When I was packing my bags to go to Richmond this weekend, I received a call from a reporter. His question was direct: What does the IRL have to do to get NASCAR fans interested in your form of racing?
My answer was even more direct: Nothing.
Of course, one word isn't enough for me, so allow me to elaborate. First, we don't have to do anything because our form of racing is very similar to NASCAR. To the casual observer, the IRL and NASCAR might appear to be total opposites, but, if you see both types of racing live, you'll see the similarities.
That leads to my second point: Those who see the IRL love the IRL. We don't have to do anything because NASCAR fans already are interested in the IRL IndyCar Series. They've seen us, and they're coming back for more.
If you're ever in the parking lot at Richmond International Raceway before an IRL race, you'll see diehard race fans. You'll also see the same people who attend the NASCAR races at the track. You'll see Earnhardt T-shirts and pickup trucks and coolers of beer and barbecues. You'll seen people who love traditional Southern racing, yet they've seen IndyCar racing, they've taken to it, and they love every lap of it.
When the Indy Racing League first started in 1996, it tried to capture some of the market of NASCAR. We raced in the deep south at NASCAR tracks in Atlanta and Charlotte. We made an alliance with NASCAR and their fans began to pay attention to our races.
We race at many other ovals that have an association with NASCAR, too, but at two typically "southern" racetracks -- Texas Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway -- NASCAR fans have taken our form of racing to heart. The experiment worked, and race fans who would consider themselves NASCAR fans first are showing up for IRL races in droves, and enthusiastically supporting open-wheel racing.
We are fond of reminding NASCAR fans that our type of racing is faster and has even more history than their form, but, in the end, the two types of racing have much more in common than we realize. I love the IRL every bit as much as NASCAR fans love NASCAR. And, like the NASCAR fans who attend our races, I'm also interested in other types of motorsports.
True, our cars do not resemble production automobiles, which is a key part of NASCAR's enormous success. Their cars look like street cars. Our cars are purpose-built, single-seat racing machines. They are lighter, faster and more nimble than a NASCAR machine. On a short track like Richmond's 0.75-mile oval, IRL cars are wickedly fast while racing within inches of one another.
At that first IRL race at Richmond in 2001, NASCAR fans came and saw … and came back again and again. The reaction we receive at Richmond is immense and genuine and enthusiastic. And, unlike most of the other venues we visit, the crowd is made up almost entirely of authentic NASCAR fans.
They love the speed, the closeness and excitement of IndyCar racing. They also love the American aspects of the IRL. We've noticed that fact at Red Bull Cheever Racing, since we have two American drivers, Alex Barron and Ed Carpenter, and we have an American engine -- Chevrolet. NASCAR fans don't reject our racing as foreign; they embrace it for what it is. Something uniquely American.
I used this line a few years ago, and it stuck. Racing an IndyCar at Richmond is like flying an F-16 in a gymnasium. If you've never seen the show we'll put on Saturday night, it's worth your effort. Within a few laps of the start, there is action on every inch of the track. It's dizzying just trying to keep up. That's what the NASCAR fans at Richmond understand. This is a wild, exciting racing show.
The bottom line is as simple as my one-word answer to the reporter's question. We don't need to change anything. Fenders or no fenders, we're all race fans at heart.
-- Eddie Cheever Jr.
IRL IndyCar Series owner Eddie Cheever Jr. owns the Nos. 51 and 52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara Chevrolets driven by Alex Barron and Ed Carpenter, respectively. He provides a diary to ESPN.com. Cheever's team Web site can be found at www.redbullcheeverracing.com.