INDIANAPOLIS - When the Indianapolis 500 takes place in two weeks, it will be the official coming out party for open-wheel racing's newlywed odd couple. The Indy Racing League and the Champ Car series agreed earlier this year to end their 12-year split and unite under the banner of the IRL.
The marriage of financial necessity has been in effect through the first four races of the IndyCar Series schedule, but Indy is the place where most everyone will see the parties on common pavement for the first time. Former Indy 500 champion Bobby Rahal, who expects to have two cars in this year's race from his Rahal Letterman Racing Team Ethanol, said the open-wheel folks need to resuscitate the sport and create the same kind of appeal that NASCAR has with its fan base by utilizing a "huge amount of marketing."
"I think if you look at NASCAR, where would NASCAR have been had it not been for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, who couldn't spend enough money. And because of all the limitations they had on where they could market their products, racing became the outlet. The amount of effort and money and what have you was phenomenal."
Rahal said one of the keys to an open-wheel revival will be to promote the personalities, as NASCAR does. Young American drivers such as Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick, and Rahal's 19-year-old son, Graham, will have to be the faces of the IndyCar Series' future.
"That kind of effort is going to be needed here, whether it's done by the league itself or by the sponsors," the elder Rahal said.
"It needs to be promoted, and promoted heavily. There's a lot of very viable, great racing car drivers that have every right to be promoted as much as Graham, Marco, or Danica. But they have to be promoted. The series, the sponsors, have to promote the drivers for it to get back to the place that it once was and perhaps hopefully go beyond."
Rahal said having a great product is not enough. The newly unified IndyCar Series has always had great racing, according to Rahal, but that is only part of the formula for success.
"If the racing was the key, well, I don't know much better racing out there. But it's not. That's not the key," Rahal said. "It's the personalities and the individuals and the stories. NASCAR and sponsors have done a great job of promoting those kinds of things over the years. This series just has to do the same."
MEASURING UP: One of the hurdles John Andretti had to clear in order to try and qualify for his ninth Indianapolis 500 was the standard driver physical. Andretti, who was 30th in last year's Indy 500 but spent most of the previous decade racing in various NASCAR series, said the only problem encountered during his physical had to do with his 5-foot-5, 140-pound stature.
"I have taken the physical, but I'm too short," Andretti said. "I'm working on [my] height. I'm trying to get something put together."
Andretti, who started 24th last year in a Panther Racing car, was chosen by Roth Racing to drive its Indy 500 entry that had been scheduled to go into the race with rookie Jay Howard in the cockpit. After Howard, the 2006 Firestone Indy Lights champion, missed a number of practice sessions here due to rainouts, the Roth team decided to replace him with the veteran Andretti for just this race.
Andretti took his car out in yesterday's practice runs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but he chose not to make a qualifying run. "I want to feel it out a little bit, and see what we can do," Andretti said.
He started seven consecutive Indy 500s from 1988-94 before moving into stock car racing full-time for the 1995 season.
UNANIMOUS VOTE: The IndyCar Series has hooked up with the nonpartisan, nonprofit youth voting campaign "Declare Yourself" to produce public service announcements encouraging voter registration. Drivers Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Ed Carpenter, and Ryan Hunter-Reay have recorded the PSAs, and taken the lead in registering online at www.declareyourself.com.
"As a race car driver, I think I have less patience than most people I know, but it doesn't matter who you vote for, just go to declareyourself.com. It's that easy," Andretti said. "If I have the patience to do it, I think anybody can."
PAIN & GAIN: Gil de Ferran won the Indy 500 in 2003 and was second in the 2001 race. The former Team Penske driver, who was born in Paris, grew up in Brazil, and now makes his home in Florida, returned to Indianapolis yesterday and relived the odd sequence of events that led to his 2003 Indy 500 victory.
De Ferran was involved in a major crash at Phoenix earlier that season and had broken bones in his neck and back and suffered a severe concussion. He missed the race preceding the Indy 500 and was in a great deal of pain when the arduous Indy 500 qualifying process began.
"All the way from the first day of practice, I was not feeling well. I didn't think I was driving well at all, and I was thinking that my career was going to end right here and right now," he said.
"To the end of the month where, frankly, I was in some pain, to winning that race, it was a long, emotionally charged journey. It was one of the great tiers of my life. When you come from a hospital bed with everything aching to winning the biggest race in the world, that feeling is going to stay with me forever."
-Matt Markey39.76691 -86.14996