Open-wheel revival at the Indy

DEAN MCNULTY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:50 AM ET

INDIANAPOLIS -- Open-wheel racing in North America limped into Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year full of hope that a peace accord between the warring Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series would buy it enough time to bury the dead and heal the wounded.

This year -- the start of a three-year centennial celebration of racing at the world's most famous oval -- expectations are much higher.

The 2009 version of the Indy 500 is definitely all about the show. And not even a stagnant economy that has ravaged middle America like no other since the Great Depression blew sagebrush and dust through this part of the country more than half a century ago, appears to have gotten in the way of a good time at the intersection of Georgetown Rd., and 16th Ave.

It's as if the whole state of Indiana has thumbed its nose at the bearers of bad news. Nothing, it seems, will get in the way of its party this year.

Back are the barbecued turkey leg street vendors and the bikini-clad Danica Patrick T-shirt hucksters along with the non-stop parade of bare-headed Harley-Davidson riders who circle the strip around IMS like a moving billboard promoting organ transplants.

The inappropriateness of middle-aged, balding men shouting at 20-something, hard-bodied girls to "show us your t---" is outdone only by the willingness of too many of the young ladies to follow the instructions.

Yes, Indy has got its groove back.

Talk of the lost decade -- where race fans really did need a program to recognize the players -- has been replaced by hyperbole that this year's event harkens back to the days when A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser reigned over a race series that dominated the sports landscape for a month every year.

While that may happen again someday, IndyCar racing still has a huge hill to climb before it can get back to even level ground with NASCAR's big gorilla that moved to the top of auto racing's food chain at about the same time the open-wheelers were starting their disastrous schism.

But if there is any hope that open-wheel racing can once again be relevant in a 100 sports-channel universe it has got to start at this yard of bricks. It was here that the sport was born 98 years ago and it will be here that it must be born again.

In any event, there are certainly enough experts around promoting that story.

In the days leading up to today's Indy 500, you almost couldn't turn a corner anywhere in this city of one million people without running into a former winner of the race -- all out to promote the 100th birthday of racing here.

Al Unser Jr., who readily admits that when his future looked to include nothing much more than a drunk tank and a prison term, it was being invited back to Indy by track owner Tony George that saved his life -- or at least what was left of it after an alarming string of DUI's and messy personal relationships.

"There was a lot of stress there and a lot of pressure there," the heir to the Albuquerque, N.M., racing legacy said. "(But) being invited to the (centennial) gala in Indianapolis, I watched every driver get up there -- A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, dad, Bobby (Unser) was there, Gordon Johncock, Jim Rathmann, and they all said the same thing. We all said the same thing. 'It means life.'

"The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is everything to us, and that pretty much says it, right there. My career is over as a driver, but I wish I was part of this era -- 2009, 2010."

This era belongs to Patrick and a couple of second- and third-generation IndyCar drivers in Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti. It is those three and some veterans left over from the pre-split years such as Paul Tracy, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, who now bear the responsibility of putting the bums back in the seats, not only at Indy, but also at events in Toronto, Long Beach, Edmonton and Watkins Glen, N.Y.

Franchitti who fled IndyCars after winning both the Indy 500 and an IRL championship in 2007 for what he thought were the greener pastures of NASCAR, is back, with a chance for a second win here.

He said that, while growing up in Scotland, it was winning Indy 500 that he aspired to as a young racer.

"To be part of the Indianapolis 500 starting field in any year is a privilege." Franchitti said. "This year is extra special. For a track to have survived an event for so long, it says a lot about it.

"For me, to see the heroes who are still alive from each generation, and all the great drivers (from former Indy 500s), is very meaningful for me. Back in the very early days of the 500, drivers from Europe came here to race. Then in the '60s again with the rear-engine revolution with Jack Brabham from Australia, Graham Hill, Jimmy Clark and Jackie Stewart came over. It is special for me to follow in their footsteps."

Bobby Rahal, quickly becoming better known these days as Graham's father, said it was time to paint a new face on the Indy, but he was glad he could be part of the rejuvenation.

"This is truly an American institution, and I don't know if you can make that claim about any other race in this country," Rahal said. "It really is something that I think, as you get older, you appreciate more."

As one of the drivers who is charged with moving Indy into its next phase New Zealand's Scott Dixon talks about The Brickyard in hallowed tones.

"When you first walk through the gates here for your first 500, it's like no other facility," the defending race champion said. "The number of people they cram in here on race day is very unique. It's like no other race.

"The special thing is the tradition and the history. It's far beyond any other race in the world."

Even those who have had the track deal them a cruel fate pay homage to the race and become part of the chorus of those who yearn to have the glory days back.

One of those is Toronto's Scott Goodyear, now a sportscaster for ABC/ESPN.

Three times it looked as if Goodyear had won the Indy 500 -- first in 1992 when he finished just .043 seconds behind Al Unser Jr. -- a mark that still stands as the closest race ever here.

Goodyear also would finish second in '95 behind fellow Canadian Jacques Villeneuve and it happened again when he was passed by Arie Luyendyk with five laps to go in '97.

"The Indy 500 transcends sport," Goodyear said. "It like Wimbledon or the Super Bowl that attracts fans simply because it's such a great event."

Like Goodyear, Tracy too has been stung by the 500. His loss to Castroneves in 2002 after officials ruled he passed under a yellow flag still haunts him.

"But the past is the past," he said. "Fans see me as the guy who was always bashing Indy, but now that the two series are together we all have to pitch in to make it the biggest race anywhere again."

How long that will take, however, is still very much open for debate.

DEAN.MCNULTY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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