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IndyCar offer sets racing abuzz

There always has been a lot of buzz when Indy-style race cars have rolled into Las Vegas.

But it was usually an angry buzz, like hornets reacting when their hive was whacked by a lug wrench.

The buzz was the loudest during 10 Indy Racing League and Champ Car World Series races from 1996 to 2007, when stinging comments flew about how the organizations had divided open-wheel racing into two dysfunctional and foundering entities that would kill the country’s oldest form of racing.

Two hard heads eventually became one, only because Champ Car folded in 2007.

This week, however, the IndyCar buzz has been all warm and fuzzy, like a honey bee’s belly. On Tuesday, it became official that open-wheelers will return to Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16 with the Izod IndyCar World Championship. It will be the first time since 1984 that a unified IndyCar Series races in Southern Nevada.

That alone should be enough to keep IndyCar — which will handle race promotion, instead of the speedway — working like busy bees as it counts down to its season finale in Las Vegas.

But then came a stinging announcement: IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard said the Las Vegas winner could pocket $5 million.

The offer comes with an intriguing asterisk, however. Series drivers won’t be eligible to contend for the big money; it’s only open to non-IndyCar racers. A selection committee will pick five professional, nonseries drivers for a chance to qualify on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas oval, and if one makes it into the show and wins the 300-mile race, he or she will leave with the $5 million.

The concept has retired racer Al Unser Jr., 48, among those thinking about applying to be considered. But Bernard’s brainstorm isn’t intended to bring back retired legends such as Unser or attract big names from minor series.

Bernard’s intent is to lure stars from NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, which has qualifying that week on Thursday and a race on Saturday night at Concord, N.C. Logistically, it will be possible for such previous open-wheel winners and/or champions as Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Robby Gordon and Sam Hornish Jr. to join the fray.

Bernard says the purpose is to let his series drivers prove they are the best in the world on oval tracks by swatting down all comers.

It’s more about spreading IndyCar’s wings.

The concept already has paid off for IndyCar, Las Vegas and the race. The offer has received national print media coverage and was the main topic of conversation Wednesday on SiriusXM satellite radio’s NASCAR channel.

Such widespread brand exposure is why the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, through advertising agency R&R Partners, is believed to be paying IndyCar up to $200,000 to be a yearlong sponsor.

When Bernard started his 15-year reign over the Professional Bull Riders organization in 1994, not many thought he could corral national TV deals and sponsors and sell out major arenas from Madison Square Garden to the Thomas & Mack Center.

He did, and now Bernard has grabbed IndyCar’s future firmly by the horns. After little more than a year, he is steering the series in the right direction.

Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247. Visit lvrj.com/motorsports for more news and commentary. Follow Wolf on Twitter: @lvrjwolf.

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