"Everything fell apart," Miller said. "What Randy eventually inherited, it was godawful. The whole thing was in shambles. Nobody was engaged the way used to be. Not fans, not sponsors, not manufacturers."
NASCAR pounced. In 1994, George allowed stock cars to race in Indianapolis. That, Team Penske racing president Tim Cindric said, helped cement NASCAR as the most popular form of racing in the United States. Meanwhile, IndyCar's business was decimated by the time its civil war ended with a merger in 2008.
Zak Brown, founder and CEO of Indianapolis-based Marketing International, which works with racing teams, said a return to its former stature is unlikely, but so is extinction. The sport needs to find its niche, he said.
"IndyCar is more comparable to tennis or ultimate fighting," Brown said. "They need to focus on their product and on the relationship with NBC Sports."
Rick Mears, who won four Indy 500s and consults with Penske Racing, hopes the change is temporary.
"Everything is cyclical," he said this week. "What IndyCar needs to do is just put on a good show. Have great races, be accessible to the people and do it routinely. Everyone has such a short attention span these days. They want everything right away. But if we're going to build, it's going to take some time following a plan."
In 2010, the Hulman-George family hired Bernard to give IndyCar direction.
Last year's season finale in Las Vegas was supposed to be Bernard's signature race. He imagined, ran and promoted it himself, viewing it as the event his sport needed to reach a broader audience.
It has come to define Bernard. He had to cancel the race after only 11 laps when Wheldon died in a fiery multicar crash.
Bernard came under criticism for staging the race on an oval track with steep banks; several drivers had questioned the venue's safety before the race. Purists bemoaned Bernard's attempts at promotion — Wheldon was competing for a special $2.5 million bonus — and accused Bernard of turning the sport into a spectacle.
The sport spent its offseason healing. Bernard said he purposely stepped back from the spotlight as he consoled Wheldon's family and met with drivers and owners to discuss safety measures.
Danica Patrick defected to NASCAR after last season. She had won only once in seven years but clearly was the circuit's most marketable driver. Her departure has hurt IndyCar's appeal, several observers said.
"IndyCar did lose a face when Danica left," said Eddie Cheever, who won the 1998 Indianapolis 500 and called the race for ABC this year. "She was American. She was the first woman with a legitimate chance to win races around the world. She captivated so many people in so many areas. That loss has been felt a lot."
But Rahal and Mears now see room for other stars to grow.
"You've got young guys, and some of them are Americans, local kids, fighting for the title," Rahal said. "They're as charismatic and accessible as anybody."
It's essential for IndyCar to develop more American stars, said Cheever, noting NASCAR's success at tapping national pride.
"My dad raised me on A.J. Foyt," he said. "But I don't know right now. I have a 6-year-old son who's starting to get into racing, and there's not a driver I can point to and say, 'That's the guy!' "
Bernard, meanwhile, has been searching for new sponsors amid reports that title sponsor Izod might be looking to shorten its deal with IndyCar. A Sports Business Journal report said he has approached Verizon and Firestone about becoming presenting sponsors. He said Friday the league is in "a good spot" with Izod but was courting additional sponsors.
Owners also are asking Bernard to push NBC Sports for more aggressive televised promotion.
"They've done, frankly, a terrible job," Rahal said.
With a split contract — George signed the 10-year deal with NBC Sports in 2008 — owners believe that neither ABC nor NBC is strongly committed to helping the sport grow.
NBC officials noted that ratings increased in the first four years of the deal before dipping this year. They attribute the drop in part to unlucky scheduling conflicts with NASCAR races and NBA and NHL playoff contests.
Jon Miller, NBC Sports' president of programming, described IndyCar as "one of NBC Sports Network's stalwart partnerships, providing long-term, quality programming."
Though the network has faced grumbles about a lack of promotion, NBC launched a news series of driver profile shows called "IndyCar 36" this year, and officials say they're confident in the overall growth of the NBC Sports Network, which reaches about 80 million homes (compared to about 115 million for the broadcast networks).
"I think NBC is going to do what they have to do, because our growth is tied to theirs," Bernard said. "We have to give them better programming."