High-tech Europeans visit Indy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It might look like a culture clash when European-style racing comes to Indianapolis's famous Speedway this weekend: Ascot meets blue collar. The knights of road racing duking it out at the Brickyard.

The two continents even race in opposite directions: counterclockwise in America, clockwise (mostly) in Europe.

Nevertheless, this Sunday will mark the third annual running of the United States Grand Prix in Indianapolis, the only Formula One race in the country. With it ride the hopes of racing organizers and fans on both sides of the Atlantic. If they can find the right fit, Formula One and Indy-style racing might not clash at all. They might forge an alliance as mutually beneficial as, well, French fries and ketchup.

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To the casual observer, a Formula One car looks similar to an Indy car. Both are open-wheeled. But underneath the hood, the European cars are far more advanced, using cutting-edge technology. Top Indy teams might spend $30 million a year to compete; Formula One teams can spend 10 times that.

Drivers have long bounced between the Formula One and Indy cars. The challenge now is finding American fans willing to see what the other style of racers are doing.

"Make no mistake," says Kevin Forbes, while whizzing through a white-knuckle lap of the Formula One track he designed for Indianapolis. "We are not in the racing business. We're in the entertainment business. We sell tickets."

Formula One would like nothing better than to hook fans in America, the world's richest corporate market. Despite wide appeal on other continents, advanced technology, and solid overseas corporate support, Formula One racing has made little impact in the US. After several abortive attempts to hold races, Formula One gave up on America until 2000, when Indianapolis stepped forward. In its first year, the grand prix race here attracted a surprising 100,000 fans. This year, organizers are hoping for 150,000 – a respectable crowd but barely filling half the seats of the huge Speedway that hosts the Indianapolis 500 each May.

"Formula One certainly has some work to do to become as successful as it would like to be in the United States," says Jeremy Burne, North American director of Britain's Motorsport Industry Association. "While the rest of the world is watching soccer [or Formula One], America is watching something else."

And when football, baseball, and basketball fans make the switch to motor racing, they're far more likely to watch NASCAR's popular stock-car circuit than Formula One or Indy racing. It doesn't help that Americans have to get up early in the morning to catch live TV coverage of a Formula One race in Europe.

Another drawback: The lack of American drivers to root for in Formula One. Toward that end, former Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan has teamed up with energy-drink maker Red Bull to find drivers. The first four will be announced today and head to Europe for training.

While Formula One is trying to make a splash in the US, the Indianapolis Racing League (IRL) has growth plans of its own. Long the underdog in its six-year battle with Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), which also races open-wheeled Indy cars, the IRL in the last year has gained the upper hand. Key defections to the IRL – including CART stalwarts Roger Penske and Michael Andretti – have raised questions about the future of the latter series.

"CART has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel right now," says the owner of one Indianapolis-based motor-sports company that handles business for both series.

Now, IRL founder Tony George wants to build on his success. Next year, the series will hold its first race overseas – in Japan. "And I definitely would like the opportunity to consider running Indy cars in Europe," he says. "But we'll just have to wait and see what happens."

George came close to sealing a deal with ABC and ESPN a year ago, in which the networks would broadcast IRL and Formula One races on alternate weekends. The deal fell through, and the broadcasters' enthusiasm has since waned. But IRL retains some advantages.

It offers some of the most competitive racing in the world. Unlike Formula One, where passing is rare and Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher long ago captured this year's championship, the Indy cars feature lots of passing and side-by-side driving. And the IRL has had much closer margins of victory than NASCAR. Sam Hornish Jr. won the IRL title earlier this month on the last lap of the last race. His margin of victory: less than a foot.

The IRL also retains the most storied race in motor sports: the Indianapolis 500. George has modernized the Indianapolis speedway. He's brought in not only the Grand Prix but also the Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR's premier events. These three races rank among the top five in attendance among single-day US sporting events. They pump an estimated $727 million into the local economy, roughly equivalent to hosting three Super Bowls in a single year.

Indianapolis has long attracted the international racing world. Foreign drivers have won more than a fifth of its races. Formula One mechanics have switched to Indy-style cars, and technology regularly flows from the Formula One series to the less expensive and more tightly regulated Indy cars; and European companies are beginning to service the IRL circuit.

The question is whether fans of America's wide-open oval racing and those of Europe's highly technical road racing can make the mental leap to appreciate the other style.

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