IRL action electrifies fans in new markets. INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, Feb. 9, 2004 -- Texas Motor Speedway was heralded as the newest palace in auto racing's kingdom when it opened near Fort Worth in 1997. The Lone Star state's only operational...
IRL action electrifies fans in new markets.
INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, Feb. 9, 2004 -- Texas Motor Speedway was heralded as the newest palace in auto racing's kingdom when it opened near Fort Worth in 1997. The Lone Star state's only operational super speedway planned to offer the biggest and finest in racing entertainment.
Its inaugural Indy Racing League event was presented on July 7, 1997, with Arie Luyendyk emerging as the victor. It was the first time Indy-style cars had raced on a super speedway in Texas in 18 years. The previous event was in 1979 at Texas World Speedway near Bryan.
"It's had great success here," said Eddie Gossage, executive vice president and general manager of TMS. "From the drop of the first green flag in '97 to the drop of the checkered last fall, it's been competitive every race. It has truly been an amazing success story."
Texas Motor Speedway quickly solidified itself on the IRL IndyCar Series schedule. It's the only track to host two races a year -- following the Indianapolis 500 and the season closer in October. It's at the forefront of the IRL's fifth and final founding principle of taking the sport to new markets and new fans.
Gossage calls the track the "second home of the IRL."
"From 1970 through the early '80s, this kind of racing didn't enjoy any wild success at Texas World Speedway, so this was a virgin market," said Gossage, who has been at the helm since the track's opening. "We had the benefit of great heritage in the state of Texas with A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Lloyd Ruby, Jim McElreath, Jim Hall, Bobby Hillin and others, so we had that to build on.
"I say to the staff, 'If we don't treat it like a big deal, nobody else will.' We treat the IRL races the same as our NASCAR race. It's paid off for us."
The track has one NASCAR Nextel Cup race in addition to its two IRL events -- the Bombardier 500 on June 12 and the Chevy 500 on Oct. 17 this year.
"Our IRL races are the most talked about races in the industry," Gossage said. "I've had drivers like Jeff Gordon and Kyle Petty tell me when one of our (IRL) races is on, they park in front of the TV. Race fans around the world are electrified by the IRL races at Texas."
The Texas track is owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., renowned for its promotion.
"One of the smartest things the IRL has done is the autograph sessions," Gossage said. "The fans are beside themselves when they get to meet Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish Jr., Eddie Cheever, Greg Ray. The series had the reputation of being an elitist, uppity crowd. Somehow, the IRL has turned that around.
"At the season finale (in 2003), I got in the flag stand to introduce the drivers before the start and they walked down different aisles in the grandstand to the fence and went through the gate to the race track. I had a fan write me an e-mail that he couldn't believe we were doing this. He said, 'I turned and Al Unser Jr. was standing two feet away from me.' Those have paid dividends."
With a 16-race all-oval schedule for 2004, the venues represent a blend of the new and the rekindled in the long history of the series surrounding the Indianapolis 500.
California Speedway in Fontana, which will host its third IRL race -- the Toyota Indy 400 on Oct. 3 -- is near the site where the opulent Ontario Motor Speedway stood and staged 500-mile Indy-type car races through the 1970s. Indy-style cars have run at Phoenix since 1950 (at Phoenix International Raceway since 1964) and Michigan since Ronnie Bucknum won the track's inaugural race in 1968. Indy-style car events have run off and on at Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania since 1968, when the track was dirt.
Then there's the new side. No National Driving Championship or Indy-style car race was held in Kentucky until the IRL visited Kentucky Speedway in 2000. That race was the first in the Cincinnati market since a 250-miler on a board track in Cincinnati in 1919.
At Chicagoland Speedway, the IRL's event in September marries the past and present. In 1916, Dario Resta won on both the boards at Chicago and the bricks at Indianapolis to claim the first National Driving Championship. When the IRL went to Pikes Peak in '97, it was the first time for Indy-style cars on an oval in Colorado since Bill Vukovich won a 100-miler on the dirt in 1952 at Denver.
In 2001, the IRL journeyed to the new Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., the first time an Indy-style car championship race had been conducted anywhere near the area since a dirt race in 1970 at Sedalia, Mo.
"They're exposing themselves to new fans and new markets," said Jeff Boerger, president of Kansas Speedway. "We're very fortunate to be located in the Midwest and our fans have welcomed us with open arms. Indianapolis is much closer to Kansas City than, say, California and people are familiar with the '500.' At the beginning, we made a strong effort to show what types of events we'd be holding, like IRL and NASCAR. We sell our package as a season ticket and since day one, and we've sold out each race we've had at Kansas Speedway."
Boerger said the IRL races have been "hits." This year's race -- the Kansas Indy 300 -- will be held on July 4.
"The races have been very competitive over the first three years," he said. "The IRL races have side-by-side racing, close finishes. It's a great race to watch and the fans have recognized that. They like the fact the IRL drivers are accessible. We have an interactive area called Fan Walk, where we set up autograph sessions, and we've had a very good turnout there. The fans have really opened up to it.
"We've sold out every year and we're already sold out for 2004. It's been very well-received and will continue to be in this marketplace."
When the Indy Racing League ran races in Nashville, Tenn., and Richmond, Va., in 2001, it marked the first time for Indy-style cars to run in either state.
Cliff Hawks, vice president and general manager of Nashville Speedway, said the IRL's entry into the middle-Tennessee market had question marks only to start.
"The key elements in promoting the IRL in middle Tennessee are two things," Hawks said. "One, the speeds of 200 miles an hour that the drivers would reach. It quickly became evident that the IRL would have the fastest race ever on an oval track in Tennessee. Two, these are the same cars and same drivers that run in the Indianapolis 500, arguably the largest and most popular race in the world. When you combine those two factors in front of one of the nation's biggest racing fan bases, you have a winner.
"Race fans are open to any form of racing. The sports fan in middle Tennessee is very open-minded. There were questions when the NHL came to town but the Predators are doing very well."
Hawks said the element of speed is the "turn on" for fans in the Nashville area.
"One of the most popular things is they marvel at the speed," Hawks said. "Once they understand how fast the cars are going, the debate of fenders rubbing vs. open wheel cars that don't goes away. They realize that it's technique and strategy and speed and they can't rub together.
"The first year, the IRL was new and different, but as we moved forward, it continues to be a sellout. People questioned whether open-wheel racing would be popular here and the last three years have answered it. IRL is absolutely a hit in middle Tennessee.
Fans in the new IRL markets got familiar with one driver quickly.
At four of the new venues -- Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Kentucky, Richmond and Nashville -- 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier won at each of their inaugural IRL races.
The 2004 IRL IndyCar Series season begins with the Toyota Indy 300 at 2 p.m. (EST) on Feb. 29, 2004, at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The race will be broadcast live on ESPN and the IMS Radio Network.