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Indy 500 Losing Importance, NASCAR Gaining
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Indy 500 Losing Importance, NASCAR Gaining

Sports

Indy 500 Losing Importance, NASCAR Gaining

Indy 500 Losing Importance, NASCAR Gaining
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Wall Street Journal Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis talks to Robert Siegel about the Indy 500. He says the annual Memorial Day weekend auto race — which used to be must-see TV — has been eclipsed in the last decade by NASCAR.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, given the amount of media coverage of Danica Patrick, you might think that she'd already won. You also might think that the Indy 500 is as healthy as it's ever been. Well, Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis is here, as he is most Fridays, to tell us that that is not exactly the case.

Stefan, what's the deal?

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): Well, Indy-style car racing, these low-to-the-ground, open-wheel cars, have been eclipsed over the last decade by NASCAR, of course. The Indy 500 used to be must-see TV on Memorial Day weekend. Last year, on ABC, just 4 percent of TV households tuned in. That's down about 70 percent from two decades ago. The NASCAR race held on the same day has drawn a bigger TV audience each of the last three years.

SIEGEL: NASCAR is stock car racing. This is open-wheel, or Indy-style, racing. So the success of NASCAR racing is one reason for the loss of audience for the Indy 500; not the only one, though.

Mr. FATSIS: No, not at all. There's been a schism in the world of open-wheel racing. About a decade ago, the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway started the Indy Racing League which was separate from the established circuit at the time, which was known as CART. The idea was to promote American circuits and more American drivers, and improve competition by standardizing and regulating engines and chassis, which had been a big problem in the sport.

But the larger problem that's materialized is that there's just not enough fan interest to go around, and there isn't enough money to support the two circuits, and not enough drivers either, so you have a lot of dilution. A lot of drivers who grew up dreaming of winning the Indy 500 decided that NASCAR was a much better career choice.

SIEGEL: Well, what about these two Indy car circuits? Have they established clear, independent identities, one from the other?

Mr. FATSIS: Not tremendously clear. The Indy Racing League has gotten the upper hand. A lot of the old CART series team owners and drivers have crossed over to the IRL, the Indy Racing League. CART has been renamed the Champ Car World Series, and the way it's tried to distinguish itself is with more open-road races as opposed to closed oval tracks. This year, just two Champ drivers have come over to the Indy 500 to participate.

But there's more than these two circuits share in common than separates them, and the split remains the focus of everyone in the sport. There have been some regular efforts at detente by some real familiar names in Indy Racing, like Mario Andretti and Roger Penske, but that hasn't worked. The people who are running these two independent businesses just don't want to cede control.

SIEGEL: Mario Andretti obviously doesn't race anymore, but Andrettis do.

Mr. FATSIS: Yes. Marco Andretti, the 18-year-old grandson of Mario, is entered in a race at Indy tonight, a development league race for up-and-coming drivers. Al Unser, the 22-year-old grandson of Al Unser Sr., who won the Indy 500 four times, and the son of Al Unser Jr., who won it twice, is also entered in that race. And four-time winner A.J. Foyt's son Larry and his grandson Anthony qualified for the main race on Sunday, but they're starting in the rear of the pack, and they're not given much chance of winning.

SIEGEL: Now the competing NASCAR race that you spoke of, same day, it's the Coca-Cola 600 in Concord, North Carolina?

Mr. FATSIS: Right.

SIEGEL: And in the past, there actually have been drivers who have competed in both races.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, an amazing physical feat, 1,100 miles in one afternoon, but it's not going to happen on Monday, and the reason is that Indy decided to push back the start of the Indy 500 from noon to 1:00 Eastern to better serve the West Coast audience. So no matter how fast these guys can drive, they just can't get from Indy to North Carolina in time for the 5:30 start of the NASCAR race.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal talks with us Friday's about sports and the business of sports.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You can hear from Janet Guthrie, the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500, and learn more about the history of the race at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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