IndyCar History – Does It Still Matter?

GeoThumbnail 
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.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “IndyCar History – Does It Still Matter?”

  1. Jack in NC Says:

    I feel sorry for those who have no interest in history. For one thing, they are missing some great stories. You mentioned the Novi’s – they were always one of my favorites, although they never won the 500 (I don’t know if they ever won ANYWHERE). People who just focus on the present have no idea of the feeling those cars produced – watching a driver who literally had a tiger by the tail. So much power, probably half again as much raw power as any other car on the track, and front wheel drive when almost all cars in the world were rear-wheel drive.

    Another thing that is missed by those who disdain history is understanding of how we got where we are today. Why do race cars run on alcohol? Why not gasoline? Anyone who watched the fiery crash in 1964 when Dave McDonald’s gasoline fueled car hit the wall in turn 4 and then was broadsided by Eddie Sachs can attest to why gasoline should not be allowed.

    New fans today (are there any?) see essentially identical cars – same chassis, same engines, same tires, parading around the track single file. What brought racing to this pass (pun intended)? What led to the decisions to have a single chassis? Why is only one engine used? Only by studying the past can we understand the present, or plan for the future.

  2. The American Mutt Says:

    My first Indy was 92. I was a week away from being thirteen. I’m thirty now, and had I been sitting near those thirty somethings you spoke of, I’d have been tempted to put my foot firmly in their ass. Back Home Again is THE moment that triggers that something that I get every year during the 500. I don’t know much of the history prior to the 80s, but I’ve done my best to learn some of it.

  3. George, I’m 22 and I’m trying to keep your dream alive. I got a love of cars — especially old ones — from my father and our continuous watching of auto racing led me to love the ‘500’. If I have to pick three favorite cars out of Indianapolis history, I have to go with: “Calhoun” (#98 Agajanian/Parnelli Jones…love the blue and pearl with red accents), the Rislone Eagle (Bobby Unser…last of the wingless cars, and late-sixties Eagles are a great design), and the “Yellow Submarine” (Chaparral ground effects car…low-slung, clean lines, and deathly fast). If I had the money, I’d go out to the Monterey Historics every year — I had always wanted to hear a DFV at song, and I got my chance when Mario Andretti did demo laps in the Lotus 79, and I never got to see a REAL trans-am race (Camaros, Mustangs, AMCs, etc) until I went and it was brilliant.

    I might be an anomaly amongst my generation, but I don’t care. I love racing, I love the history of racing, and I’ll keep listening to Donald Davidson and reading his books and watching IMS’ historic films for as long as I can.

  4. Regardeding the online pole; I felt there should be a respose in between “enjoying it more the older I get” and “every chance I get”. I do listen to every episode of “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” via podcast (so can enjoy it when I have time, laundry, stuck in line at BMV, etc.). That being said, I do agree that humans seem to relate more to things that happened durring thier existance. For example: I am interested in finding out more about interesting topics like the the first balloon race (amazing), first motorcycle races. But seem to relate more to the race that was so cold Roberto Guraro spun out and crashed on the pace lap. I was at that race, but we were late getting to the track (most allways were back then) and missed that. Or races my Dad attended, Bill Vocavich, etc.
    I do not blame the younger generation for thier shortend life cycle of relavent information, nor the older view that the past must be studied for it’s historical/educational value. They are two sides of my favorite lucky coin.
    By the way…I love this blog. I came accross it when someone pointed me to Indycarbuzz.com. Good work! -HB

  5. TJ Halsema Says:

    My first race was in 92 at the age of 5. I have missed 3 500’s since then. I plan on moving up to Indianapolis when I get old, I live in Georgia currently, and working at the speedway museum. Maybe I will be able to drive the bus, or work in the photo room. A couple of years ago during a trivia challenge on carb day, I was asked to stop answering questions. Not all of the questions were current, though most of them were geared toward 1996 forward. I still remember having the questions changed on me twice mid-question because I blurted out the correct answer by just knowing the year. The MC would say, “In 1996..” I would blast Buddy Lazier, before he could finish, so he would change who were the top 5 cars. (Lazier, Jones, Hearn, Zampedri, and Guerrero). Also he asked in who was the first to run at over 150, and when did the first rear engine car run at Indy, which I believe was in 1941.

    I live on this history. I talk to the ghosts which I have noticed there isn’t a boring driver among them. All of the drivers had great personalities and were shepherds of fan friendly behavior.

    Finally if anybody who goes to the Indy 500, they need to know who Wilbur Shaw was and why he is important. Without his persistence the Indy 500 would not exist today.

  6. I think this is a non-issue. There have always been people who are not
    interested in history and there always will be. Some people just go through
    life as if nothing existed before themselves, while others seem to live in the
    past.

  7. my first race was when i was 12 and i havent missed one since. i just turned 40. prior to that i was stuck at home with a babysitter listening to it on the radio.

    rick mears is still my favorite driver, and im an aj fan etc., and i like donald davidson and the history but the problem is too many people use the history as a club to pound on the current state of affairs. too many are like, “man it was great yadda yadda — it really sucks now”. i always wonder, than why are you here?

    so whenever i start hearing about the history, i cringe. waiting for the usual bitching and gripeing. other wise i love the history. gomer rocks. florence is always good for comic relief.

  8. I would hope so and I would count myself as one of those people who do care. While my main interest lies during the CART era of Indy car racing into the split and reunification, I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who came before. That story about not knowing Al Unser makes me shake my head as well as the laughing at Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again in Indiana”. I’m pretty fortunate about being an Indy car fan through the ups and downs (right now would be a bit of a “down”). I still get amazed that I became a fan considering my background but I am not complaining.

  9. James O. Says:

    I think it matters. I’m mildly irritated whenever I hear the tv announcers (or a reporter) talk about something being the most, best, whatever, in Indycar History, dating WAAAaaaayyyyy back to 1994 or so. Of if you really want to dust off the record books, include CART and the creeky years of 1979. Eddie Sachs may as well have been driving a chariot in Ben Hur.

    But I think there’s a nugget of value when people want to forget the ancient past. They rarely play old races, and even the “old” Indy 500s are almost always from the CART/IRL era. It *is* difficult to get excited over people you never got to see compete, just as it’s easy for us to appreciate Brett Favre and forget Johnny Unitus. Just the way the older generations were able to forget the heroes of their grandfathers.

  10. I would like to see IMS/ABC release DVDs of the complete race for every year dating back to when TV coverage of the race began. Some of my most prized possesion are my old VHS tapes of the TV broadcast dating back to the early 80’s. You might catch an old race on ESPN Classic but they are never very old (maybe late 80s) and are always edited for time.

    If I could buy DVDs of the TV coverage of the full race from the 1960s, 1970s, etc I would spend the money in a heartbeat.

    • Just wondering, what have you got on VHS? Have been collecting for a couple of years, have quite a lot from 1911 up until now.

  11. James O. Says:

    I would buy those DVDs in a heartbeat. I grew up in the 70s, and at the time I found Jackie Stewart’s high voice and accent annoying. Now I’m older and smart enough to appreciate who he was and what he brought to the booth; I’d love to have a chance to see them again.

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