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How to cure an ailing Indy Racing League

The last race of the 2009 IndyCar Series season will take place Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway and one of Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe or Dario Franchitti will emerge as champion.

Published October 9, 2009
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<p>The last race of the 2009 IndyCar Series season will take place Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway and one of Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe or Dario Franchitti will emerge as champion.</p><p>Nearly two dozen cars will take the green flag (tape-delay on TSN2 at 7 p.m.), but the discussion today will centre on how many cars will be around to start the 2010 season, whether the Indy Racing League has a future and, if it doesn't, what can be done to save it.</p><p>If the 2010 season was to start tomorrow, there might be – <em>might be</em> – a dozen cars on the grid. Once you get past Penske, Ganassi, Andretti and maybe Newman-Haas and Dale Coyne, there is not a lot of full-season team stability.</p><p>It's an unfortunate fact. Everybody talks optimistically about 2010, but the economy is still very much in the tank and there is very little sponsor interest in this series anyway. Drivers with money might ante up for the Indy 500, but driver money for every race is questionable.</p><p>Second, does the IRL have a future?</p><p><strong>Except for Indy </strong>(and the interest in that race really does appear to be back), this series doesn't draw flies. I go to a couple of races a year and it's depressing to be in a place like Kansas, say, and look up at a grandstand that can hold 80,000 and see that it's only a third full. </p><p>The Hulman-George family feud (they're the folks who own the Indianapolis Speedway and the IRL, among other holdings) has created great uncertainty. When Tony George was in charge, millions upon millions of dollars were spent to prop up the IRL and its teams. That level of spending is now history and how much subsidy money, if any, will be available in future is unknown.</p><p>There is no title sponsor (although any number of signings have always been "just around the corner") and the races (which are all available in Canada and draw a reasonable number of viewers) are on a little-known sports channel in the United States and hardly anybody's watching down there.</p><p>NASCAR, also facing challenges, seems to be going all-out to save itself. </p><p>Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick have teamed up to lure Danica Patrick to their series (she'll do it gradually as she winds down her IndyCar career, which is more bad news for the IRL) and Michael Waltrip has invited F1 star Jarno Trulli over for a test in November.</p><p>What's the Indy Racing League doing? Not much, it seems, so here are some suggestions – radical and otherwise: </p><p><strong>1. </strong>Although Honda has signed on to provide engines through the 2011 season, it has said repeatedly that competition is welcome, so it's time the league invited other manufacturer involvement. </p><p>That could include any and all of the F1 manufacturers, General Motors and Ford and – why not? – Joe's Garage. (If the engine is built to the formula, and passes tech inspection, who cares who's the builder?) Oh, and while we're at it, let anybody who can build a chassis to specifications get involved too. </p><p>This might create some excitement at the grassroots level, which is sorely needed at present.</p><p><strong>2. </strong>Short-track speedways do this two or three times a season and it's been working. They're dropping their admission prices to next-to-nothing ($5 or $10) and they're playing to full grandstands. </p><p>So at next year's Honda Indy Toronto, for instance, let everybody in for $10. Everybody. And then, if they want a grandstand seat, sell those for $20. </p><p>This year, on race day, about 10,000 people paid $50 general admission to get in, which works out to $500,000. Next year, if 70,000 people (the old race-day average in Toronto) pay $10 to get in, that's $200,000 more that would be taken in at the gate and that means 60,000 more people would be at the CNE buying hot dogs and pieces of pizza and cans of beer and filling the place.</p><p>This makes much sense to me.</p><p><strong>3. </strong>Forget television except for the Indy 500. If ABC wants to buy the rights to races other than Indy, then that's fine but forget the small potatoes stuff.</p><p>They should start to develop and promote the streaming video package at <a target="_blank" href="http://www.indyracing.com">www.indyracing.com</a>. Many people now plug their computers into their big-screen TVs and more and more people will do this over time. </p><p>And then they should stop giving away the races. </p><p>Make the streaming video package on indyracing.com a pay-per-view product.</p><p>The Indy Racing League will be surprised at how many people will buy into this.</p><p><strong>4. </strong>Pie-in-the-sky but go for it anyway. The other racing series are undoubtedly thinking about this (and if they're not, they should be) but if the IRL does it first, they will have an enormous advantage.</p><p>Here is the idea: Approach an electronic game manufacturer and a system/platform manufacturer about a partnership to develop the ultimate electronic racing game.</p><p>No, not another disc that you can slip into your PlayStation, or whatever, at 2 in the morning and crash around Phoenix International Raceway, or Monza.</p><p>I mean a game in which you can be an actual (virtual) participant in the Indianapolis 500 and all other races on the IndyCar calendar that season. </p><p>Think about it: 33 cars charging into the first turn at Indy and you're the 34th, passing people from the comfort of your living room.</p><p>I'm sure it can be done, maybe even as soon as the next generation of games. </p><p>I'd be among the first in line to buy that game and I'm sure millions of other people would be too.</p><p>The first racing series to do that will thrive – and be laughing all the way to the bank.</p><p><strong>Unfortunately, </strong> I screwed up in my story about Matt White last week: Gilles Villeneuve was racing Formula Atlantic in 1975, not Formula Ford.</p><em>Norris McDonald's Auto Racing blog appears at Wheels.ca <strong>nmcdonald@thestar.ca</strong></em>