INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Around the track, they talk about good times from the past and even better times still ahead. The Indianapolis 500 is being run for the 91st time on Sunday, they remind you, and is as much of an institution now as it was when names like Foyt, Mears and Unser ruled the old brickyard.
A few miles away, another story is told at the Budget Inn and Fantasy Suites. There, rooms were still available this week for the Saturday night before the race for $119. Suites were a bit higher,and there was a $5 charge for having the phone turned on.
It's not entirely fair, of course, to judge the Indy of today with the Indy of the past by the amount of vacant hotel rooms. And it may not be totally fair to judge it by declining television ratings in an era when sports ratings are down nearly everywhere.
Come race day there will be at least 250,000 fans in the stands and infield to watch the race unfold. The crowd itself is down from the glory days of the track, but a quarter of a million people is still a quarter of a million people.
Many will be die-hards who come every year, like the guy who sat shirtless in the bed of his pickup Friday on his way to practice, proudly showing off the large Indianapols 500 logo stretched across his shoulders.
But there will also be empty seats, and plenty of them. Both tickets and hotel rooms were readily available in the days before the race, something unheard of when the Indy 500 meant something to almost everyone.
It doesn't anymore, for a variety of reasons that basically begin and end with greed. A bitter split between rival open wheel organizations has lasted more than a decade, and the factional fighting has taken a toll on America's most venerable race.
On Sunday the race will compete for the attention of race fans with NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 later that evening, where names like Dale Earnhardt. Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon trump the Indy starting front row of Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, and Dario Franchitti.
If this were the 1970s, it would have been no contest. But it's not, and even the best spin from drivers and owners can't change that.
"This place still has a following," Michael Andretti insisted. "It still has interest, and I don't think it's losing that."
Neither does IRL boss Tony George, who clings to the idea that creating his own series will eventually be the best thing that ever happened to open-car racing. He thought it would happen earlier but says he has no regrets over taking a path that has led the sport's premier American race into decline.
"Would I do it again? If the circumstances dictate, I wouldn't change anything," George said. "I'd do it again if the circumstances would dictate that."
George is nothing if not stubborn. He's held his course even as fans drifted away when the various teams took sides and the drivers in the Indianapolis 500 couldn't be identified without a program.
NASCAR, meanwhile, took full advantage of the gap by marketing its own brand of uniquely American racing to the masses. They did it so well that its tracks are almost full and the ratings so good that rival TV networks battle for their rights.
"That created that big window, and NASCAR took advantage of it," Castroneves said. "They knew how to do that. IndyCar racing had to start all over again."
Starting all over again meant losing the casual fan, and a new generation that didn't understand the mystique of a race that once captivated the nation on Memorial Day before live television made it seem much more ordinary.
Back then, people either went to the race, listened to it on radio or watched a tape-delayed version that night. It wasn't just another race, it was THE race.
A.J. Foyt dueled with Mario Andretti, while Rick Mears and Al Unser traded off wins. Jim Nabors sang "Back Home Again in Indiana," and the winner drank milk.
Danger always lurked in the background and, while fans never wanted to see drivers hurt, they always enjoyed pileups and wrecks. They usually got them, sometimes early _ in 1958, 15 cars wrecked on the first lap.
Nabors will be missing this year because of illness, but the winner will still take a swig of milk. And there's always danger racing at 220 mph, even if the cars that take Gasoline Alley to the track are running ethanol instead of gasoline and look more like land missiles than automobiles.
Three women drivers provide the interest this year, led by Danica Patrick, chasing her elusive first win in the IRL, starting in the third row. There are two Andrettis in the race, and Al Unser Jr. is back for his second start since retiring in 2004.
There's even a great finish to build from, with Sam Hornish Jr. back to defend his victory by just a few feet over Marco Andretti last year.
Still, the consensus is that Indy will never be what Indy once was. What was once the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" is now just an event with a lot of traditions and a history that will be better than its future.
After 90 years, the Indianapolis 500 deserves better.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org