Leave The Smackdown Out Of IndyCar
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.