The IZOD Indy Car Series was making slow, steady strides back to relevance in a sport that had left the circuit almost for dead a few years ago. The infusion of Phillips Van Heusen as title sponsor brought millions of dollars in promotions, other new sponsors had come aboard and brands were working together on co-promotions to re-engage a consumer that had forgotten the sports glory years in the 1970’s. A new technology initiative had brought interest from science and the tech community, and even with Danica Patrick’s coming departure to NASCAR there was a young, diverse group of drivers that was appealing to a larger multicultural audience. Old events that were not effective were jettisoned, new events like one in Baltimore were launched, and it was hoped that the relationship with Comcast would lead to more television growth than in recent years. There was a renewed push for social media activation, and the leadership, led by former head of the PBR Randy Bernard, was looking to overturn every sterotype, clique, and issue the sport had in a very short time. Not every innovation was working, but there was progress.
Then came last Sunday, when popular driver and Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon was killed in a horrific accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. As expected, the naysayers who talked about the race course being too flat, the sport being pushed to far and too fast, rose to the top. IRL officials handled the immediacy of the tragedy and then retreated from the public eye to ,mourn, give pause, and examine next steps away from the media circus. The issue was also amplified because it was really the first high profile death in racing since the real push for the immediacy of social media, and the fact that it was the last race of the Indy Car season. There was no next race to go to and address, which means the drivers and leadership would be scattered to many points, without a natural “next” spot to gather and get back to business.
Through all the questions this week came silence from IRL leadership, while those in the shadows questioned Bernard’s ability to lead the circuit as an outsider. Whaterever the reason for silence this week, and whether the situation was handled correctly or fast enough on the days following the tragedy is still up for debate. There are many, many legal issues to be sorted through with a loss of this magnitude, and the mourning period for the IRL family will come to a head this week. However one thing, when looking back over the year as a whole is pretty clear. Bernard was brought in by leadership to change the image of a dying sport circuit. Many of the changes throughout the year brought increased coverage and value to the sport as a whole, which is a good thing for a slow turnaround with the world’s fastest sport. It is also clear as the head of the circuit that Bernard’s decisions were not made in a vacuum…racing perhaps more than any other sport is not a dictatorship. The drivers and their teams have a seat at the table. Thus, the season-ending race decision to have Wheldon try and race for the win from the back of the back for increased prize money and visibility was risky, but not one that Bernard himself forced along. Yes he had the final say and was the face of the sport, but he was not alone.
The death of Dale Earnhardt brought many positive changes to NASCAR, as many tragedies do. Whether Wheldon’s death will do the same for Indy Car remains to be seen. Whether the risks drivers assume are too great even for them to fully understand is also up for debate. So while IRL struggles to come to grips with the tragedy and its next steps, hopefully some good for the future of the sport can come from such a horrific event. It is hard to deny that Indy Car has moved forward, not back, under Bernard’s leadership, and it would be an even bigger tragedy to sacrifice the head when the body was improving.
Maybe this week will bring more answers than silence from IRL. Maybe that will help silence the critics a bit, but maybe more importantly the lessons learned will be as important than the issues that arose for a sport that appeared to be moving back in the racing world.