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Thursday, October 10, 2013

The IndyCar conundrum

I grew up watching IndyCar. When I was a kid, in the U.S., IndyCar was open-wheel racing. This was pre-split. Primarily the '80s, and to a lesser extent the 70's. By the time I was getting into racing, Mario had returned home, and a few years separated him from the world championship.

It was natural for me to gravitate toward IndyCar. The 500 was still the premier American motor racing event. NASCAR was still very regional, and F1, though it visited the States on a regular basis, didn't have the footprint. Don't get me wrong, as a racing fan I followed the exploits of Senna, and knew about the rise of Schumacher, but IndyCar is where I became familiar with guys like Jacques Villeneuve, Emerson Fittipaldi, Michael Andretti, Eddie Cheever, Stefan Johansson and Bobby Rahal. In a pre-cable world, IndyCar was what was on, in all its glory.

Later, when first ESPN, and later SpeedVision, brought F1 back to these shores, I naturally gravitated back. I always preferred road courses to ovals, and the IRL/Champ Car split was the final nail in the coffin.

When F1 returned to the States at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I was there. I didn't miss a race at the track, even after the debacle. Last year, I went to the Austin race. Unfortunately, I won't be there this year, as it is insanely expensive, in a way that the Indianapolis race never was.

That left a big hole in my schedule. Racing on TV is fine, but at least once a year, you should do a weekend at the track. You may not see much, but nothing compares to being there. The sights and smells are something that must be experienced.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to cover my first IndyCar event - the Grand Prix of Baltimore - as a working journalist.

IndyCar has come under a lot of criticism as of late. The aforementioned split was disastrous, and coincided with NASCAR's stunning rise to prominence. It seems hard to believe that a series whose crown jewel is one of the most famous events in racing, if not in all of sports, could be so totally eclipsed by another form of racing in this country, but that is exactly how it has played out.

Seriously. After Dario Frachitti's horrendous crash in Houston, mainstream media in this country either misidentified him as a NASCAR driver injured in a NASCAR race or as Ashley Judd's ex.That seems inconceivable in my book.

The knock-on effects have been numerous, but basically, you could call it a lack of money in all areas. Shrinking fees, smaller TV deals, teams needing to rely on pay drivers in lieu of sponsors, good drivers left on the sidelines for lack of financial packages, and lower car counts are just a few of the things that come to mind. And it's cyclical. It all feeds on itself.

In short, the perception is the quality of the product was sharply diminished.

The reality is something different.

Despite the odds stacked against it, IndyCar has three top teams populated with world class drivers making up nearly half the grid, midfield teams capable of winning races and even if the cars are spec, there is an entertaining engine battle. In short, on Sunday, anything is possible.

Additionally, the Baltimore event provided a classy undercard of the American Le Mans Series, Indy Lights and Porsches.

The product on the track was entertaining. There was excitement, a battle for the title in progress, and access. As opposed to my experience at COTA last year, or all those years of F1 at Indianapolis, IndyCar fans have access to their stars. For a reasonable price, you can gain pit and paddock access. Drivers speed by on mopeds, stop to sign autographs, pose for pictures, and are generally gracious to the fans.

Granted, IndyCar has a habit of shooting itself in the foot. The boardroom struggles, the controversial stewarding, and the problems inerrant with temporary street courses (in Baltimore, a squirrelly chicane and far too many stoppages for accidents on the tight, blind course) don't help. The glitz and glamour of F1 helps sell the image of "clockwork" precision and the marketing steamroller that is NASCAR overshadows that series' shortcomings. But those series also have their share of controversy.

Perhaps this is just my skewed American point of view, but below F1, no open wheel series (Super Formula, GP2, Formula Renault) rises to the level IndyCar does. IndyCar is a destination, something to aspire to. The others are just junior formula.

I'm not sure how to turn the perception around. NASCAR so saturates the racing landscape in the U.S. that regaining that lost ground seems like a mountain to climb. But both can coexist and thrive. I am convinced IndyCar is worth fighting for.

It was a great show. I would jump at the opportunity to attend another event, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a friend. So, next time IndyCar appears at a venue near you, think about attending. It just might surprise you.

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Happy 90th to Murray Walker

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