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Can the Indy 500 rev back to its former glory?

This weekend marks the 92nd Indianapolis 500. For years, it was the premier auto race, before a civil war erupted in the sport. Will reunification put the race back on the map?
Image: Driver Danica Patrick smiles while preparing for practice time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis
Danica Patrick is the fifth-ranked female celebrity athlete in the world, according to Forbes. Brent Smith / Reuters file

Born in 1989, Graham Rahal’s childhood had barely begun when the Indianapolis 500’s stellar reputation spun out toward a wall.

Graham was just a boy when the Indy Racing League was created by Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George to compete against CART, denying the fabled 500 a host of drivers with star power and casting it into near-oblivion among sports brands.

It must have been hard to understand that when his father, Bobby, roared home to an Indy win in 1986, the open-wheel race over Memorial Day weekend still scintillated the nation. After all, Graham wasn’t alive to see it.

As Sunday’s 92nd race beckons, the 2.5-mile oval is starting to recoup its lost greatness. The key? Undoing the 1996 decision that split open-wheel racing into two factions. The merger of IRL and Champ Car (the former CART, which ended up in bankruptcy) a few months back means a number of this year’s 33 racers will be new to the Indy 500 – including Rahal, a 19-year-old who qualified on Saturday with an average speed of 222.531 miles per hour.

It’s the new breed of race-car drivers like Rahal – young, well-spoken, likable and eminently marketable – who many believe will put the Indy 500 back on track, rejuvenating the nearly century-old event. Aside from Rahal, who appeared on the “Late Show With David Letterman” after an April victory, there’s Marco Andretti. Grandson of Mario, who captured the 1969 race at a speed of 156.867 mph (then a record), Marco is barely drinking age (though no doubt his beverage of choice would be the milk downed by the Indy 500 winner).

Of course, the biggest name belongs to a woman – Danica Patrick – even though no female competed at Indy for its first 66 years, until Janet Guthrie revved up her engine in 1977. Featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue in February and gracing its cover this past week, Patrick hit shows such as “Larry King Live” after her stunning victory in Japan last month, the first for a woman on the IndyCar circuit. Even before that slew of publicity, she was the fifth-ranked female celebrity athlete in the world, according to Forbes.

And let’s not forget two-time Indy 500 victor, Helio Castroneves, who has since added a “Dancing with the Stars” victory to his repertoire (and the adoration of its tens of millions of mainstream-America viewers).

The IndyCar Series has enjoyed other good news this year. Coca-Cola North America signed a pact to serve as IRL’s official soft drink until 2011. TV ratings have jumped: This year’s opening race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida drew nearly 1.1 million viewers on ESPN2, compared to about 830,000 who watched last year’s first race, according to SportsBusiness Daily.

Despite such improvements, the caution flag is still out regarding open-wheel’s immediate future – and it’s being waved by NASCAR. During the 12-year civil war in open-wheel racing, NASCAR relished an unprecedented boom. Its television rights fees now approach $600 million annually, closing in on Major League Baseball, and its marquee event, the Daytona 500, draws more than twice as many viewers as the Indy 500.

The last two Indy 500 champions were lured to NASCAR, where drivers can haul in more money. IndyCar lacks a title sponsor, whereas NASCAR pulls in millions of dollars annually from Sprint and others who pay to slap their name on various series. According to a 2007 ESPN Sports Poll of auto-racing fans who were asked to name their “favorite type of auto racing,” the NASCAR Sprint Cup lapped the field. Far down the chart – below even the National Hot Rod Association and motorcycle racing – sat IndyCar.

Of course, that was before the merger. Now, there’s hope that, just like in the days of A.J. Foyt and Al Unser, IndyCar and its crown jewel in Indianapolis will captivate the populace again.

If Rahal becomes the youngest winner ever on Sunday, if Patrick becomes the first woman to take the checkered flag to the cheers of 250,000 fans or if Marco Andretti follows his grandfather’s car tracks onto Victory Lane, there’s no doubt that the Indy 500 – after more than a decade in the wilderness – will be on its way to recapturing the glory that never should have been tossed aside.