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Danica excited about unified series, also disappointed

Thursday, June 5, 2008

By STEPHEN HAWKINS

AP Sports Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Danica Patrick is excited about the way the unification of the two open-wheel groups in America has gone -- at least inside the restructured IndyCar Series.

Patrick wishes more people outside were taking notice.

"I'm disappointed. It's very exciting from the inside. There's more drivers, there's more fans, there's more media, there's more excitement," Patrick said Thursday. "But when it hits mainstream America, I don't think that it's had enough of an impact yet."

Patrick cited television ratings for the Indianapolis 500, which were up only slightly over 2007.

"You have to be realistic," Patrick said. "They're not that much better."

But overnight television ratings, which took into account only the nation's largest markets, still gave the Indianapolis 500 a slightly higher rating than the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway the same day. When final numbers incorporating all markets were tallied, the NASCAR race, parts of which were in prime time, edged ahead in the ratings.

Tony George, the IndyCar Series CEO, said attendance is up at every race this season since the Champ Car World Series merged with the IndyCar Series. The Indianapolis 500 had its largest crowd since before the split of the open-wheel groups.

IndyCar spokesman John Griffin said TV ratings are up for four of the six races this season over last year, and three of those are "up significantly."

A more than decade-long rift between the open-wheel series ended this year with the merger of the bankrupt Champ series with IndyCar. The Indy Racing League was founded by George after he abandoned the Championship Auto Racing Teams, which morphed into the Champ Car series.

Patrick, the most popular driver in the series, believes more needs to be done to publicize open-wheel racing.

"There needs to be commercials. NASCAR has commercials on all day every day about when their next race is," Patrick said. "The only ones I see commercials for are the Indianapolis 500 and the last race of the year, and maybe the day before. ... The merger is not a magic pill, and it's not going to fix it overnight."

Patrick said "there's plenty of personality" among the IndyCar drivers -- more than her bikini-clad image in magazines -- and that sponsors can make them stars. But she also acknowledged that "business woes" caused by a tough financial market have forced many sponsors, including her own, to drastically reduce advertising budgets.

Griffin said IndyCar added major sponsors Coca-Cola and DirecTV soon after the open-wheel groups came together and that the series is still early in the process of adding more.

"This is a marathon, not a sprint. Look at any sports league, the basis of success is sponsorship," Griffin said. "We need to find partners to make long-term commitments to the league and drivers."

Patrick and the rest of the IndyCar Series drivers race Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway. Only Indianapolis draws more fans than the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked track known for side-by-side racing and high speeds.

There are a record 28 entries for the Bombardier LearJet 550K. It will be 19th IndyCar race at Texas, the most for any track on the IRL schedule.

"Just the optimism on the future, I think that's fantastic. I think that things are going really well," Patrick said. "But to take that next step and actually reach mainstream American and have that make a difference, we're not there yet."



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