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BENNER: Why not finish the IndyCar season at 16th and Georgetown?

June 23, 2012

The IndyCar Series is something like Figure-8 racing at the Speedrome.

Lots of exciting action interspersed with crashes at the crossover.

The series doesn’t seem to be able to get out of its own way. Neither can it catch a break.

A year ago, a great Indianapolis 500 was won in thrilling fashion by an engaging Brit, Dan Wheldon, who, for some reason, didn’t have a ride beyond the Indy 500.

Thud.

Yet, despite that, the series went on to have a pretty good year. And there was genuine excitement for the season-ending race at Las Vegas that featured none other than Wheldon racing for a $5 million bonus prize.

Eleven laps in, tragedy. Wheldon was killed in a horrific crash, and the season ended in the worst way possible.

Fast forward to 2012. With the racers in new Dallara chassis, the series again gets off to a solid start and builds some momentum coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While it struggles to fill the traditional 33-car field (downer), the race, most agree, is one of the most entertaining Indy 500s in memory (upper).

But a week later, the excitement again fizzles with a terrible race in Detroit marred by delays caused by a disintegrating track.

Meanwhile, a sideshow builds with IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard engaging in an ill-advised Twitter war against an unnamed car owner allegedly out to get him (Children, please!).

Still, the series goes to Texas and puts on a terrific show, with Justin Wilson overcoming Graham Rahal at the end. It follows up with another good race at Milwaukee, only Mother Nature intervenes with rain, pushing the start back, which eventually forces ABC to move its telecast to the ESPN News channel so it can capture all of a NASCAR Nationwide series event.

In other words, IndyCar—America’s premier open-wheel series—gets bumped for NASCAR’s minor-leaguers.

And on top of all that, title sponsor Izod is losing interest in the series while an important 16th IndyCar race in China is canceled, reportedly because the new mayor of Qingdao didn’t want to pay the sanctioning fee pledged by his predecessor.

Guess who was eager to expose its apparel to a Chinese market? Yep, Izod. IndyCar also has a commitment to other sponsors to have a minimum 16 races.

Now I can’t say I know Bernard well, but overall, I’ve been impressed with the direction he has tried to take IndyCar. Though he came from an entirely different realm—professional bull riding—he brought in a fresh perspective and energy I thought the series desperately needed.

But the results are, well, the results.

The series continues to lag in popularity. Crowds, especially at the oval tracks (excluding IMS), are sparse. Yes, accidents happen and it’s a dangerous sport, but there was a death of a popular driver racing for a bonus that was Bernard’s idea.

Andretti Autosports, acting as a promoter, had to step forward to save two races, Baltimore and Milwaukee, from going under. There is griping among the owners, although that is nothing new.

And for those who long for innovation and differentiation, how long will it take Lotus to come up to speed and when will we finally see those “aero kits” that can bring some variety to the cars?

I don’t pretend to have all or any of the answers, except one, and that’s how to finish this season with that necessary 16th race. Bring it to 16th and Georgetown.

Yes, I know many believe IMS should hold but one open-wheel race a year, and that’s the Indy 500.

But desperate times call for desperate measures. So, as a climax to the IndyCar season, why not consider a one-time race at the Speedway, either a Saturday night (portable lighting is available) or a Sunday afternoon. (How about Sept. 30, when the Colts have a bye?)

Let’s think way out of the box. How about twin 125-mile races, first on the road course, then on the oval? Best combined finish claims the overall victory. The cars have different setups for ovals and road courses, but the smart guys could make it work.

It would be a helluva show, especially at night. The IndyCar season finishes at Indy. Why not?•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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