Is IndyCar Too Indy-Centric?
Recently, there has been a growing feeling among some fans that the Verizon IndyCar Series is too Indy-centric; meaning that the series places way too much importance on the Indianapolis 500. I will say right now that I am not one who thinks this. But there are some people that I have a great deal of respect for that do feel this way, so I think it’s something that is worth discussing.
Those that feel this way think that all of the marketing and promotional efforts are heavily slanted towards the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; while all the other tracks are forgotten about and left to fend for themselves. That’s an obvious over-exaggeration of their stance, but you get the idea.
When the series ran raced here in Nashville from 2001-2008, I never felt that way. I felt that the race was well-promoted. Big-name drivers like Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish were sent here two to three weeks in advance for promotional activities. They made all the in-studio sports-talk radio stops and one year they even recorded a very forgettable country music song at one of the many local recording studios. It was also in Nashville during one of those promotional tours that Ed Carpenter made his infamous comment on a local radio station that Danica Patrick’s on-track temperament was dependent upon what time of the month it was. Ouch!
But that was also almost a decade ago. It was also two regimes ago, when Tony George was in charge and the series was still predominantly ovals. Times and leadership have changed, and so has the vision for IndyCar.
Some say that this current regime considers Indianapolis the racing capitol of the world. After all, there are signs within the IMS grounds proclaiming just that. They feel that they figure the Indianapolis 500 is the main event and that the events at other tracks should consider themselves lucky to be a part of that and to trade off of their good name.
I can see their point, but I don’t necessarily agree with it. I maintain that there would be no sustainable American open-wheel series without the Indianapolis 500. You see how long CART survived without racing at Indianapolis, and they had practically all of the big names.
This series is not called MilwaukeeCar , IowaCar or PoconoCar for a reason. The general public does not identify open-wheel racing with those tracks, even though they have all provided excellent races within the series over the years. Some could argue that Milwaukee has a longer history with these kinds of cars because the track is six years older than IMS. But as good as Milwaukee was for this type of racing over the years, it never came close to the stature or prestige as the Indianapolis 500.
Until the recent NASCAR boom, open-wheel racing was what popped into most people’s mind when anyone mentioned racing or race cars. More specifically, it was the Indianapolis 500 that came to mind. Many songs were written mentioning the Indy 500 when the composer wanted to convey speed or a racing theme. All those bad racing movies in the thirties, forties and fifties were centered around the Indianapolis 500 – not Riverside, Trenton or Langhorne.
The series is called IndyCar because it features the cars that run in the Indianapolis 500. That is the lure that draws people in. When CART re-branded itself as Champ Car, to set itself apart from IndyCar – they completely lost their identity. Even though their cars met the specs to run in the 1995 Indianapolis 500, they were no longer associated with the type of cars that ran in the famous race.
You can debate all you want if the Indianapolis 500 deserves the notoriety that has come its way, but there is no denying that it is the biggest race in the world. Is it the toughest race in the world? Probably not and more than likely, it’s probably not considered the toughest or most challenging race in the IndyCar schedule. The demanding and bumpy streets of Toronto may beat a driver to death much more than IMS, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be considered the most prestigious to win. Sorry, it may not be fare – but that’s the way it is.
The Kentucky Derby is not the most grueling horse race in the Triple Crown. That would be the Belmont Stakes. But what is the most famous and celebrated horse race on the schedule? The Kentucky Derby. It’s the same with The Masters in golf. Other events may pose a bigger challenge, but ask each golfer what the one event they want to win is. My guess is that to a man, they’ll all say The Masters.
The Verizon IndyCar Series will run from mid-March to mid-September next year. Their premier event takes place roughly one-third of the way through the schedule. Some say that’s awkward to not have it at the end. I don’t see it that way. Only the four major stick and ball sports have their seasons climax at the end. Golf, Horse Racing and practically all forms of motor racing have their premier event in the first third of their calendar.
Getting back to the original question as to whether or not IndyCar is too Indy-centric; the critics think the Indianapolis 500 should carry the same significance as Long Beach, Barber or Belle Isle. According to them, anything more is unfair to the other tracks and the fans in those markets. The emphasis on the Indianapolis 500 is the reason that other events have come and gone rather quickly, if you believe what you hear.
As I mentioned, those that think this way have some good points. I’ve always been a strong believer that the Indianapolis 500 should be scored just like any other race. If the winner at St. Petersburg gets fifty points, I think the winner of the Indianapolis 500 should also get fifty points. Anything else is gimmicky and gives a good argument for those that feel the series puts all of its emphasis on the end of May.
But I don’t think the series puts too much emphasis on the Indianapolis 500. I think it’s about right. The entire series exists to prop up the Indianapolis 500. One would have to be very naive to think anything else. The rest of the series matters to the teams, drivers and us – the hard-core fans; but does it really matter to the casual fan? Not too much.
When CART was in its glory years, I went to a party about a week after attending the 1992 Indianapolis 500. I was talking about it to someone about ten years older than I was. He was an avid sports fan and knew his stuff. As he listened to me talking about the race, he asked me if those cars were used for anything else throughout the year. He was shocked when I told him there was an entire series for those cars and drivers. He had no idea. Sadly, I don’t think that is an isolated story. That happened almost twenty-five years ago, but it could have happened just as easily this year.
CART management ran the Indianapolis 500 against their will, but they knew certain drivers and owners insisted on it. Many scoffed at the idea of taking an entire month to do what was usually done in a three-day weekend. They didn’t get the tradition that came with the race. When Dario Franchitti first ran the race in 2002, he admits he didn’t see what the big deal was. He eventually found out and soon became to appreciate and love the great history of the event.
Today many fans don’t get it – especially road-racing aficionados. They just don’t know why people like me dream all year about one race and only one race.
The very first race of any kind that I went to was the 1965 Indianapolis 500, won by the great Jim Clark. He was flanked on the front-row by two other greats – AJ Foyt on the pole and Dan Gurney on the outside. Although I was six at the time, it wasn’t lost on me that I had witnessed something very special that day. It was that one race we went to each year while I was growing up. We didn’t go to any other races anywhere else – just that one. That was the race that made me a fan. I eventually grew to like watching races at Michigan, Milwaukee and Long Beach; but it was the Indianapolis 500 that got into my blood.
So to those that think that IndyCar puts way too much emphasis on the Indianapolis 500 at the expense of the other races, I respectfully disagree. I think the fact that these drivers and cars race in the Indianapolis 500 is the selling point that promoters use. The way I see it, the other tracks are probably grateful that they are aligned with the Indianapolis 500 instead of seeing it as a burden. Whatever the case, the Indianapolis 500 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so this perception is probably not going anywhere either.