Archive for Wednesday, July 4, 2001

IRL, NASCAR fighting for fans

July 4, 2001


That, in a nutshell, is the primary difference in the two big-league sanctioning bodies that will stage races at Kansas Speedway this season.

NASCAR's wildly popular Winston Cup Series will race into Kansas City, Kan., in September, while the IRL will hold its first race at Kansas' new motorsports facility on Sunday.

The Winston Cup stock-car race almost certainly will draw more fans, but the IRL open-wheel race will be contested close to 40 mph faster than the Cup race.

TV ratings for the Winston Cup series continue to rise, while the IRL ratings are noticeably lower.

What gives?

"NASCAR has had 50 years to build their fan base, while we've had six," Indy series point leader Sam Hornish Jr. said. "We'll get there. Do I wish we had more fans? Sure. But we're growing every year. You can't be jealous of them. We think we have the best on-track product."

To veteran IRL driver Eddie Cheever Jr., the quest for fans -- and, in return, sponsors and TV deals -- isn't a matter of NASCAR vs. IRL.

"Racing fans are racing fans," Cheever said. "It doesn't matter if it's NASCAR or IRL or dirt tracks. People need to be exposed to it, and that's what this is."

By "this," Cheever means Sunday's Ameristar Casino Indy 200, the IRL's first race at Kansas' new 1 1/2-mile tri-oval.

"There's a lot of tremendous racing in this area," Cheever said. "A lot of drivers got their start in this area. We call this our Midwestern push, and that's why we're so excited to come here."

The disparity in the NASCAR and IRL races' popularity no doubt is the result of several factors.

As Hornish said, NASCAR is older. NASCAR proudly traces its roots to Deep South moonshine running, and the Winston Cup Series started in 1949.

The Indy Racing League -- which boasts the spectacle that is the Indianapolis 500 as its signature event -- was born in 1995 out of a rift with the country's other open-wheel sanctioning body, CART.

If there's any enmity between two series, it's between IRL and CART.

"There are two great racing series in this country," Cheever said. "There's us and there's NASCAR. That's it."

NASCAR also benefits from branding, Hornish contends.

"If you look at NASCAR, they race Pontiacs and Dodges and Chevys and Fords," Hornish said. "Everybody knows what that is. There's a connection to people. Every American driver can relate to that."

The cars of the NASCAR Winston Cup and IRL series are vastly different.

Both have wheelbases of 110 inches, but the Cup cars are powered by 5.7-liter V8 engines, which produce 780 horsepower, while IRL cars are pushed by 3.5-liter V8's generating about 650 horsepower.

A Cup car stands 51 inches, while an IRL ride is just 38 inches.

A major difference is weight.

Winston Cup cars weigh 3,400 pounds, while IRL cars tip the scales at 1,550 pounds. As a result, a Cup car tops out around 200 mph, while IRL cars can go as fast as 240 mph.

CART cars, by comparison, generate 800 horsepower and can push 250 mph.

And then there's NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, which will hold the O'Reilly Auto Parts 250 on Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

NASCAR's trucks are built with many of the same specifications of the Cup cars, but the trucks stand eight inches taller, have a wheelbase two inches longer and have a top speed around 185 mph.

-- Associate sports editor Andrew Hartsock can be reached at 832-7216.

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