Las Vegas Preview

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Well, the hype is almost over. It’s time for all thirty-four drivers entered into the IZOD IndyCar Series season finale to get down to business – first with practice yesterday and today, then qualifying this afternoon before the championship is decided during the race on Sunday.

There are many well-documented sub-plots going into this weekend. It’s the last IndyCar race for Danica Patrick who happened to be the fastest driver in Thursday’s practice with a speed of 224.719 mph. It is also the final race for these nine year-old Dallara chassis. Then there is the large crowd that is expected/hoped for and the $5 million Go-Daddy Challenge that will pay Dan Wheldon and fan Ann Babenco $2.5 million each if Wheldon can pull off the victory on Sunday. But all of that is secondary to the real reason for the hype – the crowning of the champion of the IZOD IndyCar Series champion for 2011.

All of this will take place at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – a venue that has hosted open-wheel races before, back in the days of the twelve-year split. In fact, the very first race of any kind held at the 1.5-mile oval was an Indy Racing League event held in 1996, which was won by Richie Hearn. The upstart league ran at Las Vegas until 2000. Other IRL winners include names such as Eliseo Salazar, Arie Luyendyk, Sam Schmidt and Al Unser, Jr. The series has not raced at Vegas since 2000.

By this time, track ownership had changed hands as well. In December of 1998, Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) had purchased the track from Richie Cline and Ralph Englestad for $215 million.

Champ Car raced there for two years in 2004-05, with Sébastien Bourdais winning both. In 2006, the track was reconfigured with progressive banking in the turns and a re-located pit lane. Bourdais is one of the few in this weekend’s field to have ever raced at LVMS. Neither of the two championship contenders have ever raced an open-wheel car at Vegas. Dario Franchitti raced stock cars there in 2008 during his sabbatical from IndyCars. Will Power has never raced any form of car on the Las Vegas oval, so this could get interesting. Most drivers are comparing the track to Chicagoland Speedway, which has been very racy and provided extremely close finishes.

From what we saw at Kentucky two weeks ago, anything can happen. Not only did we see Ed Carpenter hold off Dario Franchitti in an improbable win for Sarah Fisher Racing, but we also saw Will Power, the points leader, the race leader and pole sitter, taken out of contention by a boneheaded move by Ana Beatriz and/or her crew when she pulled into Power’s path on Pit Road. I’m not sure whose fault it was, but I know this much – it wasn’t Will Power’s, but he certainly paid the price for someone else’s careless mistake. He fell to an eighteen point deficit to Franchitti by the end of the race.

Expect the unexpected at Las Vegas, as well.

That is what I like about oval racing – anything can happen. Just like at this year’s Indianapolis 500 where in the closing laps, it looked like a sure thing that rookie J.R. Hildebrand would be visiting Victory Lane at the hallowed grounds at 16th and Georgetown. But fate had different ideas as J.R. watched Dan Wheldon take the checkered flag as he was scraping along the wall of the front-stretch.

Curt Cavin said it best in his Q&A section yesterday, when he noted that Las Vegas needs to work given the business model that Randy Bernard is using. Cavin notes that if it works, it will be a shot in the arm for all ovals.

Given that reasoning, the IZOD IndyCar Series clearly needs for this weekend to be a success. Given the tentative schedule that we have seen, there are only five ovals on the 2012 slate. Sorry for those that are fans of the twisties (as our friend Pressdog affectionately refers to street/road courses), but five ovals just isn’t going to cut it. It’s not like the ovals in the US have been suddenly bulldozed. They haven’t gone anywhere. It’s just that hosting IndyCar events are not money-making ventures for the track owners.

If the INDYCAR sanctioning fee is too high – lower it. If there is something else in the fine print that is preventing ovals from welcoming open-wheel racing to their track – change it. Supposedly, a few tracks have had their feathers ruffled that Las Vegas paid no sanctioning fee to host the season finale. If this event is successful, do something to make amends to get those tracks back on the schedule.

In the past year and a half, we’ve lost ovals at Chicago, Kansas, Homestead, Milwaukee, Motegi, New Hampshire and more than likely Kentucky; while picking up only Fontana for next season. The 2004 schedule featured ovals exclusively. In 2005, street/road courses accounted for only three spots on the schedule. By 2010, oval representation on the IndyCar schedule dipped below 50% for the first time. For 2012, it looks as if a seventeen event season will consist of only five ovals. Iowa is rumored to be the next one to go after next season.

Randy Bernard has done a lot of good in the two seasons he has been at the helm of the sanctioning body. Among those is listening to the fans. Witness the new trophy that was unveiled at Las Vegas on Wednesday.

ICS Trophy

Bernard, himself, has expressed his desire to have a 50/50 split between ovals and non-ovals. With new cars and engines on the horizon for 2012 and aero kits coming on board for the following year, I think Randy’s next big priority is to re-design the business model to make whatever accommodations necessary to get more ovals back on the schedule.

Curt Cavin is fond of saying that INDYCAR has to go where they are invited. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean they need to sit around and wait to be invited. Obviously, the model that the series has been using for oval tracks is very unappealing to track owners. Here’s hoping that Randy Bernard can change the model and make the series more attractive for track owners so that they will be invited. Otherwise, some of the doom & gloomers may end up being right on this one.

OK, so I’ll get off of my soapbox and focus on the race for this Sunday. I will not choose a winner for the championship. I’ve been 0 for 16 in choosing race winners this season. Not only have I been wrong, but most races – whoever I chose to win ended up with some catastrophic malady that they ended up finishing last or close to it. I won’t give either championship contender that jinx. I will, however, pick a winner for the race.

There have been race winners this season from Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport, Bryan Herta Autosport and Sarah Fisher Racing. One team that should not be missing from that group is KV Racing Technology. It’s time they stepped up. Therefore, I will pick Tony Kanaan to win on Sunday. He was twelfth quickest on Thursday at a speed of 222.635 mph. Can I really go winless this season? We’ll see.

George Phillips

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18 Responses to “Las Vegas Preview”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    “””””If there is something else in the fine print that is preventing ovals from welcoming open-wheel racing to their track – change it. “””””
    George, yes, I believe it is lack of oval fan attendance at oval track races. Nearly any sanctioning fee would be too great if no one shows up for the races. I think the wide camera shots of “the crowds” at oval tracks this year is all the evidence you need to understand lack of interest on the various track owners part. Cheaper to keep the track closed than open it for 5-10k people…

  2. I do not believe Bourdais will be racing this weekend. He only signed on for the street and road courses.

    I’m taking Dario for the Championship, Hinch for top rookie, and Rahal for the win.

    I love watching ovals, but road courses are more fun to be at. Hopfully they can get back to a 50-50 balance, but I won’t lose this fan if they don’t.

    Pissed I’m not in Vegas this weekend.

  3. As a fan of the sport, and a student of its history, I think the new (old) Astor Cup is one of the classiest moves Randy Bernard has made. It recognizes all of top level American open wheel history, AAA, USAC, CART, IRL, ChampCar.

    Open wheel has always fluctuated between ovals and road courses, dating back to 1904 and the Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island. There have been dirt tracks, board tracks, brick, pavement, concrete, street courses, closed road circuits, etc…

    I know that each fan has a favorite, but the variety is what makes IndyCar great. Finding a way to make all of them financially successful, and maintaining a balance is what will ultimately save the sport.

  4. Did you know that by Vegas standards, Danica is too short to be a show girl? Thank god nascar is willing to take her in despite her shortcomings and limitations.

  5. Remember George, the League has to make money as well, not just the teams, tracks and promoters. “Cut the sanctioning fee?” With no discernable revenue bump from another source in the here and now doesn’t help the league reach that goal….the 2012 date where TG said the league had to be self sufficient is nearly upon us. The fime for freebies is over.

    Bruton does have a point if he were to say “You rent one of my facilites, do all my track manager’s work for him and make his financials look good, then on the other hand Jerry (in NH) pays a big fee, works his ass off and I got to hold him responsible for the money he lost. Choose a single business model when you visit my tracks and stick with it.”

    But IndyCar does not have the experience or staffing to self promote everywhere yet, Randy needs a success story in order to build a case to beef up staffinng towards that capability. Sweeping change in a cash strapped, conservative, family owned business doesn’t always happen quickly. Based on the feed from Vegas so far, I doubt that the 2013 schedule will only have 5 ovals…

  6. I wonder if the new agreement with ABC included any agreement on advertising and cross-promotion? I haven’t noticed any Indycar drivers on ABC morning shows and I haven’t seen any advertising on ABC or ESPN about the race. (Admittedly haven’t watched much TV this week either.) Doesn’t improving the audience benefit ABC at least as much as Indycar.

    I think the series needs to be “explained” (here’s the venues, here’s the new car, here’s how many races there are, here’s the 500, meet the drivers) somehow to the mass audience who really knows nothing about the series at all.

    Anyway, really looking forward to Sunday. And not for football.

    • sorry. but actually read that there’s a special section on the race in USA Today this weekend. so that’s good for everyone who stays in a hotel !

  7. Tampa Joe Says:

    Road racing or ovals. It don’t matter. Cowboy Randy is gonna run things into the ground with all this glitzy Vegas stuff. You think your buddy Foyt likes this bs? Get back to racing and leave the show girls and casinos alone. This series will be gone in 3 years. Just watch.

    • This series would have been gone in three years anyway. Forget the ovals vs. road courses, foreign drivers vs. American, glitzy Vegas or not, IndyCar racing has not been economically sustainable since the early nineties. We can wish for all we want, but given the reality of where we are at, bottom-line profitability will determine every decision made for the foreseeable future. BUT, for the first time, perhaps ever, we have a leader who gets promotion and economics, and cares about fans and the sport’s history. If he can’t make it work, no one will. I take comfort in that fact that his vision for the sport is in line with what I and many fans want. Economic reality will determine how close the sport actually gets to his vision and what we want, but at least he gets it, has the talent to make it happen, and he’s trying.

    • You’re a delight, Joe. Thanks for stopping by.

    • yawn.

  8. “we’ve lost ovals at Chicago, Kansas, Homestead, Milwaukee, Motegi, New Hampshire and more than likely Kentucky … If this event is successful, do something … to get those tracks back on the schedule.”
    Amen.
    “INDYCAR has to go where they are invited. … but that doesn’t mean they need to sit around and wait to be invited.”
    Amen.
    “Randy Bernard has done a lot of good in the two seasons he has been at the helm”
    Amen.

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      Has everything to do with the lack of fan attendance at oval track races. Has little to do with an invitation, nearly any sanctioning fee would be too great if no one shows up for the races. As others have said, oval fans need to put their money where their mouths are and show up for oval races… While Miami Homestead was still on the sched. I attended. (most track employees acted as if they were doing you a favor speaking to you) Have only made it to one 500, but would love to do it again and while not a huge oval fan, would like to attend other ovals at some point, that is if some of the other folks whining about the loss of ovals start showing up before ovals go the way of the Pterosaur…

  9. Well, George, your pick won the pole. Now if he can just stay there . . . and he IS overdue . . .

  10. Christopher Meyer Says:

    We lost a true champion today. Dan carried the flag of IndyCar high and more importantly carried himself high off the track. He will be greatly missed.

  11. Bent Wickerbill Says:

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