More growing pains for INDYCAR?

LAS VEGAS -- The metamorphosis for the IndyCar Series begins when the checkered flag falls Sunday in the shadow of the Las Vegas Strip.

INDYCAR is changing with new cars, different stars, new engines and pragmatic decisions on where to race. The series will be different in 2012. Will it be better?

"I'm very optimistic," INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard said Thursday. "The Indy 500 was great this year, and all our street and road courses had increased attendance. I think the year went very well and we gained some solid momentum.

"Overall, I would give the season a 'seven.' We still have work to do on ovals. We have to do more to understand our audience there."

As someone who has covered this series since its troubled beginning 15 years ago, after the open-wheel split, until today, I'm uncertain on the answer to the question above. But many of my concerns were relieved this week with conversations involving Bernard and other key people in the sport.

First up is the season finale Sunday, a show within a show at several levels (3 p.m. ET, ABC). With a little luck, fans will see a high-speed, high-drama, climatic ending to close out 2011 on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway oval.

Dario Franchitti, possibly the most underappreciated race car driver in the world, will try to hold off Will Power and win his third consecutive IndyCar title and his fourth in five years.

Dan Wheldon, the 2011 Indy 500 winner, will try to win the event and split a $5 million bonus with a fan who would become the luckiest person in Vegas this weekend.

And of course, there's Danica Patrick, the IndyCar queen who would like to go out with a bang in her final race as a full-time IndyCar competitor.

There's a lot to see. How many people will actually show to see it is the issue. Bernard is confident he'll see a crowd of 70,000 or more. If so, he deserves a huge amount of praise.

"I think some of you are going to be surprised at the crowd you see," Bernard said. "But after this race is over, we will make a list of what we did right, what we did wrong and go forward."

The series is struggling to bring fans to the events at big oval tracks. And frankly, I just don't get it.

Why there are more than 100,000 at a NASCAR race on many big ovals but less than half that for IndyCar events just doesn't add up.

For the pure entertainment value of it, IndyCar on high-speed ovals -- what NASCAR fans often complain about and call cookie-cutter tracks -- is a thrill a minute compared to stock cars on these tracks.

But people just don't come. Consequently, IndyCar will have fewer ovals on the schedule in 2012, possibly as few as five events. Next year's schedule has yet to be announced.

For a series with its signature event (the Indy 500) happening on the world's most famous oval track, moving away from oval events seems illogical. To some observers, it also would seem to be a move toward the philosophy Champ Car/CART used before its demise.

"We are not doing the things that got Champ Car in trouble," said John Barnes, whose Panther Racing team has competed in IndyCar since 1998 and has two championships. "We're just trying to survive. If you do what you've always done, then you'll get what you always got. Sometimes you have to change things up."

Some traditional open-wheel fans don't like the high-speed ovals and are happy to see more road courses and street races. Bernard is not among them.

"I can tell you I see the value in ovals more than the purists of the sport," Bernard said Thursday. "If we want more great American drivers, we have to have a balanced series. I'm not giving up on ovals, but I can't do bad deals.

"For now, we also have to make wise business decisions. We may have a take a step backward [off ovals] to accomplish our long-term goals on ovals."

One of the league's most successful oval tracks is Texas Motor Speedway, where the annual June event draws in excess of 70,000. But TMS president Eddie Gossage said changes are needed in sanctioning fees and promotional efforts for IndyCar to grow at oval tracks.

"Look, we're all in the business of making money," Gossage said Thursday. "But [IndyCar officials] have to price things to where everyone can make some money.

"Maybe the model for what it costs to run a race team, run a sanctioning body and what a promoter can make at the gate doesn't add up. I love IndyCar racing and I'm bullish on the sport, but they have to allow the promoters to make money."

Gossage, who was part of a committee that helped select the new car design the series will go to in 2012, is still negotiating with IndyCar over a 2012 agreement.

Gossage said he is disappointed that his event will not be the race after the Indy 500 next season. IndyCar is returning to the street race at Belle Isle in Detroit next year one week after Indy.

"We have not signed a sanctioning agreement," Gossage said. "I have to believe we'll be able to reach a deal, but [the timing of the Detroit race] certainly changes the dynamic of what we're buying."

The two parent companies of the major ovals tracks, International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc., have balked at times over the sanctioning fees INDYCAR wants to stage a race.

But one answer could be what the series is doing this weekend at LVMS by renting the facility.

"I'm not in position yet to take chances at other places that I took in Vegas," Bernard said. "We have to understand more about how this model works at other markets."

Barnes said the rent arrangement has worked for this event.

"Vegas is Randy's town and he has a lot of friends here," Barnes said. "He's already gone out and sold enough sponsorship for the race that he doesn't need to sell one ticket to break even."

Bernard was the CEO of the Pueblo, Colo.,-based Professional Bull Riders before taking the top job at INDYCAR two years ago.

Without question, he's done a lot of things right. Bernard listens and reacts accordingly. He's a people-person who gets things done.

Car counts are up and racing has improved. Chevrolet is returning to IndyCar next year with the new V6, turbo-charged engine. Lotus also will run in 2012.

The new downtown street race in Baltimore was a major success with a large crowd. The Indy 500 in May had the best crowd in years. The buzz was back and the race ended with a dramatic last-lap pass by Wheldon when J.R. Hildebrand crashed into the wall on the final turn with victory in sight.

But Wheldon wasn't in the field two weeks later at Texas because he didn't have a ride, a big disappointment to Gossage and his efforts to promote his event.

"It's important to the series that the Indy 500 winner run every race," Gossage said, "particularly when the winner [Wheldon] is a great racer with a great personality."

Wheldon is the only driver going for the $5 million bonus Sunday, a promotional gimmick that didn't go as Bernard had hoped.

It was an idea of offering the money to any driver who wasn't an IndyCar regular to try to win the season finale. Bernard hoped a few Sprint Cup drivers such as Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kasey Kahne and others would give it a shot. No one did.

"They wouldn't do it because they know how good these [IndyCar drivers] are,'' Bernard said. "Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon both said they would have to practice their butts off to have a chance to beat them.

"I heard that and thought, that's exactly what we need people to understand. I think we've had a credibility issue in getting people to believe that these guys are really great drivers. I was watching practice [Thursday] and it was unbelievable. Three wide at more than 220 mph.''

That gets back to why more people don't come watch it. The finishing laps at Kentucky Speedway two weeks ago were spectacular, side by side at the front for lap after lap before Ed Carpenter edged Franchitti for the victory. But the crowd was less than 20,000.

"It's a puzzle to me," Gossage said. "You have a spectacular product [on the big ovals] that it isn't growing at the gate. I don't know why people haven't grabbed it. Talk about extreme sports."

Barnes said he believes the economy is a bigger factor at ovals than street races.

"Our country is in a very serious economic state," Barnes said. "People have less discretionary spending. When we have a street event, we are taking the race to them. At a lot of ovals tracks, people are coming from other places, spending money on gas and hotels."

Larry Foyt, a former driver who now is the team director for his famous father's operation at A.J. Foyt Racing, said he wants the oval races to thrive.

"I'm the first one to say we can't lose the ovals," Foyt said. "They are a necessity, but they've been down and I don't have all the answers."

No one does, but Bernard said it has to start at the roots of the sport.

"I go to some dirt tracks on weekends when I'm off," Bernard said. "Those people are very enthusiastic, and I really believe that's our fan base, so we have to embrace it by having more ovals. It's all about loyalty."

But INDYCAR also has to convince the people competing and watching Sprint Cup and midget car races that its product is a better option than NASCAR, a battle the league has been losing for more than two decades.

Gossage said the road and street courses aren't doing much better than most ovals. It's a problem of perception. A crowd of 50,000 looks full at a street race. A crowd of 50,000 looks empty on an oval track with more than 100,000 seats.

"It's perception in another way, also," Barnes said. "If someone comes to an IndyCar race for the first time at a big oval and sees all the empty seats, they may think, 'Well, maybe this isn't such a big deal and I don't need to come back.'"

INDYCAR hopes to lure fans back in 2012 with a new car design that will look much different from the current car. It's a sleek look, with the body of the car almost completely covering the rear wheels.

But it isn't what many fans were expecting. Plans were to add aero kits to give all the cars a different look, rather than one chassis for all. But those plans were put on hold at the insistence of the team owners.

"The aero kits for now were going to be a huge added expense when owners already are buying new cars and new engines," Barnes said. "We'll still have 20 news things, but not 75 new things at once. We didn't want to bite off more than we could chew."

Larry Foyt said he realizes some fans were disappointed with the decision not to use the aero kits in 2012.

"I understand that some people feel like we went back on our word," Foyt said. "We told fans we were going to have all these different looks on the cars, and then we went back on it. But in the end, it was the right decision.

"We already have a lot going on for next year. I dread all the battles I'm going to have with A.J. about our budget for 2012 and all the money we'll have to spend."

The decision also brought a feeling that the series is giving too much control back to team owners, which some people saw as a problem at the end for Champ Car.

"It couldn't be farther from the truth," Barnes said. "INDYCAR has incredible owners. Guys like Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi are great businessmen.

"Three years ago we didn't have any say and it was 'divide and conquer' by the sanctioning body. But no one is slamming their first down saying this has to change. It's not our way or the highway."

Bernard said there were practical reasons not to use the aero kits next year.

"If we had gone to the aero kits for 2012, we might have had only 18 cars," Bernard said. "I didn't want to jinx this new car when we have 26 or 27 cars [34 cars this weekend] now. I don't want to risk our long-term future. The manufacturers said it was going to cost an extra $4 million to do it."

The 2012 season will have new cars, but it won't have Danica. She's moving to NASCAR full time, but she may compete in the Indy 500. Whether her departure makes any difference to the series is debatable.

"I'm conflicted on that one," Gossage said. "Her presence has been great because she is the most recognizable name they've got. On the other hand, I don't see that she has sold a lot of tickets."

Winning would have cured that one, something Patrick only did once, and that was in Japan.

Maybe her departure will be an opportunity for INDYCAR to bring more attention to some of its other drivers. The series certainly would benefit if young drivers Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, two family names fans easily recognize, started winning more races.

"There's a lot of great stuff going on in the series," Larry Foyt said. "We've had our ups and downs and we have a lot of positive changes taking place. But we have more to do."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.