- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Once the biggest sporting event of the spring, the Indianapolis 500 — and the rest of open-wheel racing — has been left to eat the dust of NASCAR and other sports after a decade of competitive and public relations issues.

But drivers and race supporters say the increased interest over last year’s race — fueled largely by the emergence of Danica Patrick, the Indy Racing League’s top female driver — could carry over to this year, particularly with the return of popular veterans from the sport’s glory years.

After years of sagging interest, things shifted back in Indy’s favor last May with the arrival of Patrick, who finished fourth in the Indy 500 on the way to winning rookie of the year honors. Television viewership jumped more than 58 percent, as the race recorded a 6.5 Nielsen rating, higher than nearly every other auto race of the year.

“Last year’s buzz was really exceptional,” said David Carter, a sports business consultant based in Los Angeles. “Rarely, anywhere in sports, do you see such a compelling and fresh story angle.”

Replicating that will be nearly impossible, especially since Patrick has had myriad car troubles and disappointing results in the last month. But much attention has turned to other Indy story lines, including the return of veterans Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti, who will race with his 18-year-old son, Marco. Arie Luyendyk Jr., the son of the 1990 race winner, also will make his Indy debut.

“I think we’re getting there, because we have good stories to tell right now,” Michael Andretti said. “What Danica has done has opened the door for people to see the other personalities that are here. I think it’s going to be a very interesting race.”

The story lines are refreshing for fans of the Indy 500, which was not even the top-rated auto race of the weekend between 2002 and 2004, finishing behind NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, which runs on the same day.

“This year, there’s definitely a lot of buzz about the race,” said Dan Wheldon, last year’s Indy 500 champion. “There’s a lot to talk about — probably too much to talk about, actually. There’s just a lot of spark to the race, and it’s going to be exciting for many reasons.”

The returns of Michael Andretti and Unser Jr. harken back to a better time for Indy, before the nasty industry dispute that led to the creation of two competing open-wheel racing leagues, the IRL and CART, now known as Champ Car. The split left racing fans angry and confused as most races, including the Indy 500, failed to showcase all of the sport’s best drivers.

“Unfortunately 10 years ago, the series took a big hit and it split and it went into two different series,” Patrick said. “I hate talking about it because it’s so confusing. People like things straightforward.”

Discussions about a merger of the two leagues are in the early stages, but the idea has support among most drivers.

“It would help big time,” said Scott Dixon, who has raced in both leagues and will start Sunday on the inside of Row 2. “It would settle a lot of the confusion. It’s just a shame it’s taken so long to maybe get back together.”

But others caution against thinking a merger would solve all the sport’s problems.

“I think it’s a lot of hot air myself,” said A.J. Foyt, a four-time winner of the Indy 500 and now a team owner. “The reason I say that, all your big teams, all your big drivers are over here at the present time. I can’t see where IRL would benefit by them coming together.”

Either way, analysts say the Indy 500 still has work to do to reclaim its once-solid place in the sports landscape.

“The Indy 500, while not a dormant sporting event by any means, has tremendous potential to reposition itself as a top-shelf sports property,” Carter said. “It will have to balance its rich history and tradition with what contemporary sports and racing fans want — namely, a must-see, must-attend event that blends sports with entertainment.”

ABC, which will broadcast Sunday’s race, is banking on big numbers, bringing in former Indy driver Scott Goodyear and NASCAR veteran Rusty Wallace to help man the broadcast booth. The race is the cornerstone of the network’s IRL coverage, which includes races on its sister cable network, ESPN, and new content online and on mobile phones.

But ABC and ESPN also know that NASCAR is now the king of motorsports. It signed on to be included in a new multi-billion contract with the stock car league last year.

“We’ve got to battle NASCAR,” Wallace said. “It’s huge, it’s big, and when you try to go up against them at the same start time and TV schedule, you’re killing yourself.”

Sponsors were perfectly content with last year’s race, however, earning $130 million from the exposure, according to Joyce Julius and Associates, an Ann Arbor, Mich., firm that analyzes the impact of sports sponsorships. Any figure more than $100 million is considered a strong success.

And drivers said that no matter what, the Indy 500 will remain a prestigious event in the world of auto racing.

“The Indy 500 will always be the Indy 500 no matter what,” Luyendyk Jr. said. “That in and of itself will keep the Indy 500 alive forever. There’s a different kind of person that likes Indy car racing. But I can tell you, anyone standing on turn one at the Indy 500 on the first lap will keep coming back.”

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