Monday, May 26, 2008

The first Indianapolis 500 in years to feature a unified field of drivers won’t go down as the most compelling in Brickyard history, but it did at least offer something upon which the Indy Racing League can build.

There was a victory by Scott Dixon, arguably the most skilled driver in the league, and solid showings from several drivers who came over from the former ChampCar series.

Heading into Indianapolis, indications were that the IRL was getting healthier every day: sharply higher television ratings, improved interest from sponsors, increased merchandise sales and noticeable buzz about the 500 again.

The trend definitely is upward, but the IRL still must keep working to bring open-wheel racing back to its former place of dominance in the sports landscape.

Here are a few steps the league should take next to stay on the right track back to the top:

Be diligent with Danica — The IRL should make no apologies for riding the wave of “Danicamania,” especially after Danica Patrick pulled through with her first victory last month in Japan.

Still, the league must be careful.

There is strong reason to believe Patrick will be a successful driver on the IndyCar circuit for many years, but along with her good results will come days like yesterday, when she was knocked out by an accident that wasn’t her fault. (Ryan Briscoe won’t be getting a Christmas card from her this year.)

The IRL must find ways to temper fans’ expectations for the success of Patrick. And it can’t be all Patrick all the time: The league also must promote the other positive aspects of the series — its high speeds, its technological advancements and a growing base of publicity-savvy drivers that includes Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti.

Improve the driving — With unification, there’s no doubt the quality of racing will improve as the season progresses. Yesterday’s race was one of the most competitive in years, with 15 drivers finishing on the lead lap. But there also were a number of incidents both on the track and in the pits that made it seem like amateur hour at Indy.

Blame track conditions all you want, but some of those accidents were just plain boneheaded. NASCAR has its share of cautions, but most of the time they are the result of hard, aggressive racing instead of inexplicable mistakes.

Stop the exodus to NASCAR — Imagine if this year’s race had included both Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti. Hornish and Franchitti are off racing stock cars now, leaving the IRL without two of the most accomplished drivers in recent years.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier also are on the list of NASCAR drivers who began with success in open-wheel racing, and rumors suggest Castroneves is looking NASCAR’s way, too.

The IRL should be nervous — drivers of that quality aren’t easy to replace.

The lure of NASCAR is tough to contend with, but the IRL must find a way to make sure the best open-wheel drivers stay put. Even better, luring a top driver from NASCAR would be a big score.

Lock up with ABC and ESPN — The IRL’s current television contract with ABC and ESPN extends through the end of 2009. But the league has a small window in which it can negotiate exclusively with ABC and ESPN, which has televised the series since 1996.

There might be a temptation to “auction off” the rights to the series to the highest bidder, but executives should do whatever they can to keep the status quo.

ABC likely will pay a premium to continue televising the Indy 500. ABC and ESPN have shown they are capable of producing great broadcasts and promoting the series effectively, while introducing and expanding its new digital platforms. And let’s face it: Any sport that steps away from ESPN does so at its own peril.

Nail down a title sponsor — IRL executives said that more than 20 companies were in attendance at Indianapolis, with at least one eager to begin negotiations about a naming rights deal for the IndyCar Series.

Ideally, IRL should score a high-profile, forward-thinking company that shares the league’s traits of speed and technology. The IRL’s deal to make DirecTV a presenting sponsor at the beginning of this year was a great start.

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