IndyCar Series and 2011 Year in Review

Las Vegas calamity saps IndyCar momentum

December 24, 2011
IndyCar-crash-AP-2col.jpg
Driver Dan Wheldon was killed in a wreck at the IndyCar Series' season finale in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jessica Ebelhar)
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IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard racked up a number of accomplishments early in 2011 but was buffeted by challenges late in the year—most notably a crash at a Las Vegas race in October that left one driver dead and the future of the series mired in uncertainty.

Bernard, hired in March 2010 to replace Tony George, helped usher in specifications for a new engine and chassis package that is to debut in 2012 and helped broker deals with Chevrolet and Lotus to join Honda as series engine suppliers.

Bernard also helped broker a deal to retain Italy-based Dallara as the series’ sole chassis maker and helped retain Firestone as the series’ tire maker just as Firestone was threatening to leave.

But tests for the 2012 car showed it was slow and had handling problems. Mostly flat television ratings and small live race crowds made increasing sponsorship a challenge for the series and its teams.

Those problems caused Bernard in November to fire Terry Angstadt, who was in charge of the series’ commercial endeavors.

Bernard also demoted Brian Barnhart, chief of race control, after teams complained about inconsistencies in applying on-track penalties.

Bernard, who was hired away as head of the Professional Bull Riders circuit, is an aggressive promoter, and he was at his best leading up to the season finale in Las Vegas Oct. 16.

Festivities included a parade of IndyCars on the Las Vegas strip and a gambling outing with Hollywood stars, athletes from other sports, and IndyCar drivers.

But the race—which included a near-record 34 cars—went horribly wrong. A 15-car crash on lap 12 seriously injured several drivers and killed defending Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon.

Wheldon was there as part of a promotion offering him and a fan $2.5 million each if Wheldon could come from the back of the pack to win the Las Vegas race.

After a long delay, Bernard canceled the race and launched an investigation. The probe concluded Wheldon died when his head slammed into a post holding up a catch fence above the retaining wall ringing the outer edge of the 1.5-mile track.

In December, IndyCar officials decided not to return to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2012 as planned, and the series’ future at the track depends in part on what it learns from further testing there.

Announcement of the 2012 schedule was delayed and questions arose about the design and safety of the series’ new car. Some racing insiders recommended that the IndyCar Series largely abandon racing on oval tracks, especially the steeply banked shorter ovals like those in Texas and Las Vegas.•

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