IndyCar History – Does It Still Matter?
Not long ago, I was having lunch with one of the few IndyCar fans I know here in Nashville. He was telling me how Rick Mears and Sam Hornish were his two favorite drivers. Just when I was about to mention AJ Foyt, he popped out with “You know what I hate…it’s all these people that are so wrapped up in the sixties, thinking they were so great. And what really gets me are these people that try to bore you with everything going back to the Marmon Wasp. Who cares about the Marmon Wasp? If it isn’t halfway current, I don’t want to talk about it”.
I almost choked on my sandwich. This wasn’t a young kid out of high school. He was practically my age. I foolishly asked if he ever listened to Donald Davidson, to which he simply rolled his eyes and said “…please.” At that point, we changed the subject to the Tennessee Titans.
Having grown up going to the Indianapolis 500 in the sixties, I was very interested in the current group of drivers and cars at the Speedway. My two older brothers had become very interested in the history of the place, but not me. Of course, I was also in elementary school at that time. As I grew older, I started to appreciate the history of the track more and more. By the time I reached my adulthood, I had as much appreciation for Ted Horn as I do for Tony Kanaan.
I’m beginning to realize I’m not the norm, however. I understand that my passion for IndyCar racing far exceeds most casual fans. I know, for some people, that going to an IndyCar race is nothing more than a change of geography for having a party. I get that. What I don’t understand are those that can rattle off Dan Wheldon’s statistics for 2005, but have no clue, or even an interest in, who Johnny Rutherford is. To some, he’s nothing more than that old guy that drives the pace car at all the IndyCar races.
At the Nashville race a couple of years ago — I was with someone in the garage area prior to the race, who actually follows the current series pretty closely. I spotted Al Unser and pointed out him out. He asked, “Who’s he?” I explained that he was a four-time Indy 500 winner. He shook his head and said he didn’t care anything about the old guys.
I’ve mentioned before how I listen to Donald Davidson’s “The Talk Of Gasoline Alley” radio show every May. A link is provided on this site in case anyone is interested in listening to the archives. Although there are plenty of callers backed up on his phone lines each night, they are mostly the same people and they are generally my age or older.
From time to time, I receive e-mails from readers telling me how much they enjoy the historical perspective in my articles. Obviously, I enjoy that as well but I sometimes feel like historic facts and tidbits tend to make more readers click away, rather than seek out this site. The purpose of this whole site is for me to write about what I want to write about, but then again…I don’t want to end up blogging to myself.
My question is…do present-day race fans even care about the history of the sport anymore? In my opinion, the history is what makes me appreciate the Indianapolis 500 today. I’m not the bitter race fan that sits in my seats grumbling about the way it USED to be. What does concern me are the people that don’t seem to get what IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500 are all about. If they knew some of the heritage, perhaps they would care more.
Without getting into a social commentary on the ills of the next generation, I do worry that history and traditions that I hold sacred, are being scoffed at and tossed aside. Of all the many traditions of Indy, my favorite is Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again In Indiana”. Due to his age, I know there are a very few times remaining to experience that moment, so I try to savor every one of them. This year, I got to enjoy it while a few thirty-somethings around me laughed at it, made jokes about the old “has-been” being trotted out and generally scoffed at the entire ritual.
It’s an easy thing to do, to sit and complain about how the younger generation has no respect for things we hold dear. But these people weren’t THAT much younger than myself.
In twenty years, will anyone in their forties even know who Bill Vukovich and Wilbur Shaw are? Will they even care? Is the up and coming generation so self-absorbed that the past is simply written off as a novelty act instead of marveling at the brave men who drove these machines? Does the racing heritage even matter to people anymore?
Historical tidbits are what make IndyCar racing. The story of AJ Foyt putting his dirt car on the pole at Milwaukee is fascinating. Various drivers trying to tame the beast that was the Novi are enduring. Michael Andretti’s return from his ill-fated Formula One effort, giving the Reynard chassis a win in its debut, and Chip Ganassi his first win as a car owner — is something out of Hollywood. Helio’s Indy win this year is also something from a movie script. I don’t think I could fully appreciate the current series without knowing about its past.
The history of the IRL is brief, but it and CART are both connected to a long and storied past in open-wheel racing in the US. The record books are scattered throughout different series. Admittedly, it will take time and effort to mesh the records together. But it needs to be done, if for no other reason than for marketing the current series. Firestone does a great job of celebrating this heritage in their commercials. The NFL and Major League Baseball always connect their history to the present. The IRL should embrace its open-wheel heritage that is out there and promote it, before it is gone and forgotten.