IndyCar CEO rolling the dice on Las Vegas showcase
Rumors of IndyCar's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
True, open-wheel racing in America is a world removed from its heyday. It's lost the war against NASCAR and the bitter 1996 split between CART and what's now called IndyCar created casualties - small crowds, terrible television ratings, insulting purses at major events - that might never rebound.
But peel away the thick layers of negative perception and apathy shrouding IndyCar and what's revealed is an edgy series rife with many of the qualities the weary NASCAR fan has long complained is missing.
There's a compelling title race between three-time champion Dario Franchitti and perpetual bridesmaid Will Power headed into Sunday's season finale at Las Vegas. In many respects, the Franchitti-Power rivalry resembles something close to the animosity that lingers in NASCAR between Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch.
Franchitti is the Johnson, with a dominating reign, workmanlike approach and measured emotions. Power, like Busch employed by Penske Racing, can't seem to get over the hump in pursuit of the championship and tends to let his emotions get the best of him.
This season alone, Power referred to Alex Tagliani as ''a wanker'' in a television interview, called Franchitti ''princess'' in a Twitter rant, and picked up a $30,000 fine for a double-barreled obscene gesture directed at race control and aired during the live broadcast at New Hampshire.
Power, who was given the option by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard of completing ''community service'' in lieu of paying his fine, has maintained a good sense of humor about his bad behavior this season.
''Yeah, Randy's got me digging holes out at the speedway, putting posts up, emptying trash cans, waxing his car,'' Power joked. ''Whatever he needs, I suppose I'll do it.''
There's no denying, though, that the antics and actions have helped IndyCar bring in eyeballs this year, even if some of the interest is in nothing more than the drama.
''It's been a bit more out there this year, the competition on the track and off the track, and Twitter,'' said driver Scott Dixon. ''It does seem to be whenever there is controversy or you are doing something outrageous, you get more coverage for that than you do for the racing. I guess that's what gets attention.''
The fact is IndyCar will take attention anyway it can get it, and Bernard, the second-year CEO, has practically bet the house on having an increased interest this weekend in Las Vegas.
Bernard thought he had everything in place last year, his rookie season in trying to pump life into the series, but a strong title race didn't lead to a fabulous finale at Homestead. The race pulled in a .3 rating on cable channel Versus.
''We had a fantastic race in Homestead, same thing, down to the wire between Will and Dario,'' Bernard said. ''I sat there and watched that race and saw the ratings the next day and said 'That will never happen again, and if it does, it's my fault.' That was my grace year. Now I have to make decisions and changes that can grow our audience.''
That's how IndyCar found its way to Las Vegas, where the series is essentially renting the speedway this weekend from owner Bruton Smith and promoting the event itself. Bernard has done just that, through sponsorship agreements, a deal with MGM Grand Resorts that offers a pair of tickets to anyone staying this weekend in one of the chain's 14 properties, and a Thursday night spectacle in which all 34 cars entered will drive down the Las Vegas Strip.
Then there's that whole $5 million thing.
In the days after NASCAR's season-opening Daytona 500, when fresh-faced winner Trevor Bayne was crisscrossing the country and charming every talk show host into thinking NASCAR was cool, Bernard brilliantly managed to get IndyCar some attention with an outrageous $5 million promise to any moonlighting driver who could win the finale at Vegas.
There was a deep pool of candidates, particularly from current NASCAR stars with open-wheel backgrounds. But as the months went on, there were no takers and Bernard couldn't push along deals to get Kasey Kahne, Travis Pastrana or Alex Zanardi into the race.
He refused to scrap the idea, though, and Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was declared eligible for the prize. Wheldon, who couldn't put together a full-time ride this season, doesn't exactly meet the spirit of the promotion.
Bernard could have stood up and said ''IndyCar is too hard, nobody would accept the challenge.'' But he firmly believed continuing the promotion was the best thing for the series and critical in building momentum for next season.
''How we end our year is so important with so much riding on next year,'' he said. ''We can't have a repeat of last year. We have to have something of significance.''
But like almost everything else this season, the decision has its share of critics. Powerful team owners Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske were never publicly on board with the promotion, questioning the wisdom in fielding entries for the $5 million challenge when it would directly compete with their championship-contending drivers.
There's also some resentment from drivers who have wondered how it's fair that the season champion will collect roughly $1 million, but Wheldon, who earned $2.5 million for winning the Indy 500, is eligible for four times that amount. Should he win Sunday, Wheldon will split the prize with a fan.
''You've essentially got a guy who can win two races and earn more than the entire field combined,'' Franchitti said. ''Good for Dan, that's a lot of money he can win. But the fact is the champion won't win that much and that's not really right.''
Bernard has defended the inequality to the drivers, explaining that the promotion was about spending a portion of his marketing budget on the insurance policy that covers the $5 million.
''I've told them, 'Guys, think big picture. This is how much money I have to spend on advertising, it's not that much, tell me how would you spend it?'' Bernard said. ''Nobody has any other ideas on a national advertising campaign that can drive our ratings, put people in seats and give us a new database. If somebody has another idea, then I'll do it next year. But this is what we've got right now.''
Attracting an audience has been Bernard's top goal, and he's gotten it this year for both the good and the bad. He implemented double-file restarts, a la NASCAR, tried to create an All-Star type event by splitting the annual race at Texas into twin 275-mile events, and launched a new event in Baltimore that by all accounts was a rousing success. He was in Detroit on Wednesday to announce IndyCar will return to Belle Isle in 2012 for the first time in four years, and a deal to run in China next year seems imminent.
Some of his ideas have worked and some have not, which Bernard readily admits. But he's willing to listen to competitor concerns and take another look at execution going forward.
The one area he's so far been inflexible on is race director Brian Barnhart, who by all accounts has lost the respect of some drivers. It was Barnhart whom Power was gesturing at in New Hampshire, and Helio Castroneves was fined $30,000 this month for referring to Barnhart on Twitter as ''a circus clown.''
But Bernard has remained publicly supportive of Barnhart, and praised him for admitting he was wrong on the infamous restart in the rain at New Hampshire that led to Power's eruption. Bernard instead thinks the root of the problem is a rule book that leaves too much to interpretation and needs ''an immediate scrubbing, front to back, at the end of the season.''
Franchitti, Dixon and even Power concurred that Barnhart's challenge is that the rule book forces him to make arbitrary calls. When asked about Barnhart, the trio quickly began debating several different penalties this season that lacked consistency.
''It's the process that goes on when you make a call should be more like Formula One with three or four stewards discussing it,'' Power said.
''Obviously not one person can do it. Decisions are sometimes being made too quickly, within 10 seconds of the accident and without a review,'' Dixon said.
Bernard has given no indication he'll replace Barnhart at the end of the year, and not all drivers think he has to go.
''Who else would do the job? It's a totally thankless job,'' Franchitti said. ''The easiest fix is to rewrite the rule book and eliminate all the room for inconsistency.''
The Barnhart issue is just another sideshow to what the drivers believe is still a good product. The wheel-to-wheel race to the checkered flag between first-time winner Ed Carpenter and Franchitti two weeks ago at Kentucky was the sixth-closest finish in series history, and with Milka Duno no longer in the field, ''there's nobody out there massively struggling. The racing is good, the fields are at an all-time high, the cars are competitive,'' Power said.
Now everyone waits to see if Bernard can deliver in Vegas. He's said more than once he'll offer his resignation if the race is a failure, which he defines as anything below a .8 rating for ABC's nationally televised Sunday broadcast.
He's got a lot to look forward to in 2012, though.
Although Danica Patrick will leave IndyCar for NASCAR after this weekend, the series is welcoming a new car with improved technology and safety features, as well as competition from three different engine manufacturers. Bernard also said he's willing to address complaints that the current tire is too hard.
There's also hope that the planned rebranding of Versus to NBC Sports Network in January will spark television ratings.
''Next year can be a critical year for IndyCar and a lot of good things are happening,'' Bernard said. ''My only goal has been to make sure our momentum is really, really strong leaving Las Vegas and we've got something to build on.''