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Pedley: IndyCar Schedule Announcement Was A Biggie

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, September 10 2010

The Indy Racing League's Randy Bernard, right, Bruton Smith of Speedway Motorsports Inc., left, and driver Helio Castroneves introduced the Texas dual races last month. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

Virtually all public announcements in motor sports are billed as big. Very few of them turn out to be more than mildly significant. There was one Friday, however, that was big and it will affect the oldest major racing series in North America.

The Indy Racing League held a press conference on Friday in Milwaukee. Nothing less than the future existence of major open wheel racing in this hemisphere will depend on the success of the contents of the announcement.

Making the announcement was Randy Bernard, the IRL’s chief executive. He announced – belatedly – the series’ 2011 schedule.

It’s a schedule which dropped races at the Kansas Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway ovals. Also cut will be the road race at Watkins Glen International.

All those tracks are owned by the France family-owned International Speedway Corp.

The reasons for dropping them, Bernard said were scheduling, sanctioning fees and marketing.

Additions to the schedule include races at the Milwaukee Mile, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and the streets of Baltimore. Sources say that a race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to end the season is being negotiated and will be added soon. Bernard said Friday, yes, that that is his goal; to add Vegas as the season-finale.

Unless you have, or will have, plans involving the races at those places, the significance of the changes to the schedule would appear to be of medium significance.

But the contents of the schedule for 2011 signal something more. Something more essential: They signal a shift away from the IRL’s long-time relationship with Daytona Beach-based ISC and an apparent strengthening of ties with Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. of Charlotte, N.C.

“I feel very comfortable with SMI” which lists among its holdings the New Hampshire, Texas Motor Speedway and Las Vegas tracks, Bernard said Friday. “Bruton and I talked extensively and Bruton has great ideas and wants to see IndyCar grow.”

It’s kind of a curious pairing. Not long ago, the IRL and SMI had a relationship that was cordial at best and not even that at times.

SMI backed away from Indy cars after wreckage flew into the grandstands at Charlotte Motor Speedway and killed three people in 1999. That race was quickly removed from the schedule.

Racing continued on at SMI-owned Texas Motor Speedway over the years but the relationship between the IRL and that track got contentious at times. Until 2005, TMS hosted two IRL races and those races generated the second and third largest crowds after the Indianapolis 500.

But for, again, unclear reasons, one race was dropped and the existence of the second appeared shaky at times as the league and TMS president Eddie Gossage had major differences of opinion concerning things like sanctioning fees and starting times.

But that was with the old IRL regime. The Tony George regime. The regime that has been replaced by a group headed by Bernard.

Now, SMI and the IRL are moving closer together.

One of the first signs of that came the spring of 2010 when Gossage was appointed to the IRL’s ICONIC group – a committee appointed by Bernard which had the job of looking at the future of IRL equipment.

Today’s announcement and a subsequent teleconference with the media seemed to tie IndyCar and SMI even closer together.

Both sides are now saying really nice things about the other.

What is not unclear is whether the strengthening of ties with SMI will help save the series. Yes, I said save.

The IndyCar Series is at a serious crossroads right now.

Crowds are dwindling.

Its TV deal with Versus is not helping; some say it is killing the series – though there is talk about a major changes at Versus.

Some team owners are livid over the recent decisions by ICONIC, saying it will cause costs to skyrocket, not decline. Some are angry because they were not brought deeper into discussions on their sport’s future. Some say the whole thing was poorly thought out.

The series continues to be dominated by foreign drivers. Success continues to be dominated by three teams.

Danica Patrick, the series’ biggest star, is dabbling in NASCAR and may soon move there full time.

Though the competition has, a times, been the best in the world, fewer and fewer seem to notice or care.

And you have to wonder about the wisdom of estranging that Daytona Beach gorilla, even though Bernard insists no bridges to ISC have been burned and that a race at ISC-owned Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. may yet be added to the 2011 schedule.

Some around the sport have said under their breaths that the IndyCar series is on the verge of fading out of existence. Perhaps within the next couple of years.

An insider I talked to this week said he expects the 500 to survive but after that, little or nothing else may survive.

Hence the importance of today’s announcment.

SMI and Smith do not tend to get casually involved in projects. They tend to dominate them if not flat out take them over.

Fears of that may have contributed to the quashing past expansionist endeavors – notably concerning the World of Outlaws and the NHRA.

Perhaps a partnering of SMI and the IndyCar Series will turn out to be a perfect move. Perhaps an injection of SMI money, ideas, input and energy can turn the IndyCar Series around. The company does tend to make moves which are fan friendly and Smith and Gossage do seem to be in touch with the wants and needs of fans.

Or, it could mean a further separation from 100-plus-year-old roots and tradition for the series and cost it what little fan base it still has left.

That is what what lies beneath the surface of today’s announcement in Milwaukee – the long term future of the IndyCar Series.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, September 10 2010
One Comment

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  • Terry says:

    Like NASCAR….IRL has tried to control owner costs and make racing tighter using the CLONE CAR tight rules approach. This puts all interest of the fan on the driver. This approach takes the CAR and the team innovation away from the fans. No rooting for BODY-MOTOR-TEAM-ENGINEERS—–just driver. And let’s face it …these drivers today ” with few exceptions ” are plain yogart.
    IRL…..old school was FORD BIG BLOCK vs. OFFY..CHEVY..BENZ..BUICK…OLD’S….
    or STP TUBINE vs. LOTUS vs. ROADSTER…
    NASCAR ……( yes I know there are no more Hudsons….heck there are no more Merc’s Old’s Plym’s Ponti’s…just more Toyota’s )
    Still the CLONE CARS are pretend FORD’S CHEVY’S DODGE’S AND TOY’S.
    All alike ….no Jr. Johnson mystery engine…No Smokey Yunick
    Bud Moore mojo…Banjo secret set-up…Wood Bros out thinking Petty’s….Elliott Bros..vs..RCR
    JUST WHAT IS DANKA WEARING TODAY…..this all makes for empty seats