By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
Nearly 12 weeks after winning his first IndyCar championship, Ryan Hunter-Reay will finally get to accept his trophy in a ceremony at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
At least for one night, the attention will be on Hunter-Reay and everything that went right last season in IndyCar. Thursday’s celebration will be a welcome respite from the controversy that’s engulfed the series since the season ended in September.
IndyCar’s management has been nothing short of a disaster since the season ended with the Hulman & Co. board of directors stumbling along until CEO Randy Bernard was let go. The board let Bernard twist for months, bungled its handling of the rumors surrounding his fate, and then tried to paint his hurried Oct. 28 dismissal as a “mutual separation,” infuriating fans of the series.
When the dust settled, Bernard was gone, series founder Tony George had been ousted from his seat on the board over his rejected $5 million cash offer to buy back IndyCar, powerful team owner Roger Penske had assailed the board’s credibility over the Bernard firing and fans were threatening to never watch another race again.
Penske left little doubt he still harbors ill will over the handling of the situation when he picked up his first Sprint Cup championship at the NASCAR awards ceremony in Las Vegas last week. He took a moment to thank the France family for their contributions to the series and said of NASCAR: “You guys are great. You continue to invest, and reinvest, in the greatest motorsports business in the world.”
Penske is crafty, and he loves IndyCar, so he managed to turn the talk to his beloved Indianapolis 500 before the night was over by offering three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart the chance to drive for him next May.
Just like that, IndyCar had some positive press just as its banquet puts the series briefly back into the spotlight. Although Stewart has yet to publicly respond to Penske’s offer, Indianapolis Motor Speedway started an online petition where fans can encourage the two-time Brickyard 400 winner to accept the ride.
Should Stewart pass, drivers were using Twitter on Monday to inform Penske they wanted the seat. Among them were Chip Ganassi Racing development driver Kyle Larson, Conor Daly, who spent this year in Formula One support series GP3, and NASCAR driver Brian Vickers, who tried to put together an Indy 500 deal last May but was stymied by IndyCar’s engine shortage.
“I’m serious about Indy. Would do it in a heartbeat, was not just tweeting to be funny,” Vickers said Monday.
And broadcast partner ABC seemed amenable to discussions with IMS about moving up the start time of the 500 to accommodate Stewart (or Vickers or Casey Mears or AJ Allmendinger or Danica Patrick or Sam Hornish Jr. — because there’s a list of NASCAR drivers with open-wheel experience who could theoretically now be thinking about trying to run both the IndyCar race and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600).
“ABC/ESPN would enthusiastically support the opportunity for said driver(s) to participate in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. We have strong partnerships with the league and speedway,” said Julie Sobieski, ESPN vice president, programming & acquisitions.
IMS has not said if it’s willing to move its start time, and the Indy 500 is a strong enough race that it doesn’t need this additional buzz.
But this shot to the arm right now is good for IndyCar, even as its teams had been doing their part to continue pressing ahead despite the turmoil. Among the many moves already:
—KV Racing signed Simona deSilvestro and has already tested twice this winter with the Swiss driver. It’s a big pickup for a team that split with team manager Mark Johnson, laid off dozens of employees and parted ways with EJ Viso and Rubens Barrichello at the end of last season.
—Graham Rahal signed with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where he will drive a full season for his father Bobby Rahal for the first time in his career. On Monday, the team picked up veteran engineer Eddie Jones as it begins to build the infrastructure for a planned second entry. Jones was Barrichello’s engineer last season with KV Racing.
—Andretti Autosport said Monday it will run 17-year-old Zach Veach in Indy Lights next season with sponsorship from K12. Veach will be teammates with 20-year-old Carlos Muñoz, whom the team had previously announced it will enter in the Indy 500.
—AJ Foyt Racing said last week it will enter Indy Lights in 2014 with Timothy Paul, who spend next year in both F2000 and USF2000 preparing for his partnership with Foyt. It will be Foyt’s return to the Lights series after a 10-year absence.
—The Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix signed Detroit-based Quicken Loans as presenting sponsor of its doubleheader races next June.
On the series management side, Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Jeff Belskus is acting as interim CEO of the IndyCar Series. It’s the same role he filled when George was removed as head of the series by his mother and three sister in 2009 until Bernard was hired in 2010.
But Belskus was replaced late last month by Mark Miles as CEO of Hulman & Co., and it’s not clear what changes Miles could make when he officially starts later this month. Miles most recently led the city of Indianapolis’ successful Super Bowl effort.
On Monday, IndyCar closed the three-person office Bernard had established in Los Angeles. The L.A. office was expected to help promote next summer’s release of the IndyCar-themed animated DreamWorks movie “Turbo,” but those efforts will now be handled in Indianapolis.
“As we look ahead to 2013, IndyCar is focusing resources on our core business objectives, growing television ratings and event attendance, and therefore has decided to close our Los Angeles operation and realign those resources to better achieve these objectives,” IndyCar said in a statement.
The series also appears to be close to announcing an entitlement sponsor for the “Triple Crown” challenge, a three-race competition that will award $1 million if a driver wins Indianapolis, Pocono and California.
So the series is slowly chugging along, trying to put the focus back on its drivers and teams and a racing product many believe is the best out there. Perhaps this week will indeed belong to Hunter-Reay, drama-free, and he can celebrate his title with his Andretti team.
Then IndyCar can get back to the many issues facing the series, and Miles should try hard to ensure things run a whole lot smoother than they have been the last three months.