Still Young Enough To Be Naïve

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By Paul Dalbey

Contrary to my opinions that often run at odds with many people in my generation and to the aching in my knees and back delaying my inevitable start of many days, I realize I am really not that old. I’m 35 years old. Born in September 1980, I was 15 when the opening salvos of The Open Wheel Civil War were fired at Walt Disney World Speedway in January 1996. In the realm of fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series, I am not old. I am blessed to still be young enough to still be naïve.

As my friend Tony DiZinno, who is more than a few years my junior, opined in his recent post on Motorsports Talk, “Now, 20 years later, I don’t want to hear the words “back in the good old days” because longing for “back in the good old days” has left IndyCar where it is now – needing this one race to build positive momentum to erase the overflow of negativity that has perpetually weakened – if not killed – the sport for most of the last 20 years.”

You see, regardless of what the older generation of IndyCar journalists (and a large swath of fans) will try to ram down your throat and force into your brain, The Good Old Days weren’t as perfect as they seem and today isn’t as dire as they lead on. Is open-wheel racing perfect today? Of course not; very far from it. There are major flaws that should and must be addressed urgently to ensure the successful and flourishing future of North American open-wheel racing. But only those who are the most ardent of yesteryear’s relics will continue to beat the drum that everything of today is orders of magnitude worse than everything of days gone by.

Don’t get me wrong – I would of course love to see IndyCar racing in front of fully packed grandstands. I would love to see IndyCar running again at Michigan and Cleveland, Portland and New Hampshire. I would love to see drivers from top international series battling it out on the best courses in North America against the best fleet of drivers from the USAC dirt track ranks. I’d also like to see inter-league play abolished from Major League Baseball, a defensive back make a routine tackle without showboating on every play, and players in the NBA actually learn how to dribble with their hand on top of the basketball and take less than six steps while driving to the hoop. The reality is that those desires are longings from days that aren’t coming back. The reality is IndyCar racing has changed greatly since 1995, in some ways better and in some ways worse. But no amount of living in the past will change that.

But here’s the point that so many journalists with the biggest bully pulpits miss. IndyCar racing never has been and never should be held static in time. Every generation that has followed IndyCar racing, fans and media alike, has claimed “it ain’t what it used to be.” The generation that wrote through the 1960s decried the rear-engine revolution that kicked so many long time racing stalwarts to the curb. The next generation cried foul with wings and the prohibition of the rear-engine sprint car. The next generation complained that dirt track stars no longer had any hope of reaching Indianapolis. Then there were too many foreign drivers. Then the owners were too powerful. Then The Split happened. It’s always something. And today is never good enough.

The same can be said for the cars that are considered “proper” IndyCar. I’ve never done research, but I will confidently say that at least 90% of IndyCar fans will claim the “proper” look of an IndyCar was whatever was popular in their formative, early years. For many, it’s Jim Rathmann’s 1960 Ken-Paul Special or Jimmy Clark’s Lotus 38. For others, it’s Al Unser’s 1970 Johnny Lightning Special. Or Johnny Rutherford’s 1980 Pennzoil Chapperal. Or Danny Sullivan’s 1985 Miller High Life March. Or Roberto Guerrero’s 1992 Quaker State Lola. Or Bryan Herta’s 1998 Shell Reynard. Or Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 2014 DHL Dallara. (Ok, let’s be honest, no one is likely to call the Dallara IR-03 their favorite, right?). For me, the quintessential Indy car was Rick Mears’s 1991 Marlboro PC-20. But would I ever have the gall and the arrogance to say today’s DW-12 isn’t a proper Indy car? Hell no! The evolution of the Indy car (lower case c) has been constant since the earliest days, before even the dawn of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the name “Indy car” existed. To claim the true or proper Indy car is represented by any single point in time is arrogant, misguided, and disrespectful for the hundreds of iterations that came before and after whatever date one might choose.

You see, this is why I feel blessed. Perhaps it’s because I only vaguely remember what IndyCar racing was like pre-1996. Perhaps it’s because my livelihood doesn’t depend on reaching a fanbase that is more easily distracted and less interested in the automobile culture overall than it was 20 years ago or 50 years ago. Or maybe I’ve just never drawn a line in the sand and declared I refuse to watch IndyCar further evolve from what I once loved. Some will say the technical stagnation of IndyCar, brought on in no small part by the creation of the Indy Racing League, has crippled the growth of open-wheel racing in North America. Maybe that is so. But I don’t see how anyone, Bobby Unser included, can claim the on-track product has ever been better. Few racing fans today would accept the type of racing that was common place 30 years ago. If I have to watch technical innovations move at glacial speed with hair-raising on-track action or see new cars and technologies brought on board every year with only three drivers finishing on the lead lap, I’m going to choose the former without much of a thought. Like many things in the world today, the latter just doesn’t make the grade in today’s society. Embrace it or get out of the way.

Whatever the reason may be, it’s obvious that there are a good number of journalists covering IndyCar racing today have not embraced it, instead viewing their position as nothing greater than pining for days that now look so invincible through the rose-colored glasses of history. IndyCar racing has marched on, and while many have chosen to look so fondly only upon an era that saw tube frames and pop-off valves, cigarette money and bloated budgets, they have missed epic racing and legendary careers that have gone unnoticed right below their own noses. Sure, you still find token articles here and there remarking about the career of Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti, but across the board, those articles lack the passion reserved for drivers that haven’t been involved with IndyCar racing since we thought Y2K was going to crash computers worldwide. It’s unhealthy for the sport and a disservice to the remarkable talents on display today to be treated with such patent enthusiasm.

Now, does all this mean that journalists should be constant cheerleaders for INDYCAR and turn a blind eye to serious deficiencies? Absolutely not. Doing so is just as much a disservice as the negativity. However, to read article after article, year after year about how what we see today can’t hold a candle to what used to be is exhausting for the current fans and disheartening for potential fans. When I visited Long Beach in 2014, I had the unfortunate pleasure of sitting next to one of the former “Big Four,” a group of former CART journalists who were known for quite some time to deride anything having to do with the other side of The Split. When Jim Michaelian announced an attendance figure that he was simply ecstatic over, I was forced to endure a 30-minute diatribe from said former member of the Big Four about how the crowd wasn’t near as good as it was in 1993 and how he used to have to wait for a half-hour to simply cross the pedestrian bridge over the track. It was really quite the story in the “When I was a kid” sort of way. I simply gave him a side-eyed stare, shook my head, and walked away. I have neither the time nor the desire for such entrenched negativity.

For the most part, most professional journalists have minded their Ps & Qs this month and found any one of a thousand remarkable stories to pass along. (I was frustrated, nonetheless, to see a story on the IndyStar’s homepage Tuesday already expressing concern about a letdown for the 2017 Indianapolis 500. No, it wasn’t Curt Cavin that wrote said article.) But sure as the sun rises tomorrow, you can bet that many of them will be back to their old tricks as the Verizon IndyCar Series moves on from Indianapolis and finishes out the 2016 season. Perhaps the chorus of good feelings will prevail and we can have a healthy balance of both positive story lines and constructive criticism. Shifting the scales too far in either direction is a slippery slope, but for all the years I’ve followed IndyCar racing, even in the greatest of its days, I have yet to ever feel reporting was too positive.

I guess I fall in that crack where I’m too young to be old but too old to be young. I am blessed to have memories of CART’s heyday through the early and mid 1990s and to have witnessed some of the true legends of motorsport racing before me. But I also consider myself to be supremely fortunate to be enjoying the modern era of IndyCar racing we now live in. I fully realize that for my 8-year old son who absolutely loves watching IndyCar racing, we are living in his Good Old Days. In so many ways, I am blessed to be just young enough to still be naïve.

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10 Responses to “Still Young Enough To Be Naïve”

  1. Some excellent points Paul! Probably the biggest one being about the closeness of the field and on track competition. I will always hold the 1970’s and 80’s dear to my heart, but as you stated…..Try finding many oval races back then with more than 4 cars on the lead lap.

  2. thanks for that paul. I’m a generation older than you and I agree wholeheartedly.

  3. Some truth to what you say, but I think its some of the basics being ignored that bothers me.

    For example the lack of ovals which is what made Indycar great and what to this day still dominate nascar. Some road courses are a nice flavor and Indycar may have just added the two that really have relevance but now its time to concentrate on building the oval side of the league.

    Open wheel is by definition open wheel. So why are the rear wheels on these cars not truly open wheel? I know why, but its wrong. This is basic, not just a evolution in technology, etc.

    The problem with the foreign drivers is not just because they are foreign. Indycar has always had some. Its that they have precious little experience in racing on ovals when they come to Indycar, a big part of why ovals are hurting in Indycar, in spite of everything else they say.

    Indycar was already experiencing problems by the mid-late 1980’s. Tony George had a plan that would have fixed many of them, but was not able to execute it successfully, partially because of resistance from those owners basically causing many of the issues. We still have the problem of cars being too expensive, leading to too few cars, lack of opportunity for American/USAC drivers/too many road/street courses compared to ovals, etc. And don’t get me started with the Boston advisory group.

    But there are some good things too as you say and one of the best is coming up in three days!

    And BTW, I agree that the adulterous practice of interleague play is a blight on the history of major league baseball and needs to go away!!!

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I’m very nostalgic for the good old days… when kids subscribed to Indycar magazines, and drew Indycars all day, and imagined a two-car team of Honda-Reynards for Buddy Rice and David Rutledge, and collected so many little die cast open wheel racers that they were able to form a development series to go along side their established imaginary die cast Indy car series (complete with driver back stories, points tables, and calculated winnings), and received a life-size cardboard standee of Al Unser Jr. that their dads finagled away from the Hi-Lo auto parts for Christmas one year.

    Yes, those were the good old days. Anyone who describes them any other way is wrong…

    • I can remember as a kid in the late sixties early seventies going to the gas stations with my buddies to ask them for STP stickers so we could put them on our bikes just like the Indy car drivers had on their cars. Every station had them and would give you one for free. Those were the days!

  5. With a front row like this year’s I think this year can very well turn out to be a “Good Old Day” for many of today’s fans. However, being an old salt, I take each year in stride and I am enjoying seeing three fabulous young drivers take their place in the history of the Indianapolis 500. So, I cherish the past and I am captivated with the present.

  6. SkipinSC Says:

    At the risk of sounding cliche, it is what it is. I’ve followed IndyCar racing since the early 60’s when Foyt was a young whippersnapper who pissed a lot of “old guard” drivers off. (Just ask Rodger Ward.)

    I’ve seen most of the incarnations of the sport through the years and I can make two categorical statements:

    1. Innovation is on hiatus in IndyCar, if not on life support. Part of that is financial and I understand that sponsor dollars which owners spent gleefully in “the good old days” (whenever that was) are not what they used to be and the technology of racing in this series is expensive.

    Part 2, however, (the other side of the coin,) is that the racing is as good as I’ve seen it. A lot of those Rick Mears fans remember his wins, but conveniently forget that there were only one or two other cars on the lead lap, not half the field as we see today.

    The third factor is safety. When you consider the speeds at which these cars travel and the g-forces to which drivers are subjected in a crash, it’s hard to realize that back when the cars went 70 or 80 mph SLOWER, it was not uncommon to have 4-5 drivers lose their lives in a season.

    Would I like to see 35-40 cars entered for Indy? Sure. Give me that and the current format of qualifying for the 500 will have even more drama, at least on Saturday when drivers are trying to make the top 33, not just the top 9. I doubt, however, that IMS was complaining about the crowds they had this year for both days.

    Would I like to see other engine manufacturers involved? Absolutely. Without that, you’re never going to get much past the 33 entrants you have for the 500. It hurts that you have two PROGRAMS (Grace and Michael Shank) who’d LOVE to go racing but can’t get an engine.

    Would I like to see more emphasis on ovals? Of course, but to do that, the series is going to have to get righteous on date equity and allow some of the “new” or revisited ovals to have a three year hold on a date to get their customer used to having a race on a specific date. Plus, they’re going to have to offer the paying customer more than one qualifying session and one race per weekend. There are THREE feeders in the Mazda Road to Indy. This series should never go to an oval where they don’t run at least TWO of the feeders plus IndyCar.

    So, from this old timer’s perspective, I’ll keep hoping for Nirvana, but I’ll enjoy what I have!

  7. I started following the 500 as I listened to the radio broadcast with my Dad in 1959 and saw my first 500 in 1963. I followed the race closely for years and started covering it as a writer in 1972. By then I was well aware that it was one race in a series of races with a season championship attached.
    I continued to cover the 500 through 1995 as well as many other races in many other series. I remember when the month of may really was 30 days long and every day was very interesting, even when rained out. Often, though, the races were really not that interesting unless one really knew who the drivers and their stories and could somehow follow what was happening behind the leaders.
    Today of course, we are working with less that two weeks of actual track action and there is much less to follow. But the races, which is really what this is all about are really good to fantastic.
    I am enjoying it for what it is, as I have since 1959.
    As far as what is a proper Indycar – with on exception, the cars in the first 500 were street, or stock cars, with fenders removed and a few other modifications for racing. One could argue that the cars that run in the 400 mile race later in the year at IMS are more direct descendants of the original field than those that will race this weekend.

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