Hollywood’s finest scriptwriters couldn’t have come up with a better story line. A 92-year-old American car race where the winners celebrate with milk rather than champagne; where female drivers are more popular than their male counterparts; and where all V8 engines, supplied by Honda, run on renewable ethanol fuel.

Welcome to the immensely popular Indy 500-mile race, a mega-event held in Indianapolis, Indiana over the Memorial Day weekend in May, and whose once-sinking popularity has bounced back thanks to some shrewd marketing, a corporate reconciliation and a Sports Illustrated sex symbol.

The Indy 500 track can cater to up to 400,000 fans, but recent audiences haven’t been anywhere close to capacity. For the last 12 years, a feud between two racing organizations, the Indy Racing League and Champ Car, contributed to a dramatic drop in spectator numbers for open-wheel racing as people became disillusioned with big-name teams and drivers switching between leagues or escaping to other more lucrative racing series such as NASCAR.

But with Indy and Champ having finally amalgamated into the one IndyCar league this year, race fans are returning to the track in their thousands. That truce, however, isn’t the only thing that lured the near-record crowd to watch this year’s Indy 500. Seeing the event for the first time, I quickly realized that this style of ultra-high-speed oval racing — with its 15 or so lead changes, unique racing strategies and down-to-earth atmosphere — is far more enticing than today’s Formula One. It was also obvious that the huge spike in the crowds had a lot more to do with the “Danica factor.”

Over the past three years, 26-year-old Danica Patrick has become America’s racing sweetheart and sex symbol. Boasting pinup good looks that she has revealed in bikini spreads for the likes of For Him Magazine, Patrick was voted Victoria’s Secret’s sexiest athlete in 2007, and has was also voted “most popular IndyCar driver” by the sport’s fans for the past three years. Everywhere you go in Indianapolis, you see young girls and boys wearing Danica T-shirts, mothers holding Danica bags and posters and, middle-age men donning Danica baseball caps.

But then in April, at Japan’s Twin Ring Motegi track, Patrick became the first woman in history to win an IndyCar race. That triumph did more than just elevate her into an elite group of racers. It catapulted her from popular diva to superstardom. Upon returning from Japan, she became a hot media property and much sought-after TV chat-show guest. On more than one occasion, she was reported as saying, “My win goes out and speaks to women and to people breaking the mold. That’s why I think it’s been a big story. It’s not just about an IndyCar victory. It’s about something bigger.” And that is exactly why the grandstands at this year’s Indy 500 overflowed as an estimated 20 percent more fans than last year — half of them women — flocked to Indianapolis.

The crowds also wanted to see the second-most popular racer, Brazilian ace driver and two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. In a masterful marketing move, Castroneves partnered with 19-year-old dance champion and country singer Julianne Hough on the hit TV show “Dancing with the Stars” and showed that he is as skillful on the dance floor as he is behind the wheel. The couple won the fall 2007 season of the show, bringing Castroneves and Indy racing thousands of new fans.

The Indy 500 is no stranger to smart marketing. Race winners traditionally drink a bottle of milk to mark victory, a tradition that began after a dairy industry executive saw a newspaper picture of triple Indy 500 winner Louis Meyer gulping down a bottle in victory lane in 1936 and convinced organizers to make it a regular feature of the celebration.

Of late, though, Indy 500 bosses have made decisions that would make a marketing guru proud. To further capitalize on the popularity of Patrick, the two other female drivers in the field, Sarah Fisher and Milka Duno, and the fans that Castroneves brought with him from “Dancing with the Stars,” Indy 500 organizers decided to maximize the role that women play in all aspects of the sport. To start with, they invited Castroneves’ dancing partner, Julianne Hough, to the track to belt out the national anthem. They also asked Florence Henderson, best known as the mum on TV’s “The Brady Bunch,” to sing “God Bless America,” which had half the crowd singing along in a mass, out-of-tune karaoke performance. And it was Mari Hulman George, daughter of Indianapolis Motor Speedway founder Tony Hulman, who cried out the immortal words, “Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines,” as 400,000 people roared and 33 Honda V8 engines fired up. Bringing the ultimate female touch to this previously male-dominated sport, Olympic figure skating gold-medalist Kristi Yamaguchi became the first woman ever to wave the start flag.

Unfortunately, the unprecedented female involvement in the 92nd running of the Indy 500 did not shower lady luck on the three racing queens. All of them were forced to retire from the contest prematurely due to accidental collisions. Another driver’s car collided with Patrick’s in pit lane.

That failure has done nothing to temper the enthusiasm of Patrick’s fans, though. And a greater female presence on- and off-track is just one of the ploys that seem set to boost IndyCar’s fortunes. With such a turnaround from the dwindling crowds of the last several years, perhaps the elitist, exclusive world of F1 could learn something from Indy racing. And Japan’s struggling Formula Nippon series could learn a few things about how to boost poor spectator numbers.

Peter Lyon is a 20-year motoring journalist who covers Japan’s auto industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.

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