Wednesday, June 25, 2008

IndyCar's future

Forgive me, this will be long and might even mix in some politics.

First, some lousy news: No new formula until 2011. On some levels, I get it. To do it right will require time, and $ is tight right now. Some would also say its understandable, desirable even, to launch it in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.

I can understand the logistical arguments (time and $), and while there's sense in the 100th anniversary angle (Those of us who were more loyal to CART/CC should acknowledge this: Indy is, currently, the only value in the sport), it comes from the wrong perspective: IMS-centricity. While Indy is indeed vital to the sport, you cannot make every decision based solely, seemingly, on the fortune of one place.

While it might not fit IMS symmetry, we needed a new formula sooner. The current machines are simply tired, loud, too slow, and not aesthetically pleasing.

Furthermore, ONE CHASSIS? Again, a money thing, but doesn't that mean that teams will inevitable flock to the mark that has the most hp (provided its reliable, an important note)?

At any rate, Miller seems positive on the whole thing, and HOORAY! to turbos. For former CC folks, though, waiting until 2011 is a bridge too far. I'm still game, but waiting until 2011 is... unfortunate, in my view.

It's too bad, also, given that Iowa was surprisingly good, with a great 35-40k sellout. A fair amount of passing, knowledgeable fans, and differing strategies were all involved.

But will it matter?

I suppose that THIS POST at TrackForum started this train of thought. Now, I don't totally agree with premise that IndyCar, as it is today and will become in the future, is doomed to lousy ratings, but any empirical look at the evidence suggests it's very possible. Why? Time for some politics (and the way-back machine)!

This 1987 article (found in The Atlantic archives) by Bill Schneider (now of CNN) analyzed how the Goldwater-Reagan movement fundamentally changed American politics. Combined with THIS New Yorker piece by George Packer on the (electoral) end of the Conservative Era, I think we may have an answer.

In the last 40 yrs., it has become something of a badge of honor in this country to compete in athletic events that are unique from other international compettitions. Not only do we not get soccer (myself included), but we're PROUD of that. It's not an American/North American game, so our lack of interest. The Conservative Revolution detailed in the Schneider and Packer articles ushered a different sense of nationalism/national pride. Where we were once content to judge ourselves based on international (largely European) opinion, now we choose to pursue our own path in sports.

So it is in racing. I'm finishing Thunder at Sunrise, a book that details the early American racing scene, including the first 6 Indianapolis 500's (Seriously, Ralph Mulford got screwed in 1911). One of the (many) interesting things with the book was the sense of international prestige our three major events, the Vanderbilt Cup, Grand Prize (anglicized grand prix), and Indianapolis held. These early great events saw a huge number of foreign makes (FIAT, Mercedes, Benz, and Peugeot, to name a few) competing against a developing American market. International racers like Jules Goux (1913 Indy winner) dominated on more than a few occasions.

While such a state of affairs did not please the public, it also created drama and a measuring stick. The other makes were better; we improved. And their presence gave the events a remarkable and curious prestige.

As time drew on, stock car racing developed as a unique sport, separate from Indianapolis-style racing. Unfortunately, even during the first 30+ years of NASCAR, it was seen as utterly regional, unsophisticated, and niche sport. IndyCar racing dominated.

Thanks to many factors (The Split among them), that has reversed. Americans have embraced this uniquely American form of racing, but, like conservatism in 1980, only after it's image changed to something juuuuuuuust sophisticated enough (but not too sophisticated, ala Europe) for the mainstream. Americans have embraced oval-track racing with machines that look like normal cars (Biggest canard in Motorsports- they're NOTHING like street cars. They're just ugly as hell-seriously the COT sucks- and use '60's technology), with American heroes. IndyCar racing is seen as a) poorly run, but b) a foreign-based sport with foreign drivers. Many say, "Why do we need this?"

To those reading, I place NO value judgment on this nationalism/pride. Many other nations are similar in this regard, but it IS something that has changed. We don't need anyone else to justify any of our sports or actions. Clearly, this is not favorable to IndyCar.

Many who supported the original formation of the IRL seemed, in my view, to advocate an open-wheel version of NASCAR. But I don't want that, and what's the point of it? Just give it to NASCAR.

And maybe that's where we're headed. In some sense, wouldn't it do the 500 a service to return it to a sport that people care about? Maybe that would truly honor the Speedway.

But I hope it doesn't happen. For years, IndyCar has been a bridge between F1 and pure "American" racing. In that, it is utterly unique. Moreover, I hate to think that American racing is going to be boiled down to NASCAR, a low-tech form of racing.

Most of all, I love the speed, and I'll say it again, on it's best day, open-wheel racing smokes NASCAR. I just hope it will still be around for me to enjoy.

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