IndyCar Series rolling dice in Las Vegas

IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard said series-run promotional efforts for the open-wheel series’ Oct. 16 season finale in Las Vegas are paying off in a big way.

Bernard predicts 70,000 fans will attend the race, and added that 117 of 121 luxury suites have been sold for the event, dubbed the IndyCar Series World championship.

The suites, Bernard said, are selling for between $22,000 and $35,000, and he expects the remaining inventory to be sold out by Friday.

Series officials have tried to lure fans to Las Vegas this year by offering a free ticket to anyone who has attended one of the other 16 races this season. Bernard said drawing a good crowd is key for series and team sponsors that pay most of the bills.

This is the first time the series has been to Las Vegas since it merged with its former open-wheel rival, the Champ Car series.

“We have all the [open-wheel] drivers here now, so that’s why we’re calling it a world championship,” Bernard said Tuesday from Las Vegas. “There’s a real buzz building about the race here. I’m very optimistic about this weekend.”

Bernard tried to lure drivers from other series to come to the race to take on IndyCar’s best. Despite offering a $5 million prize for any non-regular series driver who could come and win the race, he got a limited response. Bernard settled on offering a bonus to Dan Wheldon, who won the Indianapolis 500 this year, but does not have a full-time ride.

If Wheldon wins in Las Vegas, he has agreed to split his $5 million prize with a fan, whose name has been selected in a drawing. Bernard declined to say who the fan was, because a background check needed to be done before an announcement was made.

For the first time this year, IndyCar officials in Las Vegas are renting the track and handling all promotions and operations for the race. Other than the Indianapolis 500, there have only been one or two other races in its history that the IndyCar Series or Indy Racing League has taken over, Bernard said.

Normally, a track operator pays a sanctioning fee to the series and is in charge of promoting and operating the event. In exchange, the track operator and/or promoter would keep a big share of event revenue.

In this set-up, IndyCar will get to keep all of the profits—if there are any—or shoulder all of the losses.

“Taking control of a race like this is a big gamble for the series, but I think it’s one they feel they have to take to build the fan base,” said Tim Frost, president of a Chicago-based motorsports business consultancy.

Bernard is undaunted.

“Las Vegas is such a great market, we just felt this was the market to try it in,” Bernard said. “This is kind of a test for us. One of the big reasons we’re doing this is because we know a lot of our sponsors want to come to Las Vegas because it’s a great place to bring clients and market their business.”

IndyCar officials have bought 1,600 radio and television ads as well as numerous billboard spots to promote the event in the Las Vegas area, Bernard said. Series officials also are advertising the event in Indianapolis and other racing hotbeds.

And the IndyCar Series made a deal with Las Vegas officials to shut down the famous strip on Thursday night so all 34 cars in the race can run laps up and down the strip. There also will be two two-seaters and a pace car running parade laps.

IndyCar officials expect tens of thousands of spectators to turn out for the Thursday event, which will kick off at 6:45 p.m. in front of the Bellagio Hotel and culminate at 8 p.m. with a concert featuring Lupe Fiasco.

IndyCar officials have hired 100 Las Vegas police officers as well as private security personnel to marshal the event on the strip.

On Friday, series officials will host a celebrity blackjack tournament featuring its drivers playing alongside other famous athletes.

With the series introducing a new chassis and engine next season, Bernard said it’s an especially important time to build momentum.

More than 50 2012 Dallara chassis have already been ordered, and Bernard said he expects between 25 and 27 full-time cars to be lined up for next season. Bernard also said engine maker Lotus will announce its first team partnerships soon—likely this weekend in Las Vegas.

“We knew we had to end this season on a high note going into a year where we’re introducing our new car,” Bernard said. “We think we’re on our way. This [Las Vegas] race is going to be a great race.”

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