Wheldon $5 million shot inadvertently makes gimmick more promotable

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 30: Dan Wheldon of England, driver of the #98 William Rast-Curb/Big Machine Dallara Honda poses with Borg Warner Trophy on the yard of bricks and son, Sebastian Wheldon during the 95th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race Trophy Presentation at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 30, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

So it's come to this, you might be thinking.

Travis Pastrana breaks a few bones. Kasey Kahne only wants to run for a guy who doesn't want to field an extra car. Alex Zanardi? Yeah, not a great idea, no matter how we all love him.

It looked like Randy Bernard's white elephant, this $5 million marketing gimmick for the IZOD IndyCar Series' World Championships in Las Vegas. The few people who bothered to even take time to think about participating aren't going to be able to make it, sorry, but it was a good idea and all that.

So now we discover Dan Wheldon will be riding in to save the day as the only eligible driver to win the $5 million bonus (actually $2.5 million for the driver, $2.5 million for the fan, underwritten by GoDaddy.com) by virtue of the fact that he does not have a full-time ride this year.

But you know what? As much as the hardcore fans will hem and haw about it being a weak salvage effort for a promotional idea probably doomed from the start, Randy Bernard may have just backed into a better idea than the original.

See, Dan Wheldon also happens to be this year's Indianapolis 500 champion (thanks to the crack timing of the guys in the IMS flag stand). So instead of just being some former driver struggling to get more than one or two rides a year being a lame substitute for "the contenders" that Randy was hoping to secure from around motorsports, he is actually the guy who got more international press in one day this year than any two or three IndyCar drivers have all season... combined.

If you think about it a little, the casting of Dan Wheldon for the $5 mil becomes less than a charity case (both for the series and for Wheldon) and more of a pretty damn good idea for an annual tradition.

Now, I'm not saying that Randy should give up on the idea of inviting ringers from other racing series to Vegas every year to see if they can win the big bucks. It's a good idea in theory, if not in execution. It's just that maybe Randy and company might be better served refocusing the spotlight a bit.

The defining marketing event in the 1980s for NASCAR - as any fan who was around at that time and hasn't since sworn off stock car racing for not being old school enough can tell you - was the Winston Million. More than any other promotion in that decade, the Winston Million ignited the public's imaginations and made the drivers of that era perk up their ears and get up on the wheel a bit more ferociously. Hell, if it weren't for the Winston Million, Bill Elliott would never have become "Million Dollar Bill" - a sobriquet that sticks with him and gives him enough image cachet to get start and park rides even today, years after he could forget about competing for wins and championships.

The $5 million IndyCar challenge was built in the same vein as the Winston Million - just adjusted for inflation. But it was based on a premise that, given the intense specialization that has beset big-time auto racing in the modern era, was impractical at best. Even getting racers from other series interested in the damn thing was a chore, and if by some chance they could get a driver interested, the logistics of the whole shebang are pretty complicated. Not to mention that most people are pretty well aware that throwing a guy - even someone as talented as Pastrana or Kahne - into an IndyCar cold turkey had a potential success rate of, say, Barack Obama playing emcee at a Tea Party lunch.

Which is why this accidental stunt casting of Dan Wheldon and the eleventh-hour pinch-hitting from GoDaddy.com has inadvertently given Randy Bernard a formula for a long-term promotion that makes a hell of a lot more sense than the original did, without having the annual "will they or won't they?" question hanging over their heads like Damocles' sword.

The setup goes thusly - the $5 million award is offered primarily to the annual winner of the Indianapolis 500. Then, secondarily, offer it as an incentive to drivers from other series who might want to try a one-off in the final race of the season... but keep the driver/fan split for both parties.

Promotionally, it's a much more killer idea than the original. First of all, you have at least one driver guaranteed to be going for the $5 million prize every year. Secondly, it will be the most recognizable driver in IndyCar who already has a buttload of international press focused on him because, well, he just won the freaking Borg-Warner Trophy, right? So you have six months to build this sucker up. And even if the Indy 500 winner is a total shocker from a one-off team, the purse money from the 500 alone will be enough for that team to do Vegas as well. Third, it will add an annual spice to the IndyCar season to go with the three championship trophies at the end of the year.

Best of all, you can still offer to let ringers in to go for the money. Hell, the more the merrier, right? If you can get two or three one-offs from NASCAR or wherever, that means two or three more fans get a shot at the money too. But even if the unthinkable (or, actually, thinkable given what happened this year) happens and no other drivers show up, you still have your Indy 500 winner to be "the guy."

And if you're keen on having a multiplicity of drivers, you could even consider expanding the eligible field of $5 million challengers to include the leaders of the Foyt and Andretti trophy chase. Of course, that would mean that if a guy wins Indy, the Foyt/Andretti, and the IndyCar championship, he'd be one rich sonofabitch. But would that be so bad? It'd certainly be newsworthy.

You never know. Maybe it might also boost car counts for Indy 500 qualifying if hopefuls knew that $2.5 million extra could be waiting at the end of the road if they win. It'd certainly make the fans who have a shot at it more interested.

So yeah, this whole Wheldon/GoDaddy.com thing might have been the best possible outcome for the promotion. Sometimes you just have to trip over good fortune by accident. 

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