Danica just piece of IndyCar puzzle

BY foxsports • May 31, 2011

Indianapolis Motor Speedway put on the celebration of the century for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

The 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 featured compelling storylines throughout the month of May and hit a crescendo with a fitting final lap that no one could have predicted. Rookie J.R. Hildebrand wrecked in Turn 4 and returning driver (and now unemployed racer) Dan Wheldon picked up his second Borg-Warner trophy.

So with Wheldon, the IZOD IndyCar’s biggest winner of the year, not trackside for the final 13 races of the season, and the league’s most recognized racer, Danica Patrick, on what could be her farewell tour, what does America’s most popular open-wheel series do to perpetuate momentum?

Stay the course.

For the first time since the formation of the Indy Racing League was announced in 1995 and splintered off from CART, the Indy 500 lived up to the hype. The streets were packed around 16th & Georgetown long before the cannon fired signifying the gates were open. The parking lots, pits and stands were jam-packed with partiers and fans hoping to see a show and the competitors delivered.

And given the response that Ms. Patrick received from the crowd on Sunday, it’s apparent the show will go on long after she’s gone.

Since Randy Bernard took over as IndyRacing League CEO 14 months ago, he had a vision of what the sport could be. Bernard was also well aware of the “15 to 20 million fans” that were lost after the open-wheel “divorce” and it’s been his mission to regain the followers.

Bernard started the season in the U.S. on the streets of St. Petersburg and will end the year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- a popular destination for competitors and fans alike. He instituted double-file restarts for IndyCar and split the Texas event into two separate races, the first time that’s been done in 19 years.

And although Bernard realizes that the exodus of fans from CART began with the influx of drivers from outside the U.S., he realizes the key to regaining supporters involves not only recruiting American drivers, but the best racers that are available in the sport.

On Sunday, Bernard nearly hit the daily double with a 23-year-old rookie from Sausalito, Calif., until the final corner when Hildebrand slammed his race car in Turn 4. He would have become the first American to win the Indy 500 since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. Oh, and did I mention that Hildebrand’s hero is Dale Earnhardt?

Finishing third was another American, but one who sports the last name Rahal. Twenty-five years after Bobby Rahal won his Borg-Warner trophy, son Graham, 22, led six laps in the closing circuits of the Indy 500 and posted a podium finish. After Rahal climbed from the car, his father Bobby embraced him, providing another memorable May moment.

Out of Indy emerged so many comeback stories, whether it was Wheldon winning his one-and-done 500 or Alex Tagliani earning the pole position for Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

The top heartstring-pulling tale had to go Simona De Silvestro. The 22-year-old “Swiss Miss” turned “Swiss Missile” and suffered second- and third-degree burns on the back of her hands during a wicked crash during practice, but fought back to qualify 23rd in her second Indy 500. Broken suspension pieces were responsible for her crash and her consequent 31st-place finish on Sunday. While De Silvestro lacks the polish of IndyCar media darling Danica Patrick, she remained gracious throughout her ordeal and continues to earn the admiration and respect of both competitors and fans. IndyCar fans will pick a racer over a pretty face any day of the week.

Yes, the Indy underdogs did exceptionally well at the Brickyard. And much of their success can be attributed to an eight-year-old car that has been maxed out in the gray areas that allowed everyone to compete on an even playing field. But Bernard has new oval and road-course cars coming for 2012 that are expected to be sleeker and safer than the current models. Next season will also mark the return of Chevrolet for the first time since 2005.

While IndyCar may never return to the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, the sport is moving in the right direction. And that’s a positive for motorsports enthusiasts across the board.


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