SPORTS: Open-wheel racing's full recovery still miles away

June 2, 2008

Well, to all but one sourpuss.

"The [Indy Racing League] is garbage," said caller "Gordon from Zionsville" on WNDE's sports-talk show, "The Drive," on the Tuesday following the big race.

Gordon was weighing in to denigrate the IRL and praise NASCAR.

Back to him in a moment.

For the time being, the IRL's competition isn't NASCAR. While overnight ratings showed the afternoon Indy 500 scored a bigger rating than NASCAR's prime-time 600-miler at Charlotte-and that Indy's ratings were up from a year ago-open-wheel racing needs to concentrate on its own product and build on its own momentum.

Adding and sustaining sponsorships, growing the spectator and television base as the glow of Indy fades, and developing more equipment and deeper fields so more than three teams have a legitimate chance to win are all challenges that remain in the rest of this season and into the next.

Open-wheel didn't get into its fix overnight and it will take more than Danica's pretty mug on the cover of Sports Illustrated for open-wheel to find the place in motorsports it surrendered in the '90s.

Good fortune-another word for it is luck-will be required to sustain the IRL's brightening profile. That Danica's angry post-crash march in the direction of Ryan Briscoe garnered at least as much national attention as Dixon's victory is a cautionary tale. Though Dixon's triumph was well-deserved-all month, he was the better driver on the best team-the IRL will need more success from the likes of Patrick, Castroneves, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal if it is to further ebb into the national consciousness.

Which brings me back to "Gordon from Zionsville's" contention that the IRL is trash and NASCAR is treasure.

I'll type slowly so Gordon can follow.

Yes, NASCAR is more popular. Then again, big-time wrestling is more popular than Greco-Roman or freestyle.

While I am more than pleased to see NASCAR fans roll into our fair city and empty their wallets for the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, I nonetheless consider NASCAR an inferior form of racing. It has less risk and is less on the edge. There are too many NASCAR races and they last too long. My NASCAR viewing habit is to tune in for the last 20 laps. Other than that, I find it tedious.

But that's just me and, if judged solely by the crowds and ratings, I'm in the minority. So be it.

Yet all things run in cycles. I remember a time when baseball was unchallenged as America's pastime. It went into a slide. Now it is making a comeback.

For open-wheel racing, it does no good to pine for the past. Tony George and the leaders of the sport are focused on a future that, if managed correctly, holds nothing but great promise and opportunity.

A final note:

With a few exceptions, sports columnists (how well I know) are the greatest collection of grumps and whiners on the planet. Therefore, it should not be surprising that at least one, ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski, belittled the NFL's decision to bring the 2012 Super Bowl to Indianapolis.

In typical hyperbolic hyperventilating, he called it "the most terrifying news coming out of the NFL owners meeting."

Yes, he said "terrifying."

"I don't get it," he wrote. "Playing in a Super Bowl is supposed to be a reward, not a reason to visit your local North Face outlet. And attending a Super Bowl as a fan is supposed to be the experience of a lifetime, a chance to break out multiple bottles of SPF 30."

Understand, this has nothing to do with the experience of fans. It has everything to do with Gene's experience.

"I would have voted for New Orleans," he continued. "I would have voted for Glendale. For San Diego. For Mexico City. I would have voted for anyplace where you can't buy a snow blower.

"Instead, we got Indianapolis."

Simple solution, Gene. When the 2012 Super Bowl arrives, stay home. We'll do fine without you.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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