"Greatest Spectacle in Racing" has trouble filling field, does not sell out and has diminished TV ratings.
INDIANAPOLIS - Can this be the Indianapolis 500?
Two days before the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," a call to the ticket office provided plenty of options. "We have tickets in the North Vista, South Vista and along the backstretch in the Northeast Vista," a cheery voice replied. "We also have a few scattered along the main straightaway."
Quite a change from the glory days in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. Then, some fans would head to the ticket windows as soon as one year's race was over, paying to ensure they got the same seats the next year.
Now, after nearly a decade of wrenching changes, Indy faced the possibility that its open-wheel cars will be racing in front of a bunch of empty seats today.
"It's obvious that we're not what we were in the '70s," said Tony George, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and founder of the Indy Racing League. "Why aren't we? I don't think anyone has the answer to that. I don't."
Actually, there are plenty of theories as to why the Indy 500 lost its place as one of the most anticipated sporting events. The ugly split in open-wheel racing. The rise of NASCAR. A watering down of the 500's mystique when the speedway added two other major events. More entertainment options in general.
But the 500 is hardly on the verge of going out of business.
Sellout or not, a crowd of more than 250,000 is expected - still the most-attended one-day sporting event in the world. There are plenty of people who will gather in front of their televisions because it's Indy, even if they don't know who Buddy Rice is (he's the pole-sitter).
"I don't go back to the '60s or '70s. I've only been around the last five years," said Loren Matthews, senior vice president of programming for ABC Sports, which will televise the race for the 40th consecutive year. "But I'm blown away by it. If this wasn't what it used to be, then it boggles my mind what it used to be."
Matthews thinks those words - Indy 500 - still carry a special mystique. You may not know the difference between a spoiler and a sidepod, but you've heard of this race.
"It's like the Kentucky Derby in horse racing," Matthews said. "You don't have to be a horse racing fan to watch the Kentucky Derby. You don't have to be a motor racing fan to watch the Indy 500. We've just got to get more of them to watch."
Aside from the potential for empty seats, the most compelling evidence of Indy's decline is TV ratings. The audience for last year's race was less than half of what it was in 1995 - the final year before open-wheel racing was torn apart by the CART-IRL feud.
NASCAR stepped into the void, claiming the top spot in American motorsports. CART was driven out of business, while the IRL is nothing more than a niche player - closer to sports cars than stock cars in TV ratings.
Even Morgan Freeman, the Oscar-nominated actor who will drive the pace car at Indy, admitted he's a NASCAR fan first. That's obvious - while talking about his friendship with actor Ashley Judd, he kept calling her husband "Darius" (It's Dario, as in Franchitti, a front-row starter).
Another tradition on the verge of fading away is Bump Day. A week before the race, a second round of qualifying is held in which drivers have a chance to bump others out of the 33-car field.
The unique format used to provide some of the most compelling story lines. Defending series champion Bobby Rahal got knocked out of the race in 1993. Two years later, Roger Penske's powerful team couldn't get a car in the field, forcing Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi to watch the race from home.
"To this day, I gleefully tell my son about how I bumped Bobby Rahal out of the Indy 500," said Eddie Cheever Jr., now an IRL car owner. "Bump Day is a very important part of this race."
No such suspense these days. In consecutive years, no one got bumped. It took some last-minute dealing just to get enough cars to fill out the field.
But the IRL does have some things to gloat about.
Two-time series champion Sam Hornish spurned a chance to jump to NASCAR and signed with Team Penske. Honda and Toyota have come aboard, bringing along their immense clout and hefty budgets. Most of the top open-wheel teams have aligned with the IRL, while the remnant of CART, now known as Champ Car, struggles to survive.
Some of the successes come with ominous overtones. Honda and Toyota raised the cost of doing business for everyone. And there's concern Toyota, which entered the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series this season, will desert the IRL in the next few years.
George doesn't seem concerned. If anything, he seems to have accepted the Indy 500 never will be what it once was.
Those days are over. Get used to it.
"Things change, times change," George said. "We don't have any regrets."