Fred Astaire of the IRL

November, 28, 2007

Helio Castroneves won a lot a more than a little dance contest Tuesday night.

Castroneves won the hearts of America, and in doing so, gave the IndyCar Series a popularity boost that no race ever could accomplish.

More than 30 million people watched the "Dancing with the Stars" finale Tuesday night, and more than 20 million tuned in two nights a week for the last 10 weeks.

That's far more people who watch any IndyCar race, including the Indy 500.

Chip Ganassi, who owns an IndyCar team and a NASCAR team, was thrilled that Castroneves won the competition.

"It's a big thing for the IRL," Ganassi said Wednesday in New York. "It's what the series needs right now, something to hang their hat on.

"I couldn't be happier for Helio. He put a lot of hard work into that and everyone in the IRL owes him a thank you."

It's impossible to say how many of those people will want to watch an IndyCar event to follow Castroneves, but even if it's one in 10, that's tons more than the league could have garnered in a marketing campaign.

Becoming a star on prime-time television is a big deal. Danica Patrick almost winning the Indy 500 in 2005 generated enormous attention for the IRL, but nothing compared to this situation.

Patrick became a national celebrity, but that popularity has leveled off since Patrick hasn't won a race.

What Castroneves did brings mass appeal among people who never would have watched an open-wheel race. It's a golden opportunity to reel them in.

The problem is they have to wait four months to see Castroneves compete in a race. The IndyCar Series season opener in 2008 in March 29 in Miami.

The challenge for IRL officials is to keep Castroneves in the news until the 2008 season begins.

Castroneves and dance partner Julianne Hough were in New York Wednesday, good timing since so many racing followers are in Manhattan for NASCAR's Nextel Cup banquet Friday night.

A preseason tour to some of the IndyCar Series top markets -- Dallas/Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, etc. -- might be a good idea.

Take advantage of the moment. IndyCar racing in American has declined dramatically over the last decade, but thanks to the Fred Astaire of racing, this is a chance to turn things around.

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer



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