10 April 2009

The King and I

No, don't worry. This post won't be about Yul Brynner or musicals (though Yul probably would have been an intimidating presence in the era of the open cockpit cars).

In recent days, the announcement that Richard Petty would be entering a car in the upcoming Indianapolis 500 has gained national traction. Articles are coming down on both sides of the fence - from congratulating the King for entering America's foremost open-wheel race (here) to describing Petty's entry as nothing more than a publicity stunt for a fading team and race (here).

In fact, in his dissenting opinion, ESPN's Ed Hinton says the following:
The once-grand event has come to this: Ninety percent of its publicity rests on the diminutive shoulders of a woman who has never won it, Danica Patrick, and the rest on a bunch of imported personalities who stir interest in the race in Brazil and Australia and New Zealand, but not where it matters so crucially, the United States ...

They all need each other now. They have huddled together to try to create some interest.

It should be fun for them, and sell a few tickets. But it will not return the Indy 500 or the Petty dynasty or the hard-knocks branch of the Andretti family from twilight.

Well, I think Ed's opinion is pretty clear. I think it's also obvious that Ed has buried his head in the NASCAR sand over the years, and is relishing the opportunity to take some shots at the 500.

Now, I will concede Ed's point that the 500 isn't what it was in the 1970's, 80's and up to the split, in terms of its national appeal. True and valid. However, on its worst day, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway draws more fans to the 500 than the Daytona 500 (NASCAR's artificially produced "gem") can dream of. Read that again: on its worst day.

I would just about guarantee that the worst days of the IndyCar Series are gone, while NASCAR's darkest days may be approaching with the current economic woes and the high cost of funding a team.

To accuse IMS of grasping at strings (in this case Richard Petty) to gain publicity is incorrect. In fact, IMS and the IndyCar Series has generally been on the end of positive publicity since the CART-IRL merger 14 months ago. Travel to an IndyCar race - you'll see close to a full house at most tracks, if not sell outs.

The league has emerged to where it does not rely solely on Danica Patrick to sell tickets - a wide array of drivers (and what's wrong with having international celebrities in your series, anyway?) are becoming household names, and I'm sure as the year goes on, we'll see more names (hello Graham Rahal and paging Marco Andretti) begin to be more heavily promoted by ICS. You could go as far to call Graham the foremost up-and-coming American driver around; if he is able to win a race or two this season, watch out. And if (and right now, it seems like a bif "if") Marco Andretti rediscovers the talent that helped him win a race his rookie year, the IndyCar series will have those marketable names of "Rahal" and "Andretti" for years to come. And for all the hype of Kyle Busch, his name doesn't have the same cache, does it?

So, Ed, I would invite you to take in an IndyCar race (perhaps the Indianapolis 500 - you know - America's foremost racing event, regardless of the year). You'll notice that it actually puts out a better product than the NASCAR folks, without any gimmicks.

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