HAMPTON, Ga. - Even Greg Ray can't seem to derail Indy Racing Northern Lights Series' momentum.
Although Ray led 184 of 200 laps in Saturday night's zMAX 500, many fans at the Atlanta Motor Speedway turned what started as curiosity of IndyCar racing into genuine interest.
"We're reaching out to our fans one at a time," said Sam Hornish Jr. after his winning streak ended at two with a fourth-place finish at the 1.56-mile speedway. "This is a sport about people and that's what we promote, our people."
A shower that delayed the start by nearly 30 minutes probably hurt the walk-up gate and Ray didn't help by dominating the event. But a paid attendance of 40,000 proves the six-year-old racing organization might be on the right track.
The series that broke away from Championship Auto Racing Teams with four races in 1996 is getting stronger with each main event. Saturday's race was the group's 46th overall, and Saturday Ray tied Scott Sharp as the only drivers to win five races. In 46 races, the IRL has seen 20 different drivers find Victory Lane.
The Indy Racing League has patterned itself after the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. The cars are loud and fast; the drivers are personable and accessible. The growth of the IRL mirrors where the stock car series was 20 years ago.
Fans were invited into the garage area following time trials on Friday and every driver signed autographs for more than an hour. And minutes following Saturday's race, the grandstand gates were opened again and drivers welcomed fans in the garage.
"It wasn't that long ago when 40,000 was a good crowd for a Winston Cup Series race," said Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark.
The speedway made it easy to become an IndyCar fan this weekend. Not only did they offer autograph sessions, they offered affordable tickets. One promotion included four tickets, four programs, four hot dogs, four soft drinks and four hats for only $99. A single ticket for a Winston Cup race at Atlanta can cost up to $125, and it doesn't come with other benefits. Another promotion allowed military personnel to attend for half-price.
The next IRL race will have a considerably bigger crowd, and those fans will pay full price. The Indianapolis 500, the cornerstone of the series existence, not only will attract every team on the IRL roster and many crossover teams from CART, but more than 400,000 fans as well.
Ray, whose Oldsmobile Aurora-powered Dallara not only was fastest on Saturday, but the most-frugal - ingredients that usually are beneficial at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He once led by an entire lap, but he was forced to run 25 mph slower than normal in the final 20 laps to conserve enough fuel to make it to the finish line.
"It felt like everything but a school bus passed me out there," Ray said after beating Sharp by a half-lap to earn $124,100. "It was difficult as a driver to let off the gas. We probably wouldn't have made another lap."
Sharp finished second, followed by Buzz Calkins in third, Hornish in fourth and Eliseo Salazar in fifth.
As he climbed from his race car, he yelled, "Let's go to Indianapolis!"
More amazing that Ray's speed was the way 11 drivers walked away from a horrific crash on the 53rd lap.
Felipe Giaffone had to steer clear of Cory Witherill's slow-moving car in the fourth turn, and that touched off a pileup that created a fireball that included two cars driving over the top of other cars.
Dr. Jack Miller was the most-seriously-injured driver in the crash. He was taken to Atlanta Medical Center for a concussion, but he was released Sunday after observations.
Everyone else walked away, including Al Unser Jr. Casey Mears' car caught fire and landed on top of Unser as both slammed into the wall. Unser's helmet had scrapes and tire marks on it, but he literally walked away from the carnage.
After the race, Unser was in the garage signing autographs, winning fans - and the war with CART.