Monday, May 29, 2006

Tarnished Spectacle

The Indianapolis 500 was ran yesterday, 5/28...anyone notice?

Forty years ago, there were only two ways to actually see the Indianapolis 500 -- be among the lucky 400,000 or so who got tickets to the race, the majority crammed into the infield, or go to a closed circuit television broadcast of the race.

In the early 1960s, thousands spent their Memorial Day in darkened movie theaters watching "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing". I vividly remember listening to it on radio as that was the only way the vast majority could ever follow the face. It was a big deal and major ratings event when it was shown on TV the evening after the race. For the whole month of May, every event from the drama of the Time Trials on two weekends to the testing parade on "Carburetion Day", was front page news and not always just sports section front page news. Names like Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Granatelli were household words. We kids would race our bikes around the cul-de-sac, pretending we had our own Indy.

Few events other than championship boxing matches could sell tickets to closed circuit broadcasts. But the Indianapolis 500 could.

But the lustre has dimmed on Indy; the race is no longer front page news. In 1965-90 ask the "man on the street" and he could tell you the pole sitter and who was in the race. In the last 10 years many big-name drivers retired, there was the demoralizing 1996 split in open-wheel racing and the corresponding explosion of NASCAR's popularity. The "man on the street" now watches NASCAR.

For years the rules for Indy cars still allowed for variation and experimentation. Rear engined racers, turbine power, aerodynamics and ground effects were all tried with varying degrees of success. That all changed in 1996. Tony George, the grandson of Tony Hulman who kept Indy at the forefront of racing since WW2, was trying to regain control of the race from the car owners who had formed the group CART in 1979 and forced changes in many of its rules.

George formed the Indy Racing League and said only drivers that ran its series with its cars could race in the Indy 500. His rules were stricter and the cars were not the fastest open wheel racers around anymore.

The CART teams boycotted and kept their own series. For the first time really in its history, those watching the Indianapolis 500 could not say they were seeing the fastest cars and the best drivers in America. The race has yet to recover from the split.

At the same time NASCAR was rapidly expanding. American automakers had returned to racing and found the old marketing tool of "race on Sunday, sell on Monday" had some life left in it.

In the dark years, the announcement of the winner usually brought a resounding "who???"

Yet the exciting finish of yesterday's race, the return of the revered names of Andretti and Unser and talk of reconciliation bode well for the future. The continued good showing of Danica Patrick, one of the few women racers at Indy makes for good press as well.

Many drivers still want to win this race more than any other. Eddie Cheever Jr. and Al Unser Jr. were two who came out of retirement this year. Michael Andretti could not miss a chance to win the one big race he hadn't won yet.

The desire to be in Winner's Circle, to drink the ceremonial milk, to receive the winner's wreath and to have their likeness engraved on the trophy still runs strong for many top names in racing.

Maybe the lustre is returning.

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