Indy 500's popularity slowed by greed, split

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Around the track, they talk about good times from the past and even better times still ahead. The Indianapolis 500 is being run for the 91st time today, they remind you, and is as much of an institution now as it was when names such as Foyt, Mears and Unser ruled the old brickyard.

A few miles away, another story is told at the Budget Inn and Fantasy Suites. There, rooms were still available this week for the night before the race for $119. Suites were a bit higher, and there was a $5 charge for having the phone turned on.

It's not entirely fair, of course, to judge the Indianapolis of today with the Indianapolis of the past by the amount of vacant hotel rooms. And it may not be totally fair to judge it by declining television ratings in an era when sports ratings are down nearly everywhere.

Come race day there will be at least 250,000 fans in the stands and infield to watch the race unfold. The crowd itself is down from the glory days of the track, but a quarter of a million people is still a quarter of a million people.

Many will be die-hards who come every year, like the guy who sat shirtless in the bed of his pickup Friday on his way to practice, proudly showing off the large Indianapolis 500 logo stretched across his shoulders.

But there will also be empty seats, and plenty of them. Tickets and hotel rooms were readily available in the days before the race, something unheard of when the Indianapolis 500 meant something to almost everyone.

It doesn't anymore, for a variety of reasons that basically begin and end with greed. A bitter split between rival open-wheel organizations has lasted more than a decade, and the factional fighting has taken a toll on America's most venerable race.

Today the race will compete for the attention of race fans with NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 later in Concord, N.C., where names such as Dale Earnhardt. Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon trump the Indianapolis starting front row of Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, and Dario Franchitti. If this were the 1970s, it would have been no contest. But it's not, and even the best spin from drivers and owners can't change that.

"This place still has a following," Michael Andretti insisted. "It still has interest, and I don't think it's losing that."

Neither does IRL boss Tony George, who clings to the idea that creating his own series will eventually be the best thing that happened to open-car racing. He thought it would happen earlier but says he has no regrets over taking a path that has led the sport's premier American race into decline.

"Would I do it again? If the circumstances dictate, I wouldn't change anything," he said.

NASCAR, meanwhile, took full advantage of the gap by marketing its own brand of uniquely American racing to the masses. They did it so well that its tracks are almost full and the ratings so good that rival TV networks battle for their rights.


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