Grinding Gears

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 he is? 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.

Meanwhile, what happened to Indy-car racing? How did a sport so rich in history, so spiced with peril, so lavishly encrusted with myth -- the sport of Bill Vukovich and Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears and everyone in Albuquerque whose last name is Unser -- run out of gas? And what, if anything, can refuel it?

As any self-respecting gearhead can tell you, the trouble began in 1996, when the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George, broke away from the sport's sanctioning body, Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), to found the Indy Racing League. In the early years of the split, CART still had the best-funded teams and the glitzy names -- Andretti, Unser, Fittipaldi. But George had a lock on the all-important Indy 500. When relatively unknown IRL drivers such as Vail's Buddy Lazier and Sweden's Kenny Brack won the big race (in 1996 and 1999, respectively), many fans began to feel shortchanged, and the grumbling grew louder that Indy had become second-rate. At odds over engine formulas, racing sites and philosophy -- the IRL stressed traditional U.S. oval racing powered by relatively low budgets, while CART increasingly went for twisty city-street circuits -- the warring factions divided the paying customers, too. Both series suffered at the box office.

Meanwhile, NASCAR's top circuit, then called the Winston Cup, now the Nextel Cup, continued to make serious inroads. For decades, big-time stock-car racing had been confined to the Southeast -- the Carolinas, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia. Its Southern, good-ol'-boy image -- Junior Johnson hustling a load of moonshine over a ribbon of two-lane blacktop with the revenuers in hot pursuit, Fireball Roberts happily trading paint with Buck Baker in turn three at Rockingham -- seemed secure. But the powers-that-were in NASCAR -- series founder Bill France, his descendants and a team of sharp PR people -- knew opportunity when it knocked. While its Indy-car rivals bickered with each other, NASCAR expanded to new venues in Michigan, California and the Northeast, wooed millions of new fans and cannily marketed its driver stars as congenial working men who would tirelessly sign autographs, broil hot dogs for your kids at race-weekend cookouts and maybe even help you change the oil in the Winnebago.

Then tragedy turned into unforeseen advantage. Half of all NASCAR fans -- 30 million strong by 2000 -- may have detested the Man in Black, Dale Earnhardt, because they were fierce Bill Elliott or Terry Labonte or Dale Jarrett partisans, while the other half worshiped him. But when the seven-time series champion's famous black No. 3 Chevrolet smashed into a wall on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Winston Cup's financial and spiritual triumph over the open-wheelers was complete. With Earnhardt's death, NASCAR didn't just hold all the aces in terms of sponsorship, TV audience share and fan base, but it now had an authentic martyr, an emotional touchstone, to seal the deal and put the pedal to the metal in the 21st century. Last year, CART failed altogether and was hastily reorganized as the Champ Car World Series. There's no guarantee it will survive. The best thing for Indy-car racing, most observers believe, would be an immediate Champ Car surrender to the IRL, not all that healthy itself, but now much the stronger of the two factions. The other idea? Danica Patrick sets up a kissing booth in the pits, with all proceeds going to the mechanics' lunch fund.

Even Indy 500 majordomo George has capitulated to NASCAR: In 1994, the Brickyard 400, a Winston Cup stock-car race, was run for the first time at his Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and it's been a good earner ever since. But many open-wheel purists say that struck a fatal blow to the mystique of the Indy 500. At last year's Grand Prix of Denver, you could still see wishful thinking emblazoned on the occasional T-shirt: "Too Dumb for Opera, Too Smart for NASCAR," the message read. But such defiance doesn't take into account some gloomy facts. The underfinanced Champ Car Series continues to lose race teams, and as few as seventeen cars sometimes roll to the starting grid -- all of them Ford-powered. Meanwhile, this is the last season that Chevrolet will supply engines to the IRL, and published reports claim Honda and Toyota will also pull the plug before long. Catch 'em while you can -- Danica Patrick, too -- on August 21 at Pikes Peak, site of the Honda Indy 225.

Some IRL and Champ Car Series team owners worry openly about the future of the sport. Veteran Carl Haas, who partners with actor Paul Newman in the team Bourdais leads, warns: "We'll continue to lose fans until we bring the two series together." The IRL is adding more road races to its schedule in an apparent attempt to finish Champ Car off -- and to attract new engine manufacturers, including Cosworth. An IRL-controlled merger may be in the offing. David Phillips, a well-versed commentator for cable television's Speed Channel (which will carry the Denver race to what backers say is a potential 76 million homes), speaks for many when he says that's the lone hope for Indy cars. "The only way for open-wheel racing to regain any measure of its former glory and popularity," he says, "is to get behind one series with one marketing objective and one set of values."

Still, some Indy-car races manage to sell out, and Denver's temporary road course is one of the more successful venues. In 2004, the race's third running, 130,000 fans showed up over three days. And despite some local rumblings about lagging sales of luxury suites, the race's Freudenberg insists that corporate support is strong. The city also is bullish. "We win," says Magner, who says that all the costs are underwritten by the organizers. And while he says that there's no way to directly calculate the economic benefit, the city does benefit.

Yet if Denver's hanging on, it's bucking a trend. Overall, TV viewership and the flow of sponsor dollars appear anemic, and most Champ Car Series races are not even carried by a network. At the same time, fans who were hoping for a surge of open-wheel interest thanks to the long-awaited return of Formula One racing to America, have suffered another major setback. On June 19, the newly revived United States Grand Prix was contested, more or less, at that holiest of shrines, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 2001, owner George had built a challenging new road course at the old Brickyard, where the regally bred, blood-red Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello could do battle with their rivals from BMW-Williams and McLaren-Mercedes. For the first two years, everything was fine, including the post-race champagne baths. But just before the start of this year's race, seven racing teams -- fourteen cars! -- withdrew from the field after their tire supplier, Michelin, warned them that the rubber they were running might shred on the high banking of Indy's famous turn one, a corner incorporated into the new F1 circuit. Only six cars competed, including the two winning Ferraris, while infuriated racing fans pelted Indy's venerable pavement with bottles and debris, shouted for refunds and generally tore up the joint. In the wake of the fiasco, the U.S. Grand Prix may once more be an extinct species -- at least in Indianapolis. And what's bad for Formula One in America is also bad for Indy Cars; they draw much of the same crowd. The natural beneficiary? NASCAR Nation.

Will there be a Grand Prix of Denver in 2006? Hard to tell. Magner says city workers typically meet with organizers about a month after the race to do a post-mortem and to begin planning next year's event. Should the organizers pull out, there's a nominal $59,250 penalty in the contract.

Will the Indy Racing League soon cherry-pick failing Champ Car's most lucrative racing sites and discontinue races at its own marginal ones, Pikes Peak included? No one knows. Will Sebastian Bourdais land a ride in F1 before Denver can buy him another glass of vin rouge? Your guess is as good as anyone's. Could Danica Patrick, Indy Car's glamour girl, wind up behind the wheel of a 750-horsepower Ford Taurus? You got me. Indy Car's previous female hope, Sarah Fisher, has already switched to Busch Series stock cars, and if she does well, the pressure will mount to promote her to the Nextel Cup. As the Indy Car teams roll on in uncertainty, only a couple of things seem clear. You can bet your last tablespoon of high test that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip are basking in their rivals' disorder. At home in his race shop, the King, Richard Petty, has got to be grinning under his black cowboy hat. And every last man, woman and child from Mobile to the Carolinas has got to be thinking: Told you so. Told you we'd win this war. We even got a lot of you Yankees on our side this time around.

Nextel Cup in Denver, anyone?


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