IndyCar Series tries to steer through tragedy, upheaval

Jim Peltz / Los Angeles Times /


Published Dec 19, 2011 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

LOS ANGELES — Two months after the nation was stunned by a 15-car crash that killed driver Dan Wheldon, the Izod IndyCar Series is trying to re-establish momentum heading into next season.

But after announcing last week that no one factor caused Wheldon’s death in the fiery wreck Oct. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, IndyCar and its chief executive Randy Bernard now must overcome several issues still weighing on their effort to boost the sport’s popularity.

Among them:

The series is rolling out a new race car whose ultimate performance is yet unknown.

IndyCar’s full 2012 schedule isn’t out.

The job of series race director remains unfilled.

Popular driver Danica Patrick has left the series for NASCAR stock-car racing.

IndyCar is grappling to find a financially viable balance of races on oval tracks and those on twisty street and road courses.

Entering his third season as IndyCar’s boss, Bernard remains sanguine despite the series’ struggle to draw more spectators and television viewers.

“I’m very optimistic,” Bernard said in an interview. “We’re making significant progress.”

The schedule could be announced as early as today; the holdup was negotiations for IndyCar to return in June to Texas Motor Speedway, which, like Las Vegas, is a 1.5-mile oval, Bernard said.

Most of next year’s race dates are known because the tracks or IndyCar announced the individual events.

IndyCar also said it won’t return to Las Vegas next October pending further tests of the new car at that track, indicating that the new night race Sept. 15 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., might be the season finale.

But Bernard said it was “50-50” that Fontana would hold the last race because IndyCar might add one race that would be announced early next year. Indeed, this year’s Las Vegas race wasn’t announced until Feb. 22.

So besides Fontana and Texas, the only ovals on IndyCar’s schedule appear to be Iowa and the sport’s crown jewel, the Indianapolis 500 in late May.

That doesn’t sit well with some IndyCar fans that prefer oval tracks. But races this year at the Milwaukee, Kentucky and New Hampshire ovals had weak attendance and even the Las Vegas race, heavily promoted by Bernard, had fewer than 30,000 spectators.

“We need to take a step back and truly understand what our fans want to see on those ovals, because the product we were providing — besides the Indy 500 and Texas and Iowa — we’ve had marginal success at best,” Bernard said.

Some of IndyCar’s top teams agreed.

“We would like to have a combination of race tracks that are promoted well and move our brand to the next level of recognition,” said Mike Hull, managing director of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, whose drivers include series champion Dario Franchitti.

Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing, said he’s more concerned with racing on an oval earlier in the season. “We still are looking at a schedule in which we don’t have an oval race before Indy and that to me is a flaw in the schedule,” he said.

“We’d definitely like to see that as well,” Bernard said of a pre-Indy 500 oval race, adding that Phoenix International Raceway was one track worth exploring.

Regardless, the series expects an added boost from its new race car. Teams also can now choose the cars’ engines from three manufacturers — Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus — and all three “will promote the (IndyCar) brand very, very seriously,” Hull said.

IndyCar also expects better TV ratings. Most of its races are shown on the relatively little watched Versus channel, but Versus’ name is being changed to NBC Sports Network next month in hopes of drawing more viewers.

IndyCar also removed Brian Barnhart as race-control director after several controversial decisions that angered drivers and teams. A successor wasn’t immediately named but “this person has to be in place before the first of the year” and “we’re very close to selecting one,” Bernard said.