Just as the IndyCar Series was gaining momentum, it has been dealt a major blow.
After a fiery 15-car crash Sunday at the season finale in Las Vegas that killed two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon, officials are likely to evaluate the design of the series' cars and the tracks it races on.
The tragedy happened just as the series is getting ready to unveil its 2012 schedule and roll out a new car.
“The safety record of [the IndyCar Series] has been good, but after this, they’ll be taking a long look at everything,” said Tim Frost, who runs a Chicago-based motorsports business consultancy. “They’ll be looking at this crash, not only because it involved a fatality, but because of the magnitude of it.”
IndyCar officials were not commenting Monday.
Sunday’s race marked the last race before a new chassis and engine formula are to be rolled out in 2012. It will be the first time the series has had new chassis and engine design since 2003—a time period considered an eternity in motorsports to go without an update.
While series officials have emphasized improved safety of the 2012 machine, racing marketers have long understood speed sells in the inherently dangerous sport.
“We have to go after speed records,” IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard told IBJ last week from Las Vegas. “I’ve been assured this  car is fast.”
While some sports marketers think the series may have to change the way it markets itself, others caution against a radical change in direction.
“You can’t completely sanitize it or it’s not racing,” said Larry DeGaris, director of academic sports marketing programs at the University of Indianapolis.
With “IndyCar already in a state of flux,” DeGaris added, “it’s difficult to say what the impact of this event will be.”
DeGaris said the fatal crash could cause the casual sports fans that Bernard has sought so hard to lure to the series to turn away.
“For racing fans, they understand it’s part of the sport, but something like this certainly doesn’t draw new fans,” DeGaris said. “It won’t end the series, but it won’t help it grow. This is a terrible tragedy for the Wheldon family. And it’s a bad day for IndyCar.”
But Derek Daly, a former IndyCar and Formula One driver, thinks Sunday’s crash could help the series improve.
Daly, a motorsports broadcast analyst, said F1 became stronger after one of its biggest stars, Ayrton Senna, was killed in a 1994 race.
“After that incident, F1 completely changed the design of its cars and circuit,” said Daly, who was working at the 1994 F1 race as a television commentator. “Ayrton was one of its biggest stars, a three-time F1 champion. Despite that loss, F1 is stronger today than it was then. A big part of that has to do with the changes made in the wake of his accident.”
DeGaris also pointed out that NASCAR survived the death of one of its biggest stars, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died at the 2001 Daytona 500.
“It caused the series to take a look at itself, to improve safety, and it moved on,” DeGaris said.
“As tragic as this accident is,” Daly added, “IndyCar has to stick to its business plan, learn what they can from this accident, and push forward. If this accident can improve the safety and improve this sport, I think Dan Wheldon would be proud to have that be part of his legacy.”
Several cars in Sunday’s accident went airborne, and there have long been concerns that the 2003 model was prone to doing so. IndyCar officials said that issue has been addressed in the 2012 model developed by Dallara Automobili—and tested by Wheldon.
Daly thinks if the sport is going to move forward, it’s important that the post-race analysis not devolve into finger-pointing. He’s concerned with how Bernard, who joined IndyCar as CEO at the beginning of the 2010 season, will handle the aftermath. Previously, Bernard was CEO of the Pro Bull Riders series.
“This could be Randy Bernard’s biggest challenge of his career,” Daly said. “The promotional machine the league has rolling right now has taken a body blow. I don’t think Randy has faced anything like this in the past.”
Making matters worse, the Las Vegas race—billed as the IndyCar Series World Championship—was Bernard’s first attempt to have the series promote and operate one of its own races.
That, Frost said, probably means the series will incur anywhere from a mid- to high-seven-figure financial loss since the race was canceled after 12 laps. Bernard told IBJ last week he expected a crowd of about 70,000 to attend and also expected to sell all 121 luxury suites for $22,000 to $35,000 each. It’s not clear if refunds will be requested from suite holders or race sponsors.
Bernard had heavily promoted the race, buying 3,200 TV and radio spots along with billboard ads in Las Vegas as well as spots in Indianapolis and other racing hotbeds. Part of the promotional campaign involved a $5 million challenge being offered to Wheldon if he could come from the back of the 34-car field to win the race. If he won, Wheldon was to split the prize with a fan, whose name was chosen from a drawing.
Daly said it’s important that Bernard seek—and get—the support of team owners and drivers as he steers the series forward. That migt not be easy in a sport that has often been fractured, including the war between the IndyCar Series and the former Champ Car series.
“It’s my hope, that everyone in the IndyCar community will come together at this time,” Daly said. “If ever there was a time for unity in this sport, this is it.”