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Drivers attract sparse Manhattan crowd

5/24/2005

NEW YORK – Fly in the entire field of 33 drivers. Dress them in their fire suits. Line them up in order of their starting positions. Put them in Times Square. Add the Borg-Warner Trophy and a touch of Colin Powell.

That was the recipe the Indianapolis 500 used to try to drum up some attention for this weekend's race. The specifics of the event were novel. The tactic of using the New York stage has been perfected by NASCAR for years.

This is what it has come to for the Indianapolis 500. It used to be the biggest race of them all. However, not only has the Daytona 500 received double the television audience of the Indy 500 over the past five years but the Coca-Cola 600 – which starts later Sunday afternoon – also likely will outrate the Indy 500 for the fourth straight year.

As the Indy 500 approaches again, it's clear the wounds of the IRL-CART split still have not healed. It is why the race is starting an hour later this year in an attempt to get more eyeballs.

It is why, despite the attempt at a spectacle, 45 minutes before the drivers were scheduled to arrive in Times Square, the only three people pushing the metal barricades were Formula One fans from Ireland and Northern Ireland whose curiosities were piqued by pole-sitter Tony Kanaan's car sitting on a concrete island.

"If [Formula One driver] Michael Schumacher came to our city, there would be thousands of people waiting to see him," Gerry Olden of Belfast said.

When the drivers arrived, the crowd filled to about 200 people, half of them from the media.

"I think some people thought it had something to do with Star Wars," driver Ed Carpenter said.

But there were a select few who heard about the event and made it their business to be there.

Dennis Katsoulis, a New York real estate broker who is a racing fan, said he was not surprised the turnout was so sparse.

"They haven't really marketed this type of racing in the Northeast," he said.

Peter Bicknell, a 49-year-old IRL fan who has been to the last 26 Indy 500s, drove 45 minutes from New Jersey to see the event.

"It's sad, but this is what it takes for the Indy 500 to get a blurb in all the papers here," Bicknell said. "At least they are making an effort."

The reality is the Indianapolis 500 has already received more attention than it generally has in recent history, thanks to a 100-pound, 23-year-old female driver named Danica Patrick, who will start on the inside of Row 2 on Sunday.

Since becoming the fourth woman to qualify for the race, Patrick has appeared on almost every sports and news show. Monday's schedule included ESPN2's "Cold Pizza," CNN and the "Late Show with David Letterman." Letterman owns 45 percent of the team that supports Patrick.

Patrick is said to have a greater shot to win than any of her female predecessors, which is good, because it might take a woman winning the race to propel the Indy 500 beyond its traditional fan base into a healthy future.

Patrick, who finished fourth in a race in April, says she doesn't feel the pressure.

"Whether there's one person watching me or 1 million people watching me, I'm going to push myself along in the same manner," Patrick said.

Kanaan, who even as the pole-sitter has received a slew of Danica-related questions throughout the past couple of days, says he thinks the attention is well-deserved. But thanks to Patrick's appearance at a media luncheon, a group of drivers sat at tables for an hour without being asked one question.

Some drivers prefer not to talk about it, while a select few, such as Bryan Herta, are more direct.

"On one hand, I understand it because she's the best female driver the Indy 500 has ever seen, plus she's hot, and that creates even more attention," said Herta, who has started on the pole in two of the four races this year. "But on the other hand, it should be about accomplishments, and she hasn't accomplished anything yet. We all worked hard to get to this point in our careers."

Patrick says she hasn't heard any negative comments from the drivers, but she admits, "It's not like I expect anyone to say anything to my face."

Back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it's hard to tell things have changed. Ticket sales are on par with last year, according to track president and chief operating officer Joie Chitwood. And all the talk about how even your garden-variety NASCAR race is outdrawing the Indy 500 is at least still talk.

"Good or bad, we're still talking about the 500," Chitwood said. "The day we're not talking about the race, that's when we should be concerned."

As part of a partnership with elementary schools across Indiana, more than 15,000 fourth-graders have learned about the Indianapolis 500 this year, concluding their education with a visit to the Speedway.

But if things don't change soon, many of those kids will be asking why they don't learn about the more popular Brickyard 400 that NASCAR runs on the very same track.

Trips to New York can't stop that question from popping up.

Darren Rovell is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.