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05/28/2014

A sad truth continues for the winner of the Indy 500

IMG_0353FORT WORTH, Texas - As someone who grew up attending the Indy 500, the following fact is depressing - the winner of the Indy 500 has to inform the masses of who he is, and to sell his sport like some modern day PT Barnum.

Open wheel racing, which once was much bigger than stock car, remains deeply hurt from the explosion of cable TV, and its own inept leadership. The sad part is that this style of racing is more exciting than any other in North America. 

On Wednesday afternoon at Joe T. Garcia's in Fort Worth, Texas Motor Speedway rolled out the winner of the 2014 Indianapolis 500, Ryan Hunter-Reay, to the media, and select season ticket holders and sponsors. Hunter-Reay will be driving at the Firestone 600 Verizon IndyCar event at TMS on June 7. 

He is well spoken. Charming. Self depricating. Funny. Decent. American. He is also the new spokesperson for the Livestrong foundation, which was formerly belonged to Lance Armstrong.

Hunter-Ray is all of the things you would want in a champion. His sport just needs more of him. 

IndyCar, like boxing and horseracing, has become more of a niche sport. Outside of the tradition of flipping on the TV on the last Sunday in May to watch the Indy 500, there remains no must-see open wheel event because there is minimal driver recognition.

That problem has plagued this sport before the split of the two governing bodies - CART and IRL - and since the two sides "reunified" five years ago.

"The split brought it down to nothing," Hunter-Reay said. "It needs to gain more of a following. It doesn't happen overnight. It's working outside, pushing to mainstream media out of just motorsports."

This is a not for a lack of effort on the part of the drivers, or the diehards involved. They care, and they are trying. Some of this sports' fallen popularity is a sports' culture that is fragmented and can service the individual needs of a consumer better than ever.

Celeb87953269For years, Indy Racing execs have tried to sell the idea that it is gaining momentum, and rebuilding to what it was when drivers such as Unser, Mears, Rutherford, Andretti made for must-see racing. 

TMS president Eddie Gossage said he does not believe this sport has fully recovered.

"No. We are still talking about (the split) some, although not much any more," he told me. "Gil de Ferran, who won the 2003 Indy 500, he and I were talking and we both felt Sunday was a turning point. We moved over a hump. I don't know why we felt that, but you got that sense Sunday. And hopefully that is the case, and we can forget about what it cost. Because it cost sponsors, it certainly cost fans. Those two go hand in hand.

"Sponsors are your best marketers. NASCAR, God bless 'em, they are good - they will tell you they built this thing from nothing. I'm telling you, having been with them when it was nothing, it was the sponsors that built it. It was Winston, it was the beers, it was the soft drinks, it was Lowe's and Home Depot. You need that. If you don't have that, you don't have fans. It's a Catch-22, and I don't know which one is first."

Indy Car delivers an exciting brand of racing, particularly at Texas Motor Speedway, but it still needs more sponsors. And fans. We shouldn't have to wonder who is the winner of the Indy 500.

@MacEngelProf
tengel@star-telegram.com
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