IndyCar Series finds positives and challenges in future

Love it or hate it, enjoy it or abhor it, embrace it or despise it, the IZOD IndyCar Series and its evolution over the past 15 seasons has been a fascinating story.

The 200th chapter of this tale will be written Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway amid the backdrop of a revitalized championship battle between Will Power and Dario Franchitti, who now sits just 23 points behind Power after winning at Chicagoland Speedway last weekend. All in all, it’s rather good timing for the series that the Power vs. Franchitti saga is enjoying new life as it celebrates an important milestone.

The series has gone through multiple guises since its first race at Walt Disney World Speedway in 1996, when it was a series meant to uphold the tradition of American oval-track racing and the Indianapolis 500.

The “old” Indy Racing League of 1996-2002 featured American drivers such as Tony Stewart, Buddy Lazier and Sam Hornish Jr. putting on wild speedway shows. The “new” IndyCar Series from 2003-09 added a bigger scope to everything and came complete with strong international talent such as Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, those “evil” road and street courses, and some woman named Danica Patrick.

Now, in 2010, it is in the midst of another change. Finally armed with a title sponsor that knows about the concept of activation, the series is attempting to move into places it’s never been before with a rock-solid group of drivers, a new CEO that’s learning more and more about his surroundings every day, and a schedule that’s shifting toward facilities that want to actively grow the IndyCar brand.

But no matter what, the series can’t seem to stay out of trouble as well. For every positive there’s been a negative (anemic TV ratings, attendance/promotion problems, lack of homegrown drivers) to go with it. Three seasons after the open-wheel war finally ended, there are still plenty of obstacles that must be overcome in order for this form of racing to recapture prominence.

In a perfect world, the racing would speak for itself. Nearly half (43 percent) of all IZOD IndyCar Series events have been decided by less than one second, and the pole sitter has only won slightly more than a quarter (28 percent) of them. It’s become known for its great action on the ovals, and since bringing on road/street racing in 2005, the series has had its moments on those tracks as well.

But in a perfect world, the series’ role in the IRL-Champ Car schism would also have been forgotten – along with those of everybody else who helped bring open-wheel racing to its knees. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The challenge of overseeing the implementation of the 2012 IndyCars may pale in comparison to the challenge of bringing back the 15 million to 20 million fans that were lost from 1996 to 2008.

The series hits 200 events in a state of transition. Founding father Tony George is no longer the king of the sport but a mere car owner. Financial independence has become more important in a world economy that won’t revive easily. And the next generation of open-wheel machines, whether some of the owners like it or not, is set to emerge in a mere 18 months.

How will new CEO Randy Bernard manage to sort this all out? From all accounts, the former leader of the Professional Bull Riders has been like a sponge in absorbing information about his new surroundings. But he’s just starting to encounter the toxic politics of the sport, and it’s a problem that he doesn’t need to have considering he’s got the massive task of relaunching IndyCar racing to the public.

He’s inherited a tough reclamation project, and all eyes will be on him to clean things up. Some elements in the series may want him to clean things up their way. He can’t listen to those demands – the greater good is the top priority.

In summary, the IZOD IndyCar Series has proven to be one of the most exciting motorsports leagues in the world, but many questions still remain about its future survival.

However, it’s clear that the folks on 16th and Georgetown have come a long way in these past 199 events, and accomplishments, like challenges, can’t be discounted either. As Power and Franchitti continue their war for the championship Saturday night, they can look back on the past 15 years and feel a sense of pride in the positive things that the IZOD IndyCar Series has brought to the motorsports landscape.

But they also must feel a sense of responsibility. The series has become the major league open-wheel series in North America, and it has a major hole to climb out of – a hole that it helped create. It’s on them to bring the sport back to its former glory.

May that sense of responsibility guide them through the next 200 races.