In all likelihood, Sunday, April 6, 2008 will go down as a remarkably inconsequential day in American sports. After all, it was simply the day before the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Championship game, with a few professional regular season games mixed in.
In the world of motorsports, viewers were treated to a somewhat lackluster NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Texas, with Carl Edwards emerging as the winner. Meanwhile, a little-noticed IndyCar race in St. Petersburg might have been the most compelling event of the weekend.
In the years since the great open-wheel divide between CART/Champ Car and the Indy Racing League, the sport has collapsed. Bickering between the two sides and their shrinking fanbases, ownership incompetence, and pitifully low car counts were the norm. In February, the two sides merged under the IRL’s IndyCar banner, with an additional nine cars and drivers from Champ Car now in IndyCar. Which brings us to the streets of St. Petersburg.
The street course in St. Pete is not the longest in the world. Indeed, it is remarkably short, about 1.8 miles for one lap. Sunday proved, however, that size does not always matter.
As the race was about to begin, the heavens opened up, deluging the course. Inexplicably, race steward Brian Barnhart made the curious decision to run the first nine laps under caution, depriving the fans of real action. For a sport lacking in fans, this decision borders on the criminal. Thankfully, this was not the defining image of the day.
When the green flag did come out, fans were treated to a very compelling, with overtaking opportunities aplenty and interesting fuel strategies utilized throughout. Most surprising was the speed, and ultimate success, of the Champ Car contingent. Enrique Bernoldi, Justin Wilson, Ernesto Viso (perhaps the race’s true revelation), and Graham Rahal all led and passed numerous competitors in the process. Given that this was just their second race (Rahal’s first) in the IndyCar equipment, stunning doesn’t do this accomplishment justice.
I suppose that a surprise of this nature is what keeps fans of any sport coming back for more. It is those moments that are unplanned, that go against the norm that refreshes a sport. If so, Graham Rahal’s win, in which he had to hold off (and pull away from) ICS veteran Helio Castroneves, did more to refresh my interest in the sport than anything that has happened in years.
Yes, the Champ Car vs. IndyCar angle added some drama to the weekend, but the simple truth is this: It was a wonderful, if imperfect, open-wheel race. Outside of Indianapolis (and even this felt like a chore), watching any open-wheel race for AT LEAST the past 5-6 years began to feel like a job, something I felt compelled to do for no apparent enjoyment. Afterwards, it struck me that I never felt the need, after the lousy start of the event, to change the channel. Why would I? I was enjoying it too much.
Sadly, the race drew an awful 0.4 rating, next to nothing. It is a reminder of how much the sport was hurt since 1996. Indeed, it might be argued that it is officially too late to make anything out of the sport. Part of me wants to leave the sport now, on a positive note. If I was rational about it, I’d do just that.
But being a fan is never fully a “rational” experience. I hope to never reach the point where all emotion is stripped from my viewing of a sporting event. It is this excitement that I felt on April 6 that led me to one conclusion: I was just a fan again. The politics didn’t matter, the past became something to learn from, not obsess over, and the real focus was on man (and woman) and machine. I’m pretty sure that’s the way it is supposed to be.