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It's 7 a.m. here in the food court at the Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta, too early for shoppers. The concourses, except for store employees arriving for work, are mostly empty. There's no coffee. Having arrived in town less than eight hours ago, Jim Logan should be exhausted, but he doesn't look it. He's here for an interview with V103, a local radio station that's doing a live broadcast from the mall. New to this kind of thing, he smiles big and shakes hands firmly.
Also here is Eddie Cheever Jr., the season points leader in the Indy Racing League. Cheever makes his living driving in circles at 200-plus mph, and he does it very well. He won the Indianapolis 500 in 1998 and clocked the fastest lap in Indy history when he did 236.1 mph in 1996. Before taking up Indy cars 10 years ago, Cheever raced Formula One, the world's most exclusive level of auto racing, where names like Ferrari and Lamborghini dominate the field.
Cheever and Logan are in foreign territory. This is NASCAR country, where good ol' boys in stock cars draw more than 100,000 paying customers per race to Atlanta Motor Speedway and other tracks throughout the South. Race fans here appreciate cars built in America and drivers with drawls. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion or downright derision. Take Jeff Gordon, a Californian who is the winningest, and most loudly booed, driver in NASCAR. "What do you call 43 rednecks chasing a faggot?" goes one local joke. "NASCAR with Jeff Gordon in the lead."
Open-wheel racing -- that is, racing in cars without fenders or windshields -- has never been big in the South. So Cheever and Logan are here this Wednesday to win friends and influence morning-commute listeners to the point where they'll buy tickets for Saturday's Midas 500, the third Indy Racing League event at Atlanta Motor Speedway in as many years. Whether the IRL will be back next year depends on turnout this weekend.
As a star of the IRL, Cheever is an obvious choice to promote the sport, a proven winner who's handsome and willing to chat with anyone who walks up for as long as they want. Logan is here because he's black, a natural attraction for a radio station whose listeners are primarily African-American. As the first black owner of an Indy-style racing team, Logan is living a dream and bucking huge odds. His competitors are either wealthy or have sponsorships worth upwards of $1 million. They can afford state-of-the-art cars that cost nearly $300,000, fancy uniforms for their crews, every tool imaginable and 18-wheel customized trucks to haul it all around the country. A.J. Foyt, four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, is on the circuit as the owner of two cars. Other team owners include CEOs of businesses with annual sales exceeding $2 billion. Some are bankers; some own chains of gas stations, fast-food restaurants and hotels with names like Holiday Inn and Burger King. Some made fortunes in real estate.
James "Doc" Logan, a chiropractor from St. Louis, is no tycoon. The Logan Racing Team is far from polished -- this is only the second IRL race for half of the guys who'll be changing tires trackside. Short on experience and money, they make do as best they can. Logan got the Logan Racing Special -- car No. 19 -- here in a U-Haul. His team, a patchwork crew drawn from several cities, primarily in the Midwest, is staying at a Super 8 a dozen miles from the track. Some are paid; some are volunteering their time.
Logan got a late start on the season, obtaining his car secondhand three races into the 10-race season that began in January. The team made its first appearance at the Indianapolis 500, billed as the world's biggest auto race and a spectacle that commands five hours of live network coverage every Memorial Day weekend. Race officials put them in garage No. 13, which didn't prove a good omen. The team was late getting the car ready, and their driver missed a required refresher course for racers with limited experience at Indy. Race officials didn't allow them to take the track, even for qualifying time trials, but Logan smiles at the memory of mingling with names like Foyt and Unser. For a shoestring guy like Logan, making Indy your very first race is a bit like child declaring himself ready for the Tour de France as soon as he graduates from tricycles. "I was there with the big boys," he says. "Some were maybe chuckling inside: 'Is this guy for real? Does he think he can do this?'" The team finally got on the track at Texas Motor Speedway in June but suffered engine trouble and completed just 60 laps of the 208-lap race. Finishing a race would be a success.
As Logan waits for his turn at the microphone, Stevie Reeves, his driver, arrives. Reeves learned he'd be behind the wheel three days ago when he got a call from Logan while caught in traffic after a stock-car race in New Hampshire. Reeves worked as a spotter there, sitting atop the grandstand and telling his team's driver by radio where other cars were on the track and when it was safe to pass. Reeves has raced midget cars powered by motorcycle engines and more powerful sprint cars that can run on dirt or asphalt. He's raced stock cars and pickups on asphalt ovals.