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."
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."
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
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
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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