IndyCar emerges from disaster, but Indy awaits

It’s difficult to imagine the start of the 2012 IndyCar Series season going much better for CEO Randy Bernard and his staff.

Following the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, and heading into this season with a new chassis and engine package, there were many questions about the open-wheel series.

Doubters in Bernard’s leadership abilities weren’t difficult to find this past off-season and more than a few folks were saying this could be a make-or-break year for the 16-year-old series headquartered in Indianapolis and the man who was hired two years ago to lead it.

So far it looks like Bernard and the series are making it just fine.

There are certainly issues to sort out and lingering questions to answer. Namely, will there be 33 cars ready to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 next month?

But in any year when a series has new equipment, and as a result has fewer spare parts than usual, it’s expected that the number of competitors will go down. The number of racers on the track usually rebounds within a year or two.

Few IndyCar followers forecasted this off-season that there would be 26 cars on the grid for the first two races this year. The new car, named for Wheldon, has had far fewer problems than many predicted. And the noticeably larger sidepods are much better than the old car at displaying corporate logos and messages.

Chevy has more than matched long-time IndyCar engine maker Honda's speed to create true competition between engine manufacturers, and Lotus, while it has had its difficulties, is getting up to speed faster than many expected.

But one of the series' biggest tests will begin when the oval part of the season begins next month. A major and very high profile hudle comes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A big indication of how the new chassis and engine will perform at the series’ biggest race will come Wednesday as the series tests its new chassis and engine at IMS.

Before IndyCar Series and IMS officials get too worked up about Indianapolis, it’s important to note that crowds—both in terms of fans and corporate hospitality—at the first two races (in Florida and Alabama) have been strong and anticipation is building for this May and beyond.

Series officials are already unveiling new races beyond this season, including an announcement last week that the series is headed for Houston next year. That bodes well for the long-term future of this series, which has yet to turn a profit.

There’s also speculation the series will extend its deal at Barber Motorsports Park at Leeds, Ala., where the series raced Sunday. Despite talk of overseas races, Bernard and his staff have emphasized that North America is and will continue to be the series’ most important market.

Sunday’s race—the third for the series at Barber—drew 52,879, just a bit below the inaugural race. It’s important to note that capacity at the park-like Barber is not massive. Race organizers were thrilled with the 81,378 who turned out for the weekend’s activities despite stormy weather.

“I’m extremely pleased,” said Gene Hallman, an Alabama-based sports marketer who helped run the event. “It exceeded our expectations. You’re always concerned in the third year there’s a certain sense of complacency that sets into the market, and the newness wears off. We actually saw a resurgence. And corporate support was up.”

During a less-than-ideal economic time, it’s notable that Hallman also said corporate support for the race in Alabama was up.

Before the series comes to Indianapolis, it has two more strong markets to race in. Road races will be held in Long Beach on April 15 and Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 29.

Then all eyes turn to Indy. The first oval for this revamped series and its new car face another hurdle to clear.

It may be the biggest hurdle of all. And it’s also the biggest opportunity to capitalize on.

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