IndyCar puts on another good show at Chicagoland, but series might not return in 2011

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The IndyCar series put on another strong race at Chicagoland Speedway, with the leaders spending much of Saturday night zigzagging in traffic while inches apart at speeds of more than 200 mph.

But when Dario Franchitti crossed the finish line first, it might have marked the last time IndyCar runs at one of its most entertaining venues for the foreseeable future. When the series' 2011 schedule comes out, Chicagoland might not be on it.

"I think it would be a shame," second-place finisher Dan Wheldon said. "It always produces the racing that I think the fans like to see. I think for the most part, this was a show, which is what's important, but it's also fun to drive. I think the series obviously has to be very diverse to attract and appease everybody, and this is always a good event."

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said Saturday that he has had discussions with officials from Chicagoland and its parent company, International Speedway Corp., but wasn't sure if they're "all on the same page right now."

Chicagoland's prestige in NASCAR is rising; next year, it will host the first race in the Chase. But its stock seems to be falling in IndyCar.

An attendance figure wasn't immediately available for Saturday's race, but there were large patches of open space in the grandstands. Bernard hinted that some tracks currently on the IndyCar schedule aren't doing enough to market their events.

"We want to talk to all the promoters, we want to get all of them here and say, 'OK, which one of you want to do the best job for IndyCar, which ones are going to act on their marketing, which ones are going to make sure they try to bring as many fans as possible?'" Bernard said. "We're still in that process. We're down to those final stages of really determining who those are, but that's where we're at."

Bernard said he is talking to several potential promoters about bringing the series back to the Milwaukee Mile, which withdrew from hosting major racing events after past promoters ran into financial problems and a suitable replacement couldn't be found.

It's not clear whether a deal can be struck to bring IndyCar back to Milwaukee in time for next season, or what weekend the race might be held. But it is clear that IndyCar probably wouldn't race in two markets so close to each other.

"Chicago has been a great place, great races," Bernard said. "We have great fans here. (But) it would most likely be Chicago or Milwaukee possibly. I mean, I don't know if we need both."

Having Milwaukee back on the schedule certainly would be a nod to tradition; the track ran its first auto racing event in 1903 and is best known for hosting an Indy-style race the weekend after the Indianapolis 500.

But from a pure entertainment value perspective, trading Chicagoland for Milwaukee on the schedule would be a step backward.

Consider this: Franchitti beat Wheldon to the finish line by 0.0423 of a second on Saturday — and it was only the sixth-closest IndyCar finish at the track.

"I hope it was as entertaining for the fans as it was for the drivers," Wheldon said. "It was pretty hairy at times."

IndyCar drivers talk about Chicagoland in much the same way that NASCAR drivers talk about their series' two restrictor-plate tracks, Daytona and Talladega: It's a remarkable show for fans, if a little bit unsettling from where the drivers are sitting.

Franchitti acknowledged that Chicagoland wasn't his favorite place to race, even though he has won there twice, on Saturday and in 2007.

"There's nothing wrong with the track at all; great track, great fans," Franchitti said. "But yeah, I much prefer more if it's in the driver's hands."

The big packs of close-running cars might be thrilling to watch, but some drivers don't like having their fates tied so closely to fellow drivers not making mistakes.

"That's the trouble with this style of racing sometimes," Franchitti said. "Sometimes it's either how brave or how stupid you want to be. And there were some very nice moves made out there, and there was some bloody stupid moves made out there, and there was also just some misunderstandings out there."

So if Chicagoland isn't on the schedule next season, Franchitti might not miss it.

"When you're three wide and three rows deep, look out," Franchitti said. "I'm just glad everybody got out of here in one piece tonight."