Bernard Revises INDYCAR Vegas Challenge

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 14 2011

Dan Wheldon, winner of this year's Indy 500, will take the Las Vegas challenge. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

The $5 million carrot INDYCAR boss Randy Bernard has been dangling in front of the world motorsports community since March will be chased solely by Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Wheldon, the two-time/reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, was introduced Tuesday as the lone non- regular series driver approved to compete in the inaugural IZOD INDYCAR World Championships presented by Honda on Oct. 16. As part of an event expected to crown the 2011 IndyCar Series champion, Wheldon will attempt to earn $2.5-million for himself and $2.5-million for a fan in the Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge.

The finale at LVMS will be preceded by this weekend’s road-course event at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, where three-time/reigning series champion Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing is nursing a five-point lead over Will Power of Team Penske. The series will compete at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway oval on Oct. 2 before invading Vegas.

Wheldon will have his work cut out at LVMS, as he will start the scheduled 200-lapper around the 1.5-mile oval from the rear of a field expected to reach 30-plus cars. Wheldon will compete in the No. 98 Dallara/Honda jointly entered by Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian and sponsors Bowers & Wilkins at Magnolia, William Rast, Curb and Big Machine Records.

If Wheldon adds this victory to his upset win in the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 on May 29, he and the chosen fan will pick up their checks in Victory Circle.

“We said at the beginning of the season we wanted to offer our fans value, competition and entertainment,” Bernard, INDYCAR’s chief executive officer, said during news and teleconferences at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “We set out to prove that we have the best drivers in the world and putting Dan at the back of a 30-plus car field to weave his way through traffic at speeds in excess of 215 mph will certainly prove that.”

Wheldon’s win at IMS was a one-off ride with Herta’s fledgling team, which since has been testing the new Dallara/Honda chassis/turbocharged engine package that will replace the current generation car at the start of the 2012 season. Wheldon said that while the test miles have allowed him to work on his weaknesses, he has been “just desperate, period” to get back to racing.

“It’s an unbelievable honor,” said Wheldon, who has won 16 IndyCar events and led a total of 2,865 laps in 132 series starts. “I think when Randy and some of the staff from INDYCAR offered me this opportunity, I thought it was a bit of a prank call. Because when you consider the people that were considered, you know, I’m the actual one that’s getting to do this, it’s quite a responsibility to tell you the truth. I certainly want to do well for myself and for the team. But you know, when you are driving for a fan, too, it adds that extra little bit of pressure.”

Bernard said he felt comfortable with this revised version of a challenge presented in March to “any race car driver on this planet” who thought he or she could beat the IndyCar Series regulars at Vegas.

“We have the fastest, most versatile race car drivers in the world and no one chose to make that decision to go forward with it,” Bernard said. “We had two dozen inquiries about the opportunity, we had six sign-up with applications and we had many others call and inquire about it. But the only three that we felt had a serious opportunity to help drive new millions of fans to our sport and were showcased as great, successful drivers were Travis Pastrana, Alex Zanardi and Kasey Kahne. We felt these were the type of drivers that had the skills to compete against the IZOD IndyCar drivers and show off their talent to INDYCAR.

“Alex only wanted to drive for Chip (Ganassi); Kasey Kahne preferred to drive for Roger Penske. But being that they had such a tight race for the IZOD INDYCAR World Championships with the Verizon (Power) and the Target (Franchitti) car, they felt it would distract them from going on with this type of challenge. Then last is Travis. He had a bad break, literally, when he broke his ankle and had to decline from moving on with this challenge. I want to thank all three of them because they all had a lot of interest in this, and we felt that it was a lot of fun just getting to visit with them about this.

“I think that it’s very important that everyone know – team-owners, drivers, sponsors, fans – why we’re doing this. When we set out at the beginning of this year or last year on our goals for 2011, one of them was to reach mainstream, and fans in other genres of motorsports. That’s what this was always around, was how do we reach those fans and bring them into the IZOD IndyCar Series. That was the whole reason for the $5 million challenge with other forms of motorsports, to try to bring those folks, drivers in.

“When that didn’t happen, we felt that it was too good of…we received too much good, positive momentum to leave it go. We thought one way that we can still do it is with a promotion that reached one of our drivers, and how do you be fair in your drivers? The best way is to go to the guy that received the most press this year, that won the Indy 500 and give him the opportunity. Second… we’re able to use Go Daddy and Verizon and the millions of folks they have in their database to help us promote this race. So we’re going to be able to reach that mainstream that we’ve been focusing on in a bigger way.”

Beginning today, fans can enter through the Verizon INDYCAR Mobile App (text INDY to 3406 or go to Android Market to download) or www.IndyCarWorldChampionships.com. In addition to the chance for $2.5-million, one fan will be selected for a trip of a lifetime to the IZOD INDYCAR World Championships presented by Honda, which includes airfare, hotel, VIP access on and off track, a Verizon Wireless 4G LTE phone and tablet and more totaling in excess of $10,000.

“I would like to think that every driver is going to benefit from this significantly if we can move the dial on the ratings,” Bernard said of an event that will be carried on ABC-TV. “I’ve made it very clear that I’ll be very disappointed – I think I even told someone I’d resign if we didn’t triple the rating. But I think it’s very important if we can triple the rating, every driver will see a positive momentum, every team-owner will and the series will. We’re here to do one thing, and that’s continue to push viewership and our fan base upwards.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 14 2011
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