IndyCar Series drops IRL brand

WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- IndyCar's 2011 schedule announcement was as much about the past as it was about the future.

At an event staged at the Milwaukee Mile on the eve of the 107th anniversary of the first-ever race at the historic venue, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard unveiled a 17-event schedule that welcomes Milwaukee back to the open-wheel ranks after a year's absence.

He also used the occasion to officially confirm that the name "Indy Racing League" is being put to rest.

"'IRL' has a negative connotation since the [CART-IRL] divorce, whereas 'IndyCar'
is known around the world," Bernard said. "I just got back from a trip to Europe talking to manufacturers, and everyone I had meetings with knew what IndyCar was, whereas some didn't know about IRL. Same thing with Brazil.

"We want to create perception and we want to welcome back those 15-20 million fans that we lost in the mid-'90s. Let's go back to our roots. Let's go back to what made IndyCar. And the first thing we need to do is make sure that our brand image is positive."

Also being cast aside -- for now, at least -- is IndyCar's relationship with International Speedway Corp., the France family-owned track operator that provided the Izod IndyCar Series with many of its race venues over the past 15 years.

There's a common perception that ISC did a less-than-stellar job in promoting its IndyCar races, thereby ensuring that the France family's other key business -- a little endeavor called NASCAR -- remained America's undisputed No. 1 form of motorsport.

And there's plenty of circumstantial evidence to support that theory.
From Homestead to Fontana and everywhere in between, empty seats have been the norm at ISC's IndyCar races.

That fact wasn't lost on Bernard, who quickly determined that running IndyCar races in front of sparse crowds at ISC tracks was hurting IndyCar's image more than it was helping it.

"We don't want to shut doors with ISC, but we have to go with places that we believe are best for the series," Bernard remarked. "We want to work with promoters that are aggressive at marketing and activating IndyCar. Fortunately this brings opportunities with new venues and promoters that are fully aligned with our strategy moving forward.

"We want to be in a position next year where we have 25 or 26 hungry promoters coming to us trying to secure one of our 17 or 18 races."

The four remaining ISC tracks on the 2010 IndyCar Series schedule -- Kansas Speedway, Watkins Glen International, Chicagoland Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway -- have been summarily dropped from the future calendar. They followed other ISC-owned venues into open-wheel oblivion including Michigan Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway, Richmond International Raceway and California Speedway.

Most of those tracks enjoyed robust crowds in Indy car racing's glory days, only to go into decline as open-wheel racing lost traction to NASCAR during the bitter battle for control of open-wheel that was waged between CART and the IRL between 1996 and 2007.

Michigan, California and Homestead were among tracks owned by Penske Speedways Inc. before Roger Penske sold his group of tracks to ISC in 1999.
Penske's business connections often helped fill the grandstands at those tracks by distributing tens of thousands of tickets to employees of Penske Corp. and his longtime sponsors, including Philip Morris Inc.

So it's out with the old and in with the new -- or not so new, in the case of Milwaukee, perhaps the most popular oval track among Indy car drivers and a venue that drew upward of 40,000 in days when open-wheel racing's popularity was at its peak in the 1980s and '90s under CART sanction.

Like many other tracks, Milwaukee's attendance slumped in the wake of the open-wheel war. But Bernard believes that the return of a unified series marketed as "IndyCar" as opposed to "IRL" can reverse the trend.

"This track has so much history, and I've heard from the purists and the traditionalists and the die-hard fans out there, and they wanted the Milwaukee Mile back on," he said. "We're happy that we were able to deliver."

The IndyCar drivers might be the constituency group that is happiest about the return to Milwaukee.

Scott Dixon, who won the last IndyCar race staged at Milwaukee in 2009, was on hand for the announcement of the series' return to The Mile.

"The history is the easiest thing to look at, but for drivers, they just want to have a shot at winning at this place because it's so tough," he said. "I've had some miserable days here -- I think I set a record by destroying two cars in four laps here in 2005. It's a real challenge and it feels like a definite accomplishment when you win here."

Other new venues on the 2011 schedule include another short oval -- New Hampshire Motor Speedway -- and a street race in downtown Baltimore's Inner Harbor district.

The other short oval on the calendar, Iowa Speedway, moves to a Saturday night format.

The venue for the season finale set for Oct. 16 has not been determined, but it is expected to be Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Bernard revealed that ISC-owned California Speedway made a strong pitch to host the finale, including direct contact from California Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger.

The Vegas connection is indicative of IndyCar's strengthening relationship with ISC's chief competitor, Speedway Motorsports Inc. If Vegas is confirmed, five SMI tracks will be present on the 2011 slate, including Texas Motor Speedway (which will host twin 275-kilometer races on June 11), New Hampshire, Infineon Raceway and Kentucky Speedway.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.