SPORTS: No checkered flag for IRL, but it’s leading the race

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The Indianapolis 500 is back, so we are told and at least we should hope. While television ratings didn’t blow through the roof, they at least climbed out of the basement by posting a 40-percent increase and putting in the rear-view mirrors that evil NASCAR event later in the day.

Officials proclaimed with pride that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was “almost a sellout” for the big race, which, not that many years ago, would have been an indictment, not a brag point. So take it as yet another sign that our 200-lapper still has a ways to go to totally recapture the magic. But at least the ticket-brokers seemed happy.

From the department of be-careful-whatyou-wish-for, arrests over race weekend were up, too. While it didn’t come close to degenerating into the Greatest Spectacle in Macing, let’s be honest: Booze and debauchery are still part of the appeal to some elements of fandom. Indeed, IMS is walking a fine line in trying to attract the Wild Bunch while maintaining an atmosphere suitable for the family-values market.

I’ll also join the throng in stating the obvious: The move of Carb Day from Thursday to Friday was brilliant-so brilliant that it’s difficult to imagine someone didn’t suggest it, oh, say, 50 years ago. And you cannot deny that $10 for a day that included final practice for the 500 field, the 40-lap Infiniti Pro Series race, the pit stop competition and a Black Crows concert was a terrific bargain.

Overall, I also liked the changes to qualifying, even though rain washed out the first day. When it comes to time trials, IMS officials are in a danged-if-you-do-danged-ifyou-don’t quandary. They could have stubbornly stuck to tradition. But by abandoning it, and giving cars and drivers multiple same-day shots at qualifying, they have created-artificially, critics claim-some of the tension, strategy and intrigue that was part of the past.

Will we ever see the kinds of qualifying crowds that turned out pre-1995? No. Even with the changes, four days of qualifying for Indy remain a racing anomaly, inordinately time-consuming and ill-suited for the purpose of identifying 33 car-driver combos, especially in the current form when there are only 34 or 35 legitimate contenders. And with current rules ensuring “a new track record” is no longer attainable, the mystery we grew up with-Just how fast can they go?-isn’t part of the qualifying allure.

So what they have come up with is a decent enough compromise.

Now only the big questions remain. Were the race-and that young lady named Danica Patrick-one-hit wonders? And can the Indy Racing League capitalize on the media frenzy now focused on Patrick to export its product to a wider audience?

Certainly, we shouldn’t expect Patrick to disappear. Indeed, it’s easy to overlook that she’s an IRL rookie with all of five ovaltrack races to her credit. If anything, she should become better at her craft as time and races go on. And the marketing explosion has just begun. Lady and gentlemen, start your ad campaigns.

Yet one wonders if her male counterparts-who are fueled as much by testosterone as they are methanol-will be willing to accept the attention focused on Patrick over the long haul. Consider this: If the 89th Indy 500 were a movie, winner Dan Wheldon could only be nominated for best supporting actor, for Patrick was the unquestioned, unrivaled star of the show.

Further evidence: That isn’t Wheldon’s mug on Sports Illustrated’s cover this week.

And while the Patrick Parade now moves on to Texas for the next race, the larger dilemma still looms. Don’t think the rival Champ Car series and its ultra-wealthy, aggressive owner Kevin Kalkhoven are going to fade quietly into the sunset. There are many who still maintain that Danica or no Danica, American open-wheel racing cannot prosper over the long term without some reconciliation between the two series.

But the scales tipped, in a big way, toward Tony George and his league last weekend. Yes, Danica was the difference. The easy comparison has been that Patrick can do for the IRL what Tiger Woods did for golf. Perhaps. But remember, Woods’ popularity is based on performance. The guy wins. At some point, Patrick will have to win, too, because the media that now fawns can also turn on her.

One other difference between Woods and Patrick. For him, the penalty for hitting it out of bounds is stroke and distance. For her, the penalty for hitting it out of bounds is possibly a trip to the hospital. Let’s don’t forget that hers is a very risky business.

Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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