- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- What, exactly, is the state of Indy car racing?
Is it a healthy and thriving sport growing at a satisfactory rate, as INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard proclaimed during an 80-minute State of INDYCAR presentation Monday at the Hilbert Circle Theater in downtown Indianapolis?
Or is Indy car racing white-knuckling it, struggling to hang on to what fan support, media attention and corporate backing remains after it was diminished through decades of mismanagement by several sanctioning bodies?
The answer, inevitably, is a bit of both. But the trend is generally positive for the Izod IndyCar Series, which posted gains of 28 percent in television ratings and 10 percent in attendance in 2011.
And Bernard, the former rodeo executive who is heading into his third year as INDYCAR's top boss, is bullish on the future.
"This year promises to showcase fierce competition on the track, maybe the most balanced ever," Bernard announced to a crowd of about 800 in the theater and others via Internet streaming. "We at INDYCAR believe the series is headed towards a strong passion that will provide excellent entertainment and value for everyone involved.
"So sit back, buckle up and hold on tight, because 2012 promises to be one hell of a ride."
Indy car racing's ride has been very bumpy for the better part of the past two decades, and it was thrown dramatically off course by the fight for control of the sport between CART and IRL that started in 1996. With the might of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway behind it, the IRL eventually won that battle, but the cost to the sport was severe as NASCAR picked up fans, sponsors, manufacturers and even drivers who were disenchanted with the state of open-wheel racing in America.
Many observers were skeptical about the hiring of Bernard to run the IndyCar Series because of his lack of experience in racing. But the former Pro Bull Riders CEO has impressed the skeptics with the effort and energy he has poured into his role, and INDYCAR is undoubtedly in stronger shape than it was before Bernard took the reins.
He's recently installed a new management team, with key appointments including Marc Koretzky as chief operating officer and Beaux Barfield as race director.
Bernard fast-tracked the badly needed introduction of a new car, which promises to be faster and more exciting than the outgoing model once the inevitable bugs get worked out.
With a helping hand from Roger Penske, he attracted General Motors and its Chevrolet brand back into Indy car racing in a big way, and that will generate marketing dollars as well as put manufacturer competition back into the sport for the first time in seven years. Lotus signed on as a third competing engine manufacturer.
Bernard also made a priority of banishing "IRL" and "Indy Racing League" from the Indy car lexicon, hoping to bury the bad connotations that longtime fans of the sport associated with those terms.
In short, Bernard has helped steer Indy car racing back to the path it was on before the crippling CART/IRL war, with a strong cast of American and international drivers, a mix of oval tracks and road courses, and fast, technologically advanced and relevant cars. Yet he has still faced questions about his commitment to INDYCAR and his long-term future.
"There has been constant speculation about my future with INDYCAR," Bernard said. "Many wrongfully predicted I'd be gone within a year, or said I was just using this as a launching pad. I'm here to say once and for all that I will be with INDYCAR as long as the Hulman-George family and the board wants me. I plan on keeping the promise I made to the Hulman-George family and the board when they gave me this tremendous opportunity two years ago.
"No one could deny or claim we haven't made mistakes along the way -- we have. But our only goal every single day with INDYCAR is to better it and make it stronger. We have fantastic drivers, we have outstanding teams, and partners willing to invest millions into the series in an effort to help this series thrive and ensure INDYCAR will be here for another century."
There are still notable challenges to overcome. Oval races are few and far between on the 2012 schedule, as INDYCAR and oval track promoters continue to struggle to attract fans to their open-wheel events. Even venues that traditionally draw strong crowds like Texas Motor Speedway and Iowa Speedway have suffered declining attendance at IndyCar Series races in recent years, a trend that must be reversed.
Only a last-minute reprieve from Indy car legend Michael Andretti kept the Milwaukee Mile on the schedule, and two other ovals (Kentucky Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway) were dropped from the 2012 slate, which includes five ovals and 11 road or street courses. Bernard has said that achieving a 50-50 mix between road races and ovals is a priority.
The announcement of a race in China caused consternation among American flag-waving fans, and the Baltimore Grand Prix, which has lost millions of dollars despite staging a hugely popular inaugural event in 2011, has struggled to find a promoter willing to accept the financial risks that are an inevitable part of staging a street race.
The new Dallara DW12 chassis has caused some controversy with its unusual (some say unappealing) appearance, but the car is already faster in road-racing trim than the 9-year-old design it replaced. Still, a considerable amount of work is necessary to make the car comfortable to drive on high-speed ovals. In that regard, INDYCAR is perhaps fortunate that the 2012 schedule is light on ovals.
INDYCAR's revamped technical department also will be tasked with managing the competition between Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus. It will be interesting to see how badly INDYCAR wants to see parity between the three manufacturers, especially Lotus, which is entering the IndyCar Series with a smaller budget and fewer resources than its competition.
These are significant challenges, but there is a strong feeling within the INDYCAR paddock that they can be managed.
"There's a lot happening, and it's all good," said four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti. "The series has a lot of momentum, the television package is improving and the new car is really going to shake things up.
"I think everyone is happy to have engine manufacturer competition again, and as a driver, it's a pleasure to have a new car and engine to develop. The future looks quite good, actually."
Other key news to emerge from two days of INDYCAR meetings:
• Perhaps most significantly, Firestone has extended its contract for exclusive tire supply to the IndyCar Series through the 2014 season. Firestone's safety record in racing over the past 20 years is unmatched, and the contract extension was met with great enthusiasm.
• In an experiment unique to 2012, the grid for the oval race at Iowa Speedway will be set by a series of heat races. "Single-car qualifying is incredibly boring for everyone except the drivers," Barfield said. "We can't expect to increase TV ratings and attendance if we don't try new and different things."
• The new turbocharged V-6 engines are expected to last 1,850 miles. Engines will be allocated by INDYCAR from a pool supplied by the three manufacturers, and each car will be allowed five new engines per season.
• The engine has a minimum weight of 112.5 kilograms, and boost pressure has been set at 38 inches for speedways, 41 inches for short ovals and 46 inches for road races. That should produce a range of power from 550 to 700 horsepower. The rev limit has been increased to 12,000 rpm from the current 10,300.
• Pop-off valves have been eliminated, and boost will now be controlled via INDYCAR-issued ECUs (engine control units) produced by McLaren. If one or more manufacturers demonstrates a decided advantage, the lagging manufacturer(s) will have two opportunities during the season to introduce homologated updates in an effort to catch up. "We don't want a repeat of 2005, when one manufacturer dominated the series and the others weren't allowed to make changes before they lost interest," said Will Phillips, vice president of technology and new car project manager for INDYCAR.
• Phillips said he expects to see 28 cars on the grid for the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, composed of 12 Chevrolets, 10 Hondas and six Lotuses.
Despite the positive steps outlined by series officials, two years into his tenure with INDYCAR, Bernard still finds himself forced to answer the most basic questions about the long-term future of Indy car racing.
"I read and hear the same things that all of you do -- that INDYCAR is headed for doomsday," Bernard said. "I counter that belief with the fact that the Izod IndyCar Series just had one of the best financial years in its history. That could not have happened without our tremendous sponsors and partners.
"We heard some sniggering when the ICONIC advisory committee introduced the new car and people said we would never attract a new engine manufacturer. Wrong again. We faced doubt over the size of our field and speculation we'd be lucky to have 18 cars on the grid this season because of the introduction of the new Dallara DW12 and the economy. Wrong again. We are very excited to have a minimum of 26 cars compete in the Izod IndyCar Series in 2012."
Since the open-wheel unification in 2008, Indy car racing has been stuck in a pattern of taking two steps forward and one step back. For every bit of good news that comes along, there always seems to be a setback.
Barring a disaster like the one that occurred in October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (where popular driver Dan Wheldon was killed in a gruesome, 15-car accident), the IndyCar Series seems poised to take two steps forward -- or maybe even more -- in 2012.
Almost everything looks good on paper. Now it's up to the series, the teams and the drivers to execute the plan -- and bring back the fans.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
On paper, almost everything looks good for INDYCAR. Now it's up to the league, the teams and the drivers to execute the plan -- and bring back the fans.