Sunday, August 05, 2001

Auto racing insider

Crowd for IRL will be strong

        Kentucky Speedway officials expect more than 40,000 people for next Sunday's IRL race, despite heavy competition for the local sports dollar.

        The Belterra Casino Indy 300 is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Aug.12 (ABC). The same hour, the Reds play Colorado at Cinergy Field (1:15 p.m.) and the Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati has its championship match (1 p.m.).

        The speedway should still get a big crowd, as the so-called “stick and ball” sports such as baseball and tennis attract completely different fan bases.

        “We'll get over 40,000, which will be a great crowd,” speedway chairman Jerry Carroll said. “This is a popular event around here.”

        The IRL, officially named the Indy Racing Northern Light Series, was formed in 1996 as an open-wheel alternative to the established CART series. Indianapolis 500 loyalists still blame IRL founder Tony George for ruining their race, although CART teams began to return in 2000.

        In Cincinnati, just 100 miles east of Indianapolis, there has been a long affinity with open-wheel racing.

        “The Midwest is where the IRL fans are,” Carroll said.

        The IRL drew a near-capacity crowd of 61,214 for its first Kentucky event last year. Some of that was because of the newness of the facility, some because of excellent promotion. But the fans are out there.

        Buddy Lazier, a former Indy 500 winner (1996) who won last year's IRL race at Kentucky, said he was impressed with the crowd at Sparta.

        “I was amazed by the enthusiasm of the fans,” Lazier said. “There should be great racing here for decades to come.”

        Sam Hornish Jr. and Lazier are 1-2 in the IRL season points race. Young, marketable stars such as Hornish and Sarah Fisher are drawing new fans, and Fisher will sign autographs at Kings Island today (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.) to help promote the Kentucky race.

        Attendance has risen at most 2001 IRL events, and the series schedule will grow from 13 to 15 events next year. Speeds are higher and the racing is often better than the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, but the IRL struggles to compete with NASCAR in fan interest.

        “The fact is, the IRL is definitely gaining in popularity,” IRL star Al Unser Jr. recently told the Kansas City Star. “NASCAR is setting the standard for what fans want to see. But we're young. This series is just six years old.”

        TRAC UPDATE: Team Racing Auto Circuit (TRAC), the startup stock car series, opened a 5,000-square-foot office in Huntersville, N.C., last week. TRAC, with retired driver Carl Yarborough among its board members, was launched in May as a “complementary” series to NASCAR.

        TRAC quickly was compared to the XFL, Vince McMahon's failed football alternative to the NFL. But so far, it's still around. TRAC plans to locate stock-car racing teams in major markets around the country, hoping to generate local and regional interest in those teams.

        “At first, people couldn't seem to get out of their minds that this is direct competition for NASCAR,” TRAC president Joe Pritchett told the Charlotte Observer. “That is not at all what we're doing. It is important for people to know that seeing TRAC succeed does not means that something else has to fail.”

        LOCAL SCENE: The annual Brandie Browder Memorial Junior Dragster race is Saturday at Tristate Dragway, Hamilton. The youngsters compete for over $9,000 in savings bonds.

        Contact Tom Groeschen at 768-8450; fax: 768-8550; e-mail:

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