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Legends left holes unfilled

As old-line stars retired, no open-wheel drivers took their place in the public eye.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 26, 2002

INDIANAPOLIS -- Every year, forever it seemed, A.J. and Mario and Big Al circled the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So did a fistful of other great drivers. Like Willie, Mickey and the Duke, and the single word Indy, no further explanation was needed.

Jeff Gordon could have been the heir here to their popularity. But he never ran an Indy 500, leaving instead to become a NASCAR star.

"He did his homework, he paid his dues and he came here and nobody'd give him a ride, which is why he went away," said Chris Economaki, editor of National Speed Sport News and longtime television racing analyst.

Most of the big names of open-wheel racing -- Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, Tom Sneva -- retired in a seven-year span ending in 1995. "They all had tremendous name value," Associated Press motorsports writer Mike Harris said, "because they'd been around forever."

Fans watched them go through midgets and sprints and stock cars, said Foyt, four-time Indy 500 champion-turned-car owner. "You don't see many (open-wheel) drivers coming up through the ranks. In NASCAR you do -- through Busch and trucks and the smaller ranks."

In 1996, as the cost of running an open-wheel race mushroomed and young American drivers were finding it harder to attract sponsors, speedway president Tony George started the Indy Racing League, a low-cost alternative to CART's multimillion-dollar funding.

This year, George founded the Infiniti Pro Series, the IRL's version of Triple-A baseball. "We think it will serve as a link from the short tracks, giving young drivers some rear-engine aerodynamic experience," he said.

Today's Indy 500 field has young drivers named Sam and Billy and Bruno and Shigeaki. With one exception -- Sarah -- one name is not enough to define them.

Gordon could have been an open-wheel one-name wonder. Likewise Tony Stewart, who finished sixth here last year and third that night in the Coca-Cola 600, and stayed with NASCAR.

"There are future Jeff Gordons for us out there," said Bobby Rahal, like Foyt a former champion-turned team owner. But as Gordon's and Stewart's popularity, and NASCAR's, continue to soar, open-wheel racing waits for drivers as good, as popular, and willing to stay awhile. Last year, Sam Hornish Jr. at 21, was the youngest-ever open-wheel champion in North America. He and Sarah Fisher, 21, are recognized as the potential successors to Indy car racing's throne unless. ...

"If you're Sam Hornish Jr., you've got to do what you've got to do," Rahal said. "You're in racing only for a certain period of time in your life and if someone throws a lot of money at you, you have to think about it."

Hornish said the lack of open-wheel money is obvious. "Look at our car and everything we accomplished last year. ... We still have space (for sponsors) on the car and it's not selling."

The problem is the difference between the sponsors NASCAR and open-wheel racing attract, said Bill King, motorsports editor of Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal, owned by NASCAR's parent company.

"When Pepsi puts Jeff Gordon on a life-size standup display in front of its cans of Pepsi, it's selling Pepsi, but it's also selling Jeff Gordon, which in turns sells NASCAR," King said. "Try and think of anybody in (open-wheel racing) who you're going to see when you walk into the 7-Eleven. There's nobody. ... Open-wheel sponsors have been mostly technology companies, things that aren't going to touch the public on a daily basis."

Without that NASCAR largesse, "I don't think Jeff Gordon would have drawn eyeballs to this series," King added. "If Jeff Gordon stays (in open-wheel racing), but it's under all these other circumstances, I'm not sure it matters."

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