Mario Andretti: Nearly 20 years later, IndyCar Series still suffering effects of CART-IRL split in attracting fans

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The fallout from the 1996 split between the now-defunct CART open-wheel series and the then-upstart Indy Racing League continues to hamper IndyCar’s efforts to further build the sport, according to legendary driver Mario Andretti.

Even though the two series reunited in 2008, IndyCar still struggles when it comes to attracting new fans, Andretti told John Bombatch of FairbornDailyHerald.com.

“I was hoping that by now, since it’s one series again, it would have regained more popularity,” Andretti said. “But I think the split was for too long, and we lost a lot of our fan base. We almost have another generation coming now.

“Sure, we have hardcore fans. But even still, the newer fan base has to be re-educated to appreciate what the IndyCar Series is all about. Right now, I think the product is really good. I think the races are the best I’ve ever seen, with the nature the cars are and the way it is regulated.”

With eight different winners in the series’ first 11 races of this season coming into Saturday’s race at Iowa Speedway, parity has become synonymous with IndyCar – and the sanctioning body has to promote that type of close racing, said Andretti, a four-time open-wheel champ and winner of the 1969 Indianapolis 500.

“Once you’ve got the product, you’ve got to feel pretty positive about the series,” Andretti, 74, told Bombatch. “It’s just good racing, that’s all there is to it. The talent in the field is deep, it’s good. There’s a strong international contingent, which is fine. Golf has that. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve gotta keep hammering, that’s all.”

Even though Andretti has technically been retired from IndyCar racing for 20 years now, he’s still behind the wheel at most events, driving a specially-built two-seat race car in which he gives fans rides in during race weekends.

Andretti, the only driver to have ever won the Indy 500, Daytona 500, as well as USAC, CART and Formula One championships, is still mischievous in his new role as he was when he was a full-time racer.

“We’ve had a few people who just lose it,” Andretti told Bombatch with a laugh. “I’ve had a half dozen or so of those over the years, which makes it a special day. A bit embarrassing for them, but fun for me.

“There’s a panic button for the passenger to hit, which shows a red light on my steering wheel to tell me that they’re worried … and I ignore it. Once you’re in the cockpit, you’ve gotta go with me. Sometimes people get a little nervous, which is good. I like that actually. That’s the whole idea.”

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