Visit any online chat board addressing the subject and within minutes you'll have a working comprehension of the mood surrounding the IndyCar Series. You'll be challenged to find words like positive, hopeful or upbeat.
You're more likely to read the phrase "handles like a wheelbarrow" than "I love IndyCar".
What you won't find is any doubt that the series is at a difficult point in time. Following the death of one of its stars, IndyCar scrambles to make itself over with a new car, fewer oval races and a new steward. The kindest way to categorise the opinions surrounding IndyCar is to say the series has an uncertain future. The unkindest way would not be printable.
"There are more questions than answers right now," says multiple and reigning champion Dario Franchitti. "That's where we are at this very moment. There are a lot of smart people at the IndyCar Series, so I'm confident they'll make the right moves. Once we get those answers, we can start moving forward."
One of the answers, of course, was the one that got Brian Barnhart out of race control and into the boardroom, replaced by ALMS' highly respected steward, Beaux Barfield.
Barnhart lost credibility with drivers and owners after several officiating errors, but the underlying issues were the realm and scope of his responsibilities. He was president of operations and chief steward.
Imagine asking David Stern to run the NBA while officiating its games. A broad analogy, perhaps, but the decision to move Barnhart made sense. Major improvement on two levels.
Beaux Barfield, IndyCar's new chief steward © LAT
Another of the answers lies with the car. The Dallara DW12 is going over like a lead balloon, which many say it looks and drives like. It's capable on road courses, drivers report, but the unusual rearward heaviness makes it a boat on superspeedways. The tweaks and improvements are underway - teams haven't had the chassis much more than a few weeks, remember - but the first few races are expected to be tender. Very tender.
The third answer is, like the car, very much still in question.
The schedule. It's not the move away from big ovals that it's perceived to be - only Vegas and Kentucky were dropped from the list of large tracks - but it's dangerously low on IndyCar's best events, short ovals. The ideal balance would involve more short ovals and road courses, but street courses rule the day.
Instead of any of the desirable road courses in North America (Elkhart Lake, anyone?), IndyCar teams get a trip to China that's about as popular as a side of dirt with dinner.
The circumstances facing IndyCar are this simple and this serious: The new car and morphing schedule coupled with the tragedy that ended 2011 make the 2012 season the most crucial since the split tore the sport apart 16 years ago. If an ugly, lumbering car and a street-course-heavy calendar pass the smell test, then the recovery is underway. Fail on both counts, and it's grim.
This form of racing, once proud and noteworthy, long ago lost its appeal to American sports fans.
Sure, it has a small niche audience, fractured and angry, but it lost traction with the mainstream decades ago. Blame the split, blame the leaders, blame the owners, blame the lack of marketing and/or personality, but this form of motorsport is on unsteady footing. How it responds to Dan Wheldon's death - how it presents its new product ad backdrop - determines where it goes from here. Frankly, there isn't much more credibility left to lose.
"Next year is a transition year for us as a series," Franchitti says. "There are a lot of things from Dan's accident that have changed things. We've got to adapt. If we answer the questions facing us in the right way, we'll come out of this OK. There are a lot of busy people working on answering those questions."
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