The thrill that goes round ... and round

Even many sports fans just don't get it, don't understand the fascination with auto racing, especially the quintessential American variety - on an oval track.

It's the ultimate in round ... and round ... and round. Too boring, many conclude.

If any auto race can attract nonfans to the sport, however, it is the king of oval racing, the Indianapolis 500: older, bigger, and more storied than almost any other.

Bob Goodrich doesn't sugarcoat the challenge confronting him as producer of this Sunday's Indianapolis 500 telecast. This is Goodrich's 30th year covering the race for ABC Sports - and ratings have been stagnant for three years.

Nevertheless, expectations are running high in Gasoline Alley. "I haven't been this excited in years, because we have so many great story lines," Goodrich says. Telling a great story is critical, since about 75 percent of his viewers will not have watched another auto race this year.

What viewers will find is a tightly packed field of 33 cars, which turned in qualifying speeds between 221 and 226 m.p.h. The lineup has pole sitter Scott Sharp, two-time winner Arie Luyendyk (who has come out of retirement), and a woman, Sarah Fisher, who will start her second Indy 500 in the 15th position and is considered an up-and-coming star.

The field also has Tony Stewart, the winningest driver on the NASCAR stock-car circuit last year, and Michael Andretti, a superstar who has missed Indy in recent years while competing on a rival circuit.

"The dynamics this year are far more similar to what I call the dynamics of the 1960s," says Jack Arute, a veteran auto-racing reporter for ABC. He says the emphasis is back on who's driving and not on the divisions within the sport.

In 1996, Indy-style racing split into two camps when the upstart Indy Racing League (the IRL, whose crown jewel is the Indy 500) broke away from the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) circuit.

The civil war in some ways couldn't have happened at a worse time, given the surging popularity of NASCAR. The schism still exists, but in some respects "the war is over," says Arute. Tensions seem to have subsided, and IRL's rules have changed to invite crossovers between the two circuits.

One of the major motivations in founding the IRL was to create an exclusive oval-track circuit, rather than mixing in events on road courses, as CART does.

If the appeal of oval-track racing eludes some sports fans, the breach is not insurmountable. Sportswriter Joe Menzer knows the feeling. Six years ago, he moved from covering pro basketball in Cleveland to football in North Carolina. "I came down here thinking there's no way I'm ever going to get excited about NASCAR racing; it's just not for me," he says.

So what happened? He went from being hesitant to writing a history of NASCAR titled "The Wildest Ride" (Simon & Schuster), due out in July.

Menzer says NASCAR's powerful cars and pageantry are an alluring assault on the senses. He also likes the personalities, the incredibly fast pit stops, and the impressive driving abilities.

The better drivers, he says, can "see air" and draft behind other cars, keep control if bumped, avoid trouble generally, and drive deeper into the corners at faster speeds. "A guy like Jeff Gordon will stay on the throttle longer than a guy who doesn't trust his skill level enough, and he'll do it consistently, lap after lap," Menzer says.

Dick Jordan of the US Auto Club, a sanctioning body, says Gordon is among the stars who cut his teeth in short-track racing. These grass-roots auto races, held on tracks of less than a mile, are at the heart of the interest in motor sports.

Of about a thousand such tracks around the country, says Allan Brown, editor and publisher of the National Speedway Directory, about a quarter are asphalt and three-quarters dirt, a more forgiving surface. "You can kind of lose control and gain it back a lot easier," he says. "On asphalt, once your tires lose their grip, you're at the mercy of centrifugal force."

Fans flock to watch auto racing in person because "there's more action on the track than what you can show on TV," Brown says. Television, however, has brought more cameras to bear on coverage than ever before, and will zoom in on battles off the lead - when drivers are jockeying for third place, for example.

Part of NASCAR's popularity is built on its close, bumper-to-bumper racing. At the recent Talladega 500, 29 cars were on the lead lap at the finish, a 500-mile record.

At Indianapolis, the winged thoroughbreds not only look different, they dictate a different type of race. "You're not rubbing fenders and putting wheel donuts on the side of doors," Arute says. "It's more precision. It's more like you're dancing on the ledge of the Empire State Building."

For Goodrich, there's a lot of strategy involved at Indy, one of three factors that makes the race so interesting. The others are the difficulty in passing (it's a mini-event he compares with scoring a goal in soccer), and the incredible speeds.

"I don't care if you own a Ferrari and you're on the German autobahn, where they have no speed limits," Arute says. "You're never going to be able to drive an on-road car at 200 m.p.h. So there's a romance there that race drivers are doing something that's not available to me."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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