Mystique is gone, leaving Indy as just another race
Around the track, they talk about good times from the past and even better times still ahead. The Indianapolis 500 is being run for the 91st time on Sunday, they remind you, and is as much of an institution now as it was when names like Foyt, Mears and Unser ruled the old brickyard.
A few miles away, another story is told at the Budget Inn and Fantasy Suites. There, rooms were still available this week for the Saturday night before the race for $119. Suites were a bit higher, and there was a $5 charge for having the phone turned on. It's not entirely fair, of course, to judge the Indy of today with the Indy of the past by the amount of vacant hotel rooms. And it may not be totally fair to judge it by declining television ratings in an era when sports ratings are down nearly everywhere.
Come race day there will be at least 250,000 fans in the stands and infield to watch the race unfold. The crowd itself is down from the glory days of the track, but a quarter of a million people is still a quarter of a million people.
Many will be die-hards who come every year, like the guy who sat shirtless in the bed of his pickup Friday on his way to practice, proudly showing off the large Indianapolis 500 logo stretched across his shoulders.
But there will also be empty seats, and plenty of them. Both tickets and hotel rooms were readily available in the days before the race, something unheard of when the Indy 500 meant something to almost everyone.
It doesn't anymore, for a variety of reasons that basically begin and end with greed. A bitter split between rival open wheel organizations has lasted more than a decade, and the factional fighting has taken a toll on America's most venerable race.
On Sunday the race will compete for the attention of race fans with NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 later that evening, where names like Dale Earnhardt. Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon trump the Indy starting front row of Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, and Dario Franchitti.
If this were the 1970s, it would have been no contest. But it's not, and even the best spin from drivers and owners can't change that.
"This place still has a following," Michael Andretti insisted. "It still has interest, and I don't think it's losing that."
Neither does IRL boss Tony George, who clings to the idea that creating his own series will eventually be the best thing that ever happened to open-car racing. He thought it would happen earlier but says he has no regrets over taking a path that has led the sport's premier American race into decline.
"Would I do it again? If the circumstances dictate, I wouldn't change anything," George said. "I'd do it again if the circumstances would dictate that."
George is nothing if not stubborn. He's held his course even as fans drifted away when the various teams took sides and the drivers in the Indianapolis 500 couldn't be identified without a program. More at AP article
[Editor's Note: We disagree that the Indy 500 is just another race. It may not be what it once was, but it still is the biggest attended race in the world, and as far as American races go, it by far gets the largest worldwide TV ratings. Every single F1 race gets ratings that dwarf anything America has to offer, NASCAR included, but that still does not mean Indy is just another race. As much as we have criticized Tony George for destroying open wheel racing in the USA by splitting the sport in two, Indy is still Indy and it always will be special. No other race in the world has held such great esteem for now 91 years. The oldest F1 race and NASCAR race are under 60 years old. With that said, Tony, you need to get the IRL and Champ Car under one umbrella, contrary to what those closest to you, those who are feeding at the trough, might tell you.]