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INDIANAPOLIS - There have been whispers of concern over the viability of the IndyCar Series for some time, and the current economic doldrums have provided little comfort, but a fairy tale Indianapolis 500 on Sunday might have provided evidence that the pulse is stronger than previously thought.
A capacity crowd of more than a quarter of a million fans crushed into the grandstands of the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with another 100,000 likely scattered around the vast infield, and witnessed the third Indy 500 win by Helio Castroneves.
The popular Brazilian said he noticed the huge turnout right away, one of the many signs that the event tagged as "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" has possibly regained its luster.
"It is just incredible to see how many people are here," Castroneves said after his emotional victory.
"As I was coming to the track, I was asking a lot of people - I don't remember seeing this many people here, and so many stuck in traffic, and things like that. It's just incredible to see so many fans here."
As recently as a few years ago, large sections of empty stands at Indy stood out like open sores, while ticket and merchandise sales slumped and television ratings dropped. At the time, driver Adrian Fernandez saw all of those vacant seats while he drove on the pace lap of the Indy 500, and he commented afterward how sad it had made him.
"I remember it was a horrible feeling," Fernandez said.
Sunday's race, always the biggest on the IndyCar Series schedule, had all the necessary elements a healthy open-wheel racing community would like to see.
•Castroneves, fresh off his acquittal on federal tax evasion charges, gave the race a Hollywood script ending as he came back to take the lead in the final stages and then broke down numerous times in the emotionally charged post-race celebration.
•Fan favorite Danica Patrick was in contention for the win to the end and finished third, the best-ever at Indy by a female driver.
•There were no fisticuffs, but sparks flew after Marco Andretti blamed Mario Moraes for a first-lap crash that ruined another Andretti's dream of winning here. "That kid is in way over his head," the 22-year-old Andretti fumed about the 20-year-old Moraes.
•IndyCar got the full auto racing stage for the day, as the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 got rained out Sunday evening. There were numerous replays of Castroneves climbing the fence, drinking the milk, and shedding his tears of victory.
Dan Wheldon, the 2005 Indy 500 winner who finished second to Castroneves on Sunday, said a revitalized atmosphere was evident to him.
"I think the value of what this race means to everybody is primarily based on the number of fans, but also the history and tradition," Wheldon said. "There's no greater sporting event because of that. Primarily, it's the fans that make this race, and when you consider how many there were today - I haven't seen it this busy since I've been an IndyCar driver. I think that's a great kind of thing that's happening for the IndyCar Series."
Patrick, who is the sport's biggest star and the first woman to win a closed course event, said it was critical to see the showcase event of the IndyCar Series thrive, and she added that the popular and animated Castroneves, who likely brought a new contingent of fans into open-wheel racing when he won TV's Dancing with the Stars, was also a very important part of keeping the series healthy.
"The tradition and the history here are so important, and it means so much to have Indy maintain its status as such a huge attraction. It's just a beautiful event," she said. "It was a good day, and it's good to have Helio back. Obviously he's great for the sport, and I'm happy to have him around, but he's pretty tough to beat, though."
Castroneves, who was facing the potential of six years in prison in his recent trial, said his acquittal, followed by his victory in front of a huge crowd at Indy, made for a dream scenario.
"They keep saying that the Indy 500, it's coming back. And for me, to hear those words, it's just fantastic," Castroneves said. "And for me to just be sitting here, talking to everyone, is just amazing because this place is very special. I'm super-happy that it's coming back."
MEIRA UPDATE: Veteran
IndyCar Series driver Vitor Meira remains in an Indianapolis hospital after breaking two vertebrae in his lower back in a violent crash in Sunday's race. Meira, who was in his car earlier in the race when it caught fire in the pits, had his day ended late in the race when he made contact with rookie Raphael Matos.
After the impact, Meira's car stood on two wheels and slid a long distance along the outside wall. Meira, last year's runner-up who was racing in his eighth Indy 500, is not expected to require surgery, but track officials said doctors plan to fit him with a back brace. IndyCar Series officials also reported that Meira had full use of his extremities and showed no signs of any paralysis. He is expected to remain in the hospital for a couple days.
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