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INDY 500: Success Built on Thin Ice

Indycar/LAT USA Indycar/LAT USA
May 27, 2013
The 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 was widely lauded as a tremendously entertaining event. The grandstands were nearly full, every fourth lap or so produced a new leader, and Tony Kanaan became the most popular winner in years.
So I'm sitting high in Turn 3 with my two sons, enjoying the cool refreshment of an adult beverage that had just been dumped down my back by the profusely apologizing brunette behind me, and I'm wondering why something still doesn't feel right about this otherwise great race. Everyone loved this year's race and wants the success to continue, but I'm not sure if the foundation exists for it to do so. 
First, nobody drops out with mechanical problems anymore. The cars are bulletproof because they are built well within the known bounds of technological progress. In 1969, any racecar worth the name had 900 horsepower. Forty years later Indycars need a turbocharger to produce less power than a stock Shelby Mustang GT 500 at your local car lot.
My sons will never know what it's like to hope against all hope that a Buick stock-block V6 can carry a Scott Brayton or Jim Crawford or Pancho Carter to unlikely victory before it blows up. They'll never see Roger Penske's team shock the racing world with a super-secret Mercedes Illmor engine, or watch in amazement as a turbine-powered machine whooshes silently past. Reliability simply isn't an issue any more because no one pushes the envelope of technology.
Secondly, the cars fascinate no one. They don't just look like cookie-cutter spec cars... they are cookie-cutter spec cars. The much-vaunted “body kits” will probably never appear and would accomplish nothing if they did. Their alleged purpose is to make identical racecars appear to be different. But teams will quickly determine which body kit offers the best advantage at each track and every team will use the same one. Then all the cars will once again look like what they are... cookie-cutter spec cars.
Lead changes now occur so frequently that they've become meaningless. Teams deliberately give away the lead because drafting uses less fuel. Passes are not the result of a superior car or better driving. They are produced artificially by the hated “push to pass” buttons or the slingshot effect. The NASCARization of Indycar has come full circle when leading at the final caution period virtually assures that you'll lose the race.
This generation of Indycar fans will never know what it's like to show up at the track and wonder if the new champion will lap the field or win by a car length. They'll never know that open wheel racing once precluded anyone from afflicting their car with those hideous rear wheel pods. 
Worse yet, they may never see a Bump Day that matters. They may come to believe that getting only 33-35 entries at Indianapolis is normal. 
Rookies are few and far between nowadays. Only four showed for this year's race. Only half of them came from the “Road to Indy” ladder system. None of them represented blue-collar racing.
Only one of them had ever driven a full size racecar before 2006, so these kids aren't just new to Indy... they're new to auto racing. Most of them haven't driven a hundred races in their lives. They bring no fan base with them; only money. True veterans who have driven fifty or more races per year for decades at short tracks across the country are priced out of the market by spec cars whose stated purpose was to keep costs low.
Still, as my youngest son generously sacrificed his jacket to sop the beer out of my shirt, I couldn't help being mesmerized by the race I was watching. It really was fun. It was great to see Kanaan get a long overdue victory. The history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway constantly reminds you that this really is auto racing's Mount Everest.
On the surface we see an incredibly good race. But like a great structure with no foundation, it seems that what passes for success in Indycar these days is built on very thin ice.
Stephen Cox
Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions
Co-host, Mecum Auto Auctions



  • Comment Link Jay Wednesday, 21 August 2013 14:00 posted by Jay

    The "old days" of racing where exciting, and occurred on their own. The rules, then, allowed a variety of engines and car chassis' unlike today. Now, it's all "show."
    No one wants to take a chance of an idea not working so they pressure the racing organization to make rules that remove the word "chance" from the racing game.
    All you need then is money and you're in the race. This isn't what Indy car racing is or was about. The empty seats prove it.

  • Comment Link Tommy Mac Friday, 31 May 2013 12:34 posted by Tommy Mac

    I agree that the 2013 500 race was exciting to watch-for whatever the reason that the passing took place.
    1969 is a long time ago and an era when actual RACERS -not today's corporate "drivers"-put their neck on the line for a winner's purse. It's somewhat easy to forget the amount of racers that didn't live until 1980, too. They bought the farm in some of the most dangerous vehicles ever built. Today's society would never allow the carnage that took place back then, so get over it. Most fans BACK THEN didn't really know what the difference was between the cars anyway-excluding the wonderfully cool turbines, of course-flying by at 200+ MPH.
    The fact that there were asses in the seats says a lot. Hopefully this will allow the blue-collar guys that you seem to support, an opportunity to race at the high end of the sport. If it takes sponsors to field a car, sponsors want exposure. Driver's need sponsors. Therefore asses in the seat + sponsor exposure = better car counts.
    Technology has many different faces-safety is one of them. Driver safety is good as well, as death has become a big problem today. Look at what happened when Earnhardt was killed. Big, very, very bad, news for all of auto racing.

  • Comment Link Bill Clemens Monday, 27 May 2013 09:51 posted by Bill Clemens

    You know I remember those days and I believe you are looking a little bit through rose colored glasses. Give me close, clean racing any day to the lap the whole field, 3 cars on the lead lap stuff of yore. Do the cars look the same? Sure but you sure as heck can say the say about almost any series and all of major ones.(yes even F-1). But all I know is I was on the edge of my seat at the end of the 500(and late for work). I watched the 600 later and between the red flags and the debris cautions could barely stay awake. And as far as pushing technology goes please explain again the excitement in an engine failure. Races should be decided by drivers not push rods breaking. The problem with Indycar lately as far as I see is some of the fans looking back at the good old days but forgetting the bad parts.

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