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On Friday afternoon, Terry Angstadt leaned back in his chair at Kansas Speedway, smiled, joked and laughed.

It’s Angstadt’s job, as president of the commercial development arm of the IndyCar series, to sell his open-wheel racing series. His target audience is corporate America and, through a trickle-down effect, race fans.

These days, Angstadt is relaxed. At one point, he folded his hands together, grinned and expressed his sentiments in four words:

“This is our time.”

For the first time since the mid-1990s, very good things are happening when it comes to North American open-wheel racing. Things are looking up at the tracks, in the media and in the Indy Racing League offices on 16th Street in Indianapolis.

And good things are happening where it may count most — in the minds of racing fans.

IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan made that discovery on the weekend of the season-opening race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He said the crowds were so large that he had to start building extra time into his trips to the bathroom because it was taking longer to get there.

Of a renewed spirit around IndyCar, Kanaan said: “I can feel it. There is something in the air.”

In 1995, there was only divisiveness and hatred in the air when it came to open-wheel racing.

Before that time, open-wheel had been the most popular form of racing in the United States, but it seemed intent on destroying itself.

It split into two series — the CART series and the Indy Racing League, or IndyCar Series — because the leaders had differing philosophies on just about everything.

The teams and some fans also divided themselves into two camps, cursing one another all the while.

Other fans showed their disgust by fleeing to NASCAR or Formula One or professional poker. And some didn’t go quietly.

“We were called traitors,” said Kanaan, who went the CART route. “I got hate mail.”

Over the 12 years that followed, some teams drifted back and forth between the series. From time to time, there was talk about a merger. A couple of times, deals to bring the series back together appeared to be within reach.

Nothing, however, got done until February, when George and Kevin Kalkhoven, the co-owner of Champ Car, announced an agreement to unify the two circuits.

Mike Griffin, the co-owner of the IndyCar Panther Racing team, was in his office in Indianapolis when he got the news. He remembers the first words that entered his head.

“It’s about time,” Griffin said. “We both were proving our point, but ruining the sport.”

The impact of unification was positive and immediate.

First to vanish was the confusion among fans created by having two series racing at two sets of tracks in two sets of cars. That confusion had been significant.

“People would ask me, ‘So, what series do you drive in? Do you race in the Indy 500?’ No, those are the other guys. ‘Oh, you race at Cleveland?’ No, that is the other guys,” Kanaan said of the time before unification. “Now, boom, we have one thing.”

Unification also has put more cars on the tracks. At Homestead, there were 20 cars on the starting grid in 2007. This year, after unification, 26 cars showed up and 25 raced.

That, too, is significant, Angstadt said.

“First and most obviously for IndyCar is 26 cars,” he said. “That means more sponsors, more people in grandstands and, hopefully, better TV ratings. Was TV up (at Homestead)? Yes.”

This year’s IndyCar races are being shown on ESPN and ABC.

Tag Garson is senior director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN/ABC. He cites unification for the good TV ratings of the Homestead race.

“The awareness of the sport is certainly increasing,” Garson said. More at Kansas City Star

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