Commentary

Annual IndyCar promotion in Manhattan takes on new meaning after merger

The 33 drivers who qualified for the 92nd Indianapolis 500 stopped by the Big Apple on Monday to celebrate Sunday's spectacle  and American open-wheel racing in general. Mission accomplished, John Schwarb writes.

Updated: May 20, 2008, 4:19 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

Indy Racing LeagueAP Photo/Mary AltafferIt was a bull market for Indianapolis 500 qualifiers and the IRL on Monday near Wall Street.

NEW YORK -- This isn't a novelty anymore, the IndyCar Series taking its 33 Indianapolis 500 drivers on a plane to Manhattan for a media lunch and photo shoot. If you saw the first picture in 2005 of the suited-up drivers lined up in 11 rows of three, you've seen them all, save a few background changes and of course the annual rearranging of the 33.

Yet like this enchanted season of American open-wheel racing, there was a new angle Monday. There were none of the annual questions about when competing series will unify, when racers will join on one track, when the confusion will be over.

Sure, a number of teams and drivers from the Champ Car World Series dissolved into the IndyCar Series nearly three months ago. It was official when IndyCar Series owner Tony George and Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven shook hands at a press conference in Homestead-Miami with drivers standing behind them. It was official March 29 when the season kicked off at that same track. Graham Rahal's win a week later on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., was a watershed moment of competition, with a Champ Car driver and team beating the IndyCar regulars.

But nothing really matters in open-wheel until Indianapolis, and when the 92nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing (Sunday, noon ET, ABC) set its grid of 33 drivers and took them on the road as one -- one field, one series -- maybe that made the unification feel most official of all.

"It's set now; there's no way they can change their minds," said Justin Wilson of Newman/Haas/Lanigan, one of the old Champ Car crowd making his Indy debut. "We're in this and we're going."

This year's New York gathering was in Lower Manhattan at the Charging Bull statue on Broadway near the Financial District and the Sports Museum of America (the IndyCar Series isn't infallible this year; its first choice was Yankee Stadium), with the Borg-Warner Trophy along for the ride just as the drivers were.

It's always been a trip to celebrate and publicize the Indy 500, but this year it doubled as a celebration of a series.

"It does feel different," said Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe, who will start the 500 on the outside of the front row. "All year, really, everything's just been so positive, everyone's so excited about the IndyCar Series. It's a great feeling to be involved with it. We're going to all the races with 25, 26 cars."

Indianapolis' momentum was felt from the start of rookie orientation, when a dozen drivers completed the program and 11 eventually qualified for the race through the opening week of practice. Persistent rains cut practice time significantly, but when cars were on the track, there were more than the current veterans could remember.

"That's the first time I raced at Indy where in the first week we had 33 cars," said Panther Racing's Vitor Meira, who will start his fifth 500. "It felt really good, the competitive level and everything. It was where you really realized where things are solid, and we have a very, very good thing going for us. We have to work for it, always, but it's there."

Part of that work is always the media obligations, which are now markedly different. Without questions about the nature of one's series -- Oriol Servia recalled going home to Spain after every Champ Car season and explaining that he drove in a sort of U.S. equivalent of Formula One, then having to answer why that didn't include Indy -- drivers are getting new inquiries.

"Do you know Danica? That would be the next one," pole sitter Scott Dixon said, smiling. "They also ask international stuff … if we're going to race overseas more, are we going to more road courses like Elkhart Lake [Wis.]."

OK, no one in New York City was asking about Elkhart Lake. Indeed, Monday was the only day this month Marco Andretti -- part of a royal family that needs no introduction in the racing world -- would have been handed a microphone and asked to state his name and team, as he did for one local television station. (Another funny sight: Australia native Will Power explained to a reporter that Tuesday he would be throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game in Detroit, then turned to his PR rep and asked which team played there.)

No drivers minded the unusual questions and requests and the opportunity for a little storytelling. They were a world away from the pressure cooker of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, even if only for a few hours. They get enough questions, enough attention in the enclosed world of their series. A chance to sell their sport in the nation's biggest city and media market is unique, and a sign for some of just what they've got themselves into this month.

"You start to feel what it's all about, what Indy is," Wilson said. "That's quite impressive."

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.