Kasey Kahne could have brought open-wheel racing out of the shadows, but he invested his talent in stock cars.
CONCORD, N.C. - Kasey Kahne could have been the one. Young, articulate, thick of resume and wealthy of talent despite his 24 years, he could have been a tonic for an American open-wheel racing landscape that is retiring its established stars, and losing its homegrown talent and fan base to stock car racing.
Kahne could have been starting today in the Indianapolis 500, but instead he will start with many other former open-wheel talents in the Nextel Cup Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"It seems like there is just a lot more opportunity in NASCAR," said Kahne, who leads all Nextel Cup rookies with four top-fives and three poles.
"Jeff Gordon opened a lot of doors for NASCAR when he came here. If Jeff Gordon had gone to CART and done the same thing, I think he would have done the same for people there. I think he and Tony Stewart are a big part of open-wheel drivers coming here more than anything else."
In former open-wheel drivers Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, there are five NASCAR driver championships (Stewart also won an Indy Racing League title in 1997) and three rookie of the year awards, for which Kahne is the front-runner this season.
As with those drivers, Kahne began his career in the open-wheel United States Auto Club. The 2000 USAC Midget champion and 2000 Silver Bullet series rookie of the year, he raced in the CART-feeder Toyota Atlantic series and Formula Ford 2000 in 2001 before driving in the NASCAR Busch series for Robert Yates in 2002. He's now the top rookie and 11th in the Nextel Cup points standings for owner Ray Evernham.
Kahne's father, Kelly, said financial reward is not the main incentive for young drivers to choose NASCAR.
"I think the money and the fame is secondary, maybe even third," he said. "I think the big thing is the exposure you get with NASCAR and the challenge to win races."
In fact, Kelly Kahne said, his son had decided he would pursue open-wheel racing when Ford pressed him to make a decision in 2000. Ford, with whom he had a development deal at the time, gave him 24 hours to decide if he wanted to continue on his open-wheel path or switch to stock cars. Kahne chose open-wheel but had the decision remade for him when Ford ended its Championship Auto Racing Teams program. Kahne later left Ford for Evernham's Dodge NASCAR team. Kahne said he eventually would try to run the Indy 500 as Nextel Cup driver Robby Gordon will today before returning to Concord.
"(NASCAR) is where the openings are," Kasey Kahne said. "There's no cars to drive in (the IRL). There's cars to drive here if you get pointed in the right direction."
NASCAR fans and drivers spend a great deal of time on weekends such as this and of the Brickyard 400 debating whether big-time stock car racing has completely eclipsed open-wheel racing in importance since its split into rivals IRL and CART (now Champ Car). The debate heightens when a race as storied as the Indy 500 struggles to fill its 33-car field as it has recently.
"In the past they've had 36 or 37 cars show up, but were they really cars?" pondered NASCAR veteran Kyle Petty. "There's been a lot said about field-fillers, but field-filling started at Indy after the split."
Considering ticket sales and merchandise purchases, the still-expanding NASCAR has completely eclipsed open-wheel racing in fan appeal. Though Petty asserts the importance of the Coca-Cola 600 competing on the same Memorial Day date as the Indianapolis 500, he doesn't think it is more important. Neither, he said, is the Brickyard 400, NASCAR's late-summer stop at open-wheel racing's hallowed venue.
"In my opinion (the Brickyard 400) will never be bigger than the Indy 500," he said. "It may make more money, it may draw more people, but it will never be bigger than the Indy 500. We can run multiple horse races at Churchill Downs, but there is still only one Kentucky Derby, no matter who shows up for it. Certain events in every sport transcend that sport, no matter what."
Unless things get a lot worse for open-wheel racing, Petty said, IRL president Tony George can expect to reap the rewards of the Indy 500 legacy, just as the Daytona 500 did this season when only 45 cars fought for 43 starting spot.
"(He's going to) keep selling tickets and laugh all the way to the bank because that's what he's going to do today," Petty said. "He'll have a crowd. People are going to go because it's an event."
But drivers such as Kahne aren't going to go back unless it becomes a better option. As of now, fans continue to see it as a once-yearly novelty.