The real work begins now for the IndyCar Series, which heads into the meat of its schedule on the heels of a spectacular Indianapolis 500.
IndyCar had a popular race winner in Tony Kanaan, a record 68 lead changes and a strong run by NASCAR regular AJ Allmendinger, who might have won had his seat belt not come undone. But the final television ratings showed that ABC's live telecast of Sunday's race earned a 3.7 rating and averaged 5.7 million viewers. That was down from last year's 4.3 rating, though up from 3.6 in 2010.
It was a disappointing number for a series that had hoped the Indy 500 would kick off a long summer stretch of racing designed to build momentum and interest in IndyCar.
"In terms of marketing, we've got a lot of work to do, and there's just no one thing that has to happen. There's a lot of things we've got to do better," Mark Miles, CEO of IndyCar parent company Hulman & Co., said two days before the 500.
First up is a double-header race weekend at Belle Isle in Detroit, which will host races Saturday and Sunday. Then it's on to Texas Motor Speedway for a Saturday night race on ABC, Milwaukee and then Iowa. The series return to Pocono, where Kanaan will try to stay in contention for a $1 million "Triple Crown" bonus, is July 7.
The idea behind this heavy stretch of racing when former IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard put it together was to have the series on TV in consecutive weekends to build sine buzz. A double-header put another race on the schedule and got IndyCar on TV an additional day.
It comes at a time IndyCar should be surging based on its competitive on-track product, but is still struggling to gain traction and shore up stability for small teams.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing had said it would close its program for the rest of the season after the Indy 500, and popular driver Oriol Servia is not on this weekend's entry list for Detroit. The days when series founder Tony George might write a check to help a struggling team are long over in IndyCar.
"We're not going to be writing big checks to subsidize the teams one-off like that," Miles said. "We would like as much as we are able to add more compensation for them, but they'd have to play and be successful."
Instead, the focus is on a variety of tweaks that can be done beginning as early as next season to the schedule, long-term competition goals and major capital improvements at the dated Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Miles said he wants a condensed schedule that ends around Labor Day, and he seems to still be considering a championship format similar to NASCAR's "Chase" that would have increased points and monetary value on those events.
Miles also said IndyCar is interested in making it more feasible for a driver to run both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day — a prospect NASCAR chairman Brian France said last week was not on NASCAR's radar. Miles said IndyCar is interested, and he's had "a very informal" conversation with "a NASCAR driver who likes the idea." It's presumed to be Kurt Busch, who tested a car before Indianapolis opened earlier this month.
"I have not had any conversations with ABC about where they stand on it, but I am sure from a local perspective we can have some flexibility," Miles said. "I think it would be interesting and good for motor racing if more drivers wanted to try it. If the stars can align, that's really exciting if we can work it out."
WHITT RETURNS: Cole Whitt will make his return to the Nationwide Series this weekend at Dover in a car fielded by TriStar Motorsports.
The former Red Bull Racing development driver has not raced in NASCAR this season after running a full Nationwide schedule last year for JR Motorsports. Whitt had 14 top-10s and finished seventh in the standings last year. He also ran five Sprint Cup races and one Truck Series race.
TriStar said Whitt would run "a number of races" this year.
"I'm really excited to hop back in the seat of a race car, it feels like forever since last season," said Whitt.
The 21-year-old Whitt has been working as mechanic this season in TriStar's research and development department. He'll drive the No. 44 Toyota at Dover with sponsorship from Lockton.
Whitt has four previous starts at Dover, including the 2011 Truck Series race in which he led 23 laps and battled door-to-door with Kyle Busch to a second-place finish.
NO NEGRI: Ozz Negri had expected to return to competition this weekend when the Grand-Am Series resumes after a month-long hiatus.
Instead, Michael Shank Racing will hold Negri out as he continues to recover from the leg injury suffered in a preseason training accident. Michael Valiante will continue to sub for Negri alongside John Pew.
"We were hoping that everything would be good to go for Detroit, but the doctors think that I should wait a bit longer, so Michael will race with John again this weekend," said Negri. "It really is the hardest thing to do, to be out of the car and not race. But, looking at the long term it is what I have to do so we'll just focus on being at the best I can be when I do get back in the car. We are lucky to have a driver like Michael available like this and hopefully we can have a strong weekend as a team."
Shank's No. 6 Daytona Prototype will once again be driven by Gustavo Yacaman and Antonio Pizzonia, who scored their best finish of fourth in the most recent race at Road Atlanta.
Yacaman has experience at Belle Isle having led 15 laps there last year en route to a win in the Indy Lights race.
"Gustavo and Antonio keep making progress, every race, and hopefully we can help them continue doing that this weekend," team owner Shank said. "Obviously with Gus having won the race here in Lights, he knows his way around pretty well. It was a tough call with Ozz to have him sit out, but doctors' orders are just that so we really appreciate Michael being able to come back and race with us again."