Tony Kanaan was signing autographs in the paddock of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Friday afternoon when a fan thrust a picture of a red-and-yellow McDonald's-sponsored race car into his hand. He balked. ¶ "I ran the McDonald's car back in '99 (in Champ Car). And I said, 'That's not me, it's Justin (Wilson),' " Kanaan said. "And I looked and actually it was my hero card from 1999 and the guy said to me, 'This is the first time I'm watching you race since the split.' So I think we've added some people, which is great. Finally, we added everybody together." ¶ Once fractured and feeble, open-wheel racing is buffing out the bumps these days after Champ Car dissolved and five of its teams, three of its races — and likely more soon — have been blended into the once-rival Indy Racing League. So now what? The ambitious long-term goal for owners and drivers is to recoup the luster and the relevance surrendered to NASCAR after 29 years of in-fighting. The split as an alibi is gone. But shorter term, perhaps it's wiser for the sport to aspire to being the first IRL, not the second NASCAR.
"This will be no magic bullet," said Kevin Kalkhoven, Champ Car's former co-owner.
There is encouraging news for the IRL. Reunification has eliminated confusion and competition among fans. Television ratings are rising. Wary corporations pondering sponsorship are listening, and the IRL landed two valuable benefactors last week.
Driver Danica Patrick is one of the most-known commodities in sports, and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves leveraged his Dancing With the Stars championship to pitch the sport to 20-million potential fans a week on national television.
But NASCAR is laps ahead. Stock cars powered through the wreckage of open-wheel dysfunction, taking advantage of the big one — many say, Tony George's formation of the Indy Racing League in 1994 — to become the undisputed leading motorsports series in the nation.
NASCAR's self-estimated 75-million fan base is difficult to refute or prove. But it dwarfs the 36-million the IRL claims. Though NASCAR's plateauing television numbers were of concern last season, ratings are up five percent, as an average of 7.7-million tune in each week. The IRL's opener March 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway was its best on an ESPN outlet in three years, at 815,070 households.
Dario Franchitti earned $4,017,583 in purses last season by winning the IndyCar title and four races, including the Indianapolis 500. That's about a Mercedes S Class less than Elliott Sadler made for a winless season and 25th place in Sprint Cup points. Series champion Jimmie Johnson? $15,313,920.
But the IRL still has "the biggest race in the world, no matter what people say," said team owner Roger Penske, and that's a start.
"With that kind of a foundation, we should be able to bring open-wheel racing back," said Penske, who has won a record 14 Indy 500s and claimed his first Daytona 500 in February. "Is it ever going to be what NASCAR is? NASCAR had good leadership so many years, 35-36 races a year. To me it's a different type of racing, so I don't think you can compare it."
Chip Ganassi, who also owns NASCAR and IRL teams and once had a share of the Pittsburgh Pirates, equated the IRL's reconciliation with fans to Major League Baseball's after the 1994 strike. But he thinks much of it can be done in three to four years.
"Get back to basics," he said, "back to racing and let's not get into politics. That's important."
Peter DeLorenzo, auto industry analyst and editor of autoextremist.com said competing with NASCAR is not realistic, however.
"I think they definitely can get a toehold," he said. "Will they ever recover from the 12 years of rancor and discord that basically handed the platform of American racing and the mainstream media to NASCAR? No. There's no chance."
Sponsors can help, though, he said, and just as R.J. Reynolds tasked its public relations machine in the early 1970s to make NASCAR truly national, the IRL searches for a title sponsor. The series added Coca-Cola as an associate sponsor and DirecTV as a quasi-presenter on Thursday in a six-year, $18-million deal and continues to solicit Fortune 1000 banking institutions and electronics corporations to become title sponsor. Zak Brown, whose Indiana-based marketing firm headhunts sponsors for NASCAR and the IRL, said a title sponsorship is worth "every bit of $10-million annually."
"What it's worth and what people are willing to pay is not always in line," Brown said. "Although it's important to have someone willing to pay, it's much more important to have someone who is willing to activate it."
Brown predicted a title sponsor would be unveiled for 2009. His group entertained potential sponsors aboard a yacht with St. Petersburg as the backdrop this weekend. An IRL title sponsorship costs about the same as one for a single NASCAR Nationwide or IndyCar series team, theoretically a bargain.
Momentum was building among potential sponsors before the merger, he said, and has gotten stronger.
"I think corporate America is starting to drift away from NASCAR," DeLorenzo, "so yes, I would think the IRL will get a closer look now."
Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, which hosts its first of two NASCAR Sprint Cup races today and an IRL date in June, said his job will be much simpler if the unified open-wheel circuit avoids the mistakes of Champ Car.
A skeptic that street racing will work in the United States because so many races have collapsed, Gossage said the IRL must focus on North America (the IRL has absorbed Champ Car's Australia date) and ovals, such as his. Perhaps most important, he said, is promoting stars, namely American stars, and more specifically Patrick, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal.
Gossage billed his IRL date last year as "Rumble at the Speedway" with a boxing-style flier after Patrick shoved Dan Wheldon on pit road after the previous race at Milwaukee.
Such a strategy elicits mixed feels from drivers such as Englishman Wheldon, and Brazilians Tony Kanaan and Castroneves, who have combined to win 37 races, thee Indy 500s and two championships. Patrick and Andretti are younger and full of potential but have one win combined, by Andretti in 2006.
Kanaan, the 2004 series champ, said by winning he forces the league to promote him.
"I was news in '92 or something," he said. "I'm not racing to be famous. I race to win races. I won the Milwaukee race and Danica and Dan had the big push and that was big news, but in the end the trophy says Tony Kanaan won the race."
And Wheldon, the 2005 champion, thinks the Americans-must-win edict is a farce.
"You shouldn't need people to win races to promote a series," he said. "Marketing people and the PR people need to get off their a-- and promote the winners because long term, what's the point in promoting someone who's not going to win? It's not going to do you any good. Everybody tried to promote Anna Kournikova because she looked good and she was new to tennis, but it didn't last because she wasn't any good. You need to promote the good ones."
No more alibis.