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Coke the real thing on TV

Published May 29, 2005

CONCORD, N.C. - Used to be, the race was sexy enough.

It had style. It had pizzazz. It did not, near as I recall, have saucy photos of Johnny Rutherford on the hood of a car in a bikini.

Used to be, the race was a Memorial Day essential.

It was barbecues. It was beer. It was pure Americana. And it was rarely, in my recollection, won by guys named Helio, Arie or Jacques.

Used to be, the Indianapolis 500 was the race of the year.

So how come it may no longer be the race of the day?

While growing in age, the 500 seems to have faded in significance. Time was, this was the moment. And the Brickyard was the stage. Yet, in many ways, the Indianapolis 500 is now an opening act to NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600.

The buzz, in past summers, has made it seem that way. The television ratings, the past three years, have confirmed the belief.

The clincher, in a lot of ways, came this month.

It wasn't until Danica Patrick arrived on the scene that you realized how inconsequential the Indy 500 had become. It took the novelty of a 23-year-old rookie with a cover girl resume to make the race seem relevant again.

Fitting, isn't it? When the 1970s began, they wouldn't allow women in the press box or garages at Indianapolis. Now they're counting on a woman to grab the attention of all those fans standing outside of Dale Jr.'s merchandise trailer.

Sadly, the Indy 500 has gone from must-see to almost musty. From 1976 to '88, its TV ratings were cut in half. Between 1988 and 2004, they were halved again. Once, the race had a 17.9 rating. Last year, it was 4.1. For the past three years, the Coca-Cola 600 has had a bigger viewing audience. Last year, it drew a 5.0. So has the NASCAR boom robbed Indy of some of its glamour? Absolutely. NASCAR is Bubba chic. It has grown out of its regional roots and become a nationwide phenomenon.

Unlike IndyCars, which depended on Memorial Day as the season's sacred event, NASCAR has transformed itself into a weekly habit.

So did open-wheel racing run over its own feet in this saga? Absolutely. The decade-long split between the Indy Racing League and Champ Car diluted the talent pool and ruined America's premier race. At times, the Indy 500 actually has had trouble finding enough cars to fill the field.

Whichever theory you choose, the end result is the same. The Indy 500 still may be the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but it is struggling to recapture its place in the public's heart.

"It was, at one time, the consummate sports event in the world," said Lowe's Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, who used to attend the Indy 500 as a representative of a tire company in the 1960s. "There was not a driver anywhere who didn't want to win it, and I don't care whether he was in Italy or Iowa. That was at a time when racing in general did not get a lot of media attention, except for one or two days a year around the Indianapolis 500.

"If you were a race car driver and won that race, most of America was going to know who you were. That didn't happen at the Daytona 500 or here, at what was then the World 600. Firestone would put your picture in a full page ad in Life magazine and you were set."

Even as NASCAR began grabbing a larger share of the market, Indy enthusiasts would claim open-wheel racing was still the more pure and technical sport. They hardly bother with those arguments anymore.

NASCAR has systematically picked off most of the finest young racers in the country. These aren't the sons of moonshiners anymore. Now NASCAR has mechanical engineers in the pits and college grads in the drivers' seats.

Jeff Gordon grew up in the shadow of the Brickyard but found there were more sponsorship dollars to be had in NASCAR. And it didn't take long for others to see which direction the cash was flowing.

The United States Auto Club was once a pipeline for Indy racers. Now, its proteges are heading to NASCAR. Drivers such as Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman once had IndyCar flirtations. Now, they will spend Memorial Day weekend here at the Coca-Cola 600 outside Charlotte.

"I love open-wheel racing," Kahne said after winning at Richmond earlier this month. "If I never run the Indy 500 ... I'll be thinking about Indy on Pole Day. It'll be there with me until I quit racing."

In the '70s, when NASCAR was the clear second choice on the holiday weekend, Wheeler had to hustle to come up with stunts that might draw attention away from Indianapolis.

He once invited Janet Guthrie to the race after she failed to qualify at Indy. The next year, he had Elizabeth Taylor on hand to give Richard Petty a kiss after his victory. It was that photo, he said, that dominated sports pages the next day instead of A.J. Foyt's fourth Indy 500 victory.

These days, however, it is Indianapolis that is counting on the success of a gimmick to boost ratings and coverage.

"They've got that young lady there this weekend, and she's getting a lot of attention," Wheeler said. "I've been trying to think of a counter move, but it looks like I'm running out of time.

"If she wins, forget it. That story will overwhelm everything else. But that's all right, we're still having our fun."

[Last modified May 29, 2005, 01:05:19]

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