by Kent Sterling
No sack. Nothing describes the powers that be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway better than that. They run toward the middle and away from controversy like it’s their job, and maybe it is. Anything that ruffles feathers is shunned, and so the result is that no one but the hard core fans and partiers looking for a reason for daytime beer drinking wind up at 16th and Georgetown for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Donald Trump was a silly choice as the driver of the Pace Car for the centennial Indianapolis 500 – until all of a suddenly the guy went predictably bats and started raising nonsensical hell about Barack Obama’s birth certificate and qualifications for admittance to Columbia and Harvard universities. At that point, he became a little more relevant than the high profile failure in business that he is. His presence would have prompted a response equally positive and negative. And then the speedway got cold feet, asking Trump to make a public statement that he has decided to do something else with his time on May 29th.
Don’t get me wrong about Trump. I think he’s a boorish idiot whose favorite sound is his own voice, and whose favorite image stares back at him in the mirror. He’s an ill-mannered sap who is nothing more than the P.T. Barnum of finance who has slapped his brand on everything from airplanes to casinos, hotels, and office buildings. He’s tried to force an equation of Trump = class down America’s throats, but he missed by one letter and earned crass. It was silly for the IMS to issue the invitation, but it was worse to rescind it.
For years, drivers have been chastised for creating any kind of any ill-tempered conflict, as though it was a bad thing. Without polarity and conflict, there is no drama, and without drama, there is no interest. Professional sports is theatre, nothing more and nothing less.
In theatre, there are dramas and comedies because people will pay to be thrilled, shocked, affirmed, and amused. They don’t pay to watch people they don’t know or care about drive fast.
A narrative needs to be created to make laps three-thru-198 worth watching. So far, fans looking for something dramatic in IndyCar racing need to settle for Helio Castroneves punting cars on road race courses like he’s driving a bumper car. Will Power wins on the road courses every time out, and we have no idea who will be strong on an oval because they haven’t raced on one yet. Justin Wilson’s team had a funny sign made that called Helio out for wrecking cars, but other than that, these seem to be nice guys who happen to be really good at driving fast. Now that the speeds are capped, who cares about Indy?
Back in the day, the drama came from Tom Carnegie’s proclamation of “a new track record” and the busting of historical thresholds like 150 and 200 miles per hour. Fifteen years ago, the cars were creeping up on 250 mph, and that was faster that bodies can travel in circles without serious consequences, so the technology was dialed down to make cars go 230 mph and nothing more.
That leaves the drivers to stir the pot for an organization that is repulsed by the idea that its pot is suitable for stirring. What driver might be a suitable villain? They are all too nice. The most combative and prickly of the drivers is Danica Patrick, but the IMS has no stomach for fitting the girl on the posters for a black hat. Maybe fans can be convinced to root against teams instead of drivers. Penske and Ganassi are the big hitters in IndyCar, so maybe one of them can be the Yankess and the other can be the Red Sox.
I love the Indianapolis 500 as an event and would argue that the first lap as viewed from the first turn is the most exciting thing to watch in sports. Indy is without peer in its history, traditions, and moments of magic, but to survive today, it needs to be more than that. Fans need a reason to fill the bleachers and infield. Those who run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway appear unwilling to make the decisions necessary to provide that reason.
Every decision is made to avoid any offense, and by doing that, unwittingly they have also failed to compel. Trump was a bad choice made for all the wrong reasons, and the decision for his removal was made for even worse reasons. Out of market stars are useless other than to make the people at the speedway feel relevant. Maybe they can do something with this second chance.