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IZOD hoping to bring Hollywood back to IndyCar

LONG BEACH, California -- With an ocean view, some of the sport's finest drivers and a group of Hollywood A-listers, there may be no greater showcase of IndyCar's diverse background than the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

And if Mike Kelly, the executive vice president of Phillips Van Heusen achieves his vision, the "Hollywood" aspect of the IZOD IndyCar Series is about to experience a rebirth.

"This is exactly what we want to do for the series," Kelly said Thursday. "It's about integrating the sport with pop culture. It gets no more popular than Hollywood and Hollywood Boulevard and having the stars come down here."

"We've taken racing and put it in on the doorstep of the world of entertainment and we are putting on a demonstration tonight. They can't always get to the track so we are taking the track to them."

Find out more about IndyCar's Hollywood history with our Celebs in Indy gallery.

Sure, NASCAR has tried this approach themselves. Their efforts to make the dark, industrial community of Fontana appear to be Hollywood (when their biggest film connection is a few scenes in "Terminator") have largely been unsuccessful.

But Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix featured packed grandstands with a crowd that reached about 60,000 on race day and 180,000 for the three days of track activity, according to promoter Jim Michaelian.

But this isn't a comparison of the IZOD IndyCar Series with NASCAR because when it comes to diehard fans, television ratings and general recognition NASCAR holds a decisive edge.

What this is about is the new way of thinking that IZOD is bringing back to IndyCar. It's about reintroducing a sense of glamour to the sport.

If NASCAR is about the "common man" then IndyCar is about "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

There has always been an element of glamour connected with IndyCar, and IZOD plans to highlight that connection with some innovative and ambitious marketing plans.

In fact, last Thursday, a section of Hollywood Boulevard was shut down in front of the famed Kodak Theater -- site of the annual Academy Awards -- so that the IZOD IndyCar Series could throw a Hollywood street party called "The Race to the Party."

While the drivers may have been the main attraction, Hollywood brought along its own contingent of star power, including actor Mark Wahlberg, who served as the grand marshal of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, hip hop mogul P. Diddy and rock group Camp Freddy, which features Dave Navarro.

"It's the fans, the people who make it special," said Wahlberg. "It is one of the most exciting sports in the world. I love it."

Kelly sensed genuine interest from Wahlberg, who wants to get more involved in IndyCar.

"Mark loves this," Kelly said. "I think we have a new fan, no question. When you think of Paul Newman, a guy like Mark Wahlberg could get involved in our sport and be today's version of that."

On race day, the drivers are the stars of the show, but last Thursday night they shared the stage with some of Hollywood's most notable names.

"It's cool to see," said driver Graham Rahal. "The activation that IZOD is putting into this is pretty impressive and it's a lesson for all the other sponsors. I hope we can really make it big."

And when it comes to getting into the Hollywood spirit, nobody in the IndyCar Series does that better than Helio Castroneves, who won "Dancing with the Stars" in 2007.

"I cannot believe we closed down Hollywood Boulevard to have our cars revving up -- that's really cool," said the three-time Indianapolis 500. "Only in Hollywood. I think this is the best way and the best place to show off our product."

Aside from the street party, a pit stop competition was also held on Hollywood Boulevard featuring the Indy Racing Experience two-seaters. Guillermo Martinez from "Jimmy Kimmel Live" could even be seen changing tires on an IZOD IndyCar Series car.

Kelly, the driving force behind the IZOD IndyCar Series sponsorship program, hopes that these sorts of star-studded events will bring more attention to the sport.

"There is lot of anxiety about pulling off something like this live with all the stars but I'm going to rock out, be front-row center and I'll sleep a better man tonight," Kelly said. "Now, it's time to get ready for Indy."

Ryan Hunter-Reay's victory in Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach gave the IZOD IndyCar Series something unusual -- an American driver in Victory Lane.

Hunter-Reay, who lives in nearby Dana Point, Calif., scored his second career IndyCar Series victory over England's Justin Wilson and Australia's Will Power.

With just four American drivers in the series, Hunter-Reay's victory gave IndyCar fans in the United States a reason to wave their flags. Ironically, Hunter-Reay was the last American-born winner -- he was the victor at Watkins Glen International on July 6, 2008.

Even more ironic is Hunter-Reay's team owner is Michael Andretti, the last driver from the United States to win the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach back in 2002.

"It's important to have Americans in the series but IndyCar is the best talent in the world from different nationalities," Hunter-Reay said. "I'm happy to be wearing the red, white and blue colors and being the guy that won. I'm so honored to be carrying that flag as an American."

It was Hunter-Reay's second career IndyCar victory and was also his first win since his mother, Lydia, passed away in Nov. 2009 from colon cancer.

"This is a race she loved coming to," Hunter-Reay said. "I was with her for every bit of the fight. The No. 1 thing she loved was seeing me race. That gave her the strength to push forward. She was definitely with me today. This race was for her."

It was also the first win for team owner Andretti since Tony Kanaan of Brazil won at Richmond in June 2008. Kanaan was the first teammate to congratulate him in victory lane.

Though Hunter-Reay does not have a full-season ride with Andretti Autosport (his current agreement expires after the race at Texas Motor Speedway in June), his impressive victory might have Andretti Autosport aching to keep this American talent in the driver's seat.

"You know that. I don't know why you had to ask that." -- NASCAR driver Mark Martin when asked if he will continue driving in 2011 now that Hendrick Motorsports has signed Kasey Kahne. That gives the team five drivers with only four cars.

"I would appreciate it if no one would right anything about me retiring, because I'm not going to retire. I'm going to race in 2012. And so don't even talk about it. I'm racing in 2012. There will be an opportunity for me I'm sure, that will be exciting and fun and that I can help people. I feel like I've done that. I feel like I did that in the No. 01 at DEI and I feel like I've helped the No. 5 team realize that they can win races and contend for a championship. And so I'll find another opportunity that's exciting to me and I don't want to commit to that now. I want to make sure that Hendrick is set and they are set. It's such an incredibly perfect scenario. I'm going to race in 2012." -- Mark Martin (see above).

When it comes to the elements of fear, danger and excitement, there is nothing quite like Talladega. That is where the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads this weekend and it will be full of the usual mayhem and lunacy -- and that's just the spectators that camp out all weekend for NASCAR's version of Mardi Gras.

Oh, and the race is pretty hair-raising, too.

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