Open-wheel racing staggers to survive

Corrections
<b>CORRECTION - 2/23/08</b><br> It was incorrectly reported in Jeff Wolf's motor sports column Friday that Marco Andretti had not won an Indy Racing League title. Andretti won the 2006 race at Infineon Raceway near San Francisco.

The Indy Racing League distributed a news release last week touting Danica Patrick, one of its few remaining stars, as a nominee for favorite female athlete in the annual Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards.

A great vehicle for the IRL to garner wholesome interest from a new generation of fans.

The next day, another IRL release arrived detailing the winless Patrick's four-page pictorial in this month's Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

After studying her seminude spread, she's a lock to dominate the 12-16 age group for boys during online balloting at Nickelodeon.com.

Patrick, 25, has a penchant to showcase her chassis -- she did it in a 2003 edition of FHM and teased Super Bowl viewers in a commercial a few weeks ago.

Though a talented driver, she degrades female racers who rely only on how they successfully handle racetrack curves to get publicity.

This is how desperate the IRL is to get noticed. It hasn't received this much exposure since two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves won "Dancing With the Stars" last year.

There has been little else for the 12-year-old, upstart open-wheel series to promote.

That could change today.

Finally, IRL founder/owner Tony George will have reason to get goose bumps other than when he looks at a partially nude Patrick or Castroneves' dance partner.

The rival Champ Car World Series -- formerly CART -- is warming up to wave a white flag, and it won't be to signify the last lap of a race. The race with the IRL is over; Champ Car has crashed and burned.

Champ Car might opt for a red flag because it best would reflect the color of ink that proliferates its financial ledgers. Its billionaire owners have surrendered to George, whose family owns and operates Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Champ Car is expected to file for bankruptcy or sell whatever it has of value. Only a few of its teams will move to the IRL this season, because each series uses a different chassis manufacturer and type of engine.

At best, the IRL will pick up four of Champ Car's 14 scheduled events. At least there's no panic around Las Vegas because the series' demise came after the one-and-done Vegas Grand Prix folded a few months after 2007's inaugural event downtown.

Don't be mistaken that the IRL is anywhere near recovering its fans. Neither series was going to start this year with many notable drivers.

Champ Car's Sebastien Bourdais, its best-known driver, left the series at the end of last season after winning his fourth title to race in Formula One.

The IRL is without reigning Indy 500 and series champion Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., who is a three-time IRL champion and former 500 winner. They have defected to NASCAR.

Name a driver in the IRL other than Castroneves and Patrick. Yeah, there's Marco Andretti, but the 20-year-old son of former Indy star Michael Andretti and grandson of legend Mario Andretti also hasn't won.

For 12 years, the two series have battled to near extinction and split open-wheel's fan base or chased them to NASCAR.

About 20 years ago, open-wheel was king of American racing. That's hard to fathom today with NASCAR dominating the sport, and it could be argued today that NHRA professional drag racing is more popular than the IndyCar circuit.

It will take more than a year for IRL to salvage IndyCar racing, and it can start by selling the merits of its faster cars and shorter races instead of using its sex kitten to sell the series.

Finally, America will have one major open-wheel series for IndyCar fans to rally behind. It's about time, but it is too late to recover the luster lost over the past two decades.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.

 

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