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DATE News (chronologically)
04/17/08
IRL
TV Ratings up for first two IndyCar races
Since his son, Graham, punctuated the dawn of a new era in Indy car racing two weeks ago by becoming its youngest winner, Bobby Rahal has been asked incessantly about the future. There is, however, one question the car owner and former champion driver no longer needs to answer.

"For those of us in both Champ Car and the Indy Racing League, the first (question) in every interview for 13 years usually was, 'When are the two sides getting together?' " says Rahal, the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner.

His team competed in those two major open-wheel circuits, which warred from IRL's 1994 formation by Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George until unification Feb. 22.

The years of infighting, backbiting and bickering about managing the series wiped out teams, chased sponsors and sent a few rising stars scurrying to NASCAR. The splintered existence of the sport that turned Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt into household names was "a huge negative — and it's now gone," Rahal says. "All the talk is about going forward."

Yet the relatively smooth and amicable transition from IRL's absorption of Champ Car two months ago — on hold this weekend as a scheduling conflict forces the series apart for a final time — seems to have prompted new nagging questions:

•Was splitting into rival series in one of the most contentious and politically charged chapters in auto racing history worth the trouble?

•Why did it take 14 years to find common ground?

"The unification has developed so quickly over the last two races, there's a million positive story lines to follow now," says Eddie Cheever, the 1998 Indy 500 winner and former IRL team owner who now is an ESPN analyst.

TV ratings were up for the season's first two races, by 20% in the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway and 28% for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Grand Prix. Traffic to IRL's website also is soaring: The series says unique visitors to IndyCar.com have increased 90% in each month this year.

Major endorsement deals for IRL with DirecTV and Coca Cola were announced in the past month, and teams report renewed sponsorship interest from companies that once shied from funding the series because of the fissure.

Another boost came Wednesday when Graham Rahal appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, chatting with his father's partner in Rahal Letterman Racing.

The 19-year-old's April 6 victory in St. Petersburg for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, which had won the last four Champ Car titles with Sebastien Bourdais (who left for Formula One, another open-wheel series), proved the newcomers in the merged IRL could be competitive despite adapting to an unfamiliar chassis.

Five teams that had been in Champ Car and will be racing in IRL are fielding cars for nine drivers. Those teams have been brought up to speed by their IRL brethren, who have supplied free chassis, fuel cells and suspension parts. "It's like we've never been apart," says Larry Curry, team manager for Vision Racing, which delivered five used chassis to Champ Car transplants.  More at USA Today

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