An off-season that featured numerous drivers switching teams came to a climax in the final days leading up to the season opener in St. Petersburg, with Ryan Hunter-Reay, Darren Manning and Alex Tagliani all using the countdown to secure deals for the Honda Grand Prix.
Hunter-Reay, who courted and was courted by several teams throughout the winter, finally locked up a full-time ride with Vision Racing, while Manning and Tagliani secured rides for St Pete with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Conquest Racing respectively.
“I'm used to jumping in cars at the last minute, with the pressure on, with no practice,” said Hunter-Reay, who drove for Rahal Letterman Racing since the middle of last year, “That's what I did with Rahal in '07 and that worked out well.
“I haven't been in the [Vision] car at all, so the first session in St Pete depends on how much we need to change around. The braking, the steering rack, all these things are fitted to the driver and the driver's preferences, so we might have to climb through some of that. But there's no reason why we can't be very competitive this weekend. It's a street circuit, and this is probably the best venue I could ask for to start out because I feel at home there.”
Manning and Tagliani, meanwhile, are just glad to be competing at St Petersburg and hopeful they can work deals to compete in additional races.
“I guess I've been on the minds of [co-owners] Dennis [Reinbold] and Robbie [Buhl] since the end of last year,” said Manning, who spent the last two seasons with AJ Foyt Racing, “I got the call, and fortunately I wasn't doing anything else. I know St Pete very well and can offer the team and their primary driver Mike [Conway] a good head of experience - and, hopefully, some good speed and a good performance that I've always had.”
Tagliani started the final three races of 2008 with Conquest Racing, finishing fourth in the non-points race at Australia, and is keen to pick up where he left off.
“It was definitely a fantastic opportunity for me last year to join the IndyCar Series for the first time and have the opportunity to do it with Conquest,” the Canadian said, “We gelled well, went to Australia and had a great weekend, very competitive. So we're motivated.
"This event, unfortunately, happens really late, but we're working on something for the rest of the year, and it's really important that we join the IndyCar Series in St Pete. We feel that, with everybody on board, and with the group of people that Conquest has, we could have a good car and definitely do a good showing in St Pete, even if it's difficult conditions.”
Other key driver changes for 2009 include a new face at frontrunner Penske, where Will Power opens the season in the #3 as Helio Castroneves focuses on his tax evasion case. Power's seat at KV Racing Technology has been filled by former Dale Coyne driver Mario Moraes. The Brazilian, in turn, is replaced by former Newman/Haas/Lanigan team leader Justin Wilson, who sees rookie Robert Doornbos fill the vacant seat alongside Graham Rahal.
Former series and Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon has left the crack Target Chip Ganassi outfit for the challenge of taking Panther Racing back to the top step of the podium, allowing Ganassi to bring another former 'double' winner, Dario Franchitti, back from the wilderness of its NASCAR operation. Erstwhile Panther runner Vitor Meira fills Manning's previous berth at Foyt, while Hunter-Reay effectively occupies the car campaigned in 2008 by AJ Foyt IV.