May 30, 2016 / 2:32 PM / a year ago

Buoyant IndyCar geared up for challenge ahead

May 29, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar Series driver Jack Hawksworth (41) leads teammate Takuma Sato (14) during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Super-charged by the success of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, IndyCar sped into a new era on Sunday but the road ahead is an uncertain one for both the series and the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing".

Watched by a sun-kissed sell-out crowd of close to 400,000, who helped pump an estimated $350 million into the local economy, and topped off by an American winner to highlight a Memorial Day holiday weekend, this year's Indy 500 was by at all levels an unmitigated high-octane success.

But what next for the iconic 107-year-old Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) and the IndyCar series that has the 500 as its crown jewel?

Back in the headlines and giddy at that sight of packed grandstands, IndyCar officials, racers and team owners gushed about the 100th race providing a launch pad that would propel the sport into a new orbit.

Others were less excited, viewing Sunday's extravaganza as a one-hit wonder, something to be crossed off the sporting bucket list.

"This is the beginning of a great era in IndyCar racing for Indianapolis Motor Speedway," said 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.

"We are moving forward, the momentum is going in the right direction, the racing is the best on track product you can find anywhere in the world.

"This is a true drivers' championships and the Indianapolis 500 is a big part of that. The future is very bright here."

Run on ovals and road courses at track and street circuits, IndyCar has long boasted that its drivers are the best, bravest and most versatile in the world of motorsport.

The series, including the Indy 500, offers plenty of high speed excitement and thrilling wheel-to-wheel racing.

But on Sunday the driver chugging the traditional quart of milk in Victory Lane was 24-year-old rookie Alexander Rossi, who had never before driven at the Brickyard and only made the move to IndyCar after losing his seat with Formula One tailenders Manor Racing, the weakest team on the F1 grid.

GREAT TALE

A great tale but one that will do little to elevate the perception of IndyCar as a second-rate series.

"I'm going to carry with a great sense of responsibility," declared Rossi, who remains on the Manor payroll as reserve driver.

"We need to really push this forward. It was an incredible event for the hundredth running of the Indy 500.

"We need to do everything in our power to continue the momentum forward, make it even bigger next year."

Despite a youthful vibe and party mantra, a glance around the stands on Sunday showed the Indy 500's fan base to be an aging one.

IndyCar and the IMS have actively engaged social media and are desperately trying to connect with a new generation of fans most of whom seem as interested in the Saturday concerts, which this year featured Journey, as Sunday's race.

It was Lady Gaga, not race winner Rossi, who had Twitter buzzing on Sunday when she showed up for a ride with 76-year-old motor racing legend Mario Andretti in a two-seater IndyCar during the formation laps.

IndyCar has worked hard to repair the damage done by a bitter decade-long feud that split the sport into two warring series (Indy Racing League and Champ Car) until reunification in 2008.

That left deep scars and as the two series bickered, NASCAR swooped in to fill the void and scooped up unhappy motor racing fans, sponsors and television ratings.

Undoing that damage and winning back fans has been a slow, humbling process but there are signs IndyCar and its crown jewel, the 500, are starting to regain some of their sparkle.

"We've always thought as the 100th running here as an opportunity to continue to build the whole of the series," said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman Company which owns and operates the Speedway.

"We still have work to do. We don't want to overshadow the other races on the series we want to help profile," he added.

"The 100th was not the end of anything, the 100th is the beginning of what's next and the continual extension of the importance of this event.

"It is not an overnight sensation and we are looking forward to the 101st and building on this strong platform."

Editing by Ed Osmond

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