IndyCar taking big gamble on Vegas UPDATE Related article from Sports Illustrated - - 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.10/12/11 INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard is not only bucking history, but renting LVMS from Smith and promoting the race himself.
“I was more comfortable going with a market I knew,’’ said Bernard, who made lots of friends in Vegas with his week-long winner at the Tomas & Mack Arena for the Pro Bull Riders’ circuit from 1994 to the present.
“And I wanted us to have a vacation destination with the proper backdrop for a great race. So this is either going to be my strength or my demise.”
But the man who has nearly brought INDYCAR’s bottom line to the break even point in less than two years has worked hard to make sure he doesn’t suffer the same fate as past promoters.
Sure, he gave away 50,000 tickets to any fans supporting other races during this season, but Bernard secured plenty of financial support for his budget. Honda is the presenting sponsor and he also got associates from Verizon, Fuzzy’s Vodka, APEX, the Las Vegas Visitors & Convention and MGM Grand Resorts.
And he got The Strip to close for 10 minutes on Thursday night so all 34 cars entered in Sunday’s race could road down Las Vegas Blvd. between the Tropicana and Flamingo.
“Our sponsors stepped up big time as did Las Vegas and we’ve sold almost all of the 121 suites,” he continued. “MGM has 14 properties and offered good deals on rooms plus throwing in two free tickets.
“Of course we’re not depending on ticket sales and I think we’re going to come in right on budget.”
Bernard still wants to run a Friday road race around a casino followed by a Sunday show at LVMS but thinks that probably couldn’t be feasible until 2013 or 2014.
His immediate goal is to get a decent crowd and TV rating on ABC while going up against the National Football League in a city that traditionally only supports NASCAR.
“I’d love to see 60,000 but I guess I’d be happy with 40,000,” he admitted.
With oval tracks vanishing from the schedule because no promoters want to take the risk, Bernard was asked if Vegas and self-promoting was a template for the future?
“I want to see what happens, what worked, what didn’t and then re-evaluate,” he replied. “I think the city wants us to be successful and I guess we’ll know by Sunday night.” Speedtv.com