IndyCar Series driver Scott Dixon battles the rain during a Friday afternoon… (Robert Laberge / Getty Images )
IndyCar's top drivers are taking a back seat to the main focus of this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach: Their new race car.
After using the same car and only Honda engines for several years, the Izod IndyCar Series this season rolled out a new chassis and allowed teams to choose engines from three suppliers: Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus.
The new car, which features added driver-safety features, already was being developed when Dan Wheldon was killed in a multi-car accident at last season's finale in Las Vegas. Wheldon, in fact, helped test the car.
But the fatal accident added emphasis to the new car's safety features, which includes extended body work aimed at preventing the type of airborne crashes seen in Wheldon's fatal wreck.
The Sunday race on Long Beach's streets is the third race of the season, and IndyCar teams still are mastering the car.
"Some cars are good coming off the corners, some cars are good at the end of the straights," said J.R. Hildebrand of Panther Racing, a Chevrolet team. "Everybody's still figuring things out."
Drivers practiced Friday morning but their afternoon practice was disrupted by rain. Dario Franchitti made one lap and pulled off, then his teammate Scott Dixon attempted a lap but spun and lightly hit the wall. No other driver went out on the 11-turn course.
One more practice is scheduled Saturday morning before qualifying later in the day.
Perennial powerhouse Team Penske, also using Chevy engines, won the season's first two races with drivers Helio Castroneves and Will Power. But this week Chevrolet was hurt by the new car's growing pains.
After one of its cars suffered engine failure in a test run, Chevrolet opted to change engines in all 11 of its cars ahead of Sunday's race.
That broke IndyCar rules requiring the engines be used at least 1,850 miles, unless they fail during a race. So the 11 cars — including Team Penske's — will be docked 10 starting spots Sunday.
The new car weighs roughly the same as the old car, about 1,500 to 1,565 pounds, but the new one accelerates quicker, said Bobby Rahal, a former Indianapolis 500 winner and now team co-owner for driver Takuma Sato.
There's also a roomier, safer cockpit, which Rahal said was a major improvement for taller drivers such as his son, Graham, who drives for a different team.
"Anybody who was over 6 feet tall was shoehorned in that thing," Bobby Rahal said of the old car. "For the taller guys, it's much, much safer."