New Inroads: IRL's Alabama debut starting off strong
by Bran Strickland
Apr 10, 2010 | 3171 views |  1 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Fans line the hill at Barber Motorsports Park to watch practice on Friday for IndyCar's Grand Prix of Alabama.(Greg McWilliams/Special to The Star)
Fans line the hill at Barber Motorsports Park to watch practice on Friday for IndyCar's Grand Prix of Alabama.(Greg McWilliams/Special to The Star)
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LEEDS — The lack of Dale Jr. caps on every other head, the high-pitched whine of the engines ... it was clear there was a new neighbor in NASCAR country.

Barber Motorsports Park officially hit the big time on Thursday as IndyCar kicked off its racing weekend, adding a second major series to the Interstate 20 corridor with the 40-plus-year-old Talladega Superspeedway of stockcar fame.

Despite their differences, IRL CEO Randy Bernard said at the heart of the two motorsports, their objectives aren’t that far apart.

“We’re entertainment,” he said. “I say there’s three parts to IndyCar: entertainment, competition and technology, and it’s our job to make sure we’re delivering the message out there.

“We’re really trying to go to the next level. When you have a beautiful course like this that we can showcase our sport at, it’s great for the city, the state and IndyCar.”

With no official racing on tap for Friday, it would have been premature to evaluate the public’s reaction to the inaugural Grand Prix of Alabama, the third race on the IRL schedule. But with picture-perfect weather aiding the cause, Barber Motorsports officials said the first day’s crowd exceeded expectations.

Bruno Events Team president Gene Hallman said tickets have been sold in 40 states and six countries, but did not give exact sales figures.

Even with the strong support, though, it will probably take the IRL a while to break the monopoly that NASCAR’s white-knuckle grip has on the region.

The first vendor booth off the interstate en route to the Barber Motorsports Park had four long tables of hats and racing paraphernalia.

However, only seven styles in the sea of hats were affiliated with IRL. The rest were NASCAR and college football favorites Alabama and Auburn.

Nonetheless, the garage area buzzed with workers and fans eager to catch of glimpse of an open-wheel star, none more popular — of course — than Danica Patrick, who drew the biggest crowds despite her one-win IRL career.

“It’s been a warm welcome here,” she said. “On the other side, seeing all the other advertisements and commercials, it’s great to see, great for our series.

“I hope it’s a great weekend.”

While there only 27 miles of interstate between the two facilities, the two worlds couldn’t be any further apart.

IRL is an open-wheel car, while NASCAR, at its roots, sticks closer to a stock automobile.

NASCAR has its roots seeded deep in Southern culture, while in the IRL, American drivers are close to the minority.

Even down to the experience, fans who have attended both noted a difference in the two sports.

“It seems like the (IRL) drivers are more accessible, with the exception of Danica,” Montgomery resident Stephen Moseley said. “She’s hard to get a hold of.”

The throngs of fans surrounding Patrick — who has already announced her partial move to the other brand of racing — were the exception.

The scene was mostly made up of drivers taking a peaceful break, stopping to sign a piece of racing gear or pose for a snapshot.

And the peacefulness extended farther than the garage area, according to law enforcement officials patrolling the grounds.

“The crowds are ... laid back,” Jefferson County deputy Vince Gilham said.

In contrast to its nearby facility, which gained rowdy fame even on the silver screen in the comedy Talladega Nights, “It’s totally different,” said Gilham’s partner, Steve Miller.

Then again, who knows if it will stay that way? Night had not yet begun to fall.

Bran Strickland is the sports editor for The Star. He can be reached at 235-3570.
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