IRL season opens, raising ante for motorsports drama

Yes, there actually was major American racing this weekend, even though it was an off weekend for the top three NASCAR series.

But no, it wasn't actually in America. Well, OK, it was in South America.

The IRL picked a great weekend to open the season, capped with the win by Penske's perfectly-named Will Power, but one has to imagine that the attention would have been a little greater if the race was in the States instead of Sao Paulo, Brazil. (TV coverage started at 11 ET Sunday, which is early by sporting event standards.)

And the IRL was probably assuming that DirecTV and Versus would have settled their feud by now, a battle that has simmered since the last races of the 2009 season, leaving many people -- like yours truly -- unable to see anything.

But given what happened this weekend in Brazil, it might have been a good thing that the IRL flew under the radar.

Believe it or not, the trickiest part of the track during practice was the front straightaway. And no, I'm not kidding. Apparently the concrete that is on the frontstretch was slippery, so slippery that no one could go flat-out without spinning out. (When not being used for an auto race, that's where Carnival in Sao Paulo takes place.) So the IRL decided to grind the front straight and postpone qualifying until race day.

The track was only able to be ground about 1/8th of an inch, but we all know what happens when concrete is ground. Track officials and workers did their best to sweep all of that dust away from the ground portion of the track, but when the cars took the green flag, a giant plume of dust obscured the vision of all of the drivers behind row one. (And did I mention that Turn One was a tight hairpin? Visibility is only slightly imperative for that corner.)

Predictably, chaos ensued:

In the madness, Mario Moraes spun out, hit Marco Andretti in front of him and somehow landed on top of Andretti's car. (You may remember that Moraes took out Andretti in last year's Indianapolis 500.) It took track workers five minutes to get Moraes' car off of Andretti's.

Then a thunderstorm hit, knocking out power to the media center and causing the race to be red-flagged for 36 minutes. Maybe because of overload due to the Versus-DirecTV dispute, the timing and scoring and live stream on were unreliable at best.

So if you weren't one of the lucky cable or satellite subscribers who remembered to watch Saturday's opener on the Sao Paulo street course, here's some things to know:

• She with the initials DP isn't the only woman in the field this year. Defying all odds of logic based purely on driving ability, Milka Duno has a full season ride with Dale Coyne Racing. Of course, the CITGO money has a lot to do with that. But outside of Danica Patrick and Milka (Odds on another catfight?) there are two other women making their IRL debuts. Ana Beatriz came up through the Firestone Indy Lights Series and is driving for Dreyer and Reinbold, while Simona de Silvestro is with HVM Racing after excelling in the Atlantic Series. (Side note: NASCAR isn't the only racing series with potential conflicts of interest in the broadcast booth. Former driver and Versus commentator Robbie Buhl is an owner of Dreyer and Reinbold.)

• Sarah Fisher is also going to be running a part-time schedule and will have Graham Rahal in her car for the two races following the Sao Paulo contest. It's absurd to think that Rahal can get only a two-race deal while Duno can be a backmarker for the full season, but hey, when you have a major oil company backing you, the sky is the limit. Or 20th place. Whatever comes first. (Milka abruptly stopped during the middle of the race Saturday without hitting anything. Yet, her official reason for being out was "contact.")

• Hideki Mutoh was replaced at the newly renamed Andretti Autosport (formerly Andretti/Green Racing) by Ryan Hunter Reay, but much to the delight of the sizable Japanese media contingent that follows the IRL, Mutoh got a ride with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing (Rahal's former employer) for the 2010 season. Former F1 driver Takuma Sato also is running the full season for KV Racing, giving Honda another reason to keep a race at Twin-Ring Motegi.

• The major on-track question in 2010 is if Andretti Autosport or another team can crack the stranglehold that Penske and Ganassi had on the series in 2009. The four full-time Ganassi and Penske cars finished in the top four of the season standings, and Penske has expanded to three teams for 2010, giving Will Power -- who did a great job in a part-time role with the team last year and won Sunday's race -- a full-time ride.

Dominant teams, on-track controversy and Danica Patrick. It all feels familiar, somehow.