- Associated Press - Thursday, May 24, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - James Hinchcliffe can’t understand it.

In this sports-crazed nation, there are skilled athletes who willingly get behind the wheel of exotic-looking race cars and risk their lives at more than 200 mph, yet the interest level in what they’re doing 364 days out of the year can be measured on a scale that starts at Zero, goes up to Negligible and roughly peaks out at Where’s Danica.

IndyCar is the best-kept secret in sports,” Hinchcliffe moaned Thursday from the infield at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It’s infuriating.”

For a few hours Sunday, he and 32 other drivers will get a sense of what it’s like to be part of an actual, big-time sport. The stands will be (mostly) filled with real, live people, hundreds of thousands of them, in fact. The television ratings will be measured in whole numbers instead of fractions. And the one who crosses the line first at the Indy 500 will get a bit of the Kardashian treatment _ or at least hear his or her name uttered on SportsCenter.

Then comes Monday, when IndyCar racing slinks back to a not-so-appealing club, the one it shares with other fading sports genres. The America’s Cup. Baseball’s All-Star game. The Penn Relays. Heavyweight title fights. The Cotton Bowl. You know, games and events that fans once paid attention to, but are now on a path carved out by the dodo bird.

“If people would just come to a race,” pleaded Hinchcliffe, who might very well be on his way to stardom if only he could dribble a basketball or throw a football as well as he drives a high-powered machine. “It’s such a cool product.”

To be truly cool, there’s got to be some people who care. (Sit down, gearheads, we’re not talking to you.) For IndyCar to regain anything resembling the gravitas it had during that glorious era when icons such as A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti reigned over the Brickyard, there must be some serious changes.

So, we went to the ones who have more of a vested interest than anyone else _ the drivers themselves. All 33 of them were available for a couple of hours Thursday, the perfect time to get their take on curing the ills of IndyCar before the sport flat-lines altogether.

The ideas ranged from pie-in-the-sky (several suggested putting all the races on national TV, which IndyCar would surely agree to if there was a major network that actually thought it would attract more viewers than poker) to those who feel better merchandising is the key (“I want to go in Toys `R’ Us and be able to buy a toy Indy car,” rookie driver Josef Newgarten said.)

We took the best of what was offered and threw in a proposal of our own, all with the idea of turning IndyCar into a major player instead of just a niche:

_Speed, speed, speed.

This one seems the most obvious, but the latest generation of cars introduced this year are plodding around the 2 1/2-mile oval at slightly slower speeds than the clunky relics they replaced. While NASCAR has always been about rubbin’ and racin’, Indy was built on going faster than ever before. With an increased emphasis on safety, series officials began applying the brakes when qualifying speeds crept into 235-mph range. Well, it’s time to give `em the gas again. “More speed. That’s all we need,” Townsend Bell said. “You can’t do anything else until you improve the product.” Besides, even with the horrific accident that killed last year’s Indy 500 winner, Dan Wheldon, the cars and tracks are safer than they’ve ever been. As Bell put it, “It’s important that we don’t confuse safe with being as safe as possible. This is not a safe sport.”

_Take the gloves off, or at least the muzzles.

While no sports league tolerates open criticism of its officials, IndyCar would be well served to give its drivers a little more leeway with their lips. There’s some intriguing personalities in the garage, from the social media-savvy Hinchcliffe to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves (yes, he’s won something beyond a televised dance competition). Let’s hear what these guys have to say, really have to say, even if does leave some bigwigs a bit red in the face. “The racing part of the show tends to appeal to someone who already likes racing,” Ryan Hunter-Reay said. “If we’re going to bring in new fans, we’ve got to let the personalities show.”

_See you next week at this same time.

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