BROOKLYN, Mich. - The taped message you hear on the telephone while on hold at Michigan International Speedway promotes next month's Michigan 500 by recounting last year's race.
It says, in part: “Last year's classic was called by many the greatest race in open-wheel history.”
Not only is that not an exaggeration, but the same also might be said for the Michigan 500 in 1999 and 1998.
There were a record 62 lead changes in 1998, 52 last year and 29 in 1999. Those rank first, third and sixth, respectively, not only in CART history, but in all-time open-wheel racing dating back to 1909.
Four of the top six closest finishes in open-wheel history were recorded at MIS, including Tony Kanaan's 0.032-second triumph over Juan Montoya in 1999 and Montoya's win by 0.040 of a second over Michael Andretti last year. Those ranked second and third, respectively, all-time.
It's a self-made endorsement that every race track would love to embrace, but after this year's Michigan 500 on July 22, it won't matter.
CART is leaving MIS - to be replaced by the Indy Racing League starting next season. A joint announcement by the two sanctioning bodies is expected to be made this afternoon.
CART's sanctioning fee for this year's race is reported to be $2.5 million. The IRL probably will charge between $750,000 and $1 million upon its arrival here next year.
But this goes far beyond sanctioning fees.
MIS is not responsible for the change, because it is owned by International Speedway Corp. (ISC), which makes the decisions.
And to hold ISC totally responsible for the change also isn't entirely proper, because it sees CART becoming an almost exclusive road-course series. MIS will be the fourth oval track CART has lost this year. The others are Rio de Janeiro, where the local promoter backed out; Homestead, Fla., and Texas Motor Speedway, where CART was scheduled to run last April, but discovered its machinery was too fast for the circuit.
To get an open-wheel series on its oval tracks - which are otherwise dominated by NASCAR - ISC has to align itself with the IRL, a series committed to oval tracks only.
New MIS president Brett Shelton, who was unavailable for comment the last two days, declined last weekend at the Detroit Grand Prix to confirm that the changeover from CART to the IRL is imminent.
“I don't think we've gone through complete due diligence,” he said. “I would say you definitely have to look at (CART's) strategies, and the direction each series is going. And this is not a one or two-year decision.
“This is going to be a 10-year decision, because we really are at somewhat of a crossroads. It's going to be a long-term strategy decision.”
MIS has typically drawn small crowds for its Michigan 500 CART race, averaging between 50,000 and 60,000 spectators. That's about 100,000 fewer than MIS draws for each of its two annual NASCAR Winston Cup races, which are always sold out.
The predicted attendance for next year's IRL race, with its shortage of well-known drivers, is expected to be much less than what CART attracted at MIS.
There has been talk in racing circles that the Michigan 500 could become part of a three-race Triple Crown series for the open-wheelers. The other two races would be the Indianapolis 500 and the California 500 at Fontana.
The fields would be made up of IRL and CART drivers, much as is the case now as more and more CART teams are returning to the Indianapolis 500, an IRL event. So far there has been no confirmation of the three-race package, at least in part because CART has not solidified its schedule and TV package for next season.
“What has happened is that Michigan is a badly promoted race, and after the U.S. 500 (held on the same weekend as the Indy 500 in 1996), it has gone downhill,” said CART co-founder and team owner Pat Patrick of nearby Jackson, Mich. “In my opinion they do not spend enough money to promote the race. In their defense, they don't have a good TV package, attendance is falling everywhere in the country in open-wheel racing, and the sport has changed as everything else has changed recently.
“I'm not sure the attraction to open-wheel racing is as great as it used to be. The reason is that since Tony (George, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president) started the IRL, it has caused a schism between the two groups.
“There are so many things people can do with their entertainment dollar. To counter that, NASCAR is a sellout twice a year at MIS. In a way it's our fault. We haven't done a good job selling ourselves. I'm not sure the public really knows what we are because most people relate open-wheel racing with Indianapolis.”
Patrick said there are two ways to counter the current open-wheel-racing problems: First, get the two sanctioning bodies to join forces, and second, schedule venues “where people want to see us. When NASCAR goes to the same track that we do, we don't stand a chance.”
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