By STEVE HERMAN
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Bring on the competition.
Tony Kanaan, a former IndyCar Series champion, welcomes the new teams and drivers from the former Champ Car series, a long-awaited merger he says will help restore the popularity of open-wheel racing in the United States.
"I'm probably one of the few guys that's been on both sides, so I couldn't wait to hear the news," Kanaan said Wednesday. "I think it's great. I do believe we have a lot of work to do, though."
The Brazilian driver came to the Indy Racing League with Andretti Green Racing in 2003 after five years in CART, the Champ Car predecessor. With last week's announcement of the unification of the two major open-wheel series in the United States, at least eight more cars, and possibly as many as a dozen, are expected to join the IRL's top series this season.
"It's going to be a big transition time for all of us, especially the Champ Car teams," said Kanaan, the IndyCar champion in 2004. "But also for the series adapting, changing some things not just this year but for the future. But the biggest thing is it's done. It's up to us now. No more excuses from anybody, the race community, the journalists, drivers, teams.
"We have one goal now, to make the series grow more and more and more each year, which we haven't been doing in the IRL for many years. ... So let's go race."
The IndyCar season opens March 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The IRL smoothed the transition by offering the former Champ Car teams a free Honda engine leasing program, two Dallara chassis and $1.2 million in team incentives. The league also will hold special test sessions for new teams on the road circuit at Sebring International Raceway on March 19-20 and on the oval at Homestead on March 24-25.
In recent offseason tests for the holdover IRL teams, Kanaan was the fastest both days at Sebring but didn't drive at Homestead because of mechanical problems.
Andretti Green also has veteran drivers Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti, the son of team co-owner Michael Andretti, along with newcomer Hideki Mutoh, who joined AGR after defending Indy 500 and series champion Dario Franchitti departed for NASCAR.
Mutoh was the rookie of the year last season in the Indy Pro Series, the IRL's developmental program.
"We're just working, trying to understand what everybody wants, the goals for the team, what we want to achieve, what we worked over the winter that we can simulate back to the track," Kanaan said.
"Obviously I have a bigger responsibility on the team," said the 33-year-old Kanaan. "They're probably relying on me more than I'm relying on them. But they're very experienced. Danica and Marco can get the job done, and Hideki's learning very quickly. I lost my wing man, Dario, so it's definitely a transition time, but I don't think it's a big deal."
Kanaan won a series-best five races last season but finished third in points behind Franchitti and Scott Dixon.
"The last five years, I've been in championship hunt until the last race, so I'm not expecting any less," Kanaan said. "I'm fully aware we're going to have more teams, more cars ... more good teams, and the competition probably is going to get even higher. But nothing has changed from the years past for me. Obviously, I feel confident I can be one of the championship contenders."
Franchitti and former Indy winner Sam Hornish Jr. are the latest among a number of drivers who have left the IRL for NASCAR, a trend Kanaan said should change with the unification of open-wheel racing.
"A big issue has always been the split, saying, 'Well, people can make more money in NASCAR, NASCAR is more popular,"' Kanaan said. "But we're a completely different product. If you go back 15, 16 years ago, we're much bigger than them, and suddenly with the split they jumped so far ahead.
"I'm not trying to compare ourselves right now, because I don't think it's even possible," he said. "But I think you're going to see a lot less guys trying to leave now because it's back to where it was in the past."