Can IRL save itself?

Without a national sponsor and in constant competition with their rival league, the IRL continues their struggle to bring in the fans.

Published May 24, 2007

Dan Wheldon was replete in his best hanging-out garb: stylish jeans, trendy shirt, hair mussed just right, monstrous white sunglasses deflecting UV rays as he turned his pale face toward the warm February sun. He could have been another British tourist had he not been leaning on a race car minutes before the Daytona 500.

He is one of the best drivers in the world, the 2005 Indy Racing League and Indianapolis 500 champion. But as he took in the atmosphere of America's other big race, chatting with David Stremme, who drives for the NASCAR side of the Chip Ganassi Racing team that employs them both, he was anonymous. As a pit reporter brushed by to interview the much-less-accomplished Stremme, Wheldon smiled.

Racing means NASCAR in this country. That's partly why Wheldon kept his options open by taking the first steps toward testing a Busch series car.

Sunday's 91st running of the Indy 500 will adjust the national focus slightly back to the open-wheel cars, but that will change Monday morning, much like most Americans forget about horse racing once they slurp down the last sip of mint julep on the first Saturday in May. That's partly open-wheel racing's fault, largely Tony George's, many critics contend, after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway president founded the IRL and fractured the sport into separate series in 1994. The road back has been lengthy and NASCAR's ascendancy has made it longer. It may never come all the way back, but for the first time, arguably, since the IRL's first season in 1996, there is at least a puff of momentum.

Sam Hornish's thrilling pass of Marco Andretti last year and the presence of three women in the field appear to have stoked national interest.

"I think the IRL is better than it has ever been," said Peter DeLorenzo, an auto industry analyst and publisher of Autoextremist.com. "I think the competition is better. I think the diversity of the tracks is really good with the addition of road courses. They just need to get over the hump."

So begins a critical period in the life of North American open-wheel racing. For it to end in success, DeLorenzo said, two things need to happen: The league must acquire a title sponsor, like NASCAR has in Nextel, and the rival Champ Car series has to go away.

"Tony George ultimately holds all the cards," he said. "He controls the most important race in the world."

Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner, whose grandson finished second last year as a 19-year-old rookie, thinks the race has "gained some of its luster back", but agrees that open-wheel racing must have all of its top stars in one series to thrive.

"The Indy 500 is the event," he said. "You go to the Kentucky Derby, maybe people only go there once in their lifetime just to say they've been there because it's the classic event. That's what Indianapolis always has been. But when you go to the Kentucky Derby and you're going to see the best 3-year-olds anywhere in the world and that's what you want to see at Indianapolis. And there's a lot of good guys watching it on TV that should be there."

The trouble is, George and Champ counterpart Kevin Kalkhoven, though friends, seem convinced their individual paths are viable. The IRL took on Champ Car characteristics by street and road racing for the first time in 2005 in St. Petersburg. Kalkhoven said though Champ has a dwindling car count and few recognizable stars, "there is plenty enough pie for everyone."

Cal Wells, a former open-wheel owner who left for NASCAR in 2000, said the IRL and Champ Car suffer because George and Kalkhoven run their businesses "like it's a hobby shop," refusing to make the numerous tweaks, in competition and marketing, that have defined NASCAR.

"Kalkhoven and George need to realize that if one of them slipped in the bathtub their series would be dead the next week," he said.

Wells added that open wheel allowed its promotional campaigns to shift to faceless manufacturers instead of finding new "men behind the machines," once legends such as A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Mario Andretti retired, saying, "'NASCAR does a great job turning their drivers into stars."

DeLorenzo said the split "put America's motorsports interests on a silver platter for NASCAR. And they had the marketing machine to exploit that and they sure did. And frankly, open wheel racing has never recovered."

NASCAR claims 75-million fans, the IRL 36-million. And though NASCAR television ratings have wavered the past two years and the IRL's improved, NASCAR remains a much bigger draw.

But for all its popularity, NASCAR cannot buy the Indianapolis 500's half-century of history.

And it could not offend Wheldon as he blended into Stremme's sheet metal.

"I wanted to see what it was like," he said.

"It was cool, but it wasn't Indianapolis."

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.

INDY 500:

Facts and figures

When: 1 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

On the tube

Friday: Miller Lite Carb Day practice; Pit Stop Challenge, Freedom 100 highlights, 4-6:30 p.m. ESPN2.

Saturday: 500 Festival Parade 5:30-7 p.m. ESPN2 (tape); Ready to Race: The 91st Indianapolis 500, 7-7:30 p.m. ESPN2 (tape).

Sunday: Pre-race Noon-1 p.m. ABC; Indy 500, 1 p.m. ABC.