Leave The Smackdown Out Of IndyCar

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By now, I would think that most of us have seen the on-track incident at the NASCAR race in Phoenix that led to a brawl between the crews of Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer. I’ll admit that I don’t watch a ton of NASCAR, but I did happen to be watching the Phoenix race when everything unfolded. All I could think was how silly and contrived it all seemed; and I wondered why Americans found this type of “sport” to be the preferred form of racing.

At first, most of what I saw on Twitter mirrored my thinking. But a couple of days later, I read a few comments from fans suggesting that IndyCar needed such drama in order to boost its popularity. It’s a shame Randy Bernard never came up with such a brilliant plan – he would probably still have his job (that’s sarcasm, by the way – I now feel compelled to label my sarcasm after a couple of tongue-in-cheek comments being misinterpreted).

There is a lowest common-denominator effect in American society today. Train wrecks are what sell to the American public. When shows like Bridezillas and Honey Boo-Boo are the ones that attract viewers, one has to shake their head and wonder. Sports are no different. Boxing has devolved into a sideshow of trash-talking and mean stares; which might explain how they lost their way over the years. That and the way their non-unified and split sport confused average fans and made them lose interest. Sound familiar?

The WWE is something I never quite understood, but it appeals to a lot of individuals that don’t reside in trailer-parks. I have a close college friend who is a successful attorney in Chattanooga and lives in a beautiful mountain-top home. He has followed “Professional Wrestling” for more than thirty years. He is intelligent enough to know that it is all theater, but he loves it still. I don’t get it.

Reality shows never appealed to me. Now that I’m married, my proud streak of never having watched an episode of Survivor has regrettably come to an end. Susan actually likes it and since I’m trying to maintain marital bliss – I’ve been subjected to several episodes this fall. I now know why I’ve never watched it. It promotes backstabbing and basically poor behavior in the worst way. Between Survivor, Bridezillas and the like, our society is being taught that the only way to get what you want is to yell, scream, be conniving and act like a total jerk with outlandish boorish behavior. Those that try to succeed by hard work and keeping their mouth shut are considered weak and spineless.

That brings me back to last weekend’s NASCAR race. Whether or not you are a Jeff Gordon supporter, what he did was wrong. Some, including Curt Cavin, called for his suspension rather than the $100,000 fine and the twenty-five point penalty he received. But I also have a problem with the lynch-mob mentality of Bowyer’s crew. Race cars should never be used as a weapon for revenge. Period. Stock car drivers seem to think that they can get away with it because their cars have fenders and a roof and that a driver is immune to injury. How else could you explain when Kyle Busch purposely ran Ron Hornaday straight into the wall a couple of years ago – just to get even. When Hornaday was turned head-on into the SAFER barrier, it looked eerily similar to the fatal accident involving Dale Earnhardt. Fortunately, Hornaday didn’t suffer the same result as Earnhardt – but how did Busch know that it would turn out that way?

And what about fan safety or crew safety? How many times have we seen stock car drivers seek revenge in the pits after a race is over? Not only are the cars bunched up, but they are surrounded by unsuspecting crew members, members of the media and even fans. That’s not a good recipe for some angered driver looking to right a perceived wrong. Or how about when former IndyCar drivers Danica Patrick and Sam Hornish tangled at Talladega under a caution? Danica rammed Sam from behind and sent him directly into the wall, with spectators seated not much further away. All it takes is for a piece of debris to make it into or over the fence and you have injured spectators – or worse.

All of these things get great air-time on SportsCenter when nothing bad happens, but it is a ticking time-bomb. I don’t know if IndyCar drivers are above the fray or if they just realize you shouldn’t do that in an open-wheel, open-cockpit car. Whatever the case, you don’t see this type of retaliation in IndyCar.

Of course, IndyCar is not completely innocent in post-race skirmishes. Who can forget the brawl between the teams of Tony Kanaan and Sam Hornish in 2007 at Watkins Glen, after Hornish’s father stepped in and shoved Kanaan. That one actually did involve one of the drivers rubbing against the other one en route to the pits following the checkered flag. Then there were the infamous moments between Paul Tracy and Sébastien Bourdais in Champ Car. Again, these moments all made Sunday night newscasts and produced a few chuckles, but I don’t see this as the kind of publicity the sport needs. What the sport does need are some true rivalries.

The media has tried to concoct a rivalry between American drivers Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti thinking that will make American fans care, but it has never really taken off. They may or may not care for each other, but it is not a true rivalry. Will Power and Dario Franchitti was shaping up to be a minor rivalry, but Franchitti was not in contention at all this past season and that rivalry died. Danica Patrick and Milka Duno wasn’t really a rivalry – they both underachieved and rivalries should involve drivers at or near the top of the points standings. The media tried to promote a rivalry between Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick after the Milwaukee race in 2007, but that was a no-win for Wheldon. If he got the best of her, he was a bully. If he didn’t, he was a wimp. Fortunately, that one died down as quickly as it started.

But most importantly, rivalries need to evolve naturally between drivers – not the media pitting drivers against each other thinking it will be a good story, when the drivers actually like each other and hold no grudge. Tony George and Randy Bernard? That’s a good rivalry. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Ryan Briscoe? Not so much.

In the sixties, fans had the rivalry between AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti – two vastly different drivers and personalities. You liked one or the other – not both. I was a Foyt guy and still am. For the last decade, IndyCar has been searching for a talented villain for a while and have yet to find one. NASCAR has no such problem. The Busch brothers are both very talented and also very easy to dislike. In the nineties, it was Jeff Gordon Vs Dale Earnhardt – the Golden Boy Vs The Intimidator. After Sunday, Gordon may be considered the villain for purposely taking Bowyer out. Maybe he wasn’t aware how fast Bowyer could run on foot.

Whoever you think was justified, I don’t think that type of behavior is what IndyCar needs to resort to. Hopefully, a natural rivalry will develop within the series and the media can play that up. I firmly believe that IndyCar can grow substantially while focusing on racing. Leave the WWE tactics to NASCAR.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “Leave The Smackdown Out Of IndyCar”

  1. TheAmericanMutt Says:

    Boxing hasn’t lost it’s way, it’s lots it’s stars. The trash talking and stares have always been there, and I wouldn’t put them in the same category as say the WWE.There’s a big difference in approaching a real fight, where even if you win, you’re going to get pounded, with bravdo, and the playful machismo of WWE.

    I only bring this up, because I see boxing as suffering a similar decline as racing, and for the same reason. There are no truly dynamic audience grabbing stars. with boxing there hasn’t been a heavy weight (roughly translated to the only weight division people actually care about for some reason) star since Mike Tyson. Say what you want about the mans crazy, he put butts in seats or on couches in front of a tv in a way that no star (even Mayweather, who I personally can’t stand) could. Heavy weight boxing is dominated by a bunch of russians that just don’t connect with an american audience. Right or wrong that’s the way it is, just as right or wrong (I personally feel it’s wrong) most of indycar stars just don’t grab the interest of the american public.

    One could argue, reasonably, that the split didn’t kill indycar. Foyt, Al Sr, Bobby, Mario, Mears, and Johncock all retiring in the same span of a few years did just as much, if not more, damage to Indycar than the split ever could.

  2. I’ll chuckle when they launch another we love the fans campaign after they kill a few of them.

  3. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    NASCAR, same circus different perpetrators…

  4. Reality TV always reminds me of H.L. Mencken’s statement: “Nobody ever went broke under-estimating the taste of the American public.” I think such spectacles are best left out of a sport where a mistake can easily lead to injury or death.

  5. I find it interesting that you omitted the post race lowlight that involved our favorite driver, one A. J. Foyt, bitch slapping Arie Luyendyk. (Just had to bring that one up, didn’t I?) Perhaps that was the first Indycar “WWE moment.”

  6. A Nascar race without a wreck is like a football game without a forward pass. If they never wrecked, their ratings might fall to Indycar levels. Well, maybe not that low…

  7. Jeff Gordon is a little fellow with the “Big Man Syndrome.” They should have let the two of them go and watch Bowyer clock him. However, I expect that kind of behavior in NASCAR and it didn’t hurt Jimmy Johnson’s chance going into the final race of the year. I don’t think I will be watching, though. The NFL Redzone and F1 will be getting whatever attention I can give this weekend.

  8. Indycar definitely needs to stay above the fray on this type of buffoonery. It never was really a part of the open-wheel landscape (despite Tracy’s best efforts).

    What was a key part of it’s popularity in the late-60s to late-80s (aside from the dirt-track racing) was the attitude that to win, one must evaluate the rules, build a better machine, and have a better driver pilot the thing. THAT was the drama and intrigue of Championship Open Wheel racing.

    Is that type of racing possible in this day and age?

    We won’t know until somebody tries.

  9. I was hoping George would use the term “boorish” as that is the perfect word for what happened at Phoenix (and why I don’t watch reality TV.)

    No way should Indycar ever begin to stoop to that level. One of the main reasons I love Indycar is seeing first hand that the competitors, in all but rare instances, leave it on the track and remain friendly off-track. That’s a wonderful model of respect for younger folks and counters the ridiculous behavior we see in other forms of popular entertainment and “sport”.

  10. This what the marching morons eat up. More rivalry ala Tracy / Bourdais or Danica / Milka. Throw some towels and or punches. Put it in commercials, start a reality show. Maybe a A.J./Mario cage match sponsored by Depends.

    Not sure if I’m being sarcastic or not?!?

  11. It seems I remember Robby Gordon purposely ramming his Indy car into someone immediately after a race a number of years ago ala NASCAR style. I think shortly after that he gave up on his IndyCar career and decided NASCAR is the preferred venue for that sort of thing. I would think purposely wrecking an Indy car the way the clowns in NASCAR prefer, would become prohibitively expensive very quickly.

  12. billytheskink Says:

    A friend of mine who is not a racing fan at all once told me that he felt that he understood the anger and fisticuffs seen in NASCAR (in all racing, really, but especially NASCAR) that us fans so often deride with labels like “WWE-like”. He said that he could definitely see why drivers would get angry with each other when in an extremely competitive environment where the mistakes and stupid decisions of one can not only take others out of the competition, they can lead to injury or worse for many.

    I had never really thought about it like that, but when I did, I agreed with him.
    Believing this, I certainly don’t think that Gordon’s actions were justified, nor were the actions of the crews. Their actions were, though, understandable… not as a contrived attempt to manufacture low-ball drama, but as the result of genuine emotion. What may be contrived (and what NASCAR may be guilty of) is a lack of consequences for such actions, which discourages drivers and crews to think before they act on their anger.
    Gordon should be suspended, as should any driver who so blatantly intentionally wrecks others. It’s not simply poor sportsmanship and damaging to the spirit of competition, it’s extremely dangerous.

    Though it is much rarer than it is in NASCAR, this type of behavior has occurred in Indycar before, and it will occur again. In addition to George’s examples, Oriol Servia spearing Paul Tracy at Surfer’s Paradise in 2000 comes to mind. What I hope, though, is that Indycar continues to punish these kind of actions appropriately. People won’t always think before they act, but they should be encouraged to do so.

  13. Anyone who views a NASCAR, or any other automobile race for that matter, simply in hopes of a crash or a fight is ignorant. I have always been told that NASCAR is popular due to the fact that it appeals to the “beer and pretzels” segment of our racing society. Well, it sure showed that in Phoenix. NASCAR is the only auto racing I have ever viewed where, if you want the driver in front of you out of the way, you tap that car on the left quarter panel and spin him out with no fear of NASCAR ofiicials retaliating. Example, Jeff Gordon’s token fine instead of suspension for the Phoenix incident. IndyCar, on the other hand, does not require such antics on or off the track to appeal to its fans. While driver altercations do occur in IndyCar drivers voice their opinions and then proceed with the series. I am not attempting to state that retaliation has not occurred in IndyCar in the past but they have been few and far between.

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