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$5m Vegas prize for Wheldon's eyes only

13 September 2011

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."

Travis Pastrana was also ruled out after he broke his ankle at the X-Games and had to pull out of not just Vegas but his first runs in the NASCAR Nationwide Series as well.

"I want to thank all three of them because they all had a lot of interest in this, and we felt that it was a lot of fun just getting to visit with them about this and try to make it happen," said Bernard, before going on to explain that IndyCar didn't want to disappoint fans after having raised expectations with the original challenge.

"We wanted to not let our fans down. We had a lot of buzz, a lot of interest about this $5 million challenge. So we felt we should try to go on and try a new challenge." As a result, IndyCar turned to Wheldon, who wouldn't have been eligible for the original $5m challenge because of his IndyCar series experience, which explains why he gets the additional handicap of a back row start. "We wanted to keep it within the sport," added Bernard.

"Dan Wheldon won the 2011 Indy 500, and he has the most stories written about him this year than any other driver on the IZOD IndyCar Series, and the fact that he's got a great personality and we think that he's going to be a great, huge asset our sport, and we can build him into a superstar," explained Bernard.

For Wheldon, it's a chance to not only get back to racing but also to get back together with the people that made his Indy 500 victory possible.

"For me, this is a great opportunity [and] to be back in the car under these circumstances, you know, is going to make for a great weekend," he said. "Bryan Herta Autosport, Sam Schmidt - we saw that collaboration work very, very well at the Indianapolis 500. We rocked the boat a little bit by beating Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi's teams, and there's no reason we can't do that again."

"It's great for not just Bryan Herta Autosport but Sam Schmidt Motorsports, which was a collaborative effort with us at Indianapolis this year," agreed team boss Bryan Herta, who is currently leading testing of the new 2012 IndyCar safety cell with Wheldon. "When Randy let me know that this opportunity was going to be available to us, you know, first thing we did was get with Sam and work out a deal where we'll work together again to run Dan in the car. We're going to see a collaboration not just of people but of sponsors."

Michael Andretti, whose Andretti Autosport team recently announced that they were keeping the sponsorship backing of GoDaddy into 2012 despite the exit of Danica Patrick from the team, was happy to see the web services company involved in the promotion.

"I think it's great that they're getting involved with IndyCar as well," said Andretti. "We're excited about it. We're going to be wishing Dan some luck, but, unfortunately, we do have four cars in there and we're going to be trying to keep you from getting that $5 million. Sorry about that!"

As part of their sponsorship plans, GoDaddy have said that they will be sponsoring an extra car with Andretti Autosport in 2012 "with driver to be announced" - and there is considerable speculation that Dan Wheldon might be in the frame for that seat, with GoDaddy looking for their next big breakout star to follow on from Danica.

On the downside, the announcement this week about the October 16 season finale does mean that Wheldon won't be available for television coverage commentating duties - as ABC Sports main announcer Bob Jenkins pointed out as he hosted the press conference: "Dan, the driver; and I might say a pretty good TV analyst, also."

"He is," agreed Herta. "He's really good at it. We're trying to find something that he isn't good at!"


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