(by Alexandra Berzon and Rachel Bachman online.wsj.com 10-18-11)
Sunday's IndyCar Series race here was supposed to be a showcase event for a struggling sport undergoing a transformation.
Essential to attracting new crowds, said IndyCar Chief Executive Randy Bernard, was increasing the excitement—and risks—on the racetrack.
Promotional materials for the Las Vegas race on IndyCar's website predicted "the wildest race of the season" because the track was unusually "fast and smooth."
In the materials, one driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, said, "All it takes is one mistake by one driver, and it could be huge consequences. This should be a nail-biter for the fans, and it's going to be insane for the drivers."
Now, as track officials try to piece together the causes of Sunday's 15-car crash that killed driver Dan Wheldon, race-industry officials, drivers and families in the sport are questioning whether the risks were too high.
After taking over the Indy series in March 2010, Mr. Bernard tried to make Indy racing more exciting, like its more popular cousin, Nascar. The Indy circuit packed more cars into each contest, for instance.
Mr. Bernard also started using side-by-side restarts. The restarts, which occur after the course is slowed by a yellow flag, meant cars were closer together, raising the possibility that their exposed wheels could touch and result in crashes.
In an interview in June with the Globe and Mail newspaper, Mr. Bernard said the change to restarts would mean more "carnage and wrecks," adding that "danger will be an important element of the sport."
"I'm sorry if my comments are interpreted this way," he said in an email Monday. "Danger has been an inherent part of the sport since 1909. I don't know if what I said was taken out of context or I misspoke, but if you know me, you know where my loyalties lie, and I'm very respectful to the drivers and the sport."
In an interview, Jody Scheckter, a former Formula One driver whose son Tomas was in Sunday's accident, said that for the past few years he has been concerned about safety of the IndyCar contests and is encouraging his son to stop racing Indy cars. "Now I'm going to have to push harder," he said.
Asked if Sunday's race was run under dangerous circumstances, Chris Powell, president and CEO of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, said, "We allow the experts at IndyCar, or whatever sanctioning body we might be dealing with, to make those decisions."
"Not only did they have practice and qualifying on Friday, but they had testing on Thursday. And then two different test sessions earlier this summer. So theExperts at IndyCar were more than aware, or acutely aware, I should say, of every nuance of Las Vegas Motor Speedway before the drivers took the green flag," Mr. Powell added.
Before coming to IndyCar, Mr. Bernard had developed a reputation as a marketing whiz who turned the once-obscure sport of bull-riding into a nationally televised phenomenon. Purses expanded up to $2 million.
By the time he left, Mr. Bernard increased purses for the PBR world finals to $2 million from $1 million, and created bull-riding events shown on major networks including CBS and NBC.
"Now we have guys making over $100,000 a year as a bull rider, which in the past was unheard of," said Jack Carnefix, a spokesman for Professional Bull Riders Inc.
Mr. Bernard was recruited with a similar mandate to the Indy circuit. To steal fans back from Nascar, he brought the Indy circuit to tracks around the country that hadn't seen the low-slung cars for more than a decade.
Though Nascar cars move at slower speeds than their Indy counterparts they generally race in tight packs and bump up against one another.
Some of Mr. Bernard's efforts appeared to be paying off. This year, Indy races on Versus drew the most viewers since the cable channel started airing races in 2009.
For many longtime racers, as well as some sponsors, the Las Vegas race—the league's season finale—was to be the culmination of many of those efforts.
Leading up to the event, the league sparked buzz around the rivalry between two of the top drivers who would be competing for the league title. It held a parade of Indy cars on the Las Vegas Strip and a drivers' blackjack tournament. The closing gala was to be held at the Mandalay Bay casino on Monday evening.
Media attention focused on a publicity stunt: Mr. Bernard had offered $5 million to any driver who could start in last place and win the race, splitting the money with a fan. Mr. Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, took the challenge. Mr. Wheldon spent time before the race granting interviews to Extra and other media outlets in Los Angeles.
"The buzz in Vegas was amazing before the race," said Silvia Pierson, a chief operating officer for Apex-Brasil USA, a Brazilian trade investment promotion agency that sponsors IndyCar. Apex brought 150 business people to the event Sunday.
The crash at the Las Vegas 300 occurred shortly after the beginning of Sunday's race on a bright Nevada day.
Several cars near the front of the pack became bogged down during the 11th lap as Mr. Wheldon began threading his way from last place through the field of 34 cars.
His race car struck another and flew into the air at high speed before smashing into a wall. The car, No. 77, then exploded in a ball of fire.
In the wake of the accident, many people in the car-racing industry emphasized the overall safety of the sport. Deadly crashes are relatively rare.
"The league is very responsible and has been doing a fantastic job and staying ahead of the curve on the safety side," said Mario Andretti, a celebrated former racer. "But it's a never-ending project."
Next year the league is introducing its first major car redesign in many years, which Mr. Andretti said he expects will be safer due to a variety of new features.
Others said there was growing trepidation over the direction of Indy racing.
Mr. Scheckter, the former Formula One driver, said he has been concerned about regulations that have the effect of encouraging cars to maintain speed around corners, which can bunch cars together.
"You have four cars abreast sometimes, and that just seems completely mad," he said. "It's exciting because the cars are riding close together, but it's very dangerous."
Before the race in Las Vegas, drivers noticed very smooth corners, he said, a sign that cars would keep up fast speeds even as they turned through the oval race track.
"Racing in a pack has become more common in our league," said Larry Foyt, who runs the AJ Foyt Racing team. "The thing is it's exciting and the fans like it. But we've got to look and see, this form of racing maybe it's not right for our cars."