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For open-wheel racing, a comeback

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Thirteen years after major open-wheel formula-style racing failed miserably at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the track today for the running of the MoveThatBlock.com 225.

"We need to be here," series veteran driver Ryan Hunter-Reay said. "Hopefully, we'll have a good attendance here on Sunday that makes it worthwhile coming back. Hopefully, this can be a future event for us that we come back to year after year. We'd all certainly like that. I think the short ovals are good for racing."

It's a far different era for the IndyCar Series from the division's last race at the track in 1998. The series, then known as the Indy Racing League, was in its infancy. New Hampshire Motor Speedway was one of the charter members on the IRL schedule when the series began racing in 1996. The creation of the IRL by former Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George split major open-wheel racing into two rival sanctioning bodies in North America, pitting the new division against CART ChampCar, the body that had previously overseen the top level of formula-style racing in the U.S.

George's intent was to create a lower-cost alternative to CART that focused on oval track racing and developing American open-wheel drivers. The split left open-wheel racing injured at about the same time that NASCAR was becoming the most popular form of motorsports in the U.S.

Reunification arrived for the IndyCar Series and ChampCar in 2008, but by then major open-wheel racing was a relative blip on the sporting landscape. The IndyCar Series continues to try to repair the damage.

"The difference between the IRL and IndyCar today is then it was IRL and ChampCar with the split and fans didn't know what they were seeing or if they were seeing the best, and American's are very fickle about that," IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard said. "If they're not watching the best, then they don't want to go. … What you have here is the best drivers in the world back together."

Today's event at the 1.0580-mile New Hampshire oval marks the 12th of 17 events on the 2011 schedule. ABC will broadcast five events this year, including the Indianapolis 500, and the other 12 are carried on the cable network Versus.

Bernard replaced George as the CEO of IndyCar before the start of the 2010 season, after 15 years of serving in the same role with the Professional Bull Riders.

"My biggest challenge was not knowing the sport of racing and coming in basically blind," Bernard said. "I've had to take a crash course on learning it. It's been good and bad. My biggest negative attribute has been not knowing racing, but my most positive attribute has been not bringing baggage in. With that big divorce you were either IRL or ChampCar, I was neither and that helps.

"It's very important to us to remember that this sport can't be about the engineers of the sport or about the technical side. … It can't be strictly for the purists; it has to be for the people overall if you're really going to grow this sport."

Said Hunter-Reay: "He wants to hear everybody's opinion. He listens to the fans. It's a really open atmosphere. That's great. … We're headed in the right direction. It's a good time to be part of IndyCar."

The IndyCar Series raced three times at New Hampshire Motor Speedway from 1996 to 1998, attracting crowds of about 7,000 people for the last two events in Loudon. In comparison, the track brings in about 100,000 fans for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events.

After Speedway Motorsports Inc. purchased the track from Bob Bahre in 2008, new general manager and executive vice president Jerry Gappens set forth immediately to bring the IndyCar Series back to Loudon.

"It's long overdue," longtime IndyCar television analyst Jack Arute Jr. said. "It failed, but the failure was because it wasn't marketed correctly and there was still a "them and us" mentality with the split. … Jerry Gappens knows how to promote it. I think he sees the value of it."

Gappens said the goal is to have 35,000 in attendance for today's race.

"I thought that was a realistic goal," Gappens said. "In the back of my mind I was hoping that we could get to [50,000], but I thought [35,000] was a good number based on what you see realistically at our tracks."

Gappens said Friday that about 25,000 tickets have been sold or distributed for today. The crowd today will go far in shaping the decision of whether the series will be brought back in 2012.

"We're basically introducing a new product to New England race fans again because it had been gone for so many years and so many things have changed, it's kind of like reintroducing a product," Gappens said. "I think they've got a good product, their on track product is pretty good, it just hasn't been exposed and marketed to enough people yet. You look at it like a product launch, you know you're going to have to put some money into it and it might take a while to make it go, but at the same time we are a publicly traded company and we're in business to make money at any event we do, we need to be profitable with that."

Series veteran Danica Patrick said a key to making the series work at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is building up all that surrounds the racing. That's a factor that NASCAR has seemingly perfected in making their events days-long festivals at tracks.

"The only way you're going to keep people coming back is if the show is really good and if people really enjoy watching the racing and if coming to these races, if it becomes kind of a culture thing," Patrick said. "There has to be something other than just seeing us go round that makes people come back for more. It's got to be something people gather for more reason than just watching us go round, whether it's tailgating or a concert or whatever could make people come back. It's got to be fun all weekend."

Said driver Ryan Briscoe: "A lot of the work has to come from promoting and not what we do on Sunday. We know we have a good package here. It's the best racing and we put on a good show, but unfortunately, to get the fans into it, we need to promote. We'll go out and do our job. Whether it works or not probably isn't entirely up to us."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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