In The Spotlight

Last week CART turned a new chapter in its history in St. Petersburg. Only months after many predicted the series would be dead and gone, Chris Pook and his group put on a successful race at a new venue in front of a solid crowd with a full, if anonymous, field of cars.

This weekend it's the Indy Racing League's turn to take center stage in the aftermath of the "Great Open Wheel" war and I think the pressure is on.

With expectations so low on the CART side, everyone expects the IndyCar Series to finally live up to its promise of eight years ago - to be the premier open wheel series in the country. The additions by defection to the circuit's line-up this year are well documented with names like Andretti, Franchitti, Kanaan and Brack joining the roster to go along with Hornish, de Ferran, Castroneves, Sharp and Lazier. On paper the competition in this year's IRL should be even more fierce than it has been in the past, which will be hard to top when a photo finish every weekend seems to be the norm.

The schedule has blossomed to 16 events, including the obligatory trip to Japan to apease new engine supplier Honda. That's a far cry from the split season slate that the series debuted with in 1995.

Two-time champion Sam Hornish, Jr. is taking the new level of anticipation in his usual stride. One of the few single car efforts left in the series, Hornish and the Pennzoil Panther team don't seem a bit worried about the increased competition they'll face, especially this weekend in Homestead.

"This series has been tough from the day I got here, and it just gets tougher every year, so there's no surprise,'' Hornish said. "It's a challenge and, if it wasn't challenging, we'd probably go find something else do.''

It'll be interesting to see if the fans go find something else to do this weekend. Even with a strong roster of teams and drivers, a more unified schedule and a solid television package with ABC and ESPN, generating an audience will be the IRL's toughest challenge in 2003. More people simply have to show up at the events and tune in on television for the series to be a success.

CART's ratings last weekend were almost sad with the St. Petersburg opener pulling a laughable .2-rating for its Speed Channel telecast. There had to be more people watching a test pattern than that. With a two hour jump this Sunday before the Winston Cup machine takes the green flag at Las Vegas, the IRL should be able to muster at least a rating of 1, still not earth shattering but respectable.

So while the product should be better than ever, it still remains to be seen whether more people decide to take a sample.

Related Topics:

IZOD Indy Car Series, 2003

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