Another Reason To Be An IndyCar Fan

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Just last week, I wrote a post wondering if most fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series followed just motorsports or if they followed some or all of the “stick & ball” sports. By the responses I got, it seems that at least half of readers of this site follow one or more other sports that have nothing to do with racing. As I said at the time, you can put me in the category that follows other sports also.

Well, this past weekend – I was reminded why motor racing is a much more pleasant sport to follow.

The 1965 Indianapolis 500 was the first race of any kind that I ever attended. I was still five months shy of my seventh birthday. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I was pulling for Parnelli Jones that day. My brothers and my father were for AJ Foyt. My mother just wanted to get through the day. Jim Clark won the race, Parnelli came in second, while Foyt fell out with gearbox issues on Lap 115 and finished fifteenth. Although none of us were pulling for Clark, we all left IMS on a happy note that day.

It was another two years before I attended my first football game of any kind – at my oldest brother’s high school. The team lost 6-0 and I was devastated. The next morning, I remember promising to never attend another game. Of course, I did. But I always found myself too heavily invested. I beamed when our team won, but was crushed with every loss.

Meanwhile, my family kept making two trips per May, while I was growing up throughout the sixties and into the seventies – Pole Day and Race Day. I loved our trips to Indianapolis and relived each May throughout the following summer. Some of the best memories of my childhood took place at 16th and Georgetown. But then football season showed up and I would become pre-occupied with that for the next few months. Winters were bleak, and not just due to the weather. There were no sports I was passionate about, until the next month of May rolled around again.

I always had bad timing with my teams. My junior and senior year in high school were the two worst seasons in my school’s history; 2-8 and 1-9 respectively. Each of those seventeen losses caused great anguish, while there were only three wins to celebrate. My freshman year at the University of Tennessee in 1976, saw the firing of Coach Bill Battle; who had several 11-1 seasons with the Vols, before flaming out with a 6-5 record my first year of college. It got worse.

I was on the extended plan, meaning I stayed a little longer in school beyond the four years, before I finally graduated. I wanted to stick around for a good football team. By this time I had quit going to the Indianapolis 500, but still followed it closely. The hiring of Johnny Majors in 1977 saw subsequent seasons of 4-7, 5-5-1, 7-5 and 5-6 through 1980. As luck would have it, Majors finally got the program to respectability just after I graduated; but in my mind – he never matched the hype that came with him.

The nineties brought changes. First of all, in 1992 I returned to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in twenty years. I usually like to take a few pot-shots at my ex-wife on this site every now and then. She’s an easy target. But I’ll credit her with one thing on that cold day in May of 1992. When the command was given to start engines, the car of John Paul, Jr. would not fire. As the field pulled away and headed down the backstretch, Paul’s crew worked frantically to get his D.B. Mann Development Lola-Buick started. Finally, the car fired and Paul pulled away with tires screeching on the front straightaway. The crowd roared with approval. My ex-wife leaned over and said “Unlike football, I guess this is a sport where everyone pulls for everyone”. I hate to admit it, but she was right.

Later that year, Tennessee changed coaches. Exit the crusty and underachieving Johnny Majors and enter Philip Fulmer, his quiet and understated offensive coordinator. Fulmer recruited Peyton Manning in his second year on the job. In 1998, the Vols had their long sought after National Championship – just as I had moved to Charlotte, North Carolina for three years. I left the state for the first time in my life and they produced a championship. It figures.

Meanwhile, the Houston Oilers had just relocated to Tennessee and were in the midst of changing their name to the Titans. They proceeded to go to the Super Bowl, while I sat in Charlotte. In the meantime, the Carolina Panthers were in the midst of a three-year lull, culminating with a 1-15 season my last year in Charlotte. When I returned to Tennessee at the end of 2001, the Panthers would soon go to their first Super Bowl, while the Titans and Vols were sliding into mediocrity and beyond. My timing was as good as ever.

The Vols fired Fulmer in 2008 beginning a series of bad coaching hires; and the Titans began a downward spiral in 2009 that continued into yesterday.

All along the way, my football suffering began to up the ante with me. I am not proud of some of the things I have done as a result of watching my teams lose football games. I began to take it personally. In my twenties, I was known to kick over tables and throw objects as the Vols kept tweaking my temper. When I hit our front door with my fist after a UT kicker missed a game-winning field goal, the wooden door split down the middle. I was approaching thirty and I decided it was time to stop letting the actions of eighteen and nineteen year-olds ruin my weekend (and my belongings).

It was in the nineties that I realized I was enjoying racing more than football. I didn’t agonize over the results of each race, and consequently – I enjoyed every single one. What my ex-wife had said was true – we pull for everyone to succeed in racing.

Fast-forward to this past weekend. Although it had been a while, I found myself with that same sick feeling I had experienced in the seventies and eighties. Since Fulmer was fired, my Tennessee Vols had fallen on the hardest of times. At no time since they started playing football, had Tennessee suffered through five consecutive losing seasons; but that’s exactly what happened from 2009 through 2013.

After winning a bowl game to close out the 2014 season and three strong recruiting classes under new coach Butch Jones, expectations were high for 2015. Florida had beaten Tennessee for ten straight years, and the Gators were at a low point of their own. The time was right for Tennessee to end that streak and to show the nation that they were ready to resume their spot as an elite program. The Vols led 27-14 in the fourth quarter, but lost 28-27 in the final seconds through a series of mishaps.

Normally, I’m not one to blame the officiating or the coach. The coaches don’t miss tackles, throw interceptions or fumble the ball. The players do that. Blaming the refs is generally a lame excuse that fans use when they don’t fully understand the game. They think the refs are out to get their team. They’re not.

Saturday, the refs were not the problem. The thing is, the players weren’t the problem either. Our coach made a series of boneheaded gaffes and appeared to be genuinely confused on the sideline. After giving up an even bigger lead at home against Oklahoma just two weeks earlier – it’s becoming obvious that Butch Jones is one of those great recruiters who has no clue what to do once the game starts.

As the seconds ticked away Saturday night, I was coming unglued. At my ripe age, I’m fortunate to not have an issue with blood pressure. But I felt like I was about to explode Saturday night. But I calmed down as I reminded myself that Susan and I were to attend the Colts-Titans game on Sunday. The Titans were showing promise with rookie QB Marcus Mariota, and the Colts had looked terrible in their first two games. Surely the football gods would even the score and allow me to enjoy at least one victory this weekend – especially with us in attendance.

The Colts jumped out to an early 14-0 lead yesterday, but the Titans took complete control of the game and led 27-14 in the fourth quarter. We joked that that was the same score of the Florida game less than twenty-four hours earlier, before the Vols started their meltdown. We knew nothing like that was in the cards for Sunday. And then it started.

The Titans defense suddenly fell apart, while Mariota began to look like the rookie that he is. With five minutes to go, the Colts led by that same 28-27 score from Saturday. The Colts ended up winning the game 35-33 and I was left sitting in Nissan Stadium as the raindrops began to fall, appropriately enough.

Twice in a twenty-one hour period, I was left stunned and feeling like I had just been punched in the gut.

As Susan and I blindly followed the bewildered crowd out of the stadium, a thought occurred to me. I’ve been to a lot of races at a lot of tracks over the years, yet I’ve never left a track feeling like I had just had the rug pulled out from under me. I’m fortunate that in all the years I’ve been going to races; I’ve never been to a race that involved a driver fatality. That would make for a different feeling altogether. For this discussion, we’ll omit that devastating factor or life-threatening injuries out of the equation. But other than that – I’ve enjoyed every race I’ve ever attended or watched on television.

Now are some races better than others? Of course. But there is always some silver lining to every race, even though my favorite driver may have had a bad day. I can’t say that about football. It’s either all or nothing. In the near fifty years I’ve followed football, there’s been a lot more frustration than jubilation. I can’t say that about racing. I get significantly more joy than pain with racing.

This weekend took its toll on me. My stomach was tied up in knots for two days. I ate very little Saturday night or last night. I had no appetite. I don’t ever get that worked up over racing. I just sit back and watch it unfold and take whatever happens. The night before each Indianapolis 500, I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. I go to bed early, so I can get up before dawn and head for the track – just so I can experience the entire day and add to my many memories. There is no tradition for me to go to or watch a football game. Once it starts – that’s when I get worked up.

Susan and I have no more tickets for the Titans this year and that suits me just fine. I’m also comfortable having no plans to go to any more Tennessee Vols games after attending their season opener over Labor Day. I allowed myself to get sucked in by two bad teams in two days, thinking they might both come away with wins. I’m done. Sure, I’ll continue to watch them on television – but I’ll keep them both at arms length. They both let me down too much and it’s not worth it.

Thanks for letting me vent. My furniture thanks you, too. So while I’ll continue to watch football, my focus and passion will continue to be the Verizon IndyCar Series. It’s a lot easier on my nerves to throw my energies into that sport, even during the offseason. There’s also the added comfort knowing that they’ll just let me down off the track – not on it.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “Another Reason To Be An IndyCar Fan”

  1. Br!an McKay Says:

    I have a bad mood after a racer suffers a grievous injury or a fatality.

  2. Jack in Virginia Says:

    The first race I ever saw (1964 Indy 500) had two fatalities right in front of us as we sat in Grandstand J, which may explain why I’m a little more apprehensive as each race starts than you are, George.

    But I learned a long time ago that whether my football team wins or loses, the quality of my life really doesn’t change. Such bragging rights as a win produces are generally short-lived and worthless. Such anguish as a loss provides dissipates after a few days. By and large, it just doesn’t matter, and it’s certainly not worth getting worked up over. For that reason, it has become a rare event for me to give up a beautiful fall afternoon to sit in front of a TV and watch a football game. I’d rather be enjoying myself outdoors. This past Saturday I watched Tennessee throw away that game, because it was pouring down rain and it was on a channel I actually receive. I should have gone for a walk in the rain.

  3. I have argued the opposite in the past. With a few exceptions, no matter how bad your team is they will win a few games per year in a stick and ball sport. 2008 Lions excepted, that rule is generally true. In racing, even great drivers can go through long winless streaks especially when their team is not good. That same feeling of despair is one I felt in the first half of the Indycar season (from St Pete-Texas, Barber excepted) and one I feel when really boring drivers win titles or races (Dixon/Kenseth/JJ).

  4. I used to be that way about baseball and football. Especially with the Bengals, a key loss would ruin my whole week. I did a lot of suffering in the 90’s and beyond.

    I found that racing was more relaxing because, although I had favorites, I had more than one or two and was never really concerned about the post season – i.e. “Chase” There really was next week.

    And to be honest, as I watched my country decline in a lot of ways, and our society too, I started to feel that my emotion and efforts were misplaced. That sports was the opiate of the masses. With that realization, I have had a hard time getting worked up over sporting events. There really are a lot more important things going on.

    That being said, I still enjoy going to the track and taking in the races, without being glued to my seat about the outcome.

  5. It’s possible to be a football fan … as in a fan of the game … and still get the same feeling. I used to be a hard-core fan of just one team, but then the cost (emotional, financial) was no longer worth it I just became a fan of the game in general. Now I watch a quarter here and there on Sunday, no biggy.

  6. I am not about to pile on your Tennessee teams since your alma mater beat Wisconsin in the classic Garden State Bowl game in beautiful downtown East Rutherford back in the day. In your darkest hours you might try remembering Reggie White, another Tennessee grad, who, among other feats, knocked Boomer Esiason completely out of a game. (If only Boomer could get knocked completely off the air)

    In Milwaukee the Brewers have become so inept that they are now 25 games behind the cubs if you can imagine that. Actually it is kind of comforting knowing that we can go to a Brewer game knowing that nothing remotely exciting will happen other than perhaps one of the racing sausages getting into the marbles. I mean no disrespect when I say I now find the Toledo Mud Hens more exciting than the Brewers.

    I am looking forward to some actual excitement today as I am about to head up to Road America for more IndyCar testing.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    Can sports truly make your weekend if they can’t also ruin it?

    While I can’t speak for others, I do know it is true for me that a serious rooting interest in a driver, player, or team makes a sport much more interesting for me. Of course, I think it is good to approach fandom more maturely than I did when I was younger, when my parents would send me to my room for yelling at a game on television or I would throw things at my radio in college after hearing about another interception on the way to a 3 win season.

    Still, I find that for all the frustrations that come with the lows, the successes are all the more enjoyable when I have a significant emotional investment in the outcome.

  8. I can completely relate! About 15 years ago, I kicked over a bookcase when Ohio St. barely beat Michigan at Ann Arbor. It barely missed crushing our dog as it hit the floor and smashed into splinters. My wife has still not forgiven me.

  9. My mindset on sports has changed a bunch over the years. Up until about 5-6 years ago, I certainly could have my day or even week wrecked by the outcome of a game (which, as a fan of the Cubs and the mid-2000s Bears, happened often). Around about the time my kids arrived, something happened. I realized that since I could do literally nothing to influence what happened on the field or the front office, any emotional significance that I put on the game affected only me. So, I went from the guy who retreated to the basement to angrily throw darts after the Bears got knocked out of the NFC Playoffs by the freaking Panthers and the guy who sullenly paid up his bets placed with co-workers after Super Bowl XLI to a guy who barely even registers that the NFL is on (I think I’ve only seen 3-4 snaps this whole season). And I went from a guy who lived and died with every Cubs pitch (especially those thrown in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs, both embarrassing sweeps) and took on a sense of grief like somebody in my family had died after Ryne Sandberg (whose Nike poster still adorns the wall of my childhood bedroom) was denied the Manager position in 2010 to a guy who takes his fandom as far as just wearing my ancient Cubs hat to my daughter’s baseball games (it’s one of my only “baseball-themed” hats). Racing just can’t break my heart the way that stick-and-ball sports used to. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. Well, plus the cars and the drivers and the smell of the paddock and the tenderloins and, and, and…

  10. Thank you for this George. You may have largely exlained why I still follow INDYCAR and almost completely ignore all other sports.
    There are also some very good comments above, including that I have no influence on the outcome of any sporting event, and that whoever wins or loses makes no difference in my life. (In the many years I made my living as a free-lance photojournalist it did matter to me whether or not a team I was paid to cover made post season play as tht provided me additional income generating opportunities.)
    When I do watch racing or any other sport, it is just to relax and watch the sport.
    One aspect of all sports that is significant to me is the dedication, discipline, and effort that is put in by the serious competitior, all of whom must do all that with the knowledge that they are likely to experience a lot of failures and disappointments.
    I learned a lot about life and how to live it from my days of trying to be a football player, then a basketball player, then having to understand in great detail many psorts so I could cover them well.
    Life, and sports, aren’t really about winning or losing. Both are about constantly striving to be better.
    When the final score of our lives is fixed, it realy won’t matter that much about the few significant wins, what will matter is that we tried and didn’t quit.

  11. Spot on George! I recall tailgating at a NASCAR race and had a moment where I realized something was off. I noticed I wasn’t stressed out and I couldn’t care less about the outcome of the race. I don’t tend to worry about pro sports. Being a Cleveland fan makes you get used to and even expect failure (yes, even with you Lebron). As for the Buckeyes, I am already stressing out about the next game. Bloomington should be a fun trip this weekend, I just might not realize it until it is over.

    Shout out to Ricky T who got pissed Ohio State didn’t win by enough in Ann Arbor of all places. We are a spoiled fan base.

  12. As a longtime Minnesota Vikings fan, the 4 Super Bowl losses killed me as a kid. And in latter years the failure to get back to the top is frustrating.
    Knowing how you love Indy and IMS it amazes me you missed 20 years in what I consider some of the golden years of the sport. Keep up the good work George!

    • My father inexplicably gave up his tickets in 1973. To this day, I don’t know why. High school, college and then young adulthood got in the way. Once I could afford it on my own, I started back. – GP

  13. I’ve seen Michael Schumacher lose several F1 championships. For having a worse car in 1996, for cheating in 1997, and the most honourably way in 1998.

    I’ve seen Massa lose the 2008 F1 championship in the most dramatic and honurable way.

    I’ve seen Castroneves and Power lose several IndyCar championships. Sometimes for poor mistakes and sometimes for not being fast enough.

    I’ve seen Uruguay’s football team lose to Holland at the 2010 World Cup, despite playing much better and cleaner.

    This year I’ve seen Uruguay’s amateur rugby team lose matches by wide margins against the best professional teams in the world.

    Yet despite the frustration, I’ve enjoyed those defeats, sometimes even more than some victories.

    They were capable of winning, except the Teros, who were outclassed. Anyway, they fought as hard as they could, sometimes with plenty of talent and skills, sometimes with only guts.

    “The will must be stronger than the skill” said Ali. Japanese martial arts recognize the importance of fighting spirit. And I can’t enjoy sports without it.

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