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DATE News (chronologically)
04/06/08
irl
Can a unified series rise to be No. 1?
Tony Kanaan was signing autographs in the paddock of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Friday afternoon when a fan thrust a picture of a red-and-yellow McDonald's-sponsored race car into his hand. He balked.

"I ran the McDonald's car back in '99 (in Champ Car). And I said, 'That's not me, it's Justin (Wilson),' " Kanaan said. "And I looked and actually it was my hero card from 1999 and the guy said to me, 'This is the first time I'm watching you race since the split.' So I think we've added some people, which is great. Finally, we added everybody together."

Once fractured and feeble, open-wheel racing is buffing out the bumps these days after Champ Car dissolved and five of its teams, three of its races — and likely more soon — have been blended into the once-rival Indy Racing League. So now what? The ambitious long-term goal for owners and drivers is to recoup the luster and the relevance surrendered to NASCAR after 29 years of in-fighting. The split as an alibi is gone. But shorter term, perhaps it's wiser for the sport to aspire to being the first IRL, not the second NASCAR.

"This will be no magic bullet," said Kevin Kalkhoven, Champ Car's former co-owner.

There is encouraging news for the IRL. Reunification has eliminated confusion and competition among fans. Television ratings are rising. Wary corporations pondering sponsorship are listening, and the IRL landed two valuable benefactors last week.

Driver Danica Patrick is one of the most-known commodities in sports, and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves leveraged his Dancing With the Stars championship to pitch the sport to 20-million potential fans a week on national television.

But NASCAR is laps ahead. Stock cars powered through the wreckage of open-wheel dysfunction, taking advantage of the big one — many say, Tony George's formation of the Indy Racing League in 1994 — to become the undisputed leading motorsports series in the nation.

NASCAR's self-estimated 75-million fan base is difficult to refute or prove. But it dwarfs the 36-million the IRL claims. Though NASCAR's plateauing television numbers were of concern last season, ratings are up five percent, as an average of 7.7-million tune in each week. The IRL's opener March, 29th at Homestead-Miami Speedway was its best on an ESPN outlet in three years, at 815,070 households.

Dario Franchitti earned $4,017,583 in purses last season by winning the IndyCar title and four races, including the Indianapolis 500. That's about a Mercedes S Class less than Elliott Sadler made for a winless season and 25th place in Sprint Cup points. Series champion Jimmie Johnson? $15,313,920.

But the IRL still has "the biggest race in the world, no matter what people say," said team owner Roger Penske, and that's a start.

"With that kind of a foundation, we should be able to bring open-wheel racing back," said Penske, who has won a record 14 Indy 500s and claimed his first Daytona 500 in February. "Is it ever going to be what NASCAR is? NASCAR had good leadership so many years, 35-36 races a year. To me it's a different type of racing, so I don't think you can compare it."

Fan base

NASCAR, 75-million

IndyCar, 36-million


TV audience

NASCAR, 7.7-million

Indy, Under 1-million


Series champion earnings

NASCAR, $15-million

Indy, $4-million


Number of races

NASCAR, 38

IndyCar, 18

TV audience

NASCAR, 7.7-million

Indy, Under 1-million

Series champion earnings

NASCAR, $15-million

Indy, $4-million

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