Ryan Hunter-Reay celebrates his victory in the IndyCar auto race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (Reed Saxon/AP)

Motorsports

IndyCar looks to build on Hunter-Reay’s Yankee Doodle dandy glory

Special to The Globe and Mail

IndyCar got the U.S. driver champion it wanted when Ryan Hunter-Reay took the title Saturday night in the 2012 season finale. Now what?

The Texan finished fourth in the MAVTV 500 at California’s Auto Club Speedway, earning just enough points to overtake championship leader Will Power by a miniscule three markers in the final standings after the Penske driver crashed early in the race.

The Andretti Autosport driver is the first U.S. racer to win the title since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 and many in the paddock think that the series can use its newly crowned homegrown champion to drum up the “we only cheer for our own” American fans. Whether that will happen is another question altogether and the future of IndyCar may hang in the balance. If it can’t attract a following and better television coverage with Hunter-Reay as its poster boy, perhaps it never will.

Since the amalgamation of Indy Racing League and Champ Car (formerly known as Championship Auto racing Teams or CART) before the 2008 season, things have not been exactly rosy for the new IndyCar Series.

Broadcast on NBC Sports network in the U.S., its television audience is pretty much non-existent. Compared to juggernaut NASCAR, IndyCar doesn’t register a blip. In Canada, IndyCar is broadcast on TSN, which seems to have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward the series, perhaps because rumours are rampant that it will move to rival Sportsnet next year.

The lack of television coverage is a shame because when it came to North America, there’s no doubt the racing this season was better than anything NASCAR had to offer, the Sprint Cup road course race at Watkins Glen International notwithstanding.

The same applied to Hunter-Reay’s championship run, which saw him win half of the final eight races.

The fallout from that lack of exposure is sponsors won’t touch the series and the ones who are involved spend most of their time screaming about wanting more exposure. Others, like Verizon, are likely only around because they’ve been shut out of NASCAR due to its Sprint deal.

Getting the TV package improved has to be on the top of series chief executive Randy Bernard’s “to do” list. Maybe selling Hunter-Reay will help.

Unfortunately, IndyCar often adds to its own audience troubles with some curious scheduling decisions. For example, the almost 9 p.m. Saturday start to the 500-mile finale in California on Saturday night meant that the race didn’t end until after midnight.

Now, with the 2012 season already completed, the series must now try to keep fans interested and sell its U.S. champion for a full six months before it gets back on track next March. That is simply too long.

NASCAR, which starts its season in February, and Formula One, that has its opener in early March, both will go into late November before their finales.

IndyCar also had its issues when it came to race control. While many paddock insiders and fans rejoiced when race director Brian Barnhart was replaced after the 2011 season, the series still had problems with inconsistent calls and poor officiating.

For example, there was the embarrassing penalty to Scott Dixon for jumping a restart in the June race at the Milwaukee Mile, which was assessed against the Ganassi driver because the stewards watched the wrong replay. Two weeks ago, a non-call on an obvious jump-start by Hunter-Reay in the penultimate race on the streets of Baltimore not only handed him the win, but also helped boost his championship challenge against Power.

To his credit, IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield admitted his mistake immediately and apologized for the Dixon incident. He also went on Twitter to respond to a Globe and Mail story that outlined the reasons why the Baltimore restart should have been at least called off and re-done again, saying it was a “fair assessment.”

On the plus side, Bernard got the new Dallara chassis adopted and the racing was much closer. In all, eight different drivers from five different teams won races this season, including a couple of more financially challenged outfits, Dale Coyne Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing. That fact points to more parity in the series, something the new car was supposed to bring.

The competition between the engine manufactures also helped make things more interesting, although Lotus turned out to be a bust. On that front, fans shouldn’t be surprised if Lotus calls it quits before 2013 rolls around, leaving only Chevrolet and Honda to supply the teams with motors.

New aero kits are supposed to be coming next year, which promise to spice things up, so that should give Bernard an even better racing product to sell in 2013.

Now all he needs are some buyers, especially those in network television.

Spengler within striking distance

With two races left in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters season, Canadian Bruno Spengler is within striking distance of his first championship in the highly competitive series.

The 29-year-old BMW driver scored a dominant lights-to-flag win in Sunday’s race at Oschersleben to close the gap to points leader Gary Paffett, of Mercedes, to 11. The victory set up what should likely be a two-race showdown between the pair for the title. Mercedes driver Jamie Green, 30, is third on 108 points and still in the mix, although Spengler and Paffett have been the best two performers this year. Drivers get 25 points for a win.

The 2005 series champion Paffett, 31, didn’t make it easy for the Canadian on Sunday, nipping at his heels for the final dozen laps as Spengler began to struggle with the tire wear on his BMW Bank M3 DTM.

It was the season-high third win of 2012 for the St-Hippolyte, Que., native, who joined BMW’s DTM team this year after seven seasons with Mercedes. Spengler started from pole and dominated the 51-lap race, making it the third time this year he has taken a convincing lights-to-flag win.

After the race he said it was a huge victory.

“I am really happy with the way the entire race weekend panned out,” he said.

“It is precisely for wins like this that I became a racing driver. I need that special pressure, when your rival is breathing down your neck and you have to be at your very best to keep him at bay. When Gary started catching me, I just tried to avoid making any mistakes, hit the braking points accurately and remain focused.”

Spengler has finished in the top five overall in points in the past six seasons and has twice been runner-up.

The other Canadian in the field, Robert Wickens, of Guelph, Ont., equalled his season best finish of seventh after starting 13th on the grid. Wickens, 23, made up six places on the run to the first corner and then had an uneventful race to the flag.

The next race goes Sept. 30 on the tight and twisty Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, Spain.

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