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Open Wheel Racing is Still Trying to Renew Interest in the United States...By Hartley Henderson

Sunday marks the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 and the race, while still prestigious, has never recaptured its glory from the days when AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser were the big names in open wheel racing.

The first Indy 500 was run in 1911 when Ray Harroun piloted his Marmon Wasp to victory lane on the old Brickyard and it has been run every year since except the years coinciding with the World Wars.

For most of its history the race was sanctioned by the USAC and for a time counted as a race towards the World Driving Championship. Consequently many overseas drivers competed in the Indy 500 as the World Driving Championship is synonymous with today's Formula 1 driver's title. The race remained prestigious even after it was no longer associated with the World Driving Championship but when the USAC was forced into turmoil in the late 70s after many key officials died in a plane crash, a group of teams got together and started CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) to try and take control of Indy Car racing in the U.S. The 2 biggest named teams at the time were Penske Racing and Chapparal Racing although the series also included McLaren Racing which fielded Johnny Rutherford. McLaren of course is now a major player in Formula 1. As years went by, other high ranked teams joined CART including Newman Haas, Team Green and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Things ran fairly smoothly until 1994 when Indianapolis Speedway CEO Tony George announced that he was starting up a series to compete with CART called IRL (Indy Racing League) and in 1996 stated that 25 of the 33 starting spots in the Indy 500 would belong to cars from the new series and only 8 cars would be reserved for the CART teams. George demanded that the CART teams could only compete if they used the same equipment that the IRL cars were using which would have required the CART teams to build a new car. The CART teams boycotted the 1996 Indianapolis 500 and ran their own race on the same day in Michigan but the result was a disaster for both series. Buddy Lazier won the 1996 Indianapolis 500 although few but the hardiest Indy Car aficionados seemed to care and fewer people cared that Jimmy Vasser won the competing CART race for Chip Ganassi racing.

The two series played chicken with each other for 3 years and CART teams continued to boycott the Indy 500 until the year 2000 when Chip Ganassi cried Uncle and entered Jimmy Vasser and Juan Montoya in the race. Montoya dominated en route to victory while Vasser finished 7th. The following year Penske Racing and Team Andretti-Green (Andretti Motorsports today) entered cars in the Indy 500 and Helio Castroneves raced his way to victory. In fact the top 6 positions were taken by the CART teams and only rookie driver Nicolas Miassian had a poor race among those teams. The race results made it clear to all just how inferior the IRL cars that were running the Indianapolis 500 during the boycott were. By 2002 Chip Ganassi, Penske and Andretti-Green moved their cars to the IRL leaving the CART series to a few smaller teams. And by 2003, Newman Haas racing was the only real team of significance in CART which was evident as Sebastien Bourdais won the championship in 3 consecutive years before making an unsuccessful move to F1. In 2008 CART declared bankruptcy resulting once again in only one open wheel series in the United States - the Indy Racing League.

In 2008 IRL lauded the unification of the 2 series and cried for people to renew interest but fans seemed to remain indignant. The Indianapolis 500 still attracts more than a quarter million fans but TV ratings have never returned to levels seen previously. Interest is slowly growing but it is unlikely the fan interest will ever return to previous levels. The reason for this is threefold.

First, racing fans viewed the split in the series and treatment of the general public as a kick in the teeth. Throughout the years of turmoil racing fans were never given much consideration and it was just assumed that fans would return when things were smoothed out. Just as Major League Baseball found out following the strike shortened season, fans are slow to forgive and forget. Furthermore, Tony George was shown to be a money hungry ogre by many in CART and it was hard for fans to root for a series that is so reviled. Randy Bernard has since taken the reigns but that doesn't seem to matter. To make things worse, George also sanctioned the use of the Brickyard for the return of Formula One racing to the United States. The U.S. Grand Prix was run at the Brickyard from 2000 to 2007 and was for the most part a disaster. Instead of increasing interest in open wheel racing, the race actually hurt. In 2001 the U.S. Grand Prix was run only 3 weeks after the 9-11 attacks and many fans viewed this as folly. It was believed by many fans and media that the series should have shown more concern for the plight of those who suffered and cancelled the race although many teams did sport tributes on their helmets. Not surprisingly, the race drew little interest in the U.S. as people's minds were still with those being pulled from the rubble in New York City.

In 2002 Rubens Barichello was on his way to victory before he pulled over just before the finish line to let Michael Schumacher win which had many fans screaming blue murder and left many open wheel fans turned off the sport for good. Perhaps the worst betrayal of fans occurred in 2005 when it was clear the Michelin Tires wouldn't hold up in race conditions. Consequently, every car that used Michelin Tires pulled off the track before the start of the race on the advice of the Michelin Tire Company leaving only Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barichello and four cars from the 2 worst teams that used Bridgestone Tires to race. The race was naturally a farce and fans that paid big bucks for their tickets threw garbage on the track and booed vehemently as they witnessed the so called race. Fans were never refunded their money and the whole situation could have been avoided if F1 simply put a chicane on the fastest part of the track, which most teams deemed would have been acceptable, and allowed them to race. But again, not caring about the paying or viewing public, F1 refused to the concession and the result was expected. While Indy Car can't be blamed for the shenanigans of Formula 1 it still was an indication of how little all open wheel racing series cared about their fans.

The second reason for the disinterest is the lack of big names in IRL. The very forgettable names that won the Indy Racing League championship in the 1990s and early 2000s failed to inspire interest. Past champions like Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi or Rick Mears easily rolls off people's tongues but the same can't be said for names like Greg Ray, Buddy Lazier or even Dario Franchitti.

Sam Hornish Jr. won the title on 3 separate occasions but has been a relative bust since moving to NASCAR. The series had high hopes for a breakthrough in name recognition when Danica Patrick entered the series in 2005. Considered to be the first woman with a real shot at becoming a racing star Danica ran a tremendous race in the 2005 Indy 500 for Rahal-Letterman racing and was named rookie of the year. That result further inspired interest among those who believed that Danica could generate interest among women and young men who would see her as a modern day suffragette but she soon started finishing poorly and became a flash in the pan. To make matters worse she showed very un-ladylike tendencies on the track which turned off many women as well as men who no longer viewed her as eye candy. And in this year's qualifying run she blamed the setup of the car for her poor qualifying effort during an interview at the track which actually resulted in many fans booing her.

The one true big name in IRL, if there is any, is Helio Castroneves and it has nothing to do with his 3 Indy 500 victories but rather with his dancing abilities. A relative unknown outside of the racing world, the Brazilian entered the fifth season of Dancing with the Stars and partnered with Julianne Hough en route to victory. Castroneves not only won but showed himself to be happy, kind, suave and considerate. He was an instant success with the female crowd. The show generated far more interest in the general public than IRL racing ever did and there was a renewed interest in the series when Helio ran the Indy 500 the next year. Unfortunately, IRL has never used Helio as a spokesperson for the series and instead has focused on Danica to their detriment.

The third and possibly biggest reason for the lack of interest is the inequality in the cars. Fans of any racing series generally like variety and competitiveness. It is a prime reason why NASCAR is so popular in the United States as almost any car can win in any given week and passing occurs throughout the race. While it?s true that Jimmie Johnson won four consecutive series championships, he still loses more races than he wins and in any given year more than 15 different drivers will usually win a Sprint Cup series race. The same can't be said for Indy Car. Instead it has become the Penske and Ganassi show. Since the series unified in 2008 there have been a total of 39 races run in IRL and 31 of those were won by either a Penske or Chip Ganassi car. To make things worse, of those 8 wins, 2 came on ovals. Tony Kanaan won a race for Andretti-Green Racing at Richmond and Danica Patrick won a race for the same team in Japan. Danica was able to conserve enough fuel to just make it past the finish line in that race, although had she been on the same strategy as others, that race would have been won by a Penske car. Even on the road courses 3 of the 6 wins by non Penske or Chip Ganassi teams came about because of terrible weather conditions which forced the better cars to crash.

Not surprisingly, this lack of competitiveness is a turn off to fans that prefer to see new blood once in a while but it's also a turn off to bettors. NASCAR betting is gaining popularity both in Las Vegas and offshore and some bookmakers claim it is one of their largest non NFL or NCAA sports in terms of volume. Formula 1 makes no bones that betting on its sport is paramount to its success and NASCAR, unlike other U.S. sports, has never come out and criticized betting on its sport. While it never sanctioned it either, NASCAR seems willing to accept anything that will generate revenue and for a time permitted offshore betting sites on the cars. IRL odds are generally available also, but betting on the sport has been anything but swift. Interviews in the past with Las Vegas and offshore bookmakers attribute this to the lack of big prices in the sport. The reason golf, tennis (to a smaller degree) and NASCAR generates interest is because bettors realize that in any given week a contestant upwards of 50-1 could win giving them a huge return for a small bet. Similarly, matchups are always unpredictable because the best cars often crash or simply lose speed as the race goes on. But when 2 teams win 80% of the last 3 years worth of races (and over 90% on ovals) it hardly generates excitement among bettors. The odds for this year's Indy 500 is indication of that as the top 5 drivers for those teams (Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Ryan Briscoe and Will Power) are all listed at 6-1 odds or less. The next driver is listed at 20-1. Naturally the smart money will be on the 5 drivers but what interest does that present to the casual fan and bettor who wants a larger return on their bet? One can't fault Penske or Ganassi for the fact that their technology is so much better than the other teams, but it also doesn't help that no one from those teams is bringing in fan interest either.

One move that might help Indy Car is a partnership with NASCAR. There are rumors that in an attempt to generate more interest in the Indy series, Speedway Motorsports Inc. (Charlotte Motor Speedway) boss Bruton Smith has been in negotiations with Indy Car boss Randy Bernard that will offer a $20 million bonus to any driver that can win the Indy 500 and Coca Cola 600 in the same day. The plan is to move the time of the Indy 500 ahead and the Coca Cola 600 back to allow drivers a chance to get to both tracks on the same day. Indy Car drivers will be allowed to attempt the Coca Cola 600 and visa versa. While its hard to see any Indy Car driver winning the Coca Cola 600, it isn?t inconceivable that someone like Juan Montoya, Tony Stewart or even Kyle Busch couldn't win both if they are given good cars. The hope is that if both series work together it will generate more interest in motor racing in the U.S. as a whole and also with that type of money at stake may entice more international drivers to the Indy Series. In fact, the likelihood of a driver winning both races is so small that some are suggesting insurance companies may pony up to $50 million for the double. It may not make a difference but at least the series are starting to think outside the box.

Indy Car racing may indeed return to its glory years at some point, but right now interest in the Indy 500 remains low.

Hartley Henderson

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