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Searching for identity, casual fans

5/30/2004

INDIANAPOLIS -- Quick. Can you name the starting front row for the
88th Indianapolis 500? The casual race fan might struggle to identify the
trio of drivers -- pole sitter Buddy Rice, and Andretti Green Racing
teammates Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti -- who'll start at the front of
the 33-car grid.

And that, in a nutshell, is part of a larger identity crisis that has
plagued open-wheel racing since Championship Auto Racing Teams and the
then-fledgling Indy Racing League went through its messy divorce in 1996. While
NASCAR has succeeded in bronzing its stable of drivers as superstars, the
IRL has struggled to get the casual race fan to recognize its drivers
outside the confines of the fabled Brickyard.

To wit: If Rice, Wheldon and Franchitti were queued up in a police
lineup with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, how many
people could pick out the Indianapolis 500 pole sitter?

For the record, it's Rice, the 28-year-old stand-in for injured
driver Kenny Brack, the 1999 Indianapolis 500 winner. And no, Rice, of
Phoenix, is not from the Arizona branch of Condolezza Rice's family tree.
No relation there.

But the National Security Advisor might be inclined to claim him as a
distant relative if Rice goes on to win the 500 for car owners Bobby Rahal
and David Letterman.

"If a win happens for me, it won't be a life-altering experience,''
Rice said matter-of-factly. "I'll go with it if it comes. But
this place would sure be a great one to put under my belt.''

Though its luster seemed somewhat diminished in the early years
of the CART-IRL feud, the Indianapolis 500 still endures as the Greatest
Spectacle in Racing, one with the power to make a driver's career.

"From a driver's standpoint, it'll change you forever from the fact
that you'll always be introducted as an 'Indy 500 champion,' '' said Rahal,
the 1986 Indy 500 winner. "Even though I won an Indy 500, I was also a
three-time CART champion, which was much harder to do over a course of a
season, but that's always an addendum to it. But let's face it: It gives
you instant credibility.''

While there will be no shortage of publicity-starved drivers here
looking for a chance to gain some street cred, there will be three former
winners in the field looking to enhance their careers.

Helio Castroneves, who won back-to-back Indy 500s in 2001 and 2002
for Roger Penske and who finished runner-up last year, has yet to break through the same realm of racing superstardom as Earnhardt or Gordon (Jeff, that is).

Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indy 500 winner, scratched and clawed his way
to get a ride, only after Dreyer & Reinbold Racing pooled resources with
Hemelgarn Racing to field a car for Lazier three days before Bump Day.

A veteran of 83 IRL races since 1996, Lazier has recorded eight
victories, 25 top five finishes and 50 top 10s. Besides his one and
only Indy 500 triumph in '96, Lazier won the IRL championship in 2000 and
was runner-up in 2001. In his 11 Indy 500 starts, Lazier recorded a victory,
a pair of runners-up and a fourth place, but has not started an IRL IndyCar
Series event this season.

And two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr., clearly in the twilight of
his career, is back at the Brickyard with Patrick Racing, his third
different team in his last five starts in the 500. While his famous racing
family (winners of a combined nine Indy 500s) forged its name at Indy, it
hasn't had the same resonance since Al Jr. won his last 500 in 1994 when he
drove for Penske.

"When I came to the series you had Andretti, Foyt, Unser -- well,
Bobby had just retired,'' Rahal said. "You had Al Sr., you had Rutherford,
Johncock, these guys had been around for some 20 years at that point. So
it's a new breed here.''

With new names and faces on the way.

During a news conference at the Speedway on Thursday, Rahal casually
dropped the bombshell he has plans next year to bring Danica Patrick, a
talented 22-year-old female driver on the Toyota Atlantic circuit, to
Indianapolis.

"That's our plan,'' Rahal said, while a surprised Patrick looked on.
"That's our hope to get here to Indy, but sponsorship is the key. She's
obviously proven to me that she can drive here because she's run up front
in the Toyota Atlantic series and if she can run up front there, she can
run up front anywhere.''

And that, it seems, is precisely what the IRL must have to
bolster its brand identity: fresh new faces fans will recognize.

"I had three wishes as a little girl,'' said Patrick, of Roscoe,
Ill., who began go-kart racing when she was 10 years old. "One was to meet
Leonardo di Caprio. The second was to marry my boyfriend then, which won't
be happening. Third was winning the Indy 500. So, I don't think there's any
race car driver that hasn't dreamed and wished they could win the Indy 500
one day.''

Michael Vega is a staff writer for the Boston Globe and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.