Losing Chicagoland would be another blow to IndyCar Series

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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It seems that whenever the IZOD IndyCar Series takes a step forward it gets knocked back at least three.

Will Danica Patrick say goodbye to the IndyCar Series in 2012? (Getty Images)  
Will Danica Patrick say goodbye to the IndyCar Series in 2012? (Getty Images)  
After one of this season's most-thrilling races from any series Saturday night at Chicagoland Speedway word has come it will most likely be the last at the 1.5-mile track.

Apparently the direction of the league and the business plan of track management aren't on the same page, and despite hosting six of the 10 closest finishes in series history, Chicagoland will close the book -- for now at least -- on its open-wheel legacy.

Series CEO Randy Bernard understands the need to have exciting racing, which Chicagoland has provided since the IndyCar set started at the track in 2001. But he also is keenly aware of the business ramifications of his sport, and attendance for Saturday night's race was pathetic.

Some estimates had 20,000 fans at a track that can host 80K, which is mind-boggling when you consider the product the track produces for IRL events.

Bernard is working feverishly on putting the finishing touches on the 2011 schedule. He reportedly is in deep discussions with several promotional groups to bring the series back to The Milwaukee Mile, the legendary facility up the road from Chicago which has a deep and rich IndyCar history.

Financial issues forced the IRL to abandon the Wisconsin track the past two years, but Bernard believes he's close to restoring the tradition of The Mile's post-Indy 500 stop next season.

"It would most likely be Chicago or Milwaukee possibly," were Bernard's exact words concerning a Midwest stop on a schedule dominated by road courses and street circuits, including a new event through the streets of Baltimore.

Although Bernard wouldn't rule out a deal to bring the series back to Chicago, there are no International Speedway Corporation properties on next year's schedule, but he remains hopeful.

"ISC has their primary objectives and IndyCar has their primary objectives, and I'm not sure if we're all on the same page right now," Bernard said. "But we still have a great relationship with ISC going forward, and we're still trying to figure out what that would be."

New Hampshire returns to the slate in 2011 to bolster the oval track side of the coin and reportedly Auto Club Speedway (an ISC-owned track) may return. But the loss of tracks like Chicago and Kansas means the end to some of the best racing on the planet.

Intermediate-sized tracks have proven to be the recipe for providing IndyCar the opportunity to race three- and sometimes four-wide -- similar to NASCAR restrictor-plate action at Daytona and Talladega.

However, as exciting as fans -- and some media members -- find that brand of racing, not all the drivers are enamored with it.

"I'm sure it's exciting to watch but if I told you it was less than nerve-racking I'd be lying," said Chicago winner Dario Franchitti, who survived 26 lead changes among 12 drivers Saturday. "You are literally running inches apart from one another out there and all it takes is for one little hiccup and disaster could strike. Fortunately we've been able to avoid that racing here over the years -- how I'm not entirely sure."

It hasn't been easy for Bernard since taking over as IndyCar CEO, after his days of making the Professional Bull Riding Association a success. He's been given the task of trying to resurrect a series that has faded, even after the celebrated open-wheel CART-IRL war ended three years ago.

With new title sponsor IZOD coming on board, there at least is some financial stability, but trying to market IndyCar racing as anything except where Danica Patrick drives has proven difficult, to say the least.

Patrick has generated more attention with her foray into NASCAR than anything she's done during her open-wheel season. And when she leaves the IRL for a full-time stock car career in 2012, as most believe, the league will lose its biggest name.

While the IndyCar Series is filled with personable and talented individuals, there still is a name-recognition void for all but dyed-in-the-wool fans.

And if the series can't build a following with the breathtaking racing that was on display Saturday night in Chicago, what other options are there to get back on the American motorsports map?

The internal strife that has plagued the series for more than a decade continues to haunt the IRL. The recent announcement of a new car to debut in 2012 was not openly welcomed by several car owners. Unless those issues can be resolved -- Bernard maintains that efforts to make the transition to a new machine in two years are going well -- the IndyCar world continues to be headed into murky waters.

"The league and team owners are 100 percent behind one another in building this brand and building IndyCar," Bernard said after a recent meeting of owners. "We need to be one and come together to build IndyCar, and that's what happened today. We're not going to agree on everything, but what we can do is come together and create the best solution to make everybody working together and taking the league in the correct direction."

That direction needs to include the type of racing that unfortunately so few witnessed Saturday night.

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