May 25, 2003 | 12:54 A.M. EST
NASCAR's soaring popularity has taken the country by storm. We all know about the giant television ratings and the country "discovering" Winston Cup racing over the last few seasons. But for all its attention and marketing prowess, and with all due respect, NASCAR is not bigger than the Indianapolis 500.
Indianapolis has 87 years of tradition, about 30 more than NASCAR. And unlike NASCAR, tradition seems to mean something to the folks who run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
While NASCAR continues to dismantle itself, throwing away its heritage with money-induced moves like stipping Darlington of the Southern 500, bowing to television's need for more prime time races and opening the door for Toyota's participation, Indy relishes history.
Track president Tony George could easily reap higher television ratings by switching the start of the 500 to later in the day. But since 1911, 11 a.m. has been the time the green flag flies at the Brickyard and it will stay that way as long as George is around.
Tonight's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte will generate a very good television audience, as has all Winston Cup racing the past two years. So if that's a benchmark for success, than yes, Charlotte will enjoy a good day and will most likely put up a rating of around 5.
The television ratings for the 500 have been on a downward spiral since the CART-IRL split, so don't look for any record-breaking numbers in that department today. ABC officials would no doubt be thrilled with something in the neighborhood of a 7 or 8 rating.
But while close to 200,000 may jam into Lowe's Motor Speedway, a crowd twice the size will show up in Indianapolis. Indianapolis continues to be the largest single day spectator event in the world with 400,000 people surrounding the 2.5 mile speedway every year.
Slowly but surely Indianapolis is starting to climb back up the prestige ladder as open wheel racing tries to heal from the CART-IRL war. For the most part, the best drivers in the world are at Indianapolis this year and as CART continues to reinvent itself as an American-based Formula One series, the IRL will grow stronger as the dominant Indy Car circuit.
The Indy 500 is the race known the world over. The Coca-Cola 600 is not. Despite what the PR machines may tell you, the biggest race of the day is "only" 500 miles.