It's a brand-new era for the IRL ... again
INDIANAPOLIS -- For the second time in three seasons, the Indy Racing League is entering a brand-new era.
The shake-up that occurred in early 2008 was inevitable, when the IRL absorbed most of what remained of the Champ Car World Series to create a unified open-wheel championship for the first time in more than a decade.
The changes for 2010 are more surprising, to say the least. The most obvious (and most positive) change is the addition of a title sponsor in the form of the Phillips Van Heusen Group and its Izod brand. The Izod IndyCar Series will be branded as "The Fastest Race in the World," and sports television viewers no doubt already have seen plenty of the 30-second commercials promoting the upcoming season.
A potentially more significant change is that IRL founder Tony George is no longer involved in the series in any capacity. The family-dominated board of Hulman & Co. voted George out of his CEO position with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp. in June 2009, and he resigned his remaining board seats in 2010. George elected not to continue as the leader of the IRL and, citing a lack of sponsorship, his Vision Racing team has withdrawn from the IndyCar Series.
The new man in charge is 43-year-old Randy Bernard, the former head of the Professional Bull Riders tour. Bernard has never attended an Indy car race, but he has impressed those he has dealt with early in his tenure as IRL chief with his grasp on the issues he faces in his new job.
"I'm not going to try to come here and pretend that I'm going to become an open-wheel racing expert in one year or two years," he said. "But what I'm going to tell you [is] I'll market the sport the very best we can. If we can't fit more people in those seats and the ratings don't go up, then I would say I didn't do my job."
What Bernard inherits is arguably the most exciting and competitive form of motorsports in America, with a century of history and proud tradition. But Indy car racing is also a sport that lost its prestige and identity with the public and the media over the last decade, and it is mired in indecision about how to remake itself for the future.
The IndyCar Series boasts at least seven world-class drivers: Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing; Ryan Briscoe, Will Power and Helio Castroneves of Team Penske; Tony Kanaan of Andretti Autosport; and Justin Wilson of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. All of them could have succeeded in Formula One, but opted to race in America.
Of course, there is also Andretti Autosport driver Danica Patrick, who in many respects is the IndyCar Series' biggest asset. But much of the focus these days -- Patrick's and the coverage she spawns -- is on her burgeoning NASCAR career, and one of Bernard's most important tasks might be convincing Danica to remain primarily an Indy car driver for the long term.
An overall lack of American drivers is another issue Bernard will have to deal with. Patrick and Marco Andretti are the only Americans signed up for a full season of Indy car racing in 2010. Graham Rahal, the youngest pole and race winner in the history of Indy car racing, can't find a sponsored ride, and 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice hasn't had a full-time Indy car gig in three years.
Rahal, who unexpectedly was dropped from his ride with Newman/Haas/ Lanigan Racing in January, is a fan of Bernard's.
"His enthusiasm, energy and ideas are what we've been needing for a long, long time," Rahal said. "He has a lot of energy, passion and excitement, and you can tell that he's done a lot of research. From what I can tell, he's extremely well-connected and well-respected, which is a huge plus for us."
The IRL's strength is its product. It's easy to complain about the 8-year-old Dallara-Honda spec car, but it still produces safe and highly competitive racing in oval or road-racing trim. Teams like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti match the standard of engineering excellence and presentation set by top teams in NASCAR and Formula One.
"What we've tried really hard to do over the last couple of seasons is hone in on what makes our sport different than other forms of motorsports," remarked IRL commercial division president Terry Angstadt. "We continue to have as our attributes speed, technology and innovation, diversity and green.
"We think not only can people relate to some of the driver personalities we have in our paddock, but to the speed of our race cars, the fact that we run 100 percent renewable fuel, and the international makeup of our race car drivers and where we race. So we think we have a pretty good basket of attributes that should attract race fans. And we're building our sponsorship base. We're getting both suppliers and sponsors to invest in our series."
For the first time in the IRL's 15-year history of sanctioning Indy car races, there are more road-racing venues than ovals. Another IRL precedent will be set when the season opener is hosted on a street course in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama is another new road-racing venue on the IndyCar slate, while the loss of an event at Richmond International Raceway brings the total number of races to 17.
With 22 or more cars expected for every race outside of the Indianapolis 500, the IndyCar Series has held steady on car count. But driver turnover remains a concern, and the championship is likely to be fought out exclusively by the five Penske and Ganassi drivers.
Thanks to the sputtering world economy, the IndyCar Series has not experienced the kind of growth that might have been hoped for or expected from the 2008 unification of open-wheel racing. But in most respects, it is still experiencing a growth trend.
The question now is whether a marketing-savvy title sponsor and an open-minded new leader can combine to help restore the level of popularity the sport enjoyed in the 1980s and '90s.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.