Indy 500 saviours?

DEAN MCNULTY

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

Back in the day when gasoline was 40 cents a litre and the big auto manufacturers were selling SUVs faster than Ben Johnson in a 100-metre dash, the Indianapolis 500 was top dog in motorsports.

Everyone in the racing world, including Formula One and NASCAR, were also-rans in the television ratings on motorsports' biggest weekend of the year.

But more than a decade after Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George on one side and a bunch of billionaire team owners on the other began a self-destructive civil war, the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" will rely on three kids next Sunday to lead them out of the subsequent ruins.

Gone are 13 years of Indy 500 history where the winner got his drink of milk but little else as crowds at the track shrank from a high of nearly 400,000 in 1995 to about 250,000 in 2007.

Also history is the claim that the U.S. Memorial Day ratings crown rested permanently at the corner of 16th St. and Georgetown Ave.

So who are these three young American drivers whom Indy car racing executives hope will dawn their superhero capes and recapture the glory at 220 miles per hour on May 25?

Two are sons of famous racing families; Marco Andretti, the 21-year-old son of Michael and grandson of Mario Andretti; and 19-year-old Graham Rahal, son of Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal.

The third is 25-year-old Danica Patrick -- the pin-up girl whose evocative image covers the walls of teenage boys' bedrooms everywhere. Now she comes to her fourth Indy 500 with a win on her racing resume, making her much more than just another pretty face at the 2.5-mile IMS oval.

It will be these three faces who dominate the pre-race media hype. If there ever was a "perfect storm" to bring back Indy car racing to the mainstream North American sports consciousness it is the Andretti-Rahal-Patrick triumvirate.

Bobby Rahal, who partners with late-night talk show host David Letterman at Rahal-Letterman Racing, said that the IRL has to seize the moment if it wants to get back to the top.

"Well, it certainly will take a huge amount of marketing. I mean, I think if you look at NASCAR, you know, you have to ask yourself the question, where would NASCAR have been had it not been for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (Winston), who couldn't spend enough money promoting stock car racing," he said.

"But that kind of effort is going to be needed here, whether it's done by the league itself or by the sponsors. It needs to be promoted, and promoted heavily, so that the individuals, the drivers, whether it's Graham, Marco, Danica -- I said many times, you just can't rely on those three.

"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."

If recent IRL moves are any indication, the three youngsters will get plenty of media attention in the week leading up to the 92nd running of the Indy 500.

Already, public relations types have made all three available for interviews and photo ops in unprecedented fashion.

At one point last week there was even an attempt to get a father-son feud going between Graham and Bobby Rahal when Graham -- who drives for Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing and not Rahal-Letterman -- was asked if he thought he could beat his dad at IMS.

"Am I a better driver? I think I'd like to say yes," Graham said. "He's scared to race me these days, and I think it's probably because of his age. He knows he doesn't stand a chance. He doesn't like playing golf with me any more because he knows he can't beat me."

It will be their performance on the track and not in news conferences, however, that will determine if the trio can carry the entire series on their slender shoulders. They all come to the track with respect for its traditions. And in Marco Andretti's case, he is aware of the heartbreaks it has heaped upon his family.

For Rahal, this will be his first encounter with the fabled oval and he can't wait for the green flag to drop after spending most of the past month testing for the race.

"I think in the past you watch these guys out there, they're flat out through all four corners. You think, 'That can't be that bad.' Once you go out and do it yourself, I mean, it's almost impossible," he said. "It's hard. I think you certainly gain a lot more respect for what you've seen in the past. I've always come here and had no obligation, really had nothing to do. I've come in to see dad and his team, be a fan, just disappear whenever I wanted. Now it's a different thing. I'm here. You never really understand how it is until you're here."

Rahal certainly comes to the track with more than just pedigree. In his rookie IRL season he already has a win -- at St. Petersburg, Fla. -- to his credit.

Patrick, who for the past three seasons has carried just about the whole series media-wise, now has a couple of partners in the business, plus has that all important first win of her own at Motegi a few weeks ago that will lighten her load considerably this week.

She thinks having others in the spotlight and having a unified open wheel series is best for everybody.

"I think that there have been so many good things from the wintertime on with the merger and with Graham, Marco and me, and just having more cars in general I think has been a good thing for the series," she said.

Not that she ever had any doubts about her abilities. Patrick, above all else, is a very confident race car driver.

"I've always felt the same pressure to do everything, to be the greatest; the best driver I can possibly be, and all of that included winning (races) and championships and everything," she said. "I've always known, like I said, that I could win, and (Motegi) was a very public win, and is something that should help (me), the team, the sponsors, the league, everybody."

Marco Andretti also comes to the table with an IRL win -- in 2006 at Infineon Raceway -- but he brings much, much more and not all of it can be considered happy.

His family -- starting with grandfather Mario -- has a legacy of bad luck at Indianapolis that rivals Charlie Brown's attempts at field goal kicking.

Mario's Indy 500 win in 1969 is the lone bright spot in 54 attempts by Andretti family members to win the big race.

Often referred to as the "Andretti jinx," Indy stands alone as a place where that family's glory comes to die.

Marco, however, will have none of it, even after being robbed of victory in the 2006 Indy 500 by Sam Hornish Jr.

"I don't want to win here because (my) grandfather was the only one who did it," he said. "My rookie year was taken away from me. I want to win because of that. I want to win this race for myself."

Andretti came within about 200 yards of ending the Andretti curse but watched Hornish go by him and win it by 0.0635 of a second.

During a testing session this past week Marco was asked if his particularly slow lap times that day had anything to do with the Andretti jinx.

"I'm disappointed today because I was slow, but not because my family should have done better," he said tersely.

It doesn't mean that Andretti takes his racing legacy lightly. In fact there are few times at any race where father and grandfather aren't in his pit stall offering advice.

"I'm always getting advice from them," he said. Maybe Marco might take a page from Graham Rahal's book about dealing with his father's fame.

"That's why I've always felt that driving for a team like Newman-Haas-Lanigan, not necessarily my dad's team, I think it's a good thing because it kind of takes me away from him a little bit and I kind of step out from under his shadow," Rahal said.

That's not likely to happen for Andretti, as his father's Andretti-Green

Racing team fields IRL's most powerful four-car squad with Marco, Patrick, Tony Kanaan and Hideki Mutoh.

The perfect ending for this story would be of a 1-2-3 finish next Sunday by Andretti-Rahal-Patrick, but a top performance by any or all of the three will send a message that Indy car racing is back in the fast lane.

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Race wars

real victims

They are the "lost boys" -- real victims of the 13-year civil war between the Indy Racing League and CART/Champ Car -- who had their best racing seasons when, for the most part, nobody was paying attention.

Here are a few of the most notable and what they are doing now.

Paul Tracy

Arguably the best open wheel race car driver in North America from 1996 to 2008. His legacy, however, may be that he was robbed of an Indianapolis 500 win in 2002 when Tony George ruled he had passed race winner Helio Castroneves under a yellow flag on the final lap of the race. Tracy is currently without a ride at this year's Indy 500, but is hoping he can get together enough sponsorship money to make it in the next week.

Tony Kanaan

The likable Brazilian has an IRL championship (2002), 12 wins and eight poles on his Indy car resume but all came during the split, which pretty much meant he could walk down the main street of Anytown, U.S.A, and not be recognized. Kanaan is in his sixth season with Andretti-Green Racing and is hoping for a win Sunday at the 500 to cap his career.

Sebastian Bourdais

Bourdais ranks with Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser and A.J. Foyt after winning four CART/Champ Car titles, but his accomplishments have gone pretty much unnoticed. The Le Mans, France, native finally got a break at the end of the 2007 season when he landed a seat with the Formula One Toro Rosso team, where he struggles to stay on the lead lap of most races.

Dario Franchitti

The native of Glasgow, Scotland, finally won the IRL championship and the Indy 500 in 2007 after six years playing second fiddle to Kanaan at AGR. Before jumping to NASCAR Sprint Cup this season, Franchitti was best know as the husband of Hollywood actress Ashley Judd.

Sam Hornish Jr.

Hornish has three IRL championship trophies on his mantle that were earned from 2001 to 2006. He won his only Indy 500 in 2006, as well, but never got the kind of attention or accolades that he should have. Hornish, like Franchitti, also has moved to NASCAR in hopes of catching racing glory in stock cars.


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