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IndyCars buzz down the Las Vegas Strip

In this photo provided by the Las Vegas News Bureau, IZOD IndyCar Series drivers parade on the Las Vegas Strip Thursday, October 13, 2011.The parade celebrates Sunday's inaugural IZOD IndyCar World Championships at the Las Vegas Speedway. In this photo provided by the Las Vegas News Bureau, IZOD IndyCar Series drivers parade on the Las Vegas Strip Thursday, October 13, 2011.The parade celebrates Sunday's inaugural IZOD IndyCar World Championships at the Las Vegas Speedway. (AP Photo/Las Vegas News Bureau, Brian Jones)
By John Marshall
AP Sports Writer / October 14, 2011

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LAS VEGAS—Mickey Mouse pulled off his head, SpongeBob Squarepants slid off his suit and the pair joined the tourists lining the street.

One of the most famous and busiest streets in the world had become eerily quiet and everyone, including the locals, wanted to see what would happen.

This was just the kind of attention IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard wanted to generate when he helped bring the series back to Las Vegas.

Kicking off its final weekend of the season, IndyCar made a splash in a place where it's hard to even create a ripple, sending out all 34 cars for the race Sunday onto the Las Vegas Strip for about 10 minutes of parade laps under the neon lights Thursday night.

"This is absolutely amazing," IndyCar points leader Dario Franchitti said. "This is just what this series needs."

Bernard took a bit of gamble, so to speak, in bringing the series to Las Vegas. He just felt as if he had no other choice after a not-so-great season finale last year at Homestead, where the race drew an 0.3 rating despite a compelling championship race between Franchitti and Will Power.

In bringing the series to Las Vegas, Bernard hoped to jolt the series back to life after more than decade of lagging crowds and ratings spawned by the series' bitter 1996 split with CART. But just holding the race here wasn't going to be enough.

Bernard wanted to draw as much attention as possible, so he offered a $5 million to any non-regular driver who wins the season finale, along with the trip down The Strip.

"Las Vegas is such a great market, we just felt this was the market to try it in," Bernard said. "This is kind of a test for us."

The parade past the casinos seemed to earn a passing grade from those who watched it.

With a stage and staging area set up front of the Bellagio's fountains, the not-yet-started spectacle drew a few hundred fans and curious passers-by. As former Los Angeles Dodgers Tommy Lasorda was about to answer a question from the announcer, a series of sirens drowned him out, followed by a familiar whir -- at least to racing fans -- that rang out in an unfamiliar place.

Driving alongside the regular traffic on Las Vegas Blvd., each of the IndyCars passed in front of Ballys, sending out white smoke into the air with peel-outs before heading to the staging area.

"I've never seen anything like this in Vegas," Lasorda said. "I've been coming here for 60 years and I've never seen anything like this."

And that was before the cars even turned a lap.

With their cars parked on The Strip, the drivers were introduced one by one, then stood on the stage for a group photo as the Bellagio fountains fired water dozens of feet into the air behind them. The mist still settling and the crowd still gathering, the drivers mingled with VIPs for a few minutes before heading to their cars.

Thousands of people lined the street -- including the street performers -- and within a few minutes, traffic from Tropicana to Flamingo was shut down. Firing up with a roar of the ignition, the IndyCars tore down The Strip, dark shadows under the bright lights running a short circuit on the south end of the street.

The session over, the cars peeled off The Strip and back to their haulers as the traffic filled the streets again and the sidewalks flowed with tourists, high rollers and the down-on-their-luck. Las Vegas was back to normal, but an impression was made.

"It is important for the series to have events like this," driver Simona de Silvestro said. "Hopefully, they'll have more like this. I think it's just going to attract more and more people outside of racing and that's a great thing."

It seemed to be a hit on The Strip. After all, it's not often that Mickey and SpongeBob are the ones standing around watching.