For IndyCar fans, Christmas came early this year

Over the last few years, a lot of IZOD IndyCar Series fans must have felt like they had gotten coal in their stockings. From drivers defecting to TV ratings plummeting, the off-season was never truly good with all of the events that adversely affected the series.

But this Christmas, there’s plenty of proverbial presents underneath the IndyCar tree. Granted, the biggest one of the lot — the one with Racing Green and Yellow wrapping paper and a shiny Bowtie on it — has a “Do Not Open Until 2012” sticker on it. However, that hasn’t stopped the base from being very Merry over the good news that has emerged since the end of the 2010 season.

With Monday’s announcement that Tony Kanaan has found a drive for 2011 with De Ferran Dragon Racing, it sure feels like IndyCar fans have indeed gotten everything they could have hoped for on their list.

Well, maybe not everything. An end to Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s dominance is unlikely for 2011. The subpar coverage of ESPN/ABC won’t be gone for another couple of seasons. Versus’ above-average IndyCar effort continues to stay mired in relative obscurity. And the question of whether or not IndyCar’s alliance with Speedway Motorsports will manage to create a bigger profile for the sport has yet to be answered.

But at the same time, there’s a lot of exciting things to look forward to. Chevrolet and Lotus’ return to the American open-wheel scene in 2012, as well as the debut of the next-generation IndyCars, will finally end the era of spec racing in the series and revive true competition. It’ll be interesting to see how fans will take sides as this battle (which also includes the current engine supplier, Honda) begins.

The signings of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Charlie Kimball, J.R. Hildebrand and Ed Carpenter (part-time) to deals have also been heartening for those who have clamored for the series to feature homegrown driving talent. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard has long contended that at the end of the day, he wants the best drivers in the world no matter where they come from. But it appears the majority’s viewpoint — the more competitive Americans in this series, the better — has been acknowledged by multiple team owners.

And there may be more coming if the revamped Mazda Road to Indy ladder system does its job in truly preparing them for the big leagues. How could would it be to see guys like Bryan Clauson, Sage Karam and Zach Veach run the Indianapolis 500 in a couple of seasons? It could happen.

Let’s not forget that more sponsors are starting to tap into what IndyCar has to offer (particularly Verizon, who will put their motorsports marketing efforts into IndyCar after being hamstrung a bit over in NASCAR). Fourteen new sponsors have been racked up by IndyCar in the last year and sponsors spent nearly $50 million more in 2010 ($81 million) than they did in ’09 ($34 million). The increase in activation will only help the series grow its mainstream presence.

Finally, there’s Kanaan, who’s been a true fan favorite over the years even though he hasn’t quite reached the Q-rating heights of former teammate Danica Patrick and fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves. He’s a part of IndyCar’s “nucleus” and it would’ve been a shock if he wasn’t on the grid in 2011.

Yeah, there’s a lot to be thankful for this Christmas if you’re an IndyCar fan. Things are far from perfect, but it seems the dark cloud that has perpetually followed this series has started to dissipate. For the first time in a while, redemption doesn’t seem “so close and yet so far away.”

It’s just close.

Merry Christmas, indeed.