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Ain't Nothing Like the Wheel Thing
Lars Anderson
May 12, 2008
Hot young drivers—and one smooth dancer—have reinvigorated IndyCar
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May 12, 2008

Ain't Nothing Like The Wheel Thing

Hot young drivers—and one smooth dancer—have reinvigorated IndyCar

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IT DIDN'T seem all that significant at the time. Last September, Helio Castroneves, a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, began competing on ABC's Dancing with the Stars. With an audience of nearly 25 million viewers tuning in for the final episode, Castroneves, displaying the same silky grace he's known for on the track, won the competition with partner Julianne Hough, causing his Q rating to skyrocket. "I am now the king of the grandmas, because everywhere I go, people tell me that their grandma loves me from watching the show," says the handsome Brazilian, laughing. "Winning Dancing with the Stars helped our entire sport because people who normally wouldn't check out our races are starting to do that."

Indeed, Castroneves's charisma has been a boon for the entire IndyCar Series, and it's one reason why the once struggling sport of open-wheel racing is starting to rebound. Through four races this season, TV ratings for IndyCar are up 23% from 2007, and according to the series traffic to its official website, Indycar.com, has increased 90% each month this year. Deep-pocketed sponsors such as Coca-Cola, DirecTV and Peak Motor Oil have recently signed long-term deals with the series. And though IndyCar hasn't had a title sponsor since 2000—sponsorship being one of the telltale signs of a racing league's financial health—officials are close to locking in one for 2008 and beyond.

Is this a return to the glory days of the 1970s and '80s, when names like Andretti, Foyt and Rutherford ruled the open-wheel ranks? No, not quite yet, but IndyCar is relevant again. One big reason, apart from Castroneves's fancy footwork, is IndyCar's merger with Champ Car, formerly known as CART. The two open-wheel series had been competing since 1996, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George broke away from CART and formed the rival Indy Racing League. (It named its premier series IndyCar in 2003.) The split caused confusion among fans (triggering a free fall in TV ratings, attendance and the popularity of open-wheel racing, which in the early 1990s arguably rivaled that of NASCAR), drove away sponsors and pushed promising young American open-wheel drivers such as Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne into stock cars. But after years of squabbling, George's IndyCar series agreed on Feb. 22 to absorb Champ Car, ending the open-wheel cold war. "Unification has removed the biggest barrier we had," says Terry Angstadt, president of IndyCar's commercial division. "We're open for business like never before."

Still, it's personalities that drive any sport—so what about star power? Marketers have had to work around the fact that since 1995 only four winners of the Indy 500 have been American—and even the top U.S. drivers have little name recognition. (Quick, name two facts about Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy 500 winner, or Eddie Cheever Jr., the '98 champ.) But that is starting to change, and not just because American sports fans are thinking more globally. Consider Graham Rahal, the 19-year-old son of 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal. On April 6, in the second race of the year, in St. Petersburg, the mature-beyond-his-years Rahal became the youngest driver to win a North American open-wheel race. Rahal drove in Champ Car in '07, and his victory dispelled fears among former Champ teams that they couldn't compete with the existing IndyCar operations. Rahal also showed that he possesses all the elements of a star driver in the making: a veteran's savvy on the track and the poise and wit to trade bons mots with David Letterman—who happens to co-own an Indy team with Graham's father—ten days after his historic win. Rahal told Letterman that Castroneves's ability to dance "worries him" and, since he was denied champagne after his victory because he's too young to drink, sprayed bubbly all over the Ed Sullivan Theater audience.

Nor is Rahal the only young driver in the series who boasts a glamorous last name. Marco Andretti, 21, led 13 laps in last year's Indy 500 before suffering a crash, and he's well positioned to finally break the Andretti curse at Indy. (Marco and his grandfather Mario; great-uncle Aldo; father, Michael; and uncle Jeff are a combined 1 for 58 in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.) And then there's Andretti's teammate at Andretti Green Racing—a driver you may have seen a lot of—Danica Patrick.

On April 19 Patrick took the checkered flag in Motegi, Japan. It was her first victory in 50 career IndyCar starts, and it moved Indy racing to the front of the sports section while proving that she's not Anna Kournikova in fireproof clothing. "I was so tired of hearing the question, 'Can you win?'" says the 26-year-old Patrick, who has done ads for Honda, Motorola and XM Satellite Radio. "I feel like this is just the beginning for me. And our series is better now than ever. People on the street are starting to know about us, more money is coming in, and the exposure is growing. It's a snowball effect."

Perhaps, but while snowballs are nice, it's summer that IndyCar racing would like to reclaim, starting with the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500, on May 25. A ratings boost seems almost inevitable, with Rahal, Castroneves, Andretti and Patrick in the hunt. Can IndyCar ever catch NASCAR, which claims a fan base of 90 million? That will be tough, but suddenly the future of open-wheel racing in the U.S. appears bright. Just ask your grandma.

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