Beyond the Indy 500, where is the interest for IndyCar series?
BY HERB GOULD email@example.com May 24, 2012 7:38PM
Marco Andretti drives out of the shadows through the first turn during practice for IndyCar's Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, May 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Updated: July 3, 2012 9:51AM
INDIANAPOLIS — It’s not simply about making left turns.
When the flag is waved at the start of the 96th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, the whole world will be watching the most historic U.S. motorsports event.
But beyond the gem they have in the Indy 500, IndyCar participants and officials are intent on restoring a series that has been lapped by NASCAR. They believe they have put the damaging open-wheel divisiveness of the ’90s in the rear-view mirror.
IndyCar has introduced a new car, aligned with multiple engine-makers for its turbocharged V-6 engines and added safety measures to prevent another tragedy such as the one that took Dan Wheldon’s life last October in Las Vegas.
‘‘There’s no question it sets you back from a personal level and a business level,’’ IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said of the death of Wheldon, a two-time Indy 500 winner. ‘‘It takes the air out of your lungs. In life, there’s going to be challenges. You have to deal with them. You have to keep going on what you think is right.’’
The new car, the Dallara DW12, is named after Wheldon, a driver beloved as much for his engaging personality as for his driving success. It features bodywork behind the rear wheels to prevent the wheel-to-wheel contact that led to Wheldon’s crash.
After relying solely on Honda power, the series has added Chevrolet engines, which are dominating the series, and Lotus engines, which haven’t been up to speed, raising concerns for the race Sunday.
There also is an ongoing debate about where IndyCar should take its races, from the balancing of races at ovals, street courses and permanent road courses to racing in the United States vs. international events.
IndyCar will debut a street race at Qindao, China, on Aug. 19, a departure from its sponsor-driven race in Japan, which is off this year’s schedule. It will, however, run for the second consecutive year at Milwaukee, which was off the schedule two years ago. And as the series moves away from high-speed ovals such as Las Vegas, where Wheldon was killed, there are indications that IndyCar could return to the road course at Elkhart Lake, Wis.
There still are major visibility issues to address: Ten of IndyCar’s 16 races are televised on NBC Sports Network, the successor to Versus, an obscure channel that saw a modest 10 percent gain in average IndyCar-race viewership, to 402,000 in 2011. The other six races are on ABC, which saw a 28 percent jump in viewers from 2010 to 2011, to about 3 million per race.
But there still is much work to be done on the television front. And the loss of high-profile Danica Patrick to NASCAR, which soared in popularity while Indy-car racing was in turmoil, has cost IndyCar its most recognizable drawing card.
Entering his third season as IndyCar CEO, Bernard, who established his credentials by building the remarkably successful Professional Bull Riders tour, believes IndyCar is on the right track. Working with longtime open-wheel owners such as Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Bobby Rahal, Bernard has tried to lure new fans while keeping in mind the sport’s longtime fan base.
“Everything we’ve done is first and foremost what’s important to the fans and building the fan base,’’ Bernard said. “But we’ve really tried not to mess with tradition. Look what we’re doing in Milwaukee. The reason we’re there is because we didn’t want a tradition to die. That market has to have a couple of years of great events to build it. But we’re going to invest in our future. I want Milwaukee. I want to protect the traditions.’’
Penske, a staunch supporter of the 1996 dispute that led to two open-wheel series, knows “the split’’ was disastrous for Indy-car racing. But he believes IndyCar is headed in the right direction.
“There’s nobody more stubborn than car owners, or you wouldn’t be in this business,’’ Penske said. “It was difficult. Both sides were hard-headed. But we put the series back together. We’re in great shape now. Hopefully, we can continue to build it.’’