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DATE News (chronologically)
04/29/10
irl
IndyCar drivers missing that rock star appeal
The glory days of American open-wheel racing were the original reality TV, millions of viewers tuning in each week to see if Foyt could hold off the Unser boys, Sullivan could chase down Mears, Rutherford could best Johncock.

The action was compelling, the actors iconic.

"Those guys were like rock stars," Canadian IndyCar driver Paul Tracy said.

The stars are still there, just not as red-white-and-blue as they once were.

Since the retirement in the early 1990s of the great American open-wheel racers -- seemingly all at once -- IndyCar has become a not-from-round-here affair.

An influx of talented European and South American drivers, many of them practically covered in sponsors when they show up at the garages, has caused the Indy Racing League to lose the homegrown appeal it once had when A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser were bumping tires and trading titles.

Since 2001, the only American driver to win the IRL season title is Sam Hornish Jr., who won his third in 2006. He also was the last American to win the Indianapolis 500, the same year. But Hornish isn't around anymore; he bolted for NASCAR money three years ago.

Last season was the first time in 100 years an American failed to win an IndyCar race, and this year just two U.S.-born drivers have full-time rides: Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti.

Graham Rahal, who brings plenty of talent and great racing lineage, doesn't have a full-time gig. Ryan Hunter-Reay, a two-time IndyCar winner and arguably the best American driver, has spent the past seven years bouncing from one team to another. He's hooked on with IndyCar monster Andretti Autosport, but still doesn't have a full-season program and is driving with IRL series sponsor Izod on the side of his car.

Sarah Fisher has pieced together a nice team of her own, but not a full season yet, and Ed Carpenter, stepson of IRL founder Tony George, is rideless.

So when the 27 drivers hit the pavement at Kansas Speedway this weekend, five will be Americans, including John Andretti, a stock car driver brushing up for next month's Indy 500.

"We want the best drivers no matter where they come from, but I think being a domestic sport you need domestic partners and sponsors," George said. "Obviously, Americans have an affinity for American heroes and American talent."

There just isn't much of it out there right now.

Many of the top IndyCar drivers have left for the money and glamour of NASCAR in recent years, including Hornish, 1997 IRL champ Tony Stewart, A.J. Allmendinger and Robby Gordon. Patrick is racing a part-time NASCAR schedule this year, too.

The IRL is trying to develop talent.

Its new "Road To Indy" program offers a stepladder system for aspiring American drivers to get on a direct road to the IRL, and the series estimates there are 40,000-70,000 eligible go-cart drivers across the country.

They're just not ready yet.

The Indy Lights series, the IRL's training ground, is bereft of Americans; two of the 18 drivers at the Long Beach race on April 17 were from the U.S.

Andretti Autosport recently signed go-cart phenoms Sage Karam and Zach Veach, but they're not old enough to have a driver's license yet.

"To a certain extent, I don't think that there's anybody that has come up through the ranks that really stands out as being someone that is going to be the next star," Rahal said. "I'd love to see more Americans here, but at the end of the day, we've always found that there's been a lot of talent overseas that has given us a run for our money."

The war between CART/Champ Car and IndyCar didn't help the sport's popularity here. Even after unification in 2008, some fans still aren't aware all open-wheel races are under one umbrella.

Overseas, open-wheel racing is part of the culture. Soccer is king in most countries, but sports fans love the nuances of road racing and drivers come up on road courses, becoming more adept at it than Americans.

And because of the backing the sport has, foreign drivers are able to drum up financial support more easily, often arriving with sponsorship deals already in hand. With the recent downturn in the economy and the competition from other sports making sponsorship money harder to come by, it's not easy for owners to turn them away.

"The U.S. has always been different than other countries because we have so many other sports here: football, baseball, basketball," Mears said. "Sponsorship dollars are always being fought for and I think in Europe, motorsports has always been one of the dominant industries and it's easier for young drivers to get companies, corporations, sometimes even the countries, behind them, so they end up being able to generate the funds to come over and get the rides."

The TV package here hasn't helped IndyCar.

While open-wheel racing is shown on one of Brazil's top networks, 12 of the 17 IRL races this year are on Versus.

In its second season with the series, the network has done a nice job with its telecasts, but it only reaches about half the American households. Five of the races are on still on ABC, including the Indy 500, but that's not enough to persuade large corporations to part with their money.

"I think Versus is a great channel and I watch it, but it just doesn't have the audience it takes to generate the sponsorship dollars to run these cars. That's the bottom line," Tracy said. "When you walk into a boardroom and the first thing you say to a Fortune 500 company is 'Are you interested in sponsoring an IndyCar, it costs $7 million?' They ask the ratings and the network, and people have never heard of it."

It's not like the IRL is starless. Patrick has raised the series' profile with her crossover appeal, three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves appeared on "Dancing with the Stars" and two-time champ Dario Franchitti is married to actress Ashley Judd.

There just aren't many Americans -- and the IRL is working on it.

"I think we can do more here in America in our grass-roots program," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said. "We have to reach these kids in the carting world. We have to create a fan base early on so this is where they want to come."

In other words, get back to the glory days. TSN.ca

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