INDYCAR is gaining momentum, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard said in his inaugural state-of-the-sport address at the Westin Hotel in Indianapolis. The addresses from Bernard culminated a day of drivers meetings, rules changes, sponsorship announcements and a look-ahead to March, when the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the track.
Bernard's look at the 2011 season and beyond promised to continue his commitment from last year to listen to fans and solicit their feedback on how the sport can continue to grow and reach new markets. Along those lines, INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced that they were opening a joint office in Los Angeles, where employees will be charged with helping to grow the visibility of the sport in Hollywood.
The series already took steps in that direction last year with the help of title sponsor IZOD, who had celebrities like Mark Wahlberg and P. Diddy involved in IndyCar promotions, along with helping Graham Rahal secure Indianapolis 500 sponsorship from Quick Trim, a company owned by the Kardashian Family.
Bernard said the entertainment value of the sport must continue to increase: double-file restarts will now be a part of the oval track strategy, beginning with the Indianapolis 500. Additionally, pit stall order will be determined based on the results of qualifications from the previous race at all races except for Indianapolis. Previously, fans griped that the same drivers always had stalls near the front, benefiting them through the season.
Along the marketing and visibility lines, it was announced that Starwood Hotels will now be the official hotel of INDYCAR, hopefully providing discounted rates for traveling fans and creating additional marketing opportunities across Starwood's line of hotels.
ABC will return to televise five IZOD IndyCar Series races: St. Petersburg, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New Hampshire and the yet-to-be announced series finale at Las Vegas. While Versus will handle the remainder of races, INDYCAR has been advised not to negotiate any television contracts at this time; instead, the body will wait until the NBC/Comcast merger is finalized later this year.
With the ABC/ESPN contract running through 2012, the potential is there, should NBC decide to shift some races from Versus to NBC Sports, for the series to return to network television, or to force ABC/ESPN's hand in contract negotiations.
Perhaps most importantly, Bernard promised to try and engage fans that departed the sport in the mid-1990's, when bickering and in-fighting served to bring the sport to its knees. In trying to draw fans from USAC, the series will try and bring back a pipeline of fans and drivers that brought some the stars of the past to the Indianapolis 500.
Citing research, Bernard vowed to try and attract fans of NASCAR. How exactly they will attempt to capture the crossover fans remains to be seen.
The third segment of fans Bernard wants to attract are the young, aspiring drivers involved in karting:
Our mission is to be as inclusive as possible to all karters and karting organizations with the goal being that all karters will have the top talent graduate into the Road to Indy ladder. But also, maybe more importantly, is connecting our sport and drivers to those karters that may not have the talent or desire to become a professional racecar driver but can become the next generation of IndyCar fans.
Perhaps the most noticeable change will be in the sanctioning body of the IZOD IndyCar Series, Firestone Indy Lights and Mazda Road to Indy. No longer will the divisive "Indy Racing League" be used; instead, the sanctioning body will be known simply as "INDYCAR."
On a blustery winter day in Indianapolis, Bernard and INDYCAR's goals for 2011 and beyond was a ray of bright, shining hope for the future of the sport.
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