Excitement has been building for weeks amongst the 42 sim racers who were hand-picked for this year's roster. Much like their real-world counterparts, the weeks leading up to the season-opener have seen numerous teams and sim racers unveil new paint schemes and sponsorship deals. The last week has seen practice and testing ramp up with some rookies getting their first taste of what the Lionheart regular season is all about.
The league's own version of silly season has been in high gear for much of the off-season. All eight teams are returning for 2017 and one new team, Area 51 Racing, will join the battle for the team championship. Only defending champions No Name Racing and runner-up Team #Nailed It kept their line-ups intact while others worked to improve and re-build their rosters.
The biggest changes came to Streamline Motorsports which enters the season with an entirely different line-up. The team now consists of Rookie of the Year contenders Ryan Otis, James Paulson and Travis Jegerlehner. Otis is the only member of the team with previous starts in the DW-12 and he is coming off a dominating victory in the Lionheart Retro Series that saw him beat Jake Wright by over twenty seconds at Watkins Glen. The race has left observers wondering if it was the first of many showdowns between Wright and Otis in 2017.
One of the other major signings of the off-season was Michael Goodman, who joined AGR Motorsports following an impressive three-race run at the end of 2016. Goodman is expected to be quick and consistent this season – a good recipe for success in the league. AGR cemented themselves as a title contender in 2017 with the signing of 3-time CART Retro Series champion Bradley Walters who returns to Lionheart for the first time since the league's third season.
Other major moves include Lionheart Challenge Series champion Dustin Wardlow heading to Dragonfly Racing, George Adams and Mitchell Mohler signing with Blue Bayou Racing and Adrenaline Motorsports welcoming Indy Elite Series regulars Michael Peters and Andrew Kinsella into the fold.
While the league's 24-race season will be a grind those who persevere and rise to the top will be richly rewarded. The league champion will earn $250.00 in 2017, part of a total cash purse of $1790.00 – the largest in league history. Perhaps more impressively the league champion will drive away with a set of new HPP 3P-PRX-SE pedals valued at $1247.00. All-told the league is offering $3450.00 in cash and prizes for its members in 2017.
As for the season-opener there are some obvious contenders who are expected to play a major role in the 133-lap First Medical 200. Joe Hassert is the defending race winner and should be a threat once again in his Arctic Cat Dallara DW-12.
Whenever Hassert is at the front it seems that his rival Chris Stofer is never far away. Stofer is looking to continue his late-season resurgence that saw him beat Hassert in a photo-finish at Kansas and finish on the podium in the final three races of 2016. Stofer was the runner-up at Homestead last season and led 10 laps.
Jake Wright will look to kick off his quest for a third consecutive championship with a strong performance at Homestead. Wright has started on the pole in each of the past two seasons and he could very well earn himself another HPP Pole Award this year. Wright led 45 laps at Homestead in 2016 and finished third but he has never won at the Florida-based track.
Teammates Dan Geren and Jonathan Goke, who finished 2-3 in the championship last season, will be motivated as well. Stealing a win in the season-opener would be an easy way for the Team #NailedIt due to gain early championship momentum. Geren will debut his new sponsor Barber Financial at Homestead while Goke will be returning from deployment and make his first start since September.
Meanwhile, teammates Jason Galvin and Jason Robarge of AGR Motorsports could also find themselves up front. Galvin is coming off a recent Homestead victory in the Retro Series while Robarge will be competing at Homestead for the first time since Season 3 as computer issues kept him out of the event last season.
Underdogs to watch this week include Bob Mikes of Controlled Chaos Racing and Chris Lanini of Dragonfly Racing. Mikes has shown impressive pace thus far in testing and is coming off a Retro Series win at Michigan – the first Lionheart open-wheel win of his career. Meanwhile, Lanini has been fast in practice and will be motivated to kick his season off on the right foot after running only a partial schedule in 2016.
The First Medical 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be broadcast live on the Global Sim Racing Channel (GSRC) and iRacing Live on March 1st beginning at 10:35PM ET.