Anthony's next shot: IRL team co-owner

Baltimorean latest pro star to venture into auto racing

March 16, 2006|By CHRISTIAN EWELL | CHRISTIAN EWELL,SUN REPORTER

What do you get when you mix Carmelo Anthony and auto racing, with Gene Simmons as matchmaker?

Chances are that you're looking at raised eyebrows, which was the case with one sports marketing expert when he heard the news of Anthony's new partnership in an Indy Racing League team.

"All you need is Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and you've got it down," said David Carter of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.

Sure enough, though, NBA star Anthony and veteran open-wheel race team owner Ron Hemelgarn are partners in the racing team, a bond brokered by Simmons, the rock legend of KISS.

All three were together yesterday in Indianapolis -- along with P.J. Chesson, the driver for the Carmelo Hemelgarn team -- for the announcement of the partnership.

Anthony, a former Towson Catholic and Syracuse standout, has said he's always been interested in auto racing, though he admits that his involvement can go only so far.

"Well, for the record, I'm not getting in the car," he said. "I'm not getting into that seat; it's too small, anyway."

Anthony and Hemelgarn seemed to believe that the merger was best for both sides. Hemelgarn's team and the IRL get the benefit of a young, All-Star player whose East Baltimore background also could give the organization more urban appeal.

Anthony, a controversial figure after an appearance on a DVD designed to dissuade crime witnesses from talking to the police, also welcomed the chance to be seen in another arena.

"It's just an opportunity to reach fans who don't get the chance to see Carmelo in basketball," Anthony said.

Neither Carter nor Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, thinks the move automatically helps Anthony. But they said it's worth a shot.

"It's a bit of a biz venture for him, and it gets him into a sporting activity that makes him relevant to a different audience," Swangard said.

Both think the winner is the IRL, which gained notice last year when Danica Patrick became the first woman to lead the Indy 500, and is now in league with Anthony and Simmons, co-owner of IRL partner Simmons Abramson Marketing.

While the IRL is far behind NASCAR, Carter said that such publicity gets people talking.

"All of a sudden, you have some interesting buzz," Carter said. "Marry that with Danica Patrick and people are saying, `What is going on with the IRL?' That's what jumps out to me. This is an intriguing, eclectic mix of people."

Anthony joins a long line of major sports stars who have gotten involved in motorsports, including most recently former Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach.

Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs has had the greatest success while owning a team in the NASCAR circuit, winning three series championships.

Anthony joins a short list of minorities who have owned teams in auto racing, including Reggie Jackson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Julius Erving and the late Walter Payton. Marc Laidler became the first black Indy Racing League owner in 2002.

Hemelgarn, who got his 1996 Indy 500 victory with Buddy Lazier driving, said he hopes that Anthony's run of good luck -- a national title at Syracuse, followed by two playoff runs with the Nuggets -- can extend from the court to the racetrack.

"This guy's a champion," he said of Anthony. "Twenty-two years old, and what he's accomplished in this life, just to rub next to him. I already know that success will be with us."

Though he hopes to be playing in the NBA playoffs in late May, Anthony said that he looks forward to his first experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"When I'd seen how many people can fit in here, I was pretty amazed," he said, noting that he'd never played in front of a crowd larger than roughly 70,000 (at the 2003 Final Four.) "To be in front of 400,000 people, I can't imagine the amount of adrenaline that's going to go through me."

christian.ewell@baltsun.com

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