- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Up until Oct. 15, Indy car fans had a lot to be thankful for in 2011.
Four years into the so-called unified era, the Izod IndyCar Series was finally starting to gain some traction with the general public.
Television ratings were on the rise on both ABC and Versus; the size of the field was larger than it had been in 15 years; attendance was up at many road-racing venues; the centennial anniversary edition of the Indianapolis 500 was a classic Indy car race, the likes of which the old Brickyard hadn't seen in nearly two decades; and there was the prospect of a new chassis and multiple engine manufacturers coming on board for 2012.
Then came the tragic events of Oct. 16, when Dan Wheldon was killed during the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Suddenly, Indy car racing was in the mainstream news for all the wrong reasons, and seemingly all the excruciatingly slow growth the sport had experienced since the 2008 merger of Champ Car and the Indy Racing League came to a grinding halt.
Rightfully so, much of IndyCar's focus since then has been on the future and the prevention of what happened in the past -- on and off the track. And although Wheldon's death was a tragic event, Indy car racing has a lot of things to be positive about in terms of almost everything else that happened in 2011 and most elements of the future for American open-wheel racing.
In that spirit, and with the Thanksgiving holiday upon us again, here is my annual list of things that the Indy car community can be thankful for
Sorry to start on a somber note, but we should be thankful that before Wheldon, no driver had been killed during an IndyCar-sanctioned race.
We also should be thankful that his car got up into the catchfence in a non-spectator area, so no one else was injured. Drivers, engineers, fans and media observers have been terrified of the prospect of an accident like the one that occurred at Las Vegas since 1997, when the IRL introduced a breed of Indy cars and turned them loose on high-banked, 1.5-mile ovals designed and intended for stock cars.
"Restrictor-plate racing" for open-wheel cars often provided plenty of thrills, but it was always frighteningly dangerous and ultimately proved to be lethal.
On that note, IndyCar drivers must be thankful that the organization is strongly considering dropping all high-banked, 1.5-mile speedways from the IndyCar Series calendar in the future. The 2012 schedule has not been announced yet.
The drivers also are thankful that additional safety features are being incorporated into the basic 2012 car, the first new design since 2003. Unfortunately, in early testing, the new car has run as poorly as many people believe it looks. (A poll of nearly 6,000 fans on AutoRacing1.com resulted in 98 percent saying they don't like the appearance of the new Dallara.) We should all be thankful that alternate bodywork theoretically will be available in 2013.
Every race car driver in the world who competes on oval tracks should frequently give thanks to Tony George and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the driving forces behind the development of the SAFER barrier -- hands down the most important safety innovation for oval racing in the past 50 years.
Let's be thankful that competition between engine manufacturers is returning to Indy car racing in 2012. Not only will the presence of three brands increase interest in the technical side of the sport, Honda and Chevrolet can be counted on to provide much-needed marketing support to the IndyCar Series.
Everyone should be thankful that Firestone extended its contract as the exclusive tire supplier for the IndyCar Series after intending to withdraw at the end of the 2011 season. Firestone's safety and reliability record is much better than that of tire manufacturers that supply other racing series, and is absolutely essential for open-wheel cars on high-speed ovals.
Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi aren't terribly popular among Indy car fans because they dominate the sport, but the naysayers should be thankful that "The Captain" -- Penske -- and his heir apparent continue to support open-wheel racing and lift the overall level of professionalism in the sport.
Those same fans should be thankful that as dominant as the Penske and Ganassi organizations have been, a small team like Sarah Fisher Racing, with a skilled driver like Ed Carpenter, is still capable of toppling the giants.
I'm thankful that Mr. Penske maybe isn't as rigid and straitlaced as he used to be, because a few years ago he wouldn't have tolerated outbursts like the ones his drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves unleashed on IndyCar officials this year.
Who else is thankful that we get to watch one of the greatest Indy car drivers in history at the peak of his craft? I'm talking about Dario Franchitti, whose four championships in five years elevate him into the American open-wheel stratosphere. In the modern era, only A.J. Foyt (four USAC championships in five years between 1960 and '64, Mario Andretti (three USAC crowns and runner-up twice from 1965 to '69), Rick Mears (three CART titles, 1979-'81-'82) and Sebastien Bourdais (four consecutive CART/Champ Car triumphs against a weaker, split field from 2004 to '07) have displayed the same kind of long-term dominance as the Scotsman.
IndyCar fans who actually attend races should be thankful that the drivers are generally more friendly and accessible than those in any other form of motorsport other than the NHRA. Formula One and NASCAR should be ashamed in comparison.
We should be thankful that even though they don't get the publicity that F1 and NASCAR stars get, IndyCar features at least a half-dozen drivers who are among the best of their era, including Franchitti, Bourdais, Power, Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Justin Wilson and Ryan Briscoe. The results don't always show it, but they're all world-class drivers.
I'm thankful that all the drivers I listed above are solid human beings who treat those of us doing our jobs in the Indy car media with courtesy and respect. We could have to deal with the likes of Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart.
I'm personally thankful that I won't have to cover the Danica Patrick circus on a weekly basis anymore. Over to you, Terry, Newt, Ed, Marty and Ryan
I'm thankful that my 5-year-old son, Patrick, seems to enjoy cars and racing every bit as much as I did when I was a kid. Look where that got me!
And finally, on a more serious note, I am thankful for the support and encouragement I get from my family, friends and co-workers. The past few years have been tough for Indy car racing and for me personally, but I believe better days are ahead for all of us. See you at the track in 2012!
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
IndyCar Series fans witnessed a terrible tragedy in October, but there is still much to be thankful for. Our man has his list, including what a pleasure it is to see drivers such as Dario Franchitti in his prime.