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AUTO RACING

IndyCar Series tries to steer through tragedy and upheaval

After Dan Wheldon's death at Las Vegas, Indy officials try to strike balance on oval and road courses. A new race car and incomplete schedule are other issues for sport trying to boost interest.

December 18, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • IndyCar Series chief executive Randy Bernard, left, and IndyCar Series president Brian Barnhart discuss the crash that killed driver Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during a news conference on Thursday. The open-wheel racing series is looking for ways to draw more interest.
IndyCar Series chief executive Randy Bernard, left, and IndyCar Series… (Greg Griffo / Associated…)

Two months after the nation was stunned by a 15-car crash that killed driver Dan Wheldon, the Izod IndyCar Series is trying to reestablish 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. "We're making significant progress."

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

Most of the race dates for next season are known because the tracks or IndyCar announced the individual events. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach street race is April 15. Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, a two-mile oval, has a new IndyCar night race Sept. 15.

IndyCar also said it won't return to Las Vegas next October pending further tests of the new car at that track, indicating that Fontana 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 other than 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 who 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 is 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.

Bernard said IndyCar also "has signed some new sponsors we'll be announcing soon," and others already have inked new IndyCar deals.

A vodka sold by golfer Fuzzy Zoeller is the sponsor of a new team co-owned by driver Ed Carpenter, who won the Kentucky race this year. Healthcare company Novo Nordisk recently extended its sponsorship of Ganassi driver Charlie Kimball, a diabetic.

"Companies like these see IndyCar as a great platform to develop their business," Carpenter 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.

"Everybody knows the television [rating] isn't where it needs to be, but there are positive steps on that front," Cindric said.

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.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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