In its heyday in the 1970s, the Indianapolis 500 was contested during the day but not shown on television until prime time, meaning racing fans spent Sunday afternoon strenuously avoiding a TV or radio, lest their enjoyment of the broadcast be ruined. And, man, was that broadcast enjoyable: Since there was no school the next day, Memorial Day, you could stay up to watch A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears battle all the way to the checkered flag, your regular bedtime be damned.
Today you can still watch Foyt and Mears rub tires over the holiday weekend, but you've got to do it in North Carolina. Larry Foyt (A.J.'s son) and Casey Mears (Rick's nephew) will race in the NASCAR Busch series in Charlotte this Saturday. As for the action at the Brickyard? Well, people will still avoid Sundays race results, but that's because they just don't care anymore.
In the past 10 years television ratings for the Indy 500 have dropped by nearly half, while viewership for NASCAR's marquee event, the Daytona 500, has steadily risen. In that time NASCAR has developed a galaxy of stars: Jeff Gordon pulls in some $10 million a year in endorsements; Dale Earnhardt Jr. has published a New York Times best-seller. Open-wheel hasn't produced a celebrity in decades. While overflow crowds attend most NASCAR races, the Indy 500 is the only tough ticket among the 25 CART and IRL races in the U.S. each year. "As NASCAR was getting its legs underneath it, open-wheel racing went into dismay," says driver John Andretti, who left CART for NASCAR in 1994.
The "dismay" Andretti is speaking of stems from the Great Schism of 1996, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway chairman Tony George broke from CART to start the rival IRL. The split makes an easy scapegoat, but blaming that alone is simplistic. The divide didn't have to be as damaging as it was. "There was room for both," says Andretti. "But the perception that was placed out there was that it created two lesser series."
That perception came largely from the organizations' sniping, but in fact it's not each other the open-wheelers should be keeping an eye on—it's the folks at NASCAR. Here are a few tips that could go a long way to getting the Indy cars back in gear.
The IRL races only on ovals, while CART is becoming, in the words of car owner Bobby Rahal, "a de facto road-racing series." To help strengthen each series' identity, CART should stick to the roads and only come onto the oval for the Indy 500.
Hype, hype, hype the split
A slew of top-rated CART drivers will be in Sunday's Indy 500, yet you wouldn't know it from watching ads for the race, which inanely focus on the grandeur of the event, not the guys driving in it. If NASCAR were handling the race, we'd be hit with commercials in which an IRL driver threatens to open a can of whup ass on any CART boy who tries to take over his turf. That's the kind of plot line fans respond to.
Promote the drivers
Open-wheelers cling to the quaint belief that they'll attract fans because the racing is more exciting than NASCAR's. The racing is better, but if no one cares who's driving the cars, no one's going to watch. All those NASCAR fans in Earnhardt Jr. shirts don't love the way his Chevy runs; they love the guy behind the wheel. Meanwhile, CART and IRL have never built an ad campaign around a driver. Why not consider CART's charismatic Kenny Brack, who won Indy in 1999 and is also a smoking guitar player?
Gentlemen, start your p.r. machines.