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No Stock Answers

Indy 500 is no longer the big event it was, thanks to CART-IRL split and NASCAR rise

May 25, 2003|Mike Penner

The greatest spectacle in racing?

Define spectacle.

If it's a once-hallowed sporting institution frittering away its reputation, clout and popularity to the point where it may soon rank as undercard on the auto racing fan's Memorial Sunday television agenda, then the Indianapolis 500 still qualifies.

After nearly a century's reign as the milk toast of the annual American racing calendar, the Indy 500 wasn't even the most-watched motor sport event on race day last year.

On the same day Indy drew a 4.8 rating on ABC in 2002, NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 pulled in a 5.1 on Fox.

The Indianapolis 500, choking on the exhaust fumes of a Sunday night stock car race in Charlotte, N.C.?

The Indianapolis 500, just another brick in the yard?

For longtime racing observers, who remember when Andretti and Foyt and Unser took a back seat to no one, this was the Super Bowl getting upstaged by the Arena League, Slamball outperforming Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Across the country, sports editors noticed. The ratings represented more than NASCAR capitalizing on a better television window -- Indy is a morning race, the Coca-Cola 600 airs in prime time. The ratings marked a crossroad that was first spotted on the map in 1996, when open-wheel racing grabbed the golden goose and sliced it in half, creating rival circuits -- CART and the Indy Racing League -- along with confusion among fans and the opening NASCAR had long sought.

By 2002, the chase was over. NASCAR, cagily marketed and newly armed with a network television contract, had caught and passed Indy in the Nielsens.

Other comparisons aren't as close. In a recent ESPN poll in which motor sports fans were asked to choose their favorite style of racing, 59.1% chose NASCAR. The open-wheel circuits combined for 13.6%.

Internationally, Indy is still the big race, reaching an estimated 325 million households in more than 200 countries, and media interest in the 500 remains high. According to Indianapolis 500 director of publicity Ron Green, the race received 2,560 requests for media credentials for this year's event, including outlets in Japan and New Zealand. Associated Press will have 15 writers and editors at Indy, along with a crew of photographers; it will cover the Coca-Cola 600 with two reporters and a smaller photo staff.

Given its head start over the NASCAR race -- the Indy 500 debuted in 1911, the Coca-Cola 600 in 1960 -- that is to be expected. But in response to the TV ratings, newspapers have moved to give the people what they want.

More than 800 media credentials have been issued for today's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, with sports editors rethinking the pecking orders of the past and reshaping their sections to reflect the present.

The Times will cover the Indy 500 with two reporters, and use a story from another Tribune newspaper on the Charlotte race.

"I may be a bit behind the curve on this," said Bill Dwyre, Times sports editor. "I grew up in the Midwest and I was so caught up in the Indy 500 that I used to plan the day with a big project, like painting window trim or something like that, so I could listen to the entire race on the radio. It was better on the radio. The announcer was Sid Collins and his word pictures were better than the real pictures. Then, later, I got to cover a couple of the races as a reporter, so I'm sure lots of that has stuck with me.

"Honestly, when I saw the comparative TV ratings from last year, I was shocked. I still think the Indy 500 is a special sports brand, but I'll certainly be looking closely at both races this year and weighing the response to each from readers, as well as checking the TV ratings."

At the Miami Herald, a midweek planning meeting featured a debate among sports department editors over the relative importance of the two races.

"To me, just the fact we were even having a debate says a lot about how far NASCAR has come," Herald sports editor Richard Bush said. "And maybe a little about how Indy's slipped.

"I think the Indy 500 is still a big deal, but I don't think it has nearly the same significance as it used to. You go back 10 years, 12 years, 15 years, before the [IRL-CART] split and all the problems, and I would put the Indy 500 in the same ballpark with the Super Bowl and the World Series and events that people kind of plan their lives around to watch. I don't think the Indy 500 has that pull anymore."

The Herald will have one reporter at each race today. USA Today will have two reporters at each race. The Washington Post will staff both races, sending its lead racing writer to Charlotte and a reporter who mostly covers high-school sports to Indianapolis.

"The fact we're sending our top [racing] writer to Charlotte clearly indicates how much we think that race has gained over the years," Post sports editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz said. "And that's a direct indication of how far Indy has fallen."

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