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IndyCar returning to Vegas for championship event

Getty Images for IndyCar

Move over NASCAR, you've had a couple days in the spotlight.

On Tuesday afternoon Izod IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard once again grabbed the attention of the motorsports world and directed it at his series, which returned to center stage with yet another announcement that set fans and media alike talking.

Bernard and Mike Kelly, VP of marketing for title sponsor Izod parent Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., announced:

  • The season finale races for both the Izod IndyCar Series and Firestone IndyLights would be held on Oct. 16, 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The name for this new, blockbuster event is to the Izod IndyCar World Championship. The IndyCar race will be 200 laps around the 1.5-mile tri-oval.
  • Fans buying a ticket to any IndyCar race during the 2011 season will be eligible to receive a complimentary ticket to the championship races. Additional details will be announced later, but the limit for free tickets is expected to be 80,000 (LVMS seats nearly 150,000).
  • Gaining the biggest buzz was the announcement of a $5 million contest, with the money going to any professional racing driver not competing in IndyCar who can win the Las Vegas finale.

Repeating the mantra of needing to provide "entertainment, competition and value" to fans in order to grow the series, Bernard said: "We hit every one of those points today."

Location, location, location

Although Las Vegas hosted open-wheel racing previously from 1996-2000, it wasn't always a harmonious relationship. Neither Bernard or Kelly spent any time dwelling on the past and instead each discussed the positives associated with a return to Sin City.

"I had a 15-year history with Las Vegas while with (Professional Bull Riders)," said Bernard. "When I first came in (to IndyCar) and saw they were not having a race in Las Vegas, I thought it was a fantastic idea to bring the championship there. I'm very excited about it."

"It's such a dynamic location ... (Las Vegas) knows how to put on an event," said Kelly. "It's evidence again that we hitched our wagon to the right horse (with IndyCar). This is evidence of growth. I think when you see the schedule in years to come, we're moving into dynamic markets. Our fans are looking for fun and entertainment, and we're delivering fun and entertainment."

Bernard said IndyCar would serve as promoter for the Las Vegas race and would rent the speedway, adding "I like having the control. I can take care of the sponsors and the fans that way."

Although the current deal with Las Vegas is just for the 2011 season finale, both Kelly and Bernard said they hoped it would be successful enough to grow organically into a multi-year partnership.

Show me the (big) money

The big-money contest and which drivers it could possible attract to Vegas drew the biggest number of questions from the media members assembled for the teleconference.

"If you look at the history of open-wheel racing, it's always been about the best drivers in the world," Bernard continued. "That's what we're doing here. We're saying ‘If you think you're the best, come on.'"

Asked if he hoped for any particular driver to take the challenge, Bernard refused to speculate on potential drivers, adding that there were no feelers put out to gauge interest.

"There will be selection committee, because we want to maintain the integrity of our drivers and select racers that are great drivers and have an opportunity to win," said Bernard. "This is to show off IndyCar to other motorsports around the world, and to showcase how tough it is to be an IndyCar driver."

Drivers selected to take part in the contest would be provided testing time at LVMS, said Bernard, and would still have to qualify for the race before even having a chance to race for the win and $5 million.

Timing is everything

Bernard was asked if the scheduling of the event, one day after a NASCAR Cup Series Chase race in Charlotte, N.C., was timed to encourage stock car drivers to make the attempt. Although there is connection, Bernard pointed out it does revolve around driver interest.

"We definitely planned to have (our season finale) on Oct. 16. The Charlotte NASCAR race is live on ABC the night before, and we're live on ABC on Sunday," Bernard said. "They own live motorsports on network TV that weekend. This was thought out, to have our race on Oct. 16."

Bernard said any interested drivers would do well to contact established, front-running teams early enough to give themselves the best possible chance at winning the jackpot. He added with the current chassis becoming obsolete as soon as the checkered flag falls at Las Vegas, "I think there will be quite a few completed cars out there for interested drivers."

Is divided attention good or bad?

By adding the big-money contest to the season finale, it was suggested to Bernard that media and fan attention could be drawn away from a close battle for the series championship.

Although Bernard acknowledged such a scenario could happen, but if anything he would welcome it. He said last year's title battle went down to the finale, but didn't generate the interest the series needed.

"Last year we saw a TV rating of .3 or .4. I don't think a team or owner was happy with that. We have to get our ratings up," said Bernard. "This is right in line with what we need to do to grow our audience."

Bernard repeated his desire to focus equally on regaining the "once passionate" open-wheel racing fans that were lost during the Split and gaining new fans currently unaware of IndyCar.

"What's good for the series, is good for the teams, is good for the sponsors, is good for the fans, is good for the series," said Kelly.

Is there a failure to communicate?

Straying a bit from the big news about Las Vegas, Bernard was asked if more cooperation was needed between the various forms of motorsport.

"I'm a firm believer that all boats rise on a high tide," he said. "I thought it was great that we say a Cinderella story at the Daytona 500 ... we all have the same mission to entertain fans, give them great competition and give them great value. You give (fans) those things and you'll grow."

"Whether its SCCA or NHRA or USAC," Bernard added, "I think it's important that we all work to grow motorsports."