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Shining from shadows

Over the past decade-plus, NASCAR has come to dominate America's racing landscape. Times staff writer Brant James asks open-wheel's biggest names about how to - or whether they can - recapture their lost place as the star attraction.

By BRANT JAMES
Published March 30, 2007


HOMESTEAD

The din of race cars made casual conversation nearly impossible. Within the motor coach lot at Homestead-Miami Speedway reserved for drivers and Indy Racing League officials, Mari Hulman George sat at a picnic table on a Friday afternoon, in the shade from a canopy attached to son Tony's rolling residence.

Audible above the drone, the matriarch of the family that has owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1945 clapped and cheered toward a television tucked in a compartment under the coach. She nervously scrawled notes on a pad.

The IRL's IndyCars weren't on the track. This was Grand-Am practice and there were no video feeds. So what on the screen could so enrapt the woman most recognizable for saying "start your engines," at open-wheel racing's most storied event, the Indianapolis 500?

"He's fifth right now," she smiled to a well-wisher.

During a momentary lull in race traffic, the familiar but out-of-place drawl of a NASCAR broadcast team came clear, describing Busch Series qualifying at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Hulman George could be forgiven suspending her loyalties for her grandson, Kyle Krisiloff, who at 21 is trying to build a NASCAR career. But another point was made. On the first weekend of the IndyCar season, NASCAR remained omnipresent.

Split loyalties

The question is open: Can open-wheel racing can regain the toehold it held nationally until the early 1990s, either in its current fractured state - with IRL and Champ Car competing - or potentially reunited? Those who have toiled in the obscurity of NASCAR's long shadow would very much like see the sun again. The IRL possesses a timely commitment to 100 percent ethanol fuel, a diversity in drivers and ownership that NASCAR covets, and the quiet hope that all trends - including NASCAR's explosive growth - are cyclical. Open-wheel racing's leaders may be in the best position in years to seize back some of its legacy.

But the IRL can do nothing without a plan. The public won't reconnect itself, and many, including driver Helio Castroneves and team owner Michael Andretti, feel someone needs to speak up soon.

"It's a marketing problem," said Andretti, the son of legend Mario and father of rising star Marco. "But I don't want to blame anyone. I don't know how to do it. I think there's things we should be doing differently, but I don't know what they are."

Marketing the show

NASCAR has drawn more Fortune 500 companies into the sport than any other and turned into a major industry with astute marketing. Joyce Julius' 2006 Sponsor Report claimed sponsors of NASCAR's top three series posted a record $6.6-billion in television exposure value. NASCAR has a Los Angeles office to insert its brand and drivers into mainstream television and cinema, to great effect, with the release of movies such as Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.

The IRL, meanwhile, has had kitschy "I am Indy" campaigns and brief and fruitless relationships with the likes of Gene Simmons, who penned and performed the ad anthem.

It's Terry Angstadt's job to make it all better, and the IRL commercial division president has said the league was "really positioned for explosive growth."

NASCAR's hook has been a flavor for virtually every taste, but the same applies to the IRL, Andretti said.

NASCAR has the famous and successful son - Dale Earnhardt Jr. - of a famous and successful father, and so does the IRL in 20-year-old Marco Andretti. It has one of the most successful American drivers - Sam Hornish - in decades.

With the announcement by SAMAX Motorsport that Venezuelan sportscar driver Milka Duno will run 10 races this season, the IRL has three female drivers. Among them is Danica Patrick, the vortex of IRL notoriety her rookie season in 2005. Nextel Cup fields are with little exception comprised of 42 white American men plus newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya, an open-wheel veteran from Colombia.

But it's working. Though television ratings sagged last season and attendance in certain key new markets like Southern California suggest NASCAR might have found the edge of its saturation point, it dwarfs the IRL in all direct business comparisons.

Angstadt said his approach will likely be a hybrid of the NASCAR model.

"I admire a lot of what they do. Trust me, and I would like to have some of the problems they have," said Angstadt, who helped turn Fila into a billion-dollar sports apparel company. "At the same time I think there is a lot of accessibility (in the IRL). We have bright, articulate drivers, we have a very diverse driver base and a lot to market there, and that's high on our list. What amazes me, and some research will show (it), NASCAR's accessibility of drivers, well when you get under the surface of that, a standup of Tony Stewart in a Home Depot is considered accessibility. Well it's really not. It's a cutout."

George conceded the IRL might never have the national draw of NASCAR - the series' self-generated studies claim 75-million fans - but thinks IndyCar can thrive in its niche.

"NASCAR really goes for the breadbasket of the country," he said. "I think open-wheel racing, a demographic for it tends to be more akin to the east and west coast and a slightly different demographic: maybe not as large a following, but an avid and active following."

On-track comparisons would seem to be the IRL's best hope. As NASCAR fans grow discontent with four-hour races, which some see as uninteresting, the IRL often has cars traveling in excess of 200 mph, finishing less than a second apart and wrapping up the show in about two hours.

"If you ask me it's not right," Marco Andretti said of the IRL's second-class status to NASCAR. "We're real drivers. We're faster cars, we have the best racing. You just have to get it out there."

Still, George said he has changed his opinion that running double-bill weekends with Nextel Cup - an idea NASCAR chairman Brian France said was not in his sport's business plan - would be good for the IRL. He worries the IRL would be painted as an under-series because it is already often "second or third on the list of priorities" of some of its current venues, he said. NASCAR's ascent was boosted with the credibility of racing at Indianapolis beginning in 1994, and that race has often been a bigger draw than the Indy 500.

The IRL tested at NASCAR's hallowed ground, Daytona International Speedway, this year, but IRL president Brian Barnhart said a race there wouldn't be considered until two more years of testing on its road course.

Tempted by NASCAR

NASCAR's standing as "where the spotlight is," said driver Dan Wheldon, has led some IRL drivers to see what life is like on the other side. Castroneves, a two-time Indy 500 winner, is troubled by his counterparts' temptation toward NASCAR. Teammate Hornish is a three-time series champion, including last year, and the defending Indy 500 winner. He will run 12 Busch Series races with Team Penske's NASCAR wing to determine if he'd like to switch. Former champion and St. Petersburg resident Wheldon is set to test a Busch car for Ganassi Racing, which owns his IRL car.

"What bothers me, we have a great series, great competition and I don't see the help or effort from our own people in terms of people who organize this," Castroneves said. "For example, NASCAR, they sign the deals, and whether it's a good or bad deal, they're trying to expose their name as much as they can.

"But I don't see the same feeling (in the IRL). ... That's why people become interested in other series. It's hard when someone offers you the money."

Michael Andretti said the IRL might do well to return to what he calls the formula for open-wheel prosperity in the early 1990s: a diverse schedule, specifically street racing that creates an intimate connection to a community that a speedway cannot. That was the norm before George founded the IRL as an oval-dominated series in 1994.

"We have this big, great race in the Indianapolis 500," driver Danica Patrick said. "Now we have to show people that we have a bunch of other really cool races too, because they don't know they're there."

If the 1990s model is the solution, the rebirth of open-wheel racing will have sprouted through a crack in the sidewalk in downtown St. Petersburg two years ago. The series now races five non-oval events out of 17.

"St. Petersburg was huge," said Michael Andretti, whose organization promotes the Grand Prix. "It's what started the ball rolling. Not only just for other cities, but for Tony George and the IRL. Now there's more of a push to go in that direction. That's something that NASCAR can't do. That's a niche we can attack that NASCAR can't."

George hopes the IRL can find another niche in New York City. International Speedway Corp. had interest in bringing the IRL to the speedway it hoped to construct for NASCAR racing on Staten Island, but local opposition stopped the project. So George began formulating his own plan. He would not divulge details, but the "project that we work on in our spare time" would likely be held mostly within a city park or large green space near water and use some local roads. One concept has the IRL racing on the roads of 172-acre Governors Island, a ferry-accesible chunk of land just off lower Manhattan.

The project, still in preliminary stages, likely could not be completed for two years. That would still be long before ISC could identify and develop another site for a track. Speedway Motorsports president Bruton Smith said his studies of the area concluded it would take a decade to build a track there.

The next generation

Michael Andretti and fellow team owner and former Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal have sons beginning promising open-wheel careers. At 18, Graham Rahal is to drive in Champ Car for powerful Newman-Haas Racing. Neither father will concede that attaining the same level of notoriety, no matter the success, is unattainable for their sons in the age of stock-car dominance.

"I guess he can just because of his name. There is that next generation thing," Bobby Rahal said. "I don't care, to be honest. He might. And the easy thing would be, 'Let's go NASCAR racing,' but who's to say that's going to be as strong five years from now as it is currently?"

Marco Andretti, at the vanguard with teammate Patrick of much of the IRL's promotional work, is not so sure.

"It's frustrating," he said. "It bums me out. I'll do whatever I can. I think me winning and Danica winning will help, but I'm a driver, not a marketer."