'Not the same'
Fans believe race is not what is used to be
INDIANAPOLIS (CNNSI.com) -- Peggy Burkart looked out from behind the counter and slowly shook her head.
Her camper-turned-barbecue stand had a prime location -- right outside the main gate of Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- and there was nary a customer in sight.
'It's going to take me three months to pay back this debt,' said Burkart, who came to Indy hoping to cash in on the world's richest race.
Certainly, there was a greater sense of anticipation leading into this year's Indianapolis 500, which featured the return of Michael Andretti and Roger Penske.
But for those hoping to make a buck Friday -- with two days to go before the big race -- there was an air of desperation.
It's not the same ol' Memorial Day spectacle -- and it probably never will be.
'Before, it was good,' said a broker from Detroit, hawking tickets along Crawfordsville Road near the track. 'Now, you'd be lucky to make a few dollars out here.'
While many point to the 5-year-old split between CART and the upstart Indy Racing League, many issues have conspired to tarnish the luster of the 'Greatest Spectacle in Racing.'
There are now three major races at the speedway each year, instead of one. Indianapolis has grown into a big sports city in the last two decades, with plenty of diversions other than the 500. Stock car racing went national about the time open-wheel racing was fading in popularity.
The race that started in 1911 is now akin to network television, its audience diluted by lots of leisure activities.
'It's just not the same,' said speedway president Tony George, who founded the IRL in 1996 and has endured criticism ever since.
This is probably the most competitive 33-car field since the CART-IRL split -- largely because the older series cleared several weeks on its schedule to allow some of its regulars to return to Indy.
Andretti is racing here for the first time since 1995. Penske, the winningest car owner in Indy history, goes for his 11th victory with Gil de Ferran -- the defending CART champion -- and Helio Castroneves. Chip Ganassi, who actually broke the CART boycott a year ago, has four cars in the field, one of them driven by NASCAR star Tony Stewart.
Still, the crowds on the two qualifying weekends were hugely disappointing, perhaps a fifth of the turnout from the race's heyday in the late 1970s and early '80s.
Andretti believes the split accelerated a change in people's habits.
'People used to plan their vacations around Indianapolis,' he said. 'I don't know if we've gotten those people back. They go do other things. It's not part of their tradition like it used to be.'
There are plenty of hotel rooms available in a city that once put out a giant 'No Vacancy' sign in May. Empty grass fields have replaced the virtual camper cities that used to set up outside the track. The race is officially a 400,000-person sellout, but there's plenty of tickets available at face value.
Renny Harrison, owner of Circle City Tickets, hasn't noticed an increase in demand this year. In fact, he was selling some of his lesser seats at lower than face value.
'This year isn't a whole lot better than the past few years,' he said.
Marian Wilson, director of sales and marketing at the downtown Westin, said demand for rooms was down about 8 percent. The hotel was still charging a premium rate of $425 a day, but there was no longer a three-day minimum.
'A lot of it has to do with corporate sponsorship that comes in,' she said. 'Because of the economy changes, they don't send quite as many people as they normally do.'
Andretti noticed a change during the first qualifying weekend. He is hopeful that CART and IRL can work out their differences and get back together.
'Open-wheel racing in general lost out when the whole split happened,' he said. 'Half the people started watching IRL, half the people started watching CART. And when you have half the pie, that's what you're going to get.'
The popularity of open-wheel racing pales in comparison to NASCAR, which has even carved its own niche at Indy with the Brickyard 400.
The speedway also has built a road course through the infield, allowing it to hold a Formula One race in the fall. One hotel is charging nearly $2,800 for a four-night, two-ticket package to that event.
For some, there's a perception that the Indy 500 is merely the third-best race of the year, or at the very least a diluted product.
'I get confused,' said Burkart, still glancing around for potential customers as a steady drizzle tapped her trailer. 'What race are we doing? It could be that people are just confused about what race is going on. Who belongs to who?'
The Associated Press contributed to this report.