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· Pocket Sand
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AUTO RACING - INDYCAR: Drivers And Teams Working Hard To Finalize Programs

The IZOD IndyCar Series is riding a wave of momentum after its State of INDYCAR meetings held Monday and Tuesday in Indianapolis, but behind the scenes, some of its smaller teams and a few drivers have been working frantically to get their respective programs in order.

The anticipated deal between Paul Tracy and Michael Shank Racing appears to have hit a significant snag, with the popular Canadian now working to fill the void left when a major sponsor—one that would have cemented the PT-to-MSR deal this week—backed out at the 11th hour.

Both sides continue to look for budgetary solutions, but seeing PT in Shank’s car at the season-opening race at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is no longer a guarantee. Although its driver/sponsor situation is in a state of flux, progress has been made by MSR program on the engine front. With the team’s Lotus deal now fully confirmed, some of its Ohio-based staff have been assigned to support the manufacturer’s track testing program.

With the need to either get the Tracy situation resolved or find a comparable driver and sponsors in a matter of weeks, it’s unclear whether MSR will begin its IndyCar campaign at Round 1, or at a later date.

Word came late Wednesday night that Tracy, who has made multiple mentions of using 2012 as his farewell season of Indy car racing, is in talks with a Canadian sponsor that could be interested in building a marketing program around PT’s open-wheel swansong.

While Shank continues to work on who he will plug into the cockpit, at least he can say his team has been removed from the “will they or won’t they have an engine” category.

At Sarah Fisher Harman Racing, team owners Fisher and Wink Hartman have the exact opposite problem, as they continue to search for a supply of engines to plug into the back of their Dallara DW12s.

Fisher, whose team won the most recent IndyCar Series race at Kentucky with Ed Carpenter at the helm, signed Tennessee’s Josef Newgarden, the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights Series champion, to lead the program this year. SFHR also has the sponsorship in place to kick of its season at St. Pete.

Yet, despite those distinctions, the series is facing a bit of a PR disaster if one of its most popular owners, its most recent winning team and the shining example of all the Mazda Road To Indy has to offer sits parked at SFHR’s Indianapolis base as the green flag drops on the 2012 season.

Series CEO Randy Bernard is known to be working diligently to aid SFHR’s efforts to procure an engine deal to allow the team to begin its testing and preparations for St. Pete, but unless he’s successful, it’s believed the team could be forced to wait on engines until May’s Indianapolis 500 to make its season debut.

If that worst-case scenario comes true, it’s not clear whether a late start for SFHR will impact any of the team’s season-long sponsorship agreements.

The series is optimistic an engine lease agreement will be reached in time to get SFHR on the grid for St. Pete, and an answer on SFHR’s St. Pete engine predicament could come by Friday, but like MSR, time is also a growing obstacle to consider with the first official practice session of 2012 set to begin in little more than five weeks.

As SPEED.com documented on Tuesday, Conquest Racing owner Eric Bachelart, the final entrant in search of an engine contract, appears to have written off any chances of his team appearing before Indy.

With no drivers or sponsors in place to pilot the Dallara DW12 he purchased, Bachelart’s plight has not to take on the immediacy faced by SFHR and MSR which, in turn, has taken a slight bit of pressure off the series and the engine manufacturers to resolve Conquest’s supply issues in parallel with SFHR's.

Of the few unconfirmed seats left in IndyCar, Dale Coyne Racing could be close to announcing James Jakes--who drove for Coyne last season--as Justin Wilson’s teammate.

Dragon Racing (along with MSR) waited patiently as DRB-Hicom, Lotus’ new owners, completed its due diligence before every aspect of their respective agreements were finalized, but it didn’t hinder the Jay Penske-owned outfit from pressing on with its plans.

With its cars currently being built at the Newman/Haas Racing facility, Penske’s drivers--four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge, who most recently competed in the DTM--have been busy preparing for their first season with the team in different ways.

Legge has been karting on a regular basis while Bourdais, who recently signed to drive for the Japan’s Dome LMP1 team at Spa and the 24 Hours of Le Mans (which will cause him to miss the conflicting IndyCar race at Milwaukee), has been preoccupied with more mundane activities—waiting on additional visa requirements to process before the he can move his family from Le Mans to Florida.

Provided Bourdais’ travel restrictions have been put to rest, he's expected to join Legge at Sebring next week as the Dragon duo turn their first laps in Lotus’ test car.
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