Sun, May 28, 2006 - Page 22 News List

Indy 500 is still popular

AUTO RACING The event retains a prominent spot in the sports calendar, but 10 years after the split in US open-wheel racing, which created the Indy Racing League and Champ Car, there's still a lot of work to do


Helio Castroneves of Brazil stands in front of his car as he awaits practice during Carburetion Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, the last time teams run on the track before today's Indianapolis 500.


Andretti. Unser. Penske. Rahal. The names look the same as they did back when the Indianapolis 500 was the main event of America's Memorial Day weekend.

"If it's a dead race, then why do all these people come back to try to win it?" says Brazilian driver Tony Kanaan.

Kanaan concedes there are still plenty of hurdles for American auto racing to overcome, and the solution goes well beyond simply reuniting with what is now known as the Champ Car circuit and undoing the fracture created in 1996.

"If it were me, I'd just say get them back together and everything's OK," Kanaan said. "But we all know it's not that simple. That's why they tell us to race, to not say anything, and to let the business people take care of the business part."

Ten years ago, Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George decided to form a new series, the Indy Racing League, which would feature oval racing -- no road courses -- and have a heavier emphasis on American drivers. He devoted 25 of 33 starting spots in the Indy 500 to drivers in his series. Drivers in the rival Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) responded by boycotting the race and running one of their own on the same day, in Michigan.

The rift was a disaster on almost every level -- public relations, ticket sales, the overall product -- to pretty much everyone except, say, Buddy Lazier, who won the 1996 Indy 500 as part of the least distinguished field in the history of the race.

Lazier, not surprisingly, defended George's move and said that, a decade later, open-wheel racing is better for it in many ways.

"The thing nobody remembers or talks about was that open-wheel racing at that time was a completely noncompetitive sport," said Lazier, a semi-regular open-wheel driver at the time of the split. "I remember looking around for sponsors and they all said, `No, because there's no excitement. We already know who's going to win.' I'd say these days, for all the good and bad that's happened in between, people realize there's no preordained outcome anymore."

While there remain dominant teams in the new IRL -- Roger Penske, Bobby Rahal, Chip Ganassi, Andretti-Green -- it's also true that there has been more exciting side-by-side racing and more fantastic finishes in open-wheel since the split.

In 2002, for instance, Helio Castroneves was declared the winner of the Indy 500 after a daylong review in which officials had to decide whether he pulled ahead of Paul Tracy when the yellow flag came out on the 199th lap. Yes, they were that close.

The personalities are getting better, too. Last year, Danica Patrick made a bid at becoming the first woman to win the Indy 500 before finishing fourth. It was, many felt, the true beginning of the resurgence of US open-wheel racing.

"The whole thing is getting stronger because we've got continuity," George said. "We used to have a lot of driver turnover. Some of the cars had a different driver in them every week. There are a lot of good stories and a lot of good, young drivers coming up.''

Other signs the IRL might be overcoming some obstacles include:

-- The disbanding of CART 2-1/2 years ago, to be replaced by the very similar Champ Car series, along with the defection of many top CART teams to the IRL, which has actually alienated some fans who believed the split was designed to level the playing field by eliminating the big-money teams.

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