Finally Some Good News
July 11, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
The past three open-wheel races have turned the trick.
Last weekend, the Indy Racing Northern Light Series ventured into NASCAR country yet again, but this time came away looking good after past failures at Dover, Charlotte and Atlanta.
The setting this time was Richmond, Va., site of two NASACAR Winston Cup races each year. Expectations were understandably low.
But, something surprising happened. Almost 50,000 people turned out last Saturday night to see IRNLS cars compete for the first time on a track shorter than a mile. Sure, the track seats almost twice as many people, but before the race, officials felt a turnout of 20,000 would make for a good night.
The drivers did their best to ensure those people would return, too. The on-track action was close, and the spectacle of Indy cars under the lights is hard to forget, especially when they are going 160 mph on a .75-mile track.
The next day, the CART FedEx Championship Series scored another win for open-wheel racing in Cleveland, where CART always puts on a good show at Burke Lakefront Airport.
Crummy weather could have ruined the weekend, but the fans came out in droves. The news was much better when the TV ratings came in. With no real racing competition to steal viewers, CART drew a 1.6 rating, its best of the year.
The real coup came this past Sunday, when the IRNLS headed to the brand-new Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., for the inaugural Ameristar Casino Indy 200.
The buildup to that track’s unofficial unveiling was strong, with track officials, IRNLS brass and local media outlets reporting a sold-out weekend for the NASCAR Truck Series and the IRNLS.
Turns out, for once, the hype was real. Despite 100-degree heat, almost 75,000 people flocked to the pristine 1.5-mile oval. Sure, many of those people bought season tickets in order to attend the Cup race in September, but the sight of a near-capacity crowd watching gives a much better impression than 60,000 fans at a track that holds more than 100,000 (as is often the case in Texas).
Again, the IRNLS drivers did their part, putting on a safe and competitive event that came down to the wire between two of the series’ most prominent drivers – Eddie Cheever Jr. and Sam Hornish Jr.
With three more inaugural events on the schedule in Chicago, St. Louis and Nashville, the IRNLS should enjoy more of the same for the rest of the season. CART, should have a succesful second half as well, with its focus on street and road-course events for most of the remaining races.
The overall picture painted during the past two weekends might be the best news of all: Fans will turn out to watch both open-wheel series when they play to their strengths.
For the IRNLS, it’s oval racing, close to its Midwest fan base, on tracks that provide close racing. For CART, it’s street and road-course festivals that allow fans to have as much fun attending as they do watching.
There, now, that wasn’t so hard was it? The silver lining can be found if you look in the right place.