- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

HOMESTEAD, Fla. | For seven years, the IndyCar series tried to woo fans to its season-opening race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Nothing worked. Half-empty stands were almost an annual guarantee.

“Our challenge has been putting a lot of people out there, quite frankly,” said Terry Angstadt, the president of IndyCar’s commercial division.

The answer, for the next two years anyway: move IRL’s second-biggest event (behind the Indianapolis 500) to the end of the season at Homestead and see what happens.

If it’s a significant auto racing series in North America, its champion is probably going to be crowned at that track in the next six weeks. NASCAR seasons have ended at Homestead since 2002, and IRL will contest its finale there for the first time Saturday with hopes of laying the groundwork for even bigger season-ending events down the line.

Officials have their fingers crossed.

“Two weeks ago, we’d already sold more tickets than we did for the previous season-opener,” track president Curtis Gray said. “We’re way ahead in advance sales. And as we do more with the championship, working with the IRL and their sponsors, this is an event that can continue to grow and end the season the way a championship event should.”

The Indy Lights starts it off by ending its season Friday at Homestead, with the Grand Am finale taking place Saturday shortly before the IRL decides its champion from among Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe. The three are separated by eight points heading into the Indy 300. NASCAR’s championship weekend - for trucks, Nationwide and Sprint Cup - arrives in late November.

“Homestead is pretty well-known already for the NASCAR finale, so it’s a huge thing for us,” said IRL driver Tony Kanaan, who lives in Miami. “There’s a buzz now. You can feel it. I don’t want to get my hopes up and think it’s going to be a huge success right away, but we’re building it like NASCAR did here. And no disrespect to any other track, but this is the best place to finish a season.”

Dixon, the points leader and defending IRL champion, acknowledged that moving Homestead from first to last on the schedule was “quite strange,” though not necessarily in a bad way.

“I think it’s a perfect scenario,” he said. “It’s Florida. It’s Miami in October. It’s hot. Obviously it’s going to be a twilight race, which is even better. The cars look fantastic under the lights. The track always provides great racing. … I think it’s more of a team effort for whoever wins at Homestead. So I think there are lots of positives for it.”

Surrounded by farmland about 45 minutes south of downtown Miami, the city of Homestead couldn’t agree more. Homestead is probably best known for two things: deadly Hurricane Andrew, which ripped the city to shreds in 1992, and its status as the place where Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth hoisted NASCAR championship trophies.

More sets of racing eyes will be on the city this fall than ever before.

“It’s huge for the city of Homestead,” mayor Lynda Bell said. “It says many things: great track, great city, great place to come and race. It’s a place that just oozes success as far as the racing industry. And it’s huge in its economic impact for all of southeast Florida, not just the city of Homestead.”

Starting the IRL season at Homestead was always a challenge. Even though the series has a slew of internationally known drivers - always a plus in multicultural South Florida - it was viewed as just another event in star-powered Miami, often drawing a schedule slot that pitted it against Tiger Woods golfing at Doral, Roger Federer playing tennis on Key Biscayne or both.

In other words, it almost seemed like an afterthought. Angstadt said he believes those days are done.

“We really had kind of our moments trying to figure out the best fit for Homestead,” Angstadt said. “I don’t think any of us, either side, felt kicking off the season worked out for the best. And when we really analyzed all the available venues for a championship, this kind of became it.”

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