Blown Away

JOLIET, Ill. - It seems the first two weeks in September have annual repeating themes for me.

Spending Labor Day weekend in southern California rather than Darlington is a monumental bad idea that NASCAR, despite four years now of failure, won't admit as a wrong deed.

And the infinite wisdom of the Indy Racing League continues to believe holding its final, title-deciding race of the season in Chicago on the second weekend of September is a good idea.

The IRL rolls into Chicagoland Speedway for Sunday's PEAK Antifreeze Indy 300 with one of the tightest point battles in motorsports history - just three points separate Dario Franchitti from Scott Dixon, with Tony Kanaan lurking a mere 39 points out in third.

NASCAR could only dream about the frenzy that scenario would create if the NEXTEL Cup championship came down to such a close margin.

But you'd never know it.

The media's attention is in about a thousand different places this weekend, as it usually is in major market like Chicago.

The Cubs are somehow still in a pennant race, the NFL season kicks off highlighted by the Bears playing in San Diego Sunday afternoon and the PGA Tour, maybe one step down on the smart scale from the IRL's scheduling department, has thrown an event of its bomb known as the FedEx Cup into the "Windy City" area as well.

Throw in high school and college football and the IRL barely registers a blip on the radar.

It's a shame.

I've written this before, as has other media-types who plainly see the problem with scheduling this race on this particular weekend. The fact is the IRL - and Chicagoland Speedway - deserve better.

The IndyCar Series consistently puts on excting races at tracks like Chicagoland's 1.5-mile layout. Two hours of side-by-side racing and photo finishes are the norm not the exception.

And with the unbelievably close championship battle plus the added sidebar of Danica Patrick, who like it or not still generates heat in the media world, there's enough storylines here to satisfy any editor or sports director.

Throw in the bad blood between Dixon and the Andretti-Green Racing Team and all that's missing is a Tony Kanaan-Sam Hornish, Sr. rematch on pit road.

So we have the set-up for a stellar race of high-speed action and title implications. But despite all it has going for it, the race is going to be a tough sell.

Oh the event will officially be termed a sell-out since Chicagoland Speedway utilizes the "Track Pass" policy whereby in order to buy tickets for the ultra-popular NASCAR weekend in July fans must also purchase the IRL event. But as in year's past, roughly half of those tickets will go unused with a crowd of about 40,000 anticipated to be in the stands on Sunday afternoon.

Getting local media attention for Sunday's race will be tough with the Bears and Cubs taking up most of the headlines and TV time.

With Joliet about a 90-minute drive from downtown Chicago it's not always an easy task enticing the media to head out to the track. It's been that way since the IRL first came to Chicagoland and saddled the track with the September date.

The logical answer is to move the race back, either to Labor Day weekend or into August. If lights are in Joliet's future, a prime time race in mid-August would surely entice more fans to actually use the tickets they were forced to buy and provide the media with a lot less conflicts.

It's certainly not the track's fault they were given such a tough date to sell. The schedule-makers at the IRL have to do a better job of leveraging their events and putting together the best slate possible.

And ABC made things even worse this year by implementing a 3 p.m. local time start - about 15 minutes before the Bears open their quest for a return Super Bowl trip against San Diego.

There are many factors in the process, television partners, venue availability, sponsors, etc. But the last race of the year, to decide a title, should put the series in the spotlight, not having to be viewed through a telescope.

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