The IZOD IndyCar Series (ICS) was struggling with attendance and television ratings before the crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (LVMS) that killed popular driver Dan Wheldon. Since the October 16 tragedy, the sport has come under increased scrutiny as it looks to expand its horizons and increase its fan base.
Two weeks prior to Wheldon’s accident at LVMS, second-year IndyCar chairman Randy Bernard discussed the importance of setting the IndyCar series apart from other racing circuits, such as NASCAR.
“To me, the most important thing we can do is differentiate ourselves from all other forms of motorsports,” Bernard told the Associated Press. “You have to have your own niche. What we came up with is we want to be known as the fastest race car with the most versatile driver in the world. No one runs the speeds we do with the versatility — the ovals, the super ovals, the short ovals, road and street, and we run in the rain. I love that.”
Bernard ushered in changes to IndyCar racing, such as double-file restarts, where cars are in pairs after cautions, which added excitement but also made those restarts trickier for the drivers. In addition, he also introduced a $5 million bonus prize for the Las Vegas race for a non-IndyCar driver if they won. The prize was to be split between the driver and a randomly selected fan.
The moves were designed in part to help promote the sport and improve ticket sales and television ratings, but so far they have not yet made a big impact.
For example, when the series raced in at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in August, track owners anticipated 35,000 to 40,000 fans, but only 28,000 showed up, according to the Concord Monitor newspaper. Due to the disappointing attendance, the series will not race there next year.
The changes have led some drivers and others to question Bernard because driver safety is a growing concern.
Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson openly voiced his opposition of IndyCar running on high-banked oval tracks following the death of Wheldon. And former Formula One driver David Coulthard discussed in a column of the UK publication The Daily Telegraph how safety should come before entertainment value.
“There is no need, in my opinion, to be racing at 225 mph, wheel-to-wheel, around mostly oval circuits,” Coulthard wrote. “You don’t need to be doing that to entertain the crowds.”
Adding to the sport’s concerns, IndyCar also is losing one of its greatest stars when Danica Patrick makes her move to the NASCAR circuit next season. While there are a handful of recognizable drivers in the sport, Patrick has become a household name and is perhaps one of the few ties the ICS has to the mainstream audience.