- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS — Can this be the Indianapolis 500?

Just two days before the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” a call to the ticket office provides plenty of options. “We have tickets in the North Vista, South Vista and along the backstretch in the Northeast Vista,” a cheery voice replies. “We also have a few scattered along the main straightaway.”

Quite a change from the glory days in the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s. Back then, some fans would head to the ticket windows as soon as the race was over, plopping down money right away to ensure they got the same seats the following year.

Tickets were passed down in wills. Divorces got especially ugly when it came time to decide who got the Indy 500 seats. Scalpers made more in the month of May than they did the rest of the year.

Now, after nearly a decade of wrenching changes, Indy faced the very real possibility that its sleek, open-wheel cars will be racing in front of a bunch of empty seats today.

“It’s obvious that we’re not what we were in the ‘70s,” said Tony George, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and founder of the Indy Racing League. “Why aren’t we? I don’t think anyone has the answer to that. I don’t.”

Actually, there’s plenty of theories as to why the Indy 500 lost its place as one of the most anticipated events on the sporting calendar. The ugly split in open-wheel racing. The rise of NASCAR. A watering down of the 500’s mystique when the speedway added two other major events. More entertainment options in general.

George, in fact, insists he’s not at all surprised by the reduced demand for 500 tickets and the perception that the race has lost its luster.

“We used to have one event that sold out,” he said. “We expected that to change when we expanded to include Formula One and NASCAR. We really haven’t been hit by any surprises.”

The 500 is hardly on the verge of going out of business.

Sellout or not, a crowd of more than 250,000 is expected — still the most-attended one-day sporting event in the world. There’s plenty of people who will gather in front of their TV sets because it’s Indy, even if they don’t have any idea who Buddy Rice is (He’s the pole-sitter).

“I don’t go back to the ‘60s or ‘70s. I’ve only been around the last five years,” said Loren Matthews, senior vice president of programming for ABC Sports, which will televise the race for the 40th consecutive year. “But I’m blown away by it. If this wasn’t what it used to be, then it boggles my mind what it used to be.”

Matthews believes those words — “Indy 500” — still carry a special mystique. You may not know the difference between a spoiler and a sidepod, but you’ve heard of this race.

“It’s like the Kentucky Derby in horse racing,” Matthews said. “You don’t have to be a horse-racing fan to watch the Kentucky Derby. You don’t have to be a motor-racing fan to watch the Indy 500. We’ve just got to get more of them to watch.”

Indeed.

Aside from the potential for empty seats, the most compelling evidence of Indy’s decline is in the TV ratings. The audience for last year’s race was less than half of what it was in 1995 — the final year before open-wheel racing was torn apart by the CART-IRL feud.

NASCAR stepped into the void, claiming the top spot on the podium of American motorsports. CART was driven out of business, while the IRL is nothing more than a niche player — closer to sports cars than stock cars in terms of TV ratings.

Even Morgan Freeman, the Oscar-nominated actor who will drive the pace car at Indy, admitted he’s a NASCAR fan first. That’s obvious — while talking about his friendship with actress Ashley Judd, he kept calling her husband “Darius” (It’s Dario, as in Franchitti, a front-row starter in today’s race).

Another Indy tradition that seems on the verge of fading away is “Bump Day.” A week before the race, a second round of qualifications is held in which drivers have a chance to bump others out of the 33-car field.

The unique format used to provide some of the most compelling story lines of the month. Defending series champion Bobby Rahal got knocked out of the race in 1993. Two years later, Roger Penske’s powerful team couldn’t get a car in the field, forcing Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi to watch the race from home.

“To this day, I gleefully tell my son about how I bumped Bobby Rahal out of the Indy 500,” said Eddie Cheever Jr., now an IRL car owner. “Bump Day is a very important part of this race.”

No such suspense these days. For the second year in a row, no one got bumped out of the race. It took some last-minute dealing just to get enough cars to fill the 33-car field.

“I know the car count wasn’t very huge and the driver count on top of that wasn’t very huge,” NASCAR star Ryan Newman said from afar.

If he had been born 20 years earlier, Newman probably would have spent Memorial Day weekend at the Brickyard. He’s an Indiana native who started out driving sprint cars, which used to be the entree into Indy racing. Instead, he steered his career away from open-wheel racing, choosing the money and prestige of NASCAR.

Newman isn’t alone. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart also grew up in Indiana, dreaming of the day when they might sip milk in Victory Lane. They wound up migrating to NASCAR. Casey Mears and John Andretti come from families that are synonymous with the Brickyard. They, too, wound up driving stock cars.

“Yeah, I still think about Indy,” said Andretti, who last raced in the 500 a decade ago. “The IRL has done a good job in a short amount of time to build the series into what it is. Obviously, they have a good foundation with the 500. But I don’t think any racing series will ever surpass the NASCAR locomotive.”

George doesn’t seem concerned. If anything, he appears to have accepted that the Indy 500 will never be the event it once was.

Those days are over. Get used to it.

“Things change, times change,” the speedway owner said. “We don’t have any regrets.”

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