Can the Indy 500 Regain Any of Its Past Glory?
Ever since I was a kid, I have considered the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend to be one of the greatest days of the sports year. There were two sports I loved as a kid – baseball (specifically the Cincinnati Reds) and car racing. And it wasn’t just any car racing, it was IndyCar racing. And the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend was (and is) the day that they run the Indianapolis 500.
It’s hard to remember, but open wheel racing was once the undisputed champion of the racing world and the Indy 500 was the undisputed champion of auto racing. It was THE biggest one-day sporting event in maybe the World. It was bigger than the Super Bowl by far for most of my formative years and all the biggest names in racing were in the field – Andretti, Foyt, Unser, Unser, Unser, Sneva, Mears and on and on.
Memorial Day Sunday is still a great day to be a racing fan. If you’re truly hard core, you get to see all of the world’s greatest drivers. There’s the Indy 500 in the morning followed by NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in the evening, not to mention the day starting with the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Monaco – which may well be the most beautiful setting for a sports event of any kind anywhere in the world – starting at the crack of dawn (and I’ll be up). But for a kid who wanted to be Mario Andretti if for some reason it didn’t work out for him to be Johnny Bench, as Indy continues to lose its luster, the day becomes more and more bittersweet as the Indy 500 falls more and more into being an afterthought.
Oh, people will still watch and there will still be hundreds of thousands of people in the once perpetually full stands, but like Kentucky Derby fans, most will be there for the party. I wonder how many of them could name even 10 drivers? And who would expect them to? Nobody has ever heard of half of these people.
Indy used to be a month-long spectacle. National media reported practice times beginning in early May. Pole Day was its own big deal, as was Bump Day, the day that final spots in the field would be decided with thousandths of a second being all that stood between people realizing their dream of driving in the world’s greatest car race and misery. Last year was the first true bump day I can remember in years. Most of the last decade has been spent finding 33 cars that could run to fill the field.
The saddest thing about this year’s event is that last year there seemed to be some momentum. There WAS a bump day. Sure it wasn’t 10 cars waiting in line at 6 pm as time ran out, but it was more than 33 attempting to qualify. And it was an old-school nail biter with Marco Andretti making the field at the last possible moment. The race ended in one of the most interesting/exciting/crushing finishes in history when American rookie J.R. Hildebrand looked to be sweeping to the victory on Memorial Weekend in the National Guard-sponsored car for the once powerful, but now overmatched Panther Racing, before smacking the wall out of the final turn. The win went to Dan Wheldon driving for another underfunded team in what would be his last victory before the tragedy that took his life at last season’s IndyCar season finale.
But Wheldon’s death and the loss of Dancia Patrick to a full-time NASCAR ride seems to have squelched any momentum Indy built last year and now the race seems like it’s happening in secret.
Of course, IndyCar has nobody to blame but itself for its problems. The 1996 split between CART (which then ran the American open-wheel series) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George split limited driver and sponsor pools, took the best drivers away from Indianapolis (all the best teams except for AJ Foyt went with CART), turned the race into a side show and likely damaged the event beyond repair. But despite the debacle, George had a couple of ideas that could help the race today.
There need to be more American drivers. This was a thrust of the Indy Racing League that George created. They Indy 500, which had been a quintessentially American event had begun to be ruled by foreign drivers. Great drivers, mind you –like Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansel who gave way to Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti (who I love), Helio Castroneves and Wheldon among others. They are all very likable guys and there were few better ambassadors for the sport than Wheldon, but an American star – like Danica Patrick, but who wins races – wouldn’t hurt. The only problem is that like Danica, and Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Sam Hornish, Casey Mears — who is the nephew of Indy 500 legend Rick Mears — and even Jeff Gordon before her, American drivers know that the best money these days is in cars with fenders on them. Ryan Hunter-Reay is the American who may have the best chance to win of the eight Americans in the field this year. I would say Marco Andretti, but his last name is Andretti, which at this point all but disqualifies him. The last American to take the checkers was Hornish, who passed Michael Andretti with three laps to go before catching Marco Andretti in the final straight in 2006 – right before Hornish’s exit to NASCAR.
There need to be fewer road races. Americans hate them. We hate them because they are largely dull, plodding affairs with very little passing and almost no drama. Oval races provide much more compacted action and are easier to watch. This was one of George’s key points when he created the IRL, which was an ovals-only league. That may have been a bit extreme, but not by much. There are plenty of ovals IndyCar isn’t on right now, the biggest, most glaring example being in Michigan.
There needs to be more races overall. This year IndyCar will run 16 times between March and September, and there is no rhyme or reason in when to expect a race. Two of those races are outside North America – the already run event in Sao Paolo and one in August in China.
Finally, somehow, IndyCar needs to bring back the kind of innovation that made the race such a spectacle in the first place. One of the things that made the first week at the track so special was seeing what people would show up with to run. Roger Penske constantly produced new body styles, as did Foyt’s Coyote Racing, Lola, Lotus and McLaren. Parnelli Jones showed up with a turbine engine one year. One car had six wheels. There were three engine manufacturers (this year they are back up to two). Innovation takes money, though, and in a circuit where money is in short supply it’s easier and cheaper to go with a common car body and one or two motors.
The hurdles for the Indy 500 are enormous and I have no idea if the race will ever jump them and regain any of the stature it’s lost in the last 15 years. I hope it does. In the mean time, however, I’ll be in the World’s Greatester Basement (my man cave) Sunday after I get done with the radio show (First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk; 9 am-Noon on NewsRadio 630 WLAP and wlap.com) cheering on J.R. Hildebrand…again.