IndyCar Drivers Are Good Citizens

As the sordid details of the Steve McNair case continue to emerge in the local media here in Nashville, it makes me pause and think how lucky we are in the IndyCar world that (a) the drivers are not put up on near as high a pedestal as in other sports and (b) they are, by and large, a pretty decent bunch.

That’s not to say that they are perfect and infallible. Far from it…but that goes back to the first point that I made. The IndyCar personalities are much more accessible than any other sport, therefore we tend to know them a little better. Getting to know the drivers a little more intimately prevents us from idolizing them and making them out to be something more than they are.

When the IndyCar Series ran here in Nashville from 2001 to 2008, it was standard procedure to buy a $30 garage pass which got you free access to anywhere in the garage area you wanted to go. You were able to roam about where the drivers were and mingle with the team members as they worked on the cars.

Two years ago, I got into an in-depth conversation with Helio’s front-inside tire changer about four hours before the drop of the green flag, getting detailed explanation as to what he was doing to the car. While we were talking, Helio came up and crawled in the car for him to adjust the mirrors. He and Helio both talked to me for a while about Nashville, whether it would rain or not (it did) and about racing in general.

Helio was and is one of the biggest stars in the series. I have been to many Titans games, and suffice it to say that I probably would not have that type of access to Vince Young or any other Tennessee Titan, just four hours before kickoff. Even if the NFL or the Titans would allow it, I’d never get past Vince Young’s entourage.

Over the years; I have met and had (very) brief conversations with some of the biggest names of this sport. Some of those names are as legendary in racing, as the names of Unitas and Montana are in football. I am as big a fan of football as I am of IndyCar Racing, yet I have never met any pro-football players except for Reggie White, when we were both students at Tennessee; and Jevon Kearse, with whom I struck up a brief conversation when I was behind him in line at a Jersey Mike’s Deli here in Nashville. Neither of them was as approachable as the average IndyCar driver.

I did meet Walter Payton once…but it doesn’t count for this discussion, because it was in the garage area at Indianapolis when he was Dale Coyne’s partner. My (then) wife wanted a picture with him. One of the yellow-shirts try to shoo her away, but he calmly pulled the barrier aside – allowing us to step into their garage for the picture. He also offered autographs and was very personable.

Maybe it speaks for the level of popularity of IndyCar drivers compared to NFL players that we are able to get closer to them – or perhaps they are simply more down to earth. I don’t mean that Dan Wheldon and I have that much in common. Wheldon is reported to own over three hundred pairs of shoes. I think I own three. But I’ve seen him many times over the years and he has always been very accommodating.

None of us are perfect human beings. We are all flawed in certain ways. Al Unser, Jr.’s unfortunate fall from grace not withstanding; you normally don’t hear of the problems with IndyCar drivers that you do with most of today’s athletes.

Perhaps it is because this sport is so sponsor driven, that you don’t normally hear of IndyCar drivers being listed on the police blotter. Normally, I don’t like the fact that sponsors have so much power in this sport, but in this case it helps. Maybe there is so much money to be made through sponsorship deals, that discretion rules the day – or perhaps not many people follow the sport, therefore there is no paparazzi to follow them and report such things.

It could be it’s just the basic makeup of a racecar driver that makes the difference. It is instinctive for a driver to quickly analyze a situation and decide if it is worth the risk. If a wrong decision is made, the consequences can be deadly. Growing up in the sixties, the image of a racecar driver was a suave and debonair swashbuckler that lived a fast life while driving toward a fast death. Nothing could be further from the truth for most of today’s IndyCar drivers. While they like to have fun, most carry themselves very responsibly.

I know that here in Nashville, no one was shocked to hear the facts that have surfaced about Steve McNair. He was always known to frequent clubs late at night with companions other than his family. He had a few run-ins with the law regarding DUI’s and firearm possession, but his image was unblemished because of his athletic accomplishments. He has pretty much gotten a pass from the local media.

I have fallen into that trap, as well. I knew of McNair’s lifestyle, but chose to ignore it because he was an icon in this city. Nashville is still pretty new to pro sports. Fifteen years ago, there were NO major sports in this town. We now have the NFL and the NHL and until this year, the IndyCar Series. We are now experiencing the darker side of sports, where we find that our heroes on the field do not always succeed at life.

Fortunately, the dark side has pretty much avoided the IndyCar Series. NASCAR is going through a bit of the dark side right now with the Jeremy Mayfield saga. Even though a judge has ruled that he cannot be banned from the sport, his career is pretty much over. In his case, perception has become reality. No sponsor wants to be associated with anyone who might possibly be guilty of using drugs in racing. If you are impaired in baseball, you might miss hitting a curveball. If you are impaired in racing, you might put one of your competitors into the wall and possibly a grave.

Perhaps other professional sports should pay a little more attention to what the sponsors think about their image. IndyCar drivers seem to get it, that the sponsors are what maintain their lifestyles. Perhaps athletes in other sports might get it, if they suddenly lost everything due their actions. Two vivid examples have played out right here in Nashville, with two former Titans. Adam “Pac-Man” Jones has lost his career and his fortune, due to his off-the-field escapades. Steve McNair just lost a lot more. Athletes in other sports might do well to make IndyCar drivers THEIR role models when making lifestyle decisions.

George Phillips


3 Responses to “IndyCar Drivers Are Good Citizens”

  1. George, well said, per the norm. But the fact of the matter remains, we don’t know these people. IndyCar, the NFL, NBA or otherwise. It’s been my experience that their “on camera” personas are — usually — NOTHING like their real personas. It’s a sad fact of life, I fear.

    (And for the record, I greatly admired McNair. You know, before I knew that he was cheating on his wife and hooking up w/ a 20 year old.)

  2. James O. Says:

    I think that it’s part of not being in the full celebrity spotlight. On the one hand, they don’t lead the news every time they get into an argument at Starbucks over how much mocha went into their macchiatos, and the other is that Stardom doesn’t quite get to go to their head and completely destroy any sense of reality they may have had. A friend of mine who’s an F1 fan loves to tell Michael Shumacher’s comment about how he loves to come to the USA because nobody recognizes him. Without the mobs, you don’t need the enterage of handlers and bodyguards and hangers-on who buffer you from the world and, while you’re at it, indulge your every whim.

  3. Some of us have conversed briefly or at length with drivers and very hard-working teammates year after year at the same venue. or weekend after weekend in the same season, and/or have done small business transactions with them and/or have observed them away from race tracks, out of limelight (albeit not in their homes or hotel rooms. I have found several drivers and teammates to be down-to-earth, earnest, driven, conscienscious, fundamentally good people who work in a very dangerous sport. Of course I don’t know all that people do in their ‘private lives,’ but I trust the IndyCar and ALMS and GrandAm drivers to be sane, ‘normal’ people.

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