Indy 500 banks on women, Andrettis in seeking lost luster SPORTSWATCH: Indy 500 Banks On Women, Andrettis In Seeking Lost Luster
DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
By Shawn Langlois
SAN FRANCISCO (Dow Jones) -- A crooning Jim Nabors will be missing due an illness, but the celebratory milk-stache will still conclude one of the world's biggest sporting events this weekend, with millions of race fans across the globe tuning in for the running of the 91st Indianapolis 500.
But the rich traditions and notable storylines swirling around the Brickyard, a.k.a. the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, this year will only serve to mask the reality of a race that's struggling mightily to maintain its fan base and keep its followers from fleeing to NASCAR.
"Scalpers used to command hundreds of dollars for these tickets," said Mark Cipolloni, president of industry Web site AutoRacing1.com. "Now they're out there offering $10, and we could still see some empty bleachers." The race is set for Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern.
The blame, he says, falls squarely on those running the show.
The biggest blow came in 1994, when Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, created the Indy Racing League. He split from the now-bankrupt CART racing circuit, effectively diluting the talent across both racing series.
The industry hasn't been the same since, and some say it never will until the two organizations, the other now known as Champ Car, reunite.
The Indianapolis 500 may still hold the title of the world's biggest auto-racing event -- the race is expected to be televised in more than 200 countries and to 440 million households. But it certainly isn't tops in the U.S., where NASCAR, with its good-old-boy image, heartland appeal and seemingly accessible superstars has grown to dominate.
It's not just the fans that are leaving, either. The beer-gut glitz of NASCAR, with the allure of considerably more money and fame, is drawing most of the young American driving talent away, leaving what Cipolloni called "fillers" in this year's Indy 500 field.
"NASCAR has a firm grip on motor sports; it's almost a monopoly here in America," he said.
Bringing the two racing series back together, however, would go a long way in restoring some of the Indy 500's glory. "But until then," Cipolloni added, "the 500, and open-wheel racing in this country, are a mere shadow of what they once were."
And that's reflected in 500's evaporating TV ratings.
Most of NASCAR's events throughout the course of the year now draw higher Nielsen numbers in U.S. households than the crown jewel of the Indy circuit. In fact, NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600, airing the same day as the 500, drew more viewers in 2006.
The primary difference between the two racing circuits is in the car itself. Indy cars, faster and higher up the technology food chain, are known as open-wheel cars, meaning the vehicle's body doesn't enclose the wheel. NASCAR's stock cars, on the other hand, are souped-up road models that might look like the Chevy you drove in high school.
Aside from the well-publicized Indy circuit's shortcomings, the quarter of a million-plus attendees on hand this Sunday will be treated to more than the milk-quaffing in the winner's circle. This year's field, in many ways, is unlike any other in the race's near-century old history.
For the first time, three female drivers will buckle in and vie for the Borg-Warner trophy, which has been presented to the winner after every race dating back to 1936.
Danica Patrick, at the spry age of 25, is the most high profile of the trio. She finished fourth in the 33-car field in 2005 after being the first woman to ever hold the lead, earning Rookie of the Year honors in the process.
She was also credited for a welcomed TV-ratings spike and advertising boost that year.
But Patrick's star faded for the remainder of 2005, as she finished 12th in the Indy series point standings. She took the eighth spot in the 2006 Indy 500, finishing 9th overall in the circuit standings, and some began to question whether she could truly compete with the big boys over the long haul.
Patrick will start in the third row as the eighth highest qualifier this year, joined by race veteran of seven years, Sara Fisher, and Venezuelan rookie Milka Duno.
Only four women, including Fisher and Patrick, have ever competed in the race that traditionally began with the call "Gentlemen, start your engines."
Despite its waning popularity, the Indy 500, while not in a league with the Super Bowl or World Cup in terms of gambling action, is benefiting from Patrick's good looks and media savvy, a spokesman for online gaming Web site Bodog.com said.
"Though NASCAR seems to be the dominant league for motorsports within North America, considering our international presence, the Indy 500 and F1, which both have a huge European fan base, are immensely popular as well," he explained.
Patrick is a 25 to 1 underdog, according to UK-based bookmaker Ladbrokes, while a dollar bet on Fisher would return $300 if the longshot were to be the first to cross the finish line.
British drive Dan Wheldon is the overall favorite at 11-to-4 odds.
Defending champ Sam Hornish Jr. is also considered a leading contender after barely eking out a win in the 2006 race over Marco Andretti in the second closest, and one of the most memorable, finishes in the history of the Indy 500.
Andretti trio looks to end drought
It's been 37 years since an Andretti won the Indy 500, but it's not for lack of trying.
Mario's son Michael and grandson Marco have come close, especially last year when both fought to the finish. Yet, in the wake of the driving legend's victory in 1969, the Andretti clan has come up short in dozens of attempts at taking the trophy.
"This is one story that's really worth watching," Cipolloni said. "Seems like everybody really wants Michael Andretti to finally get his win here."
Michael, 44, came out of retirement last year only to finish third behind his son and Hornish Jr. This will be his 16th, and likely final, attempt at bringing home the BorgWarner. A win would mark a storybook to finish to a career marked mostly by misfortune at the Brickyard, which includes six top five showings and no victories.
Michael's cousin John Andretti, after spending 13 years in Nascar, will join the field in his first Indy 500 since the versatile driver made history in 1994, becoming the first driver to take part in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C. on the same day.
Mario Andretti, who last circled the track that same year, is the only driver ever to take home the ultimate prize in NASCAR, Indy and Formula One.
Aside from Patrick and the next generations of Andrettis, the Indy 500 clearly lacks the star power of those glory days when legendary drivers like the elder Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Emerson Fittipaldi became household names.
Ultimately, the emergence of contending female drivers and the legacy of the Andretti family should lend some much-needed drama to the weekend, but until the powers that be get on the same page, it looks like fewer and fewer fans will be around to enjoy it.