IT DIDN'T seem allthat significant at the time. Last September, Helio Castroneves, a two-timewinner of the Indianapolis 500, began competing on ABC's Dancing with theStars. With an audience of nearly 25 million viewers tuning in for the finalepisode, Castroneves, displaying the same silky grace he's known for on thetrack, won the competition with partner Julianne Hough, causing his Q rating toskyrocket. "I am now the king of the grandmas, because everywhere I go,people tell me that their grandma loves me from watching the show," saysthe handsome Brazilian, laughing. "Winning Dancing with the Stars helpedour entire sport because people who normally wouldn't check out our races arestarting to do that."
Indeed,Castroneves's charisma has been a boon for the entire IndyCar Series, and it'sone reason why the once struggling sport of open-wheel racing is starting torebound. Through four races this season, TV ratings for IndyCar are up 23% from2007, and according to the series traffic to its official website, Indycar.com,has increased 90% each month this year. Deep-pocketed sponsors such asCoca-Cola, DirecTV and Peak Motor Oil have recently signed long-term deals withthe series. And though IndyCar hasn't had a title sponsor since2000—sponsorship being one of the telltale signs of a racing league's financialhealth—officials are close to locking in one for 2008 and beyond.
Is this a returnto the glory days of the 1970s and '80s, when names like Andretti, Foyt andRutherford ruled the open-wheel ranks? No, not quite yet, but IndyCar isrelevant again. One big reason, apart from Castroneves's fancy footwork, isIndyCar's merger with Champ Car, formerly known as CART. The two open-wheelseries had been competing since 1996, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway ownerTony George broke away from CART and formed the rival Indy Racing League. (Itnamed its premier series IndyCar in 2003.) The split caused confusion amongfans (triggering a free fall in TV ratings, attendance and the popularity ofopen-wheel racing, which in the early 1990s arguably rivaled that of NASCAR),drove away sponsors and pushed promising young American open-wheel drivers suchas Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne into stock cars. But after yearsof squabbling, George's IndyCar series agreed on Feb. 22 to absorb Champ Car,ending the open-wheel cold war. "Unification has removed the biggestbarrier we had," says Terry Angstadt, president of IndyCar's commercialdivision. "We're open for business like never before."
Still, it'spersonalities that drive any sport—so what about star power? Marketers have hadto work around the fact that since 1995 only four winners of the Indy 500 havebeen American—and even the top U.S. drivers have little name recognition.(Quick, name two facts about Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy 500 winner, or EddieCheever Jr., the '98 champ.) But that is starting to change, and not justbecause American sports fans are thinking more globally. Consider Graham Rahal,the 19-year-old son of 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal. On April 6, in the secondrace of the year, in St. Petersburg, the mature-beyond-his-years Rahal becamethe youngest driver to win a North American open-wheel race. Rahal drove inChamp Car in '07, and his victory dispelled fears among former Champ teams thatthey couldn't compete with the existing IndyCar operations. Rahal also showedthat he possesses all the elements of a star driver in the making: a veteran'ssavvy on the track and the poise and wit to trade bons mots with DavidLetterman—who happens to co-own an Indy team with Graham's father—ten daysafter his historic win. Rahal told Letterman that Castroneves's ability todance "worries him" and, since he was denied champagne after hisvictory because he's too young to drink, sprayed bubbly all over the EdSullivan Theater audience.
Nor is Rahal theonly young driver in the series who boasts a glamorous last name. MarcoAndretti, 21, led 13 laps in last year's Indy 500 before suffering a crash, andhe's well positioned to finally break the Andretti curse at Indy. (Marco andhis grandfather Mario; great-uncle Aldo; father, Michael; and uncle Jeff are acombined 1 for 58 in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.) And then there'sAndretti's teammate at Andretti Green Racing—a driver you may have seen a lotof—Danica Patrick.
On April 19Patrick took the checkered flag in Motegi, Japan. It was her first victory in50 career IndyCar starts, and it moved Indy racing to the front of the sportssection while proving that she's not Anna Kournikova in fireproof clothing."I was so tired of hearing the question, 'Can you win?'" says the26-year-old Patrick, who has done ads for Honda, Motorola and XM SatelliteRadio. "I feel like this is just the beginning for me. And our series isbetter now than ever. People on the street are starting to know about us, moremoney is coming in, and the exposure is growing. It's a snowballeffect."
Perhaps, but whilesnowballs are nice, it's summer that IndyCar racing would like to reclaim,starting with the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500, on May 25. A ratingsboost seems almost inevitable, with Rahal, Castroneves, Andretti and Patrick inthe hunt. Can IndyCar ever catch NASCAR, which claims a fan base of 90 million?That will be tough, but suddenly the future of open-wheel racing in the U.S.appears bright. Just ask your grandma.
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After years of squabbling, the recent merger ENDED THEOPEN-WHEEL COLD WAR.
ILLUSTRATION BY ANDY FRIEDMAN