The IndyCar Series won't return to Las Vegas Motor Speedway next season, and its future at the track depends in part on what it learns from the investigation into Dan Wheldon's fatal accident.
Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, was killed in the opening laps of the Oct. 16 season finale at Las Vegas. The investigation into the 15-car fatal accident is ongoing, and IndyCar has postponed releasing its 2012 schedule until it determines if the series can continue racing on high-banked ovals such as Las Vegas.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. owner Bruton Smith was adamant he wanted IndyCar to honor the three-year lease deal it has with Las Vegas, but IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard had been reluctant to return to the speedway.
Smith told The Associated Press on Thursday that SMI agreed to a buyout of 2012, and the final season of the contract will be reviewed later.
Bernard confirmed he'd come to an agreement with SMI.
"We're not guaranteeing we'll be back," Bernard said. "But we'll test there, and we'll see what we can learn."
No matter the results, concerns remain about the emotional issues the series would face upon returning to Las Vegas.
Wheldon was killed 12 laps into the season finale in a fiery 15-car accident. Critics have pointed to everything from the 34-car field, the size and speed of the track, the speedway's high banking and the varying experience level of the drivers as reasons for the accident.
Wheldon was entered as part of a promotion that would have paid him $5 million if he could have driven from the back of the field to Victory Lane. It was all part of a season-ending spectacular aimed to boost television ratings and send IndyCar into 2012 with some momentum. Instead, it turned terribly wrong minutes into the race, and IndyCar has been struggling with difficult decisions and a tumultuous offseason in the seven weeks since.
"The IndyCar Series is in the midst of extensive research into the suitability of Indy Cars racing at our speedway," track president Chris Powell said.
"We believe it's in everyone's best interest to give the experts at IndyCar as much time as possible to compile their findings and conduct tests with the new car here at the speedway before we host another IndyCar event. We are very hopeful that the Indy Cars will return to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2013."
With Las Vegas settled, for now, attention now turns to Texas Motor Speedway.
The high-banked oval is one of the most popular venues in the series and has hosted IndyCar every year since 1997. But there was no sanctioning agreement in place before Wheldon's accident, and Bernard has been hesitant to complete a deal until the investigation is complete.
The uncertainty has TMS president Eddie Gossage frustrated, but he said Thursday recent conversations with Bernard had been productive.
"We don't have a deal yet, but that's not to say we aren't going to get one done," Gossage said. "Certainly we'd like to get this wrapped up, and I believe we'll be able to find a way to do just that."
Smith has been more outspoken, questioning why IndyCar is now concerned about one of its strongest venues. Although he was pleased to have Las Vegas resolved, Smith urged Bernard to make a decision on Texas soon.
"We're good to go on Las Vegas, and we'll still race the road course at (SMI-owned) Infineon, but I don't know what he's done with Eddie," Smith said. "Eddie is getting very frustrated and wants this resolved."
Texas last year hosted a highly-trumpeted twinbill by splitting its 500-mile race into a pair of 250-milers. Gossage has indicated he'd like another twinbill, perhaps with tweaks over length of the races or points awarded.
Not including Texas, the schedule currently has 14 events that have been previously announced by the tracks or the series. There's some concern over the Labor Day weekend event at Baltimore because the current promoters are saddled in debt and likely will have to give up control of the event in order for it to continue
IndyCar has not indicated when it will announce its 2012 schedule or if it will replace Las Vegas. Should Bernard not find something to slot in as a new season finale, the season would end in early September at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.