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AUTO RACING PACKAGE: Charlotte Wades Carefully into IRL Waters

October 9, 1996

CONCORD, N.C. (AP) _ Now that Charlotte Motor Speedway is considering holding Indy-car races, the question becomes whether a region dominated by stock cars will embrace a form of racing viewed by many as foreign.

Track officials didn’t have to look far to get an idea of the curiosity generated by the open-wheeled machines. When the Indy Racing League conducted a one-day test session at the track two weeks ago, lunch business was nearly double its usual level at the Speedway Club, a popular restaurant that sits atop the frontstretch grandstands at the 1.5-mile layout.

But speedway president H.A. ``Humpy″ Wheeler knows there’s a difference between people willing to watch Indy cars while they eat lunch and those willing to pay substantially more money for tickets to watch them race.

``We’re going to give this serious consideration,″ he said. ``But we’re also going to move very carefully. This isn’t going to happen overnight.″

That’s just fine with Ron Bailey, one of the estimated 140,000 fans attending Sunday’s UAW-GM Quality 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race at Charlotte.

``I won’t say I wouldn’t come, but I would never go out of my way to see one of those races,″ he said.

Bailey swept his arms out across the garage area at the brightly colored Winston Cup cars arranged in a neat line before the race.

``This is what it’s all about,″ said Bailey, who has been attending stock car races for more than two decades. ``You’ve got Fords, you’ve got Chevrolets and you’ve got Pontiacs. You can identify with these cars, relate to them. You can’t even distinguish what Indy cars are.″

Still, Bailey said he’s intrigued by the speed of the Indy cars, which ran at speeds in excess of 207 mph in the IRL test. Winston Cup cars top out at about 185 mph at Charlotte.

``But when I get to work every Monday morning, all you hear about is what happened with the stock car races,″ Bailey said. ``They tested Indy cars here, and I haven’t heard anyone mention it at work.″

Racing fan Mike Ringham offered a different view.

``Having attended the last 25 Indy 500s,″ Ringham said, ``I’d just like to see some open-wheel racing down in the South.″

Like Bailey, Ringham said the subject of Indy-car races doesn’t come up often in conversations in an area of the country where Sundays have long been reserved for the sound of rumbling, heavy stock cars.

``I suspect my hard-core NASCAR friends would come and check it out on a trial basis, at least _ and then maybe they’d continue to support it,″ Ringham said.

He paused and broke into a smile.

``But there may not be enough paint-swappin’ to suit ’em,″ he said. ``It may be a little bit more finesse. You just can’t drive the same in an open-wheel car that you can in a stock car.″

One factor which could affect how Indy-car racing is received is the rapid growth of the Charlotte region, the population of which has swelled to 1.3 million.

Local commerce officials say it’s difficult to put accurate estimates on the number of people moving into the region from specific areas of the country, areas where Indy-car racing may be more popular than Winston Cup. The Charlotte Chamber, however, did say that relocating to the Charlotte area seems to be most popular among residents of New York, New Jersey and Florida.

The IRL, launched this year as a low-cost alternative to the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit, is considering various ways to expand its schedule. Those plans include the three 1.5-mile tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc. _ Atlanta Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas International Raceway.

Texas has already been added to the 1997 IRL schedule, and the circuit has received satisfactory results in tests at Atlanta and Charlotte.

Wheeler said the success of an IRL race in Texas would likely be a determining factor in whether Speedway Motorsports elects to also stage races at either Atlanta or Charlotte _ or both.

The IRL’s reception in Texas isn’t the only concern. Wheeler said a company looking to be the primary sponsor of an IRL race in Charlotte would need to put up a minimum of $500,000 and another 25-30 companies would have to get involved on a smaller scale. Plus, there needs to be a solid television contract and at least 50,000 tickets sold for it to be worth the speedway’s involvement.

``We know racing fans are loyal,″ Wheeler said. ``How loyal they are to a different form of the sport remains to be seen.″

End advance for Oct. 10

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