IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard has revealed that one driver and one only will be racing for a shot at a $5m prize at the season finale at Las Vegas - and that it will be Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon.
"IZOD IndyCar Series and Go Daddy are very proud to announce that we will give the $5 million challenge to our Indy 500 winner, Dan Wheldon," said Benard at a press conference on Wednesday. He added that there were a couple of conditions: "First, you have to start very last of this 30-plus car field. And [second], you have to win the race!"
Just as he did at Indianapolis in May, Wheldon will be driving a car provided by Bryan Herta Autosport in association with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. It'll be the first time Wheldon had been back in a race since his dramatic last corner victory at the Indy 500 in May that saw race leader JR Hildebrand crash out just yards from the finish line.
"I've been just desperate, period, to get back in a race car since Indianapolis," said Wheldon, who would split the prize money with a fan to be selected via a prize sweepstake. "I want to thank Randy for the opportunity, but also thank Randy for what he's done for the IndyCar Series to date."
Asked if he had a realistic chance of coming from the back of the grid, Wheldon admitted: "It's certainly going to be harder to come to the front than in recent years. I think when you consider the talent level of the grid, I think quite honestly, it far outweighs NASCAR, ALMS, whatever it might be. It's incredible right now."
But Wheldon insisted that he was most definitely in it to win it: "I hope you know me well enough to know the answer to that. I'm going to be going for it, I can assure you. It doesn't take $5 million for me to do that," he said. "Obviously when you're out there you'll give respect to all the other drivers out there, but at the end of the day, I'm there to win, and I'm going to do everything in my power to do so, but respectfully."
The original format of the $5m Vegas challenge was to lure up to five star drivers from other
series to come to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October and see if they could upstage the regulars, and Bernard explained why those original plans had needed to be changed.
"We had two dozen inquiries about the opportunity, we had six sign up with applications, and we had many others call and inquire about it. But the only three that we felt had a serious opportunity ... were Travis Pastrana, Alex Zanardi and Kasey Kahne," he revealed.
"Alex only wanted to drive for Chip [Ganassi]; Kasey Kahne preferred to drive for Roger Penske," but with the IndyCar championship on a knife edge between the two teams neither would agree to running an extra car in what could turn out to be the title-deciding race. "They felt it would distract them from going on with this type of challenge - and of course, we understand that 100 percent."