HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) _ The last time Indy cars raced around Atlanta Motor Speedway, hardly anyone showed up to watch them.

Will Saturday night be any different?

The Indy Racing League holds the inaugural Atlanta 500 Classic with a group of drivers who are largely obscure in this NASCAR-crazy part of the world. Instead of Jeff Gordon, fans will get to see Greg Ray.

``Most people in this area aren't exposed to our type of racing,'' said Ray, who started on the front row at the Indianapolis 500. ``But maybe if they come out here inadvertently, perhaps with a friend, they'll become huge IRL fans. We have the most exciting racing there is.''

Track officials wouldn't reveal advance ticket sales, but said they were expecting a crowd of about 50,000 for the ninth of 11 races on the IRL schedule. Qualifying will be held tonight.

While the drivers may be obscure _ Scott Sharp is the series points leader and Kenny Brack is the hottest driver on the circuit with two straight victories _ the racing itself has been enthralling, with five different winners in the initial eight events.

The first major night race at the 1.54-mile oval should provide a surrealistic setting, especially if the speeds approach an open-testing session in July. Tony Stewart turned a lap of 228.505 mph, the fastest ever by one of the new-formula IRL cars.

``I think you'll see two-wide racing for sure and probably three-wide at times,'' Ray said. ``It's going to be a damn exciting race.''

Last November, an estimated 152,000 watched Gordon clinch his second Winston Cup championship in Atlanta. With huge grandstands lining more than half the track, there will be plenty of empty seats for the return of Indy cars _ even if the turnout is better than expected.

``As a driver, you always want to see the grandstands full,'' said Billy Boat, who sat on the pole for the Indianapolis 500 and has one victory this year. ``But the league is still growing. Anytime we go to a new venue, you've got to expect some curve time for the crowd to get used to it.''

Ten Indy-car races were held in Atlanta from 1965-83, five of which were won by Rick Mears and three others by Johnny Rutherford, who is now the IRL pace car driver.

But poor attendance drove the Indy cars away. Atlanta's last open-wheel race, the CART-sponsored season opener in 1983 won by Gordon Johncock, was packaged with a country music concert and a stock car race, but it still drew less than 10,000.

``We have the most exciting racing on the planet, I'll guarantee you that,'' Ray said, making a last-minute pitch to ticket-buyers. ``It's more exciting than Formula One, more exciting than CART, more exciting than NASCAR. There's constant passing and very competitive racing. While there may be a big discrepancy in some of the budgets, you'd never know it out on the race track.''

There are a few big-money teams in the IRL, but many drivers go from race to race struggling to secure financial backing. Ray, for example, was forced to shut down his team for the past four races, even though he started on the front row at Indianapolis and had a career-best second-place finish in his native Texas.

``It's very tough,'' said Ray, who doesn't have a primary sponsor for Atlanta. ``I think everyone knows we have a good team, so now I'm trying to work on some long-term sponsorship. I feel like we're close, but there's a lot of anxiety, a lot of ulcers.''

At least Ray managed to come up with enough money to race. Jimmy Kite of nearby Stockbridge, who finished 11th in his first Indy 500, wasn't able to find sponsorship after a next-to-last finish at Charlotte on July 25.

Atlanta Motor Speedway officials attempted to work out a one-race deal to get the 22-year-old on the track _ perhaps that would have sold a few more tickets _ but it didn't work out.

``We hate it,'' track spokesman Scott Anderson said. ``It would have been nice to have him in.''

Sharp, Stewart and Brack, all two-time winners this year, are locked in a fierce battle for the season championship. Sharp leads with 233 points, one better than Brack and six more than Stewart.

The field also includes Indy 500 champion Eddie Cheever and two-time Indy winner Arie Luyendyk.