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BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Series gets NBC air time, title sponsor, key race in Portland

COURTESY: JOE SKIBINSKI - Scott Dixon returns in 2019 as a five-time IndyCar series driving champion, hoping to build on his 44 career victories.It's a long time until the IndyCar Series reaches Portland International Raceway, but it's also an exciting time for the fans of the open-wheel racers.

The season starts Sunday with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. The series has a stable team and driver lineup — the top 10 return for the 2019 season — and a solid new television agreement with NBC Sports Group, as well as a coveted title sponsor.

It's now the NTT IndyCar Series, with backing from world telecommunications company NTT.

"I'm tired of saying we're positioned for growth. Now I can say, we're growing," says Mark Miles, president and CEO of Hulman & Company, owner of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which hosts the series' anchor race, the Indy 500, on Memorial Day weekend.

On Labor Day weekend, the series returns to Portland for the second consecutive year. It again will be the penultimate race of the season.

It was exciting last year as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's Takuma Sato won and Scott Dixon survived an early incident to simply finish and earn points. He later finished second at Sonoma, California, to clinch his fifth IndyCar Series championship. Dixon has 44 career victories.

"We loved everything about it," says Curt Cavin, IndyCar vice president of communications, of the Grand Prix of Portland. "The fan turnout, the way the event was held, the track, they all got high marks.

"We have every thought in mind that this (relationship) is long term. Portland is too important to this sport and Green-Savoree promotion company."

Green-Savoree operates the event, which hasn't yet landed a title sponsor.

"We're certainly happy," Cavin adds. "I'm sure that Green-Savoree learned things about hosting an event in Portland, and year two in an event is always better. You know more about the landscape, the interest of the people and their habits, such as how many arrive early and late, what food they consume and how much."

Dixon remains the series favorite, although he hasn't won back-to-back titles before.

"You would always start with Scott," Cavin says. "He knows defending is something that he wants to do.

"His experience is so immense, his talent is so immense, and he's with a good team. But, there are past champions all over the place: Penske has three (Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power). Sebastien Bourdais (of Dale Coyne Racing) won four early in his career. Ryan Hunter-Reay is a former champ at Andretti."

The top 10 drivers return: Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Power, Hunter-Reay, Newgarden, Pagenaud, Bourdais, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe.

There was little movement in the driver lineup, save for the addition of some rookies for full-time and limited rides.

A notable addition is Felix Rosenqvist as the second Chip Ganassi Racing car along with Dixon. Rosenqvist has been just as fast as Dixon in some testing the past couple years.

Marcus Ericsson is now driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as a replacement for the severely injured Robert Wickens. He has a Formula One background.

And, 18-year-old Colton Herta, the son of former driver Bryan Herta, is a rookie for Harding Steinbrenner Racing. He has been associated with George Steinbrenner IV for the past several years, and ascended to IndyCar, even as his father remains involved with an Andretti team.

"Colton had three of the four quickest test times at Austin, Texas, and was second in the last one," Cavin says.

The series has added another team, DragonSpeed, giving it five new teams in two years. There are 24 cars entered for the St. Petersburg race; there'll be about that many for most races, except the Indy 500 should have more than 30.

Sato returns with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Last year, he started 20th and, thanks to racing fuel conservation strategy, finished first at PIR, which saw the return of open-wheel racing for the first time since Champ Car left in 2007. Only Tony Kanaan is older than Sato, now 42, on the circuit.

Old age, what old age?

"At some point, I'm going to be degradating for sure," the Japanese driver says. "In motor racing, that's one of the great things, it's not just physical strength, it's coordination and also your experience.

"I still feel like I'm learning and developing. It's a good thing. Of course, it's quite a few years to come where I have to decide to make the next move or next decision. While I still have an opportunity, I want to consider racing. ... Now I know how to manage a whole race, and experience definitely made me a better, smarter driver. That's why I'm still doing it. If I'm behind, then I will retire."

The series has two new races — March 24 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and Sept. 22 at Monterey, California, the season-ending race and first event at Laguna Seca in 15 years.

And, the new Dallara car introduced last year drew rave reviews, mostly because it helped the competitiveness of the series. Passing on road courses (including PIR) went up 48.1 percent last year; passing for position went up 46.5 percent. There were higher numbers on street courses and much higher on short oval tracks, but lower on speedway tracks. The series is making wing and aerodynamic adjustments to the chassis for better drafting and passing on speedway tracks.

Not only is the NTT sponsorship important for the series, so is the new television agreement. In the past, networks such as ABC and NBC have split the coverage. Now, it's all NBC's.

IndyCar sees how NBC has done well with big events — the Olympics, Kentucky Derby — and wants the same for the Indy 500.

Eight races will be shown on NBC, including Portland and Laguna Seca. The other nine will be on NBCSN.

"It's just consistency; every week we're going to be on an NBC property," Cavin says. "There's more incentive for NBC to promote, hype the next race, tell the story lines of the season."

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