Randy Bernard is in the business of building stars as CEO of IndyCar, which is one way of saying he needs more of them in the United States. He needs to promote them and create interest around them.
He needs to take the world’s fastest, most versatile racecar drivers and somehow make the sports fans stateside give a hoot about them in between preparing to watch March Madness and spring training and later their favorite college football and NFL teams.
He needs to make it so Average Joe in middle America doesn’t hear (Dario) Franchitti and think it’s a new baked dish at the local Italian joint, that the series’ biggest star isn’t known across the United States as Mr. Ashley Judd.
He needs to do a lot more of what NASCAR has done when generating curiosity in those under helmets.
“A guy can’t run 20th and be a star,” Bernard said. “We need winners. The only ones I know who can finish last and make a name for themselves is the Jamaican bobsled team.
“A perfect example: One of the most popular drivers in the world didn’t have a ride in May.”
But then Dan Wheldon got one and captured a second Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend.
Then the imaginative wheels began spinning in Bernard’s head.
The IndyCar World Championships is today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and starting from the back will be Wheldon, who with a win would finish one of the more extraordinary part-time seasons in racing history.
Here’s the challenge: Should he win the race from such an unenviable starting position, Wheldon will split $5 million with a fan chosen through a cellphone company promotion. Those are some serious long-distance dollars.
“Honestly, and this might sound crazy to some, but I’m just happy to be racing,” Wheldon said. “Splitting such a prize with a fan is good and bad. The good is that it’s $2.5 million to each side. The bad is that it’s a lot of pressure on me. But it’s exciting. I don’t care who you are — in this economy, that’s a lot of money.”
Wheldon without a ride is like Tom Brady without a football team. It doesn’t make much sense at any angle, but that’s where Wheldon found himself when his contract with Panther Racing expired after last season.
Sam Schmidt Motorsports eventually stepped forward with an offer, and what happened next is just short of amazing.
Wheldon won the Indy 500 on the race’s 100th anniversary and in doing so beat much better cars and teams, the victory heavily aided when J.R. Hildebrand became the racing equivalent to Jean Van de Velde by crashing on the final lap.
Wheldon led the race for all of the last 1,000 feet.
His only other start this year was on Oct. 2 at Kentucky, where he again directed the No. 77 for Schmidt’s team. Other than that, the 33-year-old English driver who lives in Florida has spent his days working out and testing the series’ new 2012 model. It’s not the worst way to pass time and yet not the one he desires most.
You don’t win the Indy 500 twice in a career and not know your way around a garage. Wheldon once sat atop the racing world and deserves a full-time ride in a series struggling for attendance and TV ratings.
“I believe (today’s $5 million challenge) is going to help his career,” Bernard said. “Dan is one of the nicest guys in the world, a remarkable person. He can do this. He can win. I hope he can stay out of any carnage coming from the back and make a run at it.
“The fact that he already went up against the mammoths of our sport — Ganassi and Penske — and won the Indy 500 gets that Average Joe interested in such a Cinderella story. We need to capitalize on it and take it to the mainstream fan (today) while going up against the NFL. It will be difficult, but I believe that Dan Wheldon walks away with thousands of new fans.”
I’m not so sure. The challenge is a wonderful gimmick, and had I known about it sooner, I assuredly would have switched cellphone carriers to take a shot at being the lucky fan.
But you can be certain IndyCar is a ways off from making the type of impact Bernard seeks nationally.
Now, if they could get Wheldon to race across ice while spotting the Jamaican bobsled team a huge lead, then you might have something.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.