tampabay.com

New team sees rising tide

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published April 1, 2005


Gil de Ferran knows all about the hand wringing that follows the IRL's performance on television. He is aware the ratings have been buried by NASCAR, and he knows people aren't tuning in.

The most recent race two weeks ago at Phoenix drew a 0.8 national rating, 0.5 in the Tampa Bay market.

But before sounding the death knell for his sport, the Brazilian great would prefer to invest in the theory that such things are cyclical - that the Indianapolis 500 can regain its presence in American racing and that once fans give the IRL a chance, they will like what they see and ratings will march back up.

"It's absolutely possible," said de Ferran, in his first year as a full-time ESPN/ABC announcer after retiring in 2003, the year he won the Indy 500.

"I guess I'm biased in a way. I love the sport. Ever since I was kid, I was always fascinated with the sport ... open-wheel racing was the most special way a man could go auto racing."

Having been eclipsed by NASCAR, the IRL hopes to stage a revival this year on ESPN and ABC. They replaced Paul Page with new play-by-play announcer Todd Harris, and de Ferran and Scott Goodyear - both with extensive racing backgrounds - will be analysts.

The IRL's problems are many. The sport has one marquee race, the Indy 500, but few marquee drivers. Americans aren't likely to take to the European drivers so common in the sport, and seem to have a comfort level with NASCAR that cannot be undone.

Competition from Champ Car is stiff. Even the Indy 500 has lost some of its allure.

"I think you can write a book about this whole thing," de Ferran said. "I'm sure it would be a very good case study for some university. I don't think it's only one factor that contributed to the situation we find ourselves in today. I think it's several factors. I don't believe we're on our way up yet. But there's a lot of excitement. The series is extremely competitive. We have road racing for the first time in St. Petersburg. And the first two races were breathtaking. We just need to keep going."

De Ferran and Harris both said they hope to introduce to a whole new generation the personalities in the IRL. They call it a "fresh new approach," and say it will be steered by Buddy Rice, Sam Hornish and Danica Patrick, the circuit's lone female driver.

"We just need to make them stop, look and listen," Harris said. "Then they'll stick around."

Harris thinks the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is crucial. If it can build some momentum "we can get people talking around the water cooler again."

HEY, AREN'T YOU ...?: From describing men pulling airplanes by rope at a snail's pace racing during a competition in Malaysia to calling the action at this weekend's Grand Prix, Harris has gone from one extreme to another.

"It's like juggling six flaming tennis balls," he said. "I've got to keep them in the air."

And himself on the air. Harris, a pit reporter last year and one of broadcasting's rising stars, was promoted to replace Page as the voice of the IRL.

"I felt really good about the pits," Harris said.

"Replacing Paul, that was real bittersweet for me. I told him I did not campaign for this, and I didn't ask for it. But he has been real supportive. I don't know if I'm ready for it ... but when do you ever really know?"

Some diehard ESPN enthusiasts know Harris from his stint as the World's Strongest Man host. That hardly made Harris a household name, but ESPN's penchant for replaying the competitions ad nauseum made sure he had plenty of opportunity.

"If I had a dime for every time they aired it," Harris said. "I should have had that negotiated into my contract."

ON FIRE: Harris said he loved his first year in the pits last season, even though he caught on fire twice after splashes of methanol. "They just throw a bucket of water on you and go back to what they were doing like nothing happened," he said.

THE WINNER IS: De Ferran wasn't going to make his pick for the Grand Prix winner until he got to see how the drivers handled the road course in practice.

"There's six cars that can win on any weekend," de Ferran said. "And street races are notoriously unpredictable."