Grinding Gears

Is Denver's Grand Prix headed down a racing dead end?

Anyone who can do a quick thumbnail on Sebastian Bourdais is running way ahead of the field. The French foreign minister, you say? A Parisian shoe designer? The pastry chef at Le Central? No. None of the above. If you've got a little Pennzoil in your crankcase, you know that Sebastian Bourdais is the blond, bespectacled, certified public accountant-looking guy from LeMans, France, who happens to be the reigning champion and current points leader in the Champ Car World Series -- more formally known as the "Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford."

How about Dan Wheldon? Know who heis? The Rockies' latest insert at second base? Paris Hilton's new boyfriend? The guy who installed your satellite dish? Nope. Don't let this get around, but Dan Wheldon is the young British race-car driver who won the Indianapolis 500 on May 29. The fellow who drank the milk. He's also taken the checkers in three of the other races staged in 2005 by the Indy Racing League. But the vast majority of Americans have never heard of him. Ask your next-door neighbors who won the Indy 500 this year, and it's a good bet they'll say Mario Andretti. Or A. J. Foyt. Or, if your neighbors are a hundred years old, Wilbur Shaw.

This just in: Sebastian Bourdais will be driving a race car around the Pepsi Center this Sunday afternoon as part of the CENTRIX Financial Grand Prix of Denver, and a week later, Dan Wheldon will drive one around the one-mile oval at Pikes Peak International Raceway, south of Colorado Springs. Both of them want you to know that. If you're not busy scrubbing the kitchen counters or rotating the tires on the pickup, they'd also love it if you dropped by to watch. But they're probably not counting on it. Next year, or the year after that, they might not even show up themselves. There might not be a race to show up for.

City and race officials beg to differ, and they're still revved about the event. "Based on ticket sales and sponsorship, I think it's here to stay," says Jim Freudenberg, vice-president and general manager of the Grand Prix. Adds Kevin Magner, special-events coordinator for Denver's Department of Denver Public Works, "I think it's good for the city." And because the seven-year contract that the city and organizers signed to launch the event in 2002 includes a five-year option, it could last until at least 2013. "I hope it does," adds Magner, who believes the city reaps both tangible and intangible benefits from the rally. "And it costs zero."

But the bigger picture is cloudy. Split into two competing series nearly a decade ago, national Indy-car racing continues to face the most serious crisis in its history: Dwindling crowds, indifferent TV coverage and uncertain sponsorships have reduced a once-prosperous sport to an also-ran in a marketplace overstuffed with choices. Like horse racing, which intrigues the general public only on Kentucky Derby Day, open-wheel racing now catches a big crowd only on the last Sunday in May, when the green flag drops at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But even the Indy 500 has lost much of its luster. Before 23-year-old Danica Patrick, the attractive, talented rookie who moved to open-wheel racing's top level in March, qualified fourth at Indy and actually led for a couple of laps en route to finishing fourth, the sport's optimists had already appointed her its savior. She decorated the cover of Sports Illustrated, jousted with the big-league talk-show hosts and modeled sleek cocktail dresses in Maxim. But the Danica hype has died down. Her best finish since Indy was a seventh in Nashville. She ran a dismal nineteenth in Milwaukee on July 24 and blew the engine two weeks ago in Michigan. When the smoke cleared, hard facts remained: Even a second-rank NASCAR race at Darlington or Charlotte continues to attract millions more TV viewers than the Indy, and NASCAR's signature event, the Daytona 500, has long since supplanted it as America's favorite auto race.

Of course, at this point NASCAR could stick Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon into a couple of '73 Ford Pintos and have them run laps around a Safeway parking lot and people would show up to watch. Thousands of them, with their motor homes and their beer coolers and their unbridled passion for Junior and Rusty and Darrell Waltrip's little brother Michael. At some Nextel Cup races, there's even an Andretti in the field, driving a car with fenders and a roof. On June 21, Canadian racer Paul Tracy, a former Champ Car Series champion who will compete here Sunday, will make his NASCAR debut at Michigan International Speedway. Tracy says he will drive just one stock-car race this year, for the top team, Richard Childress Racing. But many see that as a bad omen -- another star defection in the making. Some Indy-car insiders speculate that Patrick, the most marketable figure they've had in years, will be next. Could she wind up in a Nextel Cup car, storming around Talladega? Or on Europe's glamorous, snooty Formula One circuit? For now, the captivating rookie's not talking.

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