IndyCar closes strong amid same rumors of unrest

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(Eds: With AP Photos.)

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

A new champion, improved racing, at least two top team owners calling for harmony for the sake of the series - IndyCar wrapped up a very trying year with a successful final weekend.

That doesn't means there isn't trouble ahead.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard planned to meet Thursday with the board of directors to begin working in earnest on the 2013 season. Among the issues expected to be resolved is the race schedule, which Bernard wants to announce by Oct. 1. Trouble is, rumblings of an attempted team owner-led coup against Bernard followed IndyCar right through Saturday night's finale at Fontana, and Bernard's ouster as CEO remains a very serious topic.

Roger Penske, the most powerful owner in open-wheel racing, threw his support behind Bernard last weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

"There's always a two-year itch by the car owners, and we spent more time (this year) worrying about parts prices then how we can build the series," Penske said. "Overall, I think Randy has brought a lot to the series. I know some of the people maybe think he hasn't, but at this particular time, he's our leader. I'm supporting him."

There was a similar sentiment from team owner Chip Ganassi, who stopped short of endorsing Bernard but said his IndyCar brethren were part of the problem.

"I don't like people to point the finger at challenges and issues we have; I like people with solutions," Ganassi said. "We say, `It's that guy's fault. He's the reason it's good. She's the reason it's good. He's the reason it's bad.' Rather than pointing the finger at television ratings or CEOs or family politics, let's point the finger at what we need to do to make this better.

"Let's point the finger at what needs to be done instead of pointing the finger at the same old people or the same old problems."

And so it's the same old conversation in IndyCar, and it is threatening to spoil what should be a banner moment for the series.

IndyCar's season ended last year with a horrific 15-car accident that killed Dan Wheldon in the season finale. The death of the popular two-time Indianapolis 500 winner rocked the series to its core, and the healing process is ongoing.

Wheldon's death, caused in part because of the pack racing that comes on oval tracks, created an anxiety about the safety of the series and its cars. IndyCar addressed both issues with the debut this season of its first new car in nine years, and a change to the aerodynamic specifications at oval tracks that broke up the pack.

The result was an Indianapolis 500 many lauded as one of the most exciting in history, a thrilling race at Texas, where there had been much hand-wringing about the compatibility of the cars, the banking and the fencing, and Saturday night's exciting finale.

Tony Stewart, the 1997 IndyCar champion who has three NASCAR titles since leaving the series, has been impressed with the racing this year. He was engrossed in the Indianapolis 500 and found the finale to be entertaining as he watched Ryan Hunter-Reay trying to snatch the title away from Will Power.

"I thought the racing was good the other night," Stewart said. "The drama behind it, it wasn't the wheel-to-wheel battle for a championship, but you kept watching for Ryan to pick up positions. When the track was slick, those guys were having to drive those things. And watching as the night went on and how guys got their cars dialed in .. it was good racing.

"I think the product is good right now, and for going to a new car this year, it was a successful first year."

Hunter-Reay became the first American to win the championship since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006, and Chevrolet celebrated its return to the series after a seven-year hiatus with both the driver and manufacturer title.

The championship was the first for team owner Michael Andretti since 2007, and it ended a five-year reign of Ganassi drivers. Hunter-Reay's four wins this year was also best in the series, bringing an end to the cycle of Penske and Ganassi drivers collecting the lion's share of the trophies each season.

In terms of pure competition, Bernard thought it was a good year.

"I was overall pleased with the year from the standpoint of the new car, it performed phenomenally well, and I was very excited about the quality of the drivers and depth of the field," he said. "I was very pleased going into the finale there was a championship race, and either competitor would have been a fantastic champion. Will has fought hard for three years and come close and is a great ambassador for IndyCar, and I think Ryan, being the first American champion since 2006, he has a great personality and will represent IndyCar well."

And what didn't Bernard like about the season?

"I'd say I was disappointed in the length of the schedule," he said. "I would have preferred a longer season than 15 races."

Las Vegas had been announced as the site of this year's finale, but the event was canceled after Wheldon's death. Then the promoters of an August race in China pulled the plug on their event.

Bernard is working hard to boost that number, and has already added a street race in Houston to next year's schedule. He has the series back in talks with longtime IndyCar staples Pocono, perhaps for next season, and Phoenix, no sooner than 2014, and fans seem eager for both venues to return to the schedule.

Bernard has also had conversations about a street race in Rhode Island next season, and has promoters interested in an event in New Orleans in the future.

Whether Bernard is given the chance to see his visions through - or ever have the chance to lead a series that isn't saddled with the same old poisonous politics - remains to be seen.

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
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