Barrichello has IndyCar eagerly awaiting decision on his future
Ex-Formula 1 driver Rubens Barrichello conducted a two-day test with KV Racing
He can aid IndyCar after Danica Patrick's departure and the death of Dan Wheldon
KV co-owner Jimmy Vasser is giving Barrichello until Feb. 15 to make up his mind
SEBRING, Fla. -- Randy Bernard's last few weeks had been marked by jet travel and rental cars and board rooms in major cities, meetings with those who by hosting or underwriting might determine the future of the IndyCar Series.
But here the series CEO was on Monday morning, in the decided middle of nowhere, in the back corner of Sebring International Raceway -- fortunately upwind from the fertilizer plant -- under a tent, perusing a black race car with KV Racing Technology co-owner Jimmy Vasser.
After spanning the country attempting to maintain or rekindle interest in a series already at a critical juncture with the departure for NASCAR of icon Danica Patrick, and walloped following the death of popular former champion Dan Wheldon in the final race of the 2011 season, Bernard had seen a possible new storyline, a diversion, and a mighty one at that, possibly fall right into his business plan.
Rubens Barrichello, 39, the most tenured driver -- and a 11-race-winner -- in Formula One on Monday began a two-day test with KV Racing at the behest of his friend, godfather of his children, self-described "brother" and fellow Brazilian, Tony Kanaan, who began driving for the team last year. Replaced at Williams F1 by Bruno Senna, Barrichello was free of obligations and with little goading agreed to participate, at the least offering invaluable, impartial feedback on the new DW12 race car that debuts this season. Best-case scenario, for Vasser and Bernard, Barrichello opts to join KV, which still has two driver vacancies to fill.
So here Bernard was, having landed at a new nearby airport and whisked into the well-attended manufacturers' tent like some college football coach wooing the blue-chip quarterback, assuring the Brazilian in a brief chat just how much he would be welcomed by the IndyCar Series.
If there was a scoreboard, his name certainly would have been sent flashing across it. As it was, Bernard recited Barrichello's career statistics with the verve of someone who crammed with gusto on the plane ride to central Florida.
"That kind of credibility is exactly what caliber, the level IndyCar needs to attract," Bernard said. "When you saw Nigel [Mansell] or Emerson [Fittipaldi] or some of the other greats come to IndyCar, see how it elevated the awareness of the sport. I'm here just to support and make sure if Rubens has any questions for me. ... I need to make sure I do what I can to help. That's all I am here for."
Bernard said he found Barrichello "humble, first-class," while Barrichello, after turning 94 laps on Monday said he was "thrilled to get to know [Bernard] here."
The Barrichellos seemed thrilled, or at least amused, on Monday despite the throng -- including Brazilian television -- documenting their every move. Eduardo Barrichello, 9, lurked behind the pit stall, playfully offering pretzel twists to the KV mechanics. Rubens had a large smile and a bro hug for Vasser at the completion of the first day's work.
"Quite honestly, if you go purely from joy, it wouldn't be a problem," Barrichello told SI.com. "There's joy. I still have so much passion for the speed. I am quite young in my mind. I am not to my top level in terms of fitness. I am just getting better and better. ... I just like it, what I saw."
The series likes what it envisions. Just using Twitter followers as a register -- 1.4 million, as accurately quoted by Bernard in his recitation of Barrichello's vitals -- the Brazilian would give the series a million more engaged fans even after factoring in the loss of Patrick and her 445,447 (as of Tuesday). A video posted by KV Racing of Barrichello taking a lap around Sebring had amassed almost 11,000 views in an hour on Tuesday. Barrichello would change the IndyCar paradigm, said fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves, causing a positive shift in future driver interest in their country, and immediately in sponsor involvement because of the bargain he represents.
"I guarantee it," he said, watching Barrichello pit from a nearby stall. "Because when you talk about Formula One, you're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. When you're talking about IndyCar, it's so much less. Ten million dollars today in IndyCar, you can do an incredible team. That's a big budget. Now you can have a big team, and Rubens."
Though Barrichello said he would finish the test and "have a think," Kanaan speculated that "knowing Rubens his timeline will be pretty short. I think by the time he gets out of the car [on Tuesday] he will have a pretty good idea what he wants to do."
If so, he said he plans to ruminate over many "factors" awhile longer after returning to Brazil. He said it is not necessarily his preference to return to Formula One.
"I don't want to put it as a preference. I want to have an open mind," he told SI.com. "I've been living there for 19 years. I have been a fan of the Indy series for a number of years as well because, coming to visit Tony and some other friends for a long time. I've been to Indy. I've been to Milwaukee, to Sao Paulo [all past or present IndyCar venues]. I've been to many tracks. I like it, what I saw. It is a great atmosphere, and great racing. The cars are very similar in racing together. There is not a preference in that. It's just a lot of things involved. I just need to see what comes up. I need to talk to my family. I need to talk to Jimmy. I need to talk about a lot of things. I like it. After that, I just think it's too soon to think on that. As soon as I finish [Tuesday] I will put it in my head, away a little bit, and see what comes up."
Vasser, whose team is built to accommodate three drivers -- he fielded Kanaan, fifth in points, E.J. Viso and Takuma Sato last season -- said he needs an answer by Feb. 15. That is one of many details left to discuss, including sponsorship. Bolstering Castroneves' point, it is expected that Barrichello would be able to bring sponsorship with him to the IndyCar series.
"We haven't talked about it," Barrichello said of having to provide sponsorship. "Obviously, I'm at a time in my career where I wish that's not the case. The world is going into a direction that you don't do that because you're a pay driver. It's because the sport needs money and you want to show the sponsor. I haven't talked to Jimmy about that. He knows I am here to have fun. I'm thrilled I was able to get used to the car so fast, and we'll go from there."
Barrichello said racing on ovals will not be an impediment despite a promise he made to his wife, Silvana, not to race them in America. The series currently contests four ovals events.
"I did say that," he told SI.com. "I never thought I could come over to this side because the day I was ... I thought I was going to race, like 25 years in Formula One and then I should be over with it. I never thought I could come this way. So I did say that. That is very correct. It came out of my mouth, and I am pretty sure if that was a problem it is a solved problem. It is not a big issue.
"It's so many different situations. I could run, if I wanted to, on the road tracks, not on the ovals. I could run all the time. There's so many options available."
And so many awaiting his decision.