CONCORD, N.C. - When John Andretti competed in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, the real race didn't come at Indianapolis Motor Speedway or Lowe's Motor Speedway.
It came while getting from one race track to the other.
A change in starting time at Indianapolis this year and Indy car racing's continued decline has put an end to driving in both races. The Indy 500 was pushed back an hour to a noon start (ABC-Ch. 6) to hopefully pull in more television viewers. The Coca-Cola 600, one of stock-car racing's crown jewel events, will take the green flag at 5:30 p.m. (Fox-Ch. 54).
The three drivers who raced at Indianapolis and Lowe's on the same day - Andretti, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon - all will be in stock cars this year. All will keep an eye on the race at the Brickyard but will honor greater commitments to the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series.
Driving both races in the same day was a travel agent's nightmare. Not only did the drivers have to shuttle between Indiana and North Carolina for practice and qualifying, race weekend included pole qualifying at Lowe's on Wednesday, practice at Indianapolis on Thursday and Friday, practice at Lowe's on Saturday and an early wake-up at Indy on Sunday.
After the Indy car race, drivers rode a helicopter to the airport, then a private jet to North Carolina. From there, another helicopter dropped them off in the infield near the finish line shortly before the start of the 600-mile marathon.
"There was excitement watching the guys attempt both," Andretti said. "That question: 'Is he going to make it?' The year I did it (in 1994) the time was closer than any other year. Being that it was the first year, and the first time anyone ever did it, I think people were in anticipation. They wanted to know, 'Is he going to make it?' Now there isn't any of that."
Gordon competed in both races last year, but when he started his own Nextel Cup Series team, the commitment to his sponsors forced him to forgo any plans for the doubleheader. Stewart stopped working double shifts three years ago.
Make no mistake, however. All three started their careers in open-wheeled cars and there always will be a burning desire to win the Indianapolis 500.
"Both races can stand up by themselves, no doubt," Andretti said. "The Indianapolis 500 has an attraction and a tradition, and that is always going to be there. It's not a matter of one race over another. Some guys do one; some guys to the other; some do both on the same day.
"I grew up with the Indianapolis 500. It's just huge, but that doesn't diminish how valuable the Coca-Cola 600 is. I grew up an open-wheel racer, and I raced in the Indianapolis 500 long before I came to NASCAR. If I were to win one over the other, and it goes back to my history and where I started, the Indy 500 would be bigger. That's just me. The guy down the road is going to say the other because he grew up dreaming about racing stock cars."
Television ratings have been on a record pace this year for Nextel Cup Series races and ratings for the Indianapolis 500, once the standard of all motorsports, have dropped significantly since the CART-IRL split in 1995. Sponsors and key drivers also have made the jump to NASCAR.
Not only have Andretti, Stewart and Gordon left Indy cars for the Nextel Cup Series, but Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne have veered to NASCAR from their open-wheel roots as well.
"The best opportunities, the ones that are being offered more of a regular basis, are in NASCAR," Andretti said. "Those are just the facts. It has nothing to do with ability or any of that. The guys who are getting groomed in Sprint Cars and midgets, the NASCAR owners already are looking at them. They probably already have them under contract. It didn't used to be like that.
"Overall, for longevity, opportunity ... the best bet is in NASCAR."