This Is Why I Follow IndyCar Racing
With poor TV ratings, partially full stands and the prevailing negativity on TrackForum and other sites that seems to constantly engulf the sport of IndyCar racing – it sometimes takes its toll on the most loyal open-wheel fans. Then something occurs that reaffirms one of the many reasons I follow this sport.
I’m not talking about the good vibes that have permeated the sport since the return of the IndyCar Series to Pocono Raceway last weekend. No, what I’m talking about happened almost a month ago.
Several weeks after New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez allegedly killed a man, the sordid details continue to come out. If all charges are true, it paints a grim picture of someone who seemingly had it all and chose to throw it all away for the sake of a code of the streets. The victim had allegedly “disrespected” (my favorite non-word) Hernandez a few nights before his murder and paid the ultimate price.
Hernandez had recently signed a $40 million contract with the Patriots. He was financially set for life at the age of twenty-three. But if all the allegations are true – he made the choice to forfeit everything in the name of revenge. He is now sitting in a Massachusetts jail cell and staring at the strong possibility of a life sentence.
While murder charges against an active NFL player are rare, they are not unheard of. Rae Carruth of the Carolina Panthers orchestrated the murder his pregnant girlfriend in 1999. After a manhunt that ended near my hometown of Jackson, TN; Carruth was found hiding in the trunk of his car and was convicted. He currently sits in a North Carolina prison, but is inexplicably scheduled for release in October of 2018.
Barely seven months later, a former teammate of Carruth’s was gunned down. Fred Lane had played for the Panthers from 1997 through 1999 before being traded to the Indianapolis Colts for the 2000 season. Lane never played a single down for the Colts. In early July of 2000, Lane had returned to his Charlotte home where his wife, Deidra Lane, shot him dead shortly after he arrived home. She plea bargained a deal to plead guilty of voluntary manslaughter. For whatever reason, Deidra Lane was released from prison in March of 2009.
The list goes on and on. Whether it’s the NFL, the NBA or Major League Baseball – the courts are filled with incidents involving pro athletes. Hockey players seem to be a pretty well-behaved bunch, so I’ll give the NHL a pass.
The question is…when did this become acceptable behavior? Murder is still considered a crime; but it seems that in today’s gang culture, violence is so prominently glorified in some of today’s music, movies and television – it’s almost something to be admired, in an underground sort of way. It’s carried as some twisted badge of honor.
I’m sure that, given my age, I’m being scoffed at by some as an old goat that is completely out of touch with the way today’s culture operates. But I don’t think so. I think it is these street punks that have infiltrated today’s sports that are out of touch. In the real world, you don’t go around executing people because you have been “disrespected”.
I will also sound old when I say that in my day, athletes were role models. Yes, they liked to party and carouse at night – but they lived within the law and were never intent on hurting anyone. Prominent athletes that I looked up to when I was growing up included Johnny Unitas, Hank Aaron, AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti. These were men who were colorful, yet law-abiding citizens. Foyt would get into the occasional brawl at the track, but never sought anyone out away from the track to exact his revenge.
Fans gripe that the current group of drivers in the IndyCar Series are too foreign, too corporate or too boring. Well, if that’s the worst thing we can say about the drivers we follow throughout each season, then I’d say our series is in good shape. The most controversial driver I’ve seen come along in the past twenty years is Paul Tracy. All he was ever guilty of was making a few crude remarks, shoving a driver or two and being able to drive the wheels off of a racecar when he was in his prime.
That’s not to say that all IndyCar drivers lead perfect lives. Al Unser, Jr. has made some poor choices in his personal life over the years. He has been forced to confront the demons in his life, but by all accounts – he is at least trying. There have also been a few car-owners over the years that have been involved in some shady financial dealings.
But there has been nothing in the past of open-wheel racing that comes even close to what the mainstream stick & ball sports deal with on a weekly basis. Why does the American public put up with it? Does today’s society teach kids that they should only look up to those that live on the edge of the law? Are law-abiding citizens now considered too boring for fans to follow? When did it become cool to be nothing more than a common thug?
Along with my passion for the sport itself, the fact that IndyCar drivers are exempt from such behavior is one reason why I still follow the sport. Fans may moan when either Dario Franchitti or Marco Andretti whine about their troubles in a race; but they know how to behave in society when they leave the track. The positive energy we get from drivers such as James Hinchcliffe, Pippa Mann, Helio Castroneves, Justin Wilson and Ryan Hunter-Reay is something that is just not that common in other sports. That’s why I follow this sport – the good people that are involved.
Much has been discussed about the tenuous future of IndyCar racing and whether or not it will ever be relevant again in the landscape of American sports. Suggestions have been tossed about as to what changes need to be made in order to draw the attention of the much sought after casual fan. Some suggestions are better than others, but they are all intent on keeping the upbeat vibes the sport exudes. I’m hoping it never comes down to suggesting that our drivers need to develop “street cred” in order to draw new fans. If it ever does come to that, that’s the day I stop watching.