series race in November of that year. The following spring, the track was the site of the 1996 CART season opener, which was won by Jimmy Vasser driving a Reynard/Honda for Chip Ganassi. It was the beginning of a championship year for Vasser.
The next two years saw Michael Andretti win in his Swift/Ford-Cosworth. Both of those years started off well for Andretti but in both years, that was pretty much the high point of those seasons. In fact, the two victories at Homestead were the only two victories for Andretti those seasons. The Swift was a beautiful chassis but did not live up to its name. Greg Moore won in 1999 to begin what would become his final season. He would lose his life in the final race of that season at Fontana. His friend, Max Papis won the final CART event at Homestead in 2000. He dedicated his victory to his fallen friend and former competitor.
For 2001, the facility became the second race for the Indy Racing League’s season. Sam Hornish won at Homestead in 2001 and 2002. The following year in 2003 saw the migration of Ganassi and Andretti-Green from CART to the IRL to follow Marlboro Team Penske, which moved over in 2002. Scott Dixon served notice that although he was new to the league, he would be a force to be reckoned with. He won the opening race at Homestead to begin his first championship season.
Sam Hornish won again in 2004, marking his first race with Roger Penske – replacing the retired Gil de Ferran. It was a memorable last lap battle with his new teammate, Helio Castroneves, that made that race memorable. Beginning in 2005, Dan Wheldon won the next three IndyCar races at Homestead. The first with Andretti-Green, and the next two with Target Chip Ganassi. Scott Dixon won again last year to begin another championship season.
The track has gone through three major renovations since it was first constructed. When it opened, it had been constructed to simulate a 1.5-mile version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – a relatively flat track with four distinct 90-degree turns to create a rectangular oval. Unfortunately, the racing was dull to say the least. For the 1998 CART opener, the track had undergone a major facelift. Gone were the sharp turns that resembled IMS. In their place was a set of continuously rounded flat turns, more reminiscent of Milwaukee.
Still searching for a configuration that provided more exciting racing, Homestead-Miami Speedway was reconfigured yet again in 2003. This time, the flat turns at each end were replaced with steep variable banking. The result was better racing, but still not on the level with Texas or Chicagoland. The track never seems to stand out as a favorite with many of the drivers. I think they like it OK, but there is nothing that really makes the drivers look forward to going there.
This championship battle should be very interesting to watch tomorrow. Qualifying is this afternoon and the race is to be run tomorrow afternoon. I’ve still yet to hear exactly why this race is on a Saturday instead of Sunday. Maybe someone will clue me in.
Being a Penske fan over the years, I’m really pulling for Briscoe to pull this thing out. His blunder at Japan is the reason this points race is so tight, otherwise he could have had a thirty-five point lead headed into this race. But I’m not just pulling for him because of Roger Penske. Briscoe has weathered several storms to get to this point. He essentially had to re-start his career after his horrifying accident at Chicago in 2005. Then while on the mend, Chip Ganassi unceremoniously cast him aside.
Briscoe took several steps back to run a few races for Dreyer & Reinbold in 2006, then took a ride in Penske’s ALMS car while being farmed out to Luzco-Dragon’s one-off run at Indy that year. That’s when more than a few eyes in the paddock were opened that this guy could actually drive. Driving for the departed Sam Hornish, he got off to a slow start in 2008; then had to deal with the wrath of Danica as she stomped down pit lane at Indy with Briscoe as her target. It was at that point that everyone was trying to guess at what point in the season would Penske cut Briscoe loose. From that point on, his season turned around and he had a strong close to 2008. He picked up where he left off, winning the season opener at St. Petersburg. He has been in the hunt all season. If not for the gaffe in Japan, he would definitely be in charge tomorrow.
If Briscoe can’t win it, then I’m pulling for Dario Franchitti – and not just because he is a Nashville resident. From the moment Dario started driving for Carl Hogan, he was one of my favorites. I’ve always liked Dario’s style, both on and off the track. I never really thought he would leave Andretti-Green, but when Michael sided with Marco at Sonoma, I think it was too much for Franchitti to take. But Dario is a class act and I would like to see him get to enjoy a championship without all of the speculation of a move to NASCAR, which dogged him when he won his only other championship in 2007.
Of course, if Briscoe or Franchitti don’t win, that leaves Scott Dixon. The only reason I’m pulling against Dixon is because he already has two championships. He can wait on a third. My only complaint about Dixon or Franchitti, for that matter – is that they both drive for Chip Ganassi. The Chipster has never been one of my favorites. He always seemed to be just a little trigger-happy in cutting his drivers loose. I cannot deny what he has done for this sport, however. I also think he makes a good foe for Roger Penske.
Even if Dixon wins the championship, I won’t be terribly bummed. He’s a good guy and an excellent driver. He has proven to be a worthy champion in the past. His personality is a little laid-back for some fans, but I like it. He is very quiet and unassuming – just like the other two candidates.
Enjoy the race!
* – Please note. I will have articles on Saturday and Sunday morning of this weekend.