-- The Indy Racing League season, which will begin today at Homestead-Miami Speedway, will be all about change.
With the start of the Toyota Indy 300, newcomers Toyota and Honda will join returning Chevrolet in providing engines for the 22-car field, every car -- G Force or Dallara -- will be brand-new, and the lineup will be dotted by famous names that weren't there last year.
"This IRL series is much different from when I raced here in 1999," said Kenny Brack, who won the championship that season, then left for the rival CART Champ Car series.
Now he's back with a new entry from Team Rahal, and the Swede can hardly believe the changes.
"Back in 1999, there were about six or seven cars that really could win a race," he said. "Now, in 2003, there are 17 or 18 cars and drivers that can race for the win on any weekend. The competition level has jumped dramatically."
It would be hard to be any more competitive than last season when eight races were decided by less than half of a second and there were nine different winners, six of them first-time winners, in the 15 races.
"It's hard to believe the competition could get any tighter, but the new engines and chassis should make everyone more equal, and more great drivers just make it tougher to win," two-time defending IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. said.
Hornish won a record five races in 2002, but the 23 year-old driver had to win the last two, by a combined 12-thousandths of a second, to win his second title.
A lot of the changes in the IRL this season can be directly attributed to the problems that CART went through in the past two years, waffling on rules and struggling to attract sponsors and television viewers.
The IRL, which began competition in 1996, is an all-oval series, which includes the Indianapolis 500, the crown jewel of open-wheel racing. CART, racing since 1979, remains a diverse series encompassing street and road racing and ovals. It has no single race approaching the stature of Indianapolis.
Roger Penske, one of the founders of CART, began the exodus when he moved his powerful Marlboro Team Penske to the IRL in 2002, bringing two-time defending CART champion Gil de Ferran and Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves with him.
Engine manufacturers Toyota and Honda decided to leave the Champ Car series after butting heads with CART over rules and becoming disenchanted with the struggling series.
While CART was in the process of reinventing itself and righting its sinking ship, Chip Ganassi Racing, Mo Nunn Racing and Andretti-Green Racing, formerly Team Kool Green, left the series after 2002, while Rahal and Fernandez Racing both started one-car IRL teams while continuing to race in CART.
Besides Brack, who drove for Ganassi last year, drivers moving to the IRL this season include Michael Andretti, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon.
Andretti, a former series champion and CART's all-time winningest driver with 42 victories, is the biggest name in the group, but the 40-year-old racer plans to retire from the cockpit after May's Indy 500 to concentrate on being a team owner.
However, Andretti brought Franchitti and Kanaan with him.
"The IRL was where we thought our future needed to be and I'm really looking forward to this race," Andretti said. "It's my first one as team owner, and I would really like to see one of our cars on the podium.
"I don't want to give any predictions on how well Andretti-Green Racing will do. The process of building a team from scratch is just that, a process. This race is the next step in our journey."
Besides de Ferran and Castroneves, a two-time Indy 500 winner, the newcomers will have to contend with Hornish, one of the brightest young stars.
The veteran Penske drivers were expected to brush aside Hornish, but the youngster shook off a midseason slump and came back to relegate them to second and third in the championship.
He did it by winning a couple of the closest races in the history of the open-wheel sport -- topping two-time Indy winner Al Unser Jr. by .0024 seconds -- a few inches -- at Chicagoland Speedway, then wrapping up the title by holding off series runner-up Castroneves by .0096 in the finale at Texas Motor Speedway.
Side-by-side racing at speeds above 220 mph and eyelash-close finishes have become a trademark of the IndyCar league.
Scott Sharp, who was the IRL co-champion with Buzz Calkins in 1996, believes the series will not miss a beat, even with all the new factors.
"So far, all we've got to go on is testing, but I think the power levels for the three engines are very close, the cars are very close, and everyone is on the same [Firestone] tires.
"You're splitting hairs, and you'll have to just get everything together from a setup and a team perspective to really find any time advantage."
Chip Ganassi, whose teams won an unprecedented four straight CART championships from 1996 to '99, has expanded a one-car IRL entry to two, putting youngsters Dixon and Tomas Scheckter in the seats.
Dixon won a race in CART in 2000 as a 20-year-old rookie, while Scheckter, 22, had a controversial start with Red Bull Cheever Racing. The son of former Formula One champion Jody Scheckter, was fast, winning three poles and one race, but crashed out of six of 12 starts before parting ways with team owner and teammate Eddie Cheever.
Cheever, the IRL's only owner-driver, is expected to drive only the Indy 500 this year. He'll field a one-car team the rest of the season, leaving the driving to Buddy Rice, another youngster who broke in last season.
Rice, 27, ran five races for Cheever, earning four top 10 finishes, including a second-place in his debut at Michigan.
The youngest of the newcomers is rookie A.J. Foyt IV, who will drive for his famous grandfather in the elder Foyt's trademark No. 14. The 18-year-old driver won the inaugural Infiniti Pro Series championship last year and showed enough potential to make the jump to the IRL.
With all the new faces, it would be easy to ignore some of the established IRL stars, such as Unser, Buddy Lazier and Sharp, all former champions -- Unser in CART and Lazier and Sharp in the IRL.
"I don't mind being an underdog," Lazier said. "While everybody is watching all the new guys and the kids, maybe we can sneak up on them."