Tuesday, May 20, 2008

NEW YORK — At a crowded intersection inside Manhattan’s financial district yesterday, the 33 drivers who qualified for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 posed alongside the “charging bull,” the famed statue meant to symbolize prosperity.

It was a deliberate public relations event, but staged or not, the notion of being “bullish” on the Indy Racing League can’t be easily dismissed.

Sunday’s race — the 92nd in its history — has taken on an aura of importance not seen since the mid-1990s. For the first time in more than a decade, drivers will take to the track as members of a single, unified body representing American open-wheel racing. There have been weeks of mounting excitement over Danica Patrick, who last month became the first woman to win a major open-wheel auto race. And there is strong buzz about the potential for a higher level of competition at every track.

“It’s all been very positive, really,” said Penske driver Ryan Briscoe, who will start on the outside of the front row. “People are taking more interest in Indy cars now, and it’s great. I’ve certainly noticed a bit of a change.”

And it’s not just drivers’ impressions. Financial indicators for the Indy Racing League and its top-tier IndyCar Series are up nearly across the board. Television ratings, though still low compared to NASCAR, are up for most races, including nearly 1 million viewers — a 164 percent increase over last year — for the series’ April 27 race at Kansas Speedway. Merchandise sales have risen more than 50 percent, and a relaunched Web site is on pace to see traffic rise from 10 million to 15 million unique visitors this year.

Moreover, the league is receiving unprecedented interest from corporate America. IRL officials said they hope to have the first naming sponsor for the IndyCar Series as early as the end of this season. As many as 20 companies will be in Indianapolis this weekend, and at least one company has said it would like to begin serious negotiations about a naming rights deal immediately after the race, according to Terry Angstadt, president of the IRL’s commercial division.

Earlier this season, Firestone agreed to become the lead sponsor of the league’s developmental series, now known as Firestone Indy Lights, and Coca-Cola signed on to be a sponsor of the IndyCar Series. The league also is close to announcing a deal for an exclusive clothing sponsor.

“The biggest thing that I’ve seen is that the perception is so much clearer and so much more positive,” said John Lewis, IRL’s vice president of marketing and league development. “It’s a feeling of ‘Hey, there’s a lot going on over there. I want to be a part of this.’ ”

Of course, the season’s first few months have not come without growing pains. The unification process has required drivers from the former Champ Car World Series to battle a steep learning curve, particularly on oval tracks.

Former Champ Car driver Graham Rahal, the son of 1985 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, won the April 6 road race in St. Petersburg, Fla. But all other races have been dominated by veterans of the IndyCar Series, who boast far more experience on ovals. For the Indianapolis 500, no former Champ Car driver qualified better than 13th.

But at the very least, there are more drivers competing for spots on the track. For the first time in years, Sunday’s “bump” day at Indianapolis actually showed some drama, with veteran drivers Marty Roth and Buddy Lazier squeaking into the field in the last few moments over Roger Yasukawa and Max Papis.

“It’s going to get more competitive,” said Marco Andretti, who will start on the inside of Row 3. “The Champ Car guys don’t have a lot of oval experience, but by next year they’re going to be right on the pole.”

IRL also is a beneficiary of good timing. Danica Patrick, who already had grabbed attention in the offseason by posing in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, validated her Madison Avenue popularity by winning last month’s Japan 300, triggering a month’s worth of buzz heading into this weekend’s race.

“It’s timely,” Patrick said. “The win doesn’t affect me as a driver, but it affects the rest of it. It affects the business. It’s going to take time. You can’t just have something happen and have the world come to you. You have to use it to your advantage.”

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