IndyCar faces challenges as it continues to rebuild
'The split' hurt open-wheel racing, which must now find sponsors and stars to regain footing
Shown is the start of the Baltimore Grand Prix, won by Will Power. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / September 3, 2011)
Two veterans who have dominated the series, Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti, might be familiar names, but only because of outside interests. Castroneves won a "Dancing With the Stars" TV competition; Franchitti is married to actress Ashley Judd.
Seeing their sport on the fringe of the mainstream for all but one race a year — the iconic Indianapolis 500 — has tormented racing insiders, who relentlessly promote the quality of the current circuit.
But years after internal strife sent open-wheel racing into a protracted civil war, it shows few signs of regaining the stature it held when names such as Andretti, Unser and Foyt were known to even casual sports fans.
Television ratings remain paltry, as does attendance at many events. The race schedule always seems in flux — a race this year in China had to be canceled, while Chicago recently pulled away from a future event — and internal bickering once again threatens to erase any momentum built by CEO Randy Bernard in his third year. Lovers of the sport worry that it lacks a signature face after the departure of Danica Patrick to NASCAR and the death of Dan Wheldon at last year's season-ending event in Las Vegas.
Baltimore has committed to hosting the Grand Prix of Baltimore through 2015, with officials overcoming a series of financial fiascoes to ensure a second running. But many of the same problems facing local organizers afflict the sport at large.
Bernard, whose work developing the Pro Bull Riders tour earned him the chance to resurrect IndyCar, said he will be monitoring the Baltimore race closely. Racing officials, drivers and fans described last year's debut race as a success. But the promoter's subsequent inability to pay debts and the city's tortuous search for a replacement fed perceptions that the series is unstable.
Asked if Race On Baltimore, the new organizer, would need to avoid the same pitfalls for the race to continue to be viable, Bernard said: "I think it has to. Last year's group put on a good event but far outspent what they should have. That's not something we can have."
This sort of strife has marred open-wheel racing's top U.S. circuit for nearly two decades. Much of the trouble is self-inflicted.
Bernard has acknowledged publicly that at least one owner is dissatisfied with his leadership. Days after the Indianapolis 500 drew 6.85 million television viewers, he wrote on Twitter that "it is true that an owner is calling others trying to get me fired. I have had several owners confirm this. disappointing."
Longtime IndyCar analyst Robin Miller said last week that a consortium of owners wants to buy IndyCar from the Hulman-George family so it can wrest control from Bernard.
Executives from two teams with deep roots in the sport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Team Penske, expressed support for Bernard in interviews this week. They said Bernard's limited background in racing made his transition more difficult but that his fresh approach to marketing was needed.
"I don't think there's anyone working harder than Randy Bernard, " said Bobby Rahal, a top driver during his 18-year career and current team owner. "A lot of what he's doing behind the scenes, trying to get the sponsorship deal worked out or the TV deal fixed, just hasn't come to fruition yet."
Yet critical numbers are trending in the wrong direction. According to Nielsen television ratings, IndyCar races on NBC Sports network are averaging 313,000 viewers this year, down from 373,000 last year when the network was called Versus. For races broadcast by ABC, including the Indianapolis 500, an average of 2.5 million viewers have watched, down from 3 million last year.
In 1992, 14.1 million people watched Al Unser Jr. win the sport's biggest race and chug the traditional milk on victory lane. Little did many fans know the sport was on the verge of splintering.
Divorce and reconciliation
Everyone associated with open-wheel racing simply calls it "The Split."
Tony George, whose grandfather purchased the Indianapolis Speedway after World War II, had become president and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp. With the sport's premier event as leverage, he broke away from CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), which he believed gave too much power to the wealthiest owners in the sport.
His new circuit, Indy Racing League, began in 1996. George saved 25 of the 33 starting spots in the Indianapolis 500 for racers from his own series, and CART responded by holding its own race on the same weekend (it lasted only a few years). Though George eventually made more room for top CART teams and drivers in the race, the acrimony already had cost the competing circuits fans and partners.