Thursday, February 24, 2011

Yeah ... but will it stay in Las Vegas?



(by John Oreovicz espn.go.com 2-22-11)

INDYCAR finally confirmed on Tuesday that its 2011 season finale will be contested Oct. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Of course, Las Vegas is known for (among other things) its quickie marriages, and Indy car racing has had its share of brief affairs in Sin City. The question is whether open-wheel racing's latest spin of the Vegas roulette wheel will result in a lasting, mutually profitable relationship.

USAC, CART, IRL and Champ Car all staged races in Vegas over the years. Bobby Unser won a one-off USAC tilt at the defunct Stardust Raceway in 1968, but Indy car racing disappeared from the scene until CART picked up the crumbs left behind by Formula One in 1984 to stage a one-and-done event in the parking lot of Caesar's Palace won by Mario Andretti.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway was one of the Indy Racing League's original ovals in 1996, but like many venues new to open-wheel racing during the CART/IRL war, it failed to attract a large enough audience to maintain staying power. Switching from a fall to a spring date failed to improve the commercial viability of the event, which was dropped from the IRL schedule after the 2000 season.

Four years later, Champ Car stepped into the void for a self-promoted September date at LVMS added to the NASCAR Truck Series weekend. Oval races were a rarity for Champ Car, but that still didn't bring many unique fans to the gate and the Trucks were generally considered the event's headliners.

Champ Car took one more bite of the Vegas apple in 2007 when it held its season opener on a new street circuit in the old downtown area. There was plenty of controversy about shutting down city streets, and again local interest was minimal. While the street course was praised as one of the best of its kind, poor attendance contributed heavily to the event's lack of staying power.

So why could returning to Las Vegas be a smart thing for INDYCAR? Obviously, it's one of the most prestigious markets in America, and NASCAR and LVMS have proved that racing events can be successful there.

Another positive is the fact that Las Vegas will host the Izod IndyCar Series championship finale, which has gone right down to the wire the past five years. Unless recent form is upset, fans are going to get a tension-filled event with significant championship implications.

The announcement of a $5 million prize for any non-IndyCar driver who manages to win the Las Vegas race could spur interest, though it may be difficult to find "name" drivers able to participate and teams in championship contention are unlikely to want to be distracted from their primary effort by running an extra car. Formula One is set to race in Korea that weekend, but the NASCAR Sprint Cup's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway will be the night before the IndyCar finale, theoretically opening the door for Cup driver participation.

Finally, given their strengthening relationship with INDYCAR, it's reasonable to expect that track owners Bruton Smith and Speedway Motorsports Inc. will put a massive promotional effort into the event.

The Truck series race has done reasonably well on its own as a stand- alone event. And with a much greater level of promotion than in the past, it's not a stretch to conclude that Indy cars will enjoy a far larger audience than they have ever seen before in Las Vegas.

For the future, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard has shared his dream of ending the season with a double-header weekend featuring a race at the LVMS oval and a street race, ideally on or near the Las Vegas Strip. That would allow INDYCAR to crown both road racing and oval champions, as well as an overall champion, at the season finale.

A street race on The Strip may be a pipe dream, but Bernard enjoyed a very strong relationship with Las Vegas city officials during his tenure as head of the Professional Bull Riders circuit and that could play strongly in INDYCAR's favor.

Given Bernard's successful track record during his year on the job with INDYCAR, anything is possible.

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