Sunday's IndyCar season finale in Las Vegas has drawn extra mainstream media attention, in large part because of extra cash.
Series CEO Randy Bernard has offered $5 million for a win by any driver outside the series who wished to challenge. The idea was to perhaps draw a NASCAR star or IndyCar alumnus, but only St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon — hardly an "outsider," the 2011 Indianapolis 500 champion was eligible only because he did not race in the series full time this year — took the challenge.
And a large challenge it will be. One of the stipulations of going for the big prize was that Wheldon must start in last place, and 34 cars are on the entry list. Plus, he'll have to split the $5 million with a fan if he wins it.
Not that this dims the opportunity for Wheldon.
"I'm definitely driven by winning," Wheldon said by phone this week from Los Angeles, where he was doing appearances, including on the TV show Extra, to promote the race. "But at the same time, I'm extremely excited by the opportunity. Outside of Indy, I've never seen such a big payout."
Outside of Indy, Wheldon has done only one other race this year, Oct. 2 at Kentucky. The time off can make the physical and mental strain of racing even tougher.
"I've been very lucky; I was out of the car (for several months) before Indy, but since then I've been in the new car," said Wheldon, who has been testing the series' revamped 2012 model extensively. "I have spent a lot of time in the gym, but there's absolutely no substitute for being in the race car."
As he did at Kentucky, Wheldon will drive the No. 77 car for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, the ride usually occupied by Alex Tagliani. That car sat on the pole for the Indy 500 and was basically part of a three-car effort, along with Townsend Bell and Wheldon, whose winning No. 98 car was associated with Schmidt's team via Bryan Herta. Tagliani will drive the No. 98 this weekend.
"It's going to make it a lot harder," Wheldon said of starting at the back, "but obviously it's a quick car, and I think there are enough laps for us to get to the front."
And, as demonstrated at Indy, a driver only has to be at the front at the end. Rookie JR Hildebrand hit the wall in Turn 4 of the final lap, allowing Wheldon to get past and lead the final few hundred yards, his only lead of the race. Wheldon says his second Indianapolis 500 win was a different feeling than the first.
"I think in 2005 it was almost expected of me," the native Englishman said. "Now I've had good times and bad times, so it really makes me appreciate winning the Indy 500 a lot more. … It's amazing what Indy does for you."
Such as help provide the opportunity to go from one big payout to another.
Jim Tomlin can be reached a [email protected]