Car racing fans always looked forward to Memorial Day weekend as this brought about 3 of the most prestigious races in motor sports. These include the Coca Cola 600 NASCAR race, the Monaco Grand Prix Formula 1 race and the Indianapolis 500. Of those 3, the Indianapolis 500 was generally seen as the granddaddy of them all. The race was so prestigious that it attracted the best drivers and owners from all series around the world. Drivers such as Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jackie Stewart, Junior Johnson and Cale Yarborough all raced in the Indy 500. In fact, as late as 1992 the race was attracting top rate F1 and NASCAR drivers as well as the regulars from the Indy series. From a fan perspective, the event was also one of the hardest tickets to come by with attendance reaching over 400,000 people.
In 1996 things changed when Tony George, who introduced the Indy Racing League the prior year as a cheaper alternative to CART, decided to limit the Indianapolis 500 to 25 cars from his own IRL series and only 8 from other series. The move was designed to try and force CART to join IRL and essentially let Tony George control open wheel racing. CART (now Champ Car) in turn boycotted the race altogether since they felt their product was far superior and did not appreciate being shunned by their nemesis. This was true as the best North American teams (Team Green, Penske, Chip Ganassi, Player's Racing and a few others) were racing in CART. As well, all the drivers that were recognized by fans such as Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr, Jacques Villeneuve and others were running in CART. As a result, the field for the 1996 Indy 500 ended up with 33 virtual nobodies racing inferior engines and chassis and in turn upset all but the die hard Indy fans. The engines were so poor there was concern in 1996 and 1997 whether any cars could last the whole 500 miles. Buddy Lazier won the race despite being a perennial also ran prior to that and the race ended with few cars finishing as a result of many engine failures and crashes. To make matters worse, the IRL season only consisted of 3 races in 1996 with the last race being the Indy 500. While George had clearly hoped his move would build up the Indy Racing League, it instead killed interest in all open wheel racing in North America. With no real name teams, George found it hard selling the series, and without the Indy 500, fans started ignoring CART. Consequently, attendance dropped dramatically, TV viewership plummeted and general interest in the Indy 500 waned. CART attempted to race its own version of the Indy 500 (The U.S. Grand Prix) on the same day as that Indy 500, but interest in that race was even worse. In 1999 CART abandoned that race. One thing which was evident to everyone was that the North American market couldn't support 2 open wheel series.
Over the next few years IRL began to level out in viewership and interest, while CART dwindled and the major team owners could see the writing on the wall. Several teams, including Andretti Green, Penske and Chip Ganassi, "broke the CART code" and decided to race in the Indy 500 for the few available spots. The first of these teams was Chip Ganassi in 2000, which saw their driver Juan Montoya run away with the race. Consequently, in 2001 Penske moved its operations from CART to IRL, followed in 2002 by Chip Ganassi and in 2003 by Team Green. Meanwhile, Player's racing closed shop after the cigarette advertising ban in Canada eventually resulted in the bankruptcy of the CART series. Champ Car (the new version of CART) now runs its own schedule, but there has generally been little interest in the series.
Indy Racing League spin doctors would have you believe that the Indy 500 is as strong as ever, but that is simply not true. The race did not sell out for the first time in 2003; and many auto racing pundits suggest the only reason the race gets the attendance it does is a result of free tickets given away. TV viewing, which had an 8.6 rating in 1994, now has a rating under 5.0, and even then many tune out after the opening ceremonies. But one place where interest has really dwindled for the race is in the area of betting. Las Vegas Sportsbooks stated that in the 1980s and early 1990s people were betting on the race as much as any premium sporting event. Now the race gets less than 1/3 the amount of betting that the Coca Cola 600 NASCAR event does. And in Britain all the big name sportsbooks offered odds on the Indy 500 dating back to the 1970s, but now the likes of Victor Chandler, Paddy Power and Betfair can't be bothered to offer it due to lack of interest. There was a bit of interest in the IRL after Danica Patrick ran a superb race at the Indy 500 in 2004, finishing 4th, but subsequent poor efforts by her have left fans disinterested. It seems that even a pretty face can't save this series.
The drop in fan support for the series should not be surprising given that fan's interestswere totally ignored by both CART and IRL when all these shenanigans were developing. Major League Baseball still hasn't fully recovered from the 1994 strike when the World Series was cancelled. The reaction of the fans has been clear in all these instances: "we don't need you." The implication is simple: if the governing bodies or participants don't care about the fans, then the fans will go elsewhere. There is market for the fan dollars in other areas, so now fans demand customer service as well as a good product.
This year's race looks to have a good field, although it's essentially the same IRL drivers that run in every race. And in the end the race will be won by either a Penske, Andretti Green or Chip Ganassi driver. Betting anyone else is throwing away money. I may tune into a few of the laps if I don't have anything better to do (like mowing the lawn), but I will watch every lap of the Monaco Grand Prix and Coca Cola 600.