Indy's back front and centre

DEAN MCNULTY

, Last Updated: 7:12 AM ET

INDIANAPOLIS -- The buzz is back at the world's biggest single day sporting event.

After a 12-year uncivil war between rival open-wheel sanctioning bodies -- the Indy Racing League and CART/Champ Car -- the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500 goes tomorrow with all the best drivers under one umbrella for the first time since 1995.

While some are calling it a unification, those in the know accept that it was a capitulation by the CART/Champ Car faction that has resulted in the IRL now carrying the flag for open-wheel racing in North America.

Whatever the reasons, there is a palpable difference in the mood this week in the Hoosier state and there are smiles on the faces of drivers, promoters and fans alike.

It is also readily apparent among the media horde who are here for the race.

For most of the past decade the big American media conglomerates like ESPN/ABC, USA Today and the Washington Post treated the Indy 500 as a 'B' event, clearly making NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 -- that will be run later tomorrow after the Indy -- as their No. 1 choice for coverage.

This week, however, most all of the sporting media have sent their top beat writers and broadcasters to Indianapolis. NBC even broadcast its signature evening news show with Brian Williams live from the track yesterday.

Jimmy Vasser, co-owner of KV Racing and a former Champ Car champion driver, said he is not surprised at how quickly the IRL has rebounded in popularity considering the so-called merger didn't become official until March.

"You would be hard pressed to find anyone to say (the merger) was a bad thing for the sport," Vasser said as his team prepared two cars -- one driven by former Toronto race winner Will Power and the other driven by veteran Oriol Servia -- for tomorrow's race.

"The buzz that is out there now about the series is what will guarantee a better future for our sport," he said. "But it is about what I expected. It should translate into getting back the corporate support we had before the split."

Vasser also cited the emergence of young American drivers the likes of Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti as a huge help in boosting the profile of open wheel racing in the U.S.

"No longer does NASCAR have a franchise on all of the best and most popular American drivers," he said.

For Bob Reynolds of nearby Carmel, Ind., the proof Indy car racing is fashionable again is in the cash box at his sports memorabilia business on Georgetown Blvd., right next to the Speedway.

"It's been a tough few years," Reynolds said. "Since the split, we hardly ever got requests for individual driver stuff, except for Danica (Patrick). In fact, we were selling more Dale Earnhardt Jr. stuff than anything from the IRL."

This year that has changed.

"I am getting lots of people wanting (Graham) Rahal shirts, Marco hats and Helio (Castroneves) stuff since he won that (Dancing with the Stars) contest," Reynolds said.

And series owner Tony George said yesterday he was getting that same kind of feedback from some of racing's biggest backers.

"I continue to hear around the paddock, around the garage and everywhere we go that everyone is excited about the tremendous opportunities we have in going forward," he said. "For the first time in a long time, open-wheel racing in the U.S. is unified in one series."

Even a long time critic of George -- SPEED-TV's Robin Miller -- is now singing from the same hymn book.

"After 12 years of warring that cost open-wheel racing much of its sponsorship, audience and momentum, common sense has finally prevailed," Miller said.

It won't be until next season, however, when the series starts cutting out money-losing events and starts adding profitable ones like Toronto, that a true picture of how far Indy car racing has come will emerge.


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