Can’t stop now

Chevy’s return is a step in the right direction, but there’s still plenty of rebuilding left for IndyCar

Leading up to today’s announcement of Chevrolet joining the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012, Louie Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” started to play through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Hall of Fame Museum — and was then abruptly cut off for another song while Satchmo was in the middle of the first verse.

Perhaps it was a sign.

Let’s be perfectly clear to start, however: Chevy’s return to open-wheel racing (both as an engine and, apparently, as an aero kit manufacturer as well) is certainly a great step in the sport’s rebuilding process. It can be argued that with the demise of manufacturer competition following the 2005 season — in which the Bowtie and Toyota left the series, leaving Honda as the sole engine supplier — things haven’t been quite as exciting in the years since.

Seeing multiple brands go toe-to-toe again will be interesting and, Lord willing, it’ll be entertaining as well. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard appears hopeful that competition will help IndyCar continue its drive toward returning to its former glory.

“Chevrolet brings a strong passion for racing, technology, relevance and innovation, which is a great fit for our new car platform,” said Bernard in a press release. “We are excited about the future of Indy car racing with the addition of Chevrolet, as well as the continued involvement of our longtime engine supplier Honda.”

“The one thing that we have heard, time and time again, from fans and everyone involved in the IZOD IndyCar Series is, ‘We want competition,'” he continued at today’s announcement. “And today is a new day — IndyCar is excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. It’s an honor to stand here today and know that we’re moving forward — joining forces with an American manufacturer with a heritage that runs deep since 1909, when Louis Chevrolet raced here. That’s an amazing heritage.”

Roger Penske, owner of Team Penske and partner in Ilmor Engineering (which will help Chevy develop the twin-turbo V6 engine that will fight Honda in 2012), is also looking forward to more exciting days.

“As Ilmor, we’re in the racing business and as you know, we’ve partnered with Honda for a number of years to build the current engines we’ve been running,” said Penske, who will have his three-car operation running Bowtie powerplants in 2012. “Not one failure in the [Indianapolis] 500 over the last five years — what a track record…Many of us are competing head-to-head with the other teams and I would say that Ilmor and Honda have provided us that level playing field.

“We expect, with Chevrolet…to see the game move up and we’ll also see more competition. What does that mean? More customers, more dealers, more employees, more fans are going to be involved in supporting this sport and that’s what we need. We need to fill this grandstand every May and fill the tracks around the country.”

But while Bernard, Penske and IndyCar as a whole have another reason for optimism today, it behooves them to keep that optimism tempered. If you’ve been following long enough, you know what obstacles they face in the years ahead — and there’s plenty of them.

The rollout of the new, next-generation IndyCar in 2012 will be one of the most critical points in American open-wheel racing history. On top of that, there’s the standard ailments that have plagued the series for years: Lacking attendance and TV ratings, promotional trouble, a dearth of American drivers, and a general sense of apathy toward the series nationally.

At the risk of sounding like a party pooper, the sport is still on shaky ground. And while Chevrolet’s comeback is a positive gain, IndyCar must continue the momentum over an extended period of time. Bernard and the sport’s other major figures may recognize this, but it will still be a very tough job to accomplish.

Only when the grandstands are filled, only when ratings are consistently better, only when people on Main Street know other drivers besides Danica Patrick, and only when the best American drivers are racing in the series can anybody argue that IndyCar is truly in a “wonderful world” again.

That’s when the faithful will have something to sing about.


Video credit: IZOD IndyCar Series.