IndyCar faces challenges as it continues to rebuild

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When they sweep through the streets of Baltimore next weekend, driving some of the most powerful cars in the world at speeds that make their sport as dangerous as any, the IndyCar drivers will be mostly anonymous.

Two veterans who have dominated the series, Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti, might be familiar names, but only because of outside interests. Castroneves won a "Dancing With the Stars" TV competition; Franchitti is married to actress Ashley Judd.

Seeing their sport on the fringe of the mainstream for all but one race a year — the iconic Indianapolis 500 — has tormented racing insiders, who relentlessly promote the quality of the current circuit.

But years after internal strife sent open-wheel racing into a protracted civil war, it shows few signs of regaining the stature it held when names such as Andretti, Unser and Foyt were known to even casual sports fans.

Television ratings remain paltry, as does attendance at many events. The race schedule always seems in flux — a race this year in China had to be canceled, while Chicago recently pulled away from a future event — and internal bickering once again threatens to erase any momentum built by CEO Randy Bernard in his third year. Lovers of the sport worry that it lacks a signature face after the departure of Danica Patrick to NASCAR and the death of Dan Wheldon at last year's season-ending event in Las Vegas.

Baltimore has committed to hosting the Grand Prix of Baltimore through 2015, with officials overcoming a series of financial fiascoes to ensure a second running. But many of the same problems facing local organizers afflict the sport at large.

Bernard, whose work developing the Pro Bull Riders tour earned him the chance to resurrect IndyCar, said he will be monitoring the Baltimore race closely. Racing officials, drivers and fans described last year's debut race as a success. But the promoter's subsequent inability to pay debts and the city's tortuous search for a replacement fed perceptions that the series is unstable.

Asked if Race On Baltimore, the new organizer, would need to avoid the same pitfalls for the race to continue to be viable, Bernard said: "I think it has to. Last year's group put on a good event but far outspent what they should have. That's not something we can have."

This sort of strife has marred open-wheel racing's top U.S. circuit for nearly two decades. Much of the trouble is self-inflicted.

Bernard has acknowledged publicly that at least one owner is dissatisfied with his leadership. Days after the Indianapolis 500 drew 6.85 million television viewers, he wrote on Twitter that "it is true that an owner is calling others trying to get me fired. I have had several owners confirm this. disappointing."

Longtime IndyCar analyst Robin Miller said last week that a consortium of owners wants to buy IndyCar from the Hulman-George family so it can wrest control from Bernard.

Executives from two teams with deep roots in the sport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Team Penske, expressed support for Bernard in interviews this week. They said Bernard's limited background in racing made his transition more difficult but that his fresh approach to marketing was needed.

"I don't think there's anyone working harder than Randy Bernard, " said Bobby Rahal, a top driver during his 18-year career and current team owner. "A lot of what he's doing behind the scenes, trying to get the sponsorship deal worked out or the TV deal fixed, just hasn't come to fruition yet."

Yet critical numbers are trending in the wrong direction. According to Nielsen television ratings, IndyCar races on NBC Sports network are averaging 313,000 viewers this year, down from 373,000 last year when the network was called Versus. For races broadcast by ABC, including the Indianapolis 500, an average of 2.5 million viewers have watched, down from 3 million last year.

In 1992, 14.1 million people watched Al Unser Jr. win the sport's biggest race and chug the traditional milk on victory lane. Little did many fans know the sport was on the verge of splintering.

Divorce and reconciliation

Everyone associated with open-wheel racing simply calls it "The Split."

Tony George, whose grandfather purchased the Indianapolis Speedway after World War II, had become president and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp. With the sport's premier event as leverage, he broke away from CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), which he believed gave too much power to the wealthiest owners in the sport.

His new circuit, Indy Racing League, began in 1996. George saved 25 of the 33 starting spots in the Indianapolis 500 for racers from his own series, and CART responded by holding its own race on the same weekend (it lasted only a few years). Though George eventually made more room for top CART teams and drivers in the race, the acrimony already had cost the competing circuits fans and partners.

"Everything fell apart," Miller said. "What Randy eventually inherited, it was godawful. The whole thing was in shambles. Nobody was engaged the way used to be. Not fans, not sponsors, not manufacturers."

NASCAR pounced. In 1994, George allowed stock cars to race in Indianapolis. That, Team Penske racing president Tim Cindric said, helped cement NASCAR as the most popular form of racing in the United States. Meanwhile, IndyCar's business was decimated by the time its civil war ended with a merger in 2008.

Zak Brown, founder and CEO of Indianapolis-based Marketing International, which works with racing teams, said a return to its former stature is unlikely, but so is extinction. The sport needs to find its niche, he said.

"IndyCar is more comparable to tennis or ultimate fighting," Brown said. "They need to focus on their product and on the relationship with NBC Sports."

Rick Mears, who won four Indy 500s and consults with Penske Racing, hopes the change is temporary.

"Everything is cyclical," he said this week. "What IndyCar needs to do is just put on a good show. Have great races, be accessible to the people and do it routinely. Everyone has such a short attention span these days. They want everything right away. But if we're going to build, it's going to take some time following a plan."

In 2010, the Hulman-George family hired Bernard to give IndyCar direction.

Challenges ahead

Last year's season finale in Las Vegas was supposed to be Bernard's signature race. He imagined, ran and promoted it himself, viewing it as the event his sport needed to reach a broader audience.

It has come to define Bernard. He had to cancel the race after only 11 laps when Wheldon died in a fiery multicar crash.

Bernard came under criticism for staging the race on an oval track with steep banks; several drivers had questioned the venue's safety before the race. Purists bemoaned Bernard's attempts at promotion — Wheldon was competing for a special $2.5 million bonus — and accused Bernard of turning the sport into a spectacle.

The sport spent its offseason healing. Bernard said he purposely stepped back from the spotlight as he consoled Wheldon's family and met with drivers and owners to discuss safety measures.

Danica Patrick defected to NASCAR after last season. She had won only once in seven years but clearly was the circuit's most marketable driver. Her departure has hurt IndyCar's appeal, several observers said.

"IndyCar did lose a face when Danica left," said Eddie Cheever, who won the 1998 Indianapolis 500 and called the race for ABC this year. "She was American. She was the first woman with a legitimate chance to win races around the world. She captivated so many people in so many areas. That loss has been felt a lot."

But Rahal and Mears now see room for other stars to grow.

"You've got young guys, and some of them are Americans, local kids, fighting for the title," Rahal said. "They're as charismatic and accessible as anybody."

It's essential for IndyCar to develop more American stars, said Cheever, noting NASCAR's success at tapping national pride.

"My dad raised me on A.J. Foyt," he said. "But I don't know right now. I have a 6-year-old son who's starting to get into racing, and there's not a driver I can point to and say, 'That's the guy!' "

Bernard, meanwhile, has been searching for new sponsors amid reports that title sponsor Izod might be looking to shorten its deal with IndyCar. A Sports Business Journal report said he has approached Verizon and Firestone about becoming presenting sponsors. He said Friday the league is in "a good spot" with Izod but was courting additional sponsors.

Owners also are asking Bernard to push NBC Sports for more aggressive televised promotion.

"They've done, frankly, a terrible job," Rahal said.

With a split contract — George signed the 10-year deal with NBC Sports in 2008 — owners believe that neither ABC nor NBC is strongly committed to helping the sport grow.

NBC officials noted that ratings increased in the first four years of the deal before dipping this year. They attribute the drop in part to unlucky scheduling conflicts with NASCAR races and NBA and NHL playoff contests.

Jon Miller, NBC Sports' president of programming, described IndyCar as "one of NBC Sports Network's stalwart partnerships, providing long-term, quality programming."

Though the network has faced grumbles about a lack of promotion, NBC launched a news series of driver profile shows called "IndyCar 36" this year, and officials say they're confident in the overall growth of the NBC Sports Network, which reaches about 80 million homes (compared to about 115 million for the broadcast networks).

"I think NBC is going to do what they have to do, because our growth is tied to theirs," Bernard said. "We have to give them better programming."

But first he must appease owners upset about the cost of replacement parts for the new race car introduced this year. As part of IndyCar's deal with Dallara, designer of the new chassis, owners must buy replacement parts directly from the company. Previously, they'd made their own or bought from preferred manufacturers.

Owners say the cost of replacement parts will put them out of business. Dallara says lowering prices will bankrupt the company.

To Bernard, it's a matter of parity.

"The NFL put in a salary cap to have more competitive balance," Bernard said. "It'd be hard to do that in our sport. But we can make the cars the same. That puts the emphasis on the driver, where it should be. A lot of this is about owners wanting to be able to make their own parts, to gain an edge. IndyCar simply doesn't buy that."

chris.korman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman

TV viewership for open-wheel racing Indianapolis 500

1992: 14.1 million viewers

2002: 7.15 million

2012: 6.85 million

IndyCar Series viewership

2011

On ABC: 3 million

On Versus: 373,000

2012

On ABC: 2.5 million

On NBC Sports Network: 313,000

Source: Nielsen

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