Dan Wheldon crash jars IndyCar future

Dan Wheldon death stalls momentum that struggling IndyCar series needed to rebuild in 2012. Now, focus will shift to what caused Dan Wheldon crash.

Michael Conroy/AP
Momentos, photos, and tickets are among items left at a memorial at the main gate at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for race driver Dan Wheldon in Indianapolis, Oct. 17, 2011. Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, was killed in a 15-car accident in Sunday's season finale IndyCar race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The spectacular and fatal 15-car crash at IndyCar’s last race of the season Sunday brought to a sudden, skidding halt any momentum that the IndyCar Series had created to rebuild next season.

With IndyCar struggling for fans and funds, CEO Randy Bernard had hyped Sunday's finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway all year with promotions to lure spectators and attract TV viewers. For the first 10 laps of the race, it looked like he might have succeeded. Not only were the two season leaders starting right next to each other in a bid to win the series championship, Dan Wheldon, two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, had accepted a $5 million challenge to start dead last and win the race.

But a fiery 15-car pileup on the 11th lap changed all that. Wheldon’s car went airborne, turned over, and crashed into a fence at the border of the track.

He was killed; three other drivers were injured. The race was stopped and the season was over.

Before the crash, IndyCar was already facing several financial challenges, including a notably low level of profitability since its 1996 inception. The fan base has been eroding. TV ratings for last year’s championship were disastrous. Excluding various special adjustments, net income for the third quarter fell to $11.5 million, down from $12.3 million a year ago.

There are also questions swirling about the 2012 season.

Fan favorite Danica Patrick announced this summer she is defecting to rival NASCAR, a huge blow to IndyCar. The Las Vegas event was her last race. Her replacement for the 2012 season was to have been Wheldon.

The Las Vegas event was intended to build momentum for next year, when the series would race a different looking IndyCar, powered by engines from a wider variety of manufacturers. But the new cars spawned a lot of criticism from fans because the new cars will all look alike – and not have specialized “aero kits,” which would make them stand out from each other.

IndyCar backed off its promise to include the aero kits for 2012 because owners said it would add too much to costs.

In an effort to stem the tide of retreating fans and negative publicity, IndyCar under Bernard has engaged in a series of initiatives to raise long-term prospects for the organization. He has opened up the pit and garage areas to fans.

IndyCar is attempting to expand internationally to build up an event in China. Early next year the Hollywood Casino is scheduled to open at the Kansas Speedway. IndyCar hopes that connecting amenities such as casinos to the races will encourage ticket sales. The company said earlier this month that it expected to add to earnings in its first year of operations.

But the death of Wheldon casts a shadow over all that – and raises new questions about safety and speed that IndyCar will now have to answer.

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