by Kent Sterling
Without emotional investment in the men and women operating the machines, IndyCar is just fast and pretty cars driving in circles.
Speed is relative and does not create drama. Pretty cars are not dramatic. Wrecks are not necessarily dramatic. Competition among rivals is dramatic.
IndyCar drivers are incredibly well-mannered and nice. They are mostly pleasant men and women who run the personality gamut from inoffensive to eager to be liked.
Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden, Graham Rahal, Pippa Mann, Ed Carpenter, Scott Dixon, Will Power, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Stefano Coletti, and Helio Castroneves are all very nice guys who arouse neither disdain or affection. They are an A-OK lot who would be good equally company in a bar or bible study.
And Saturday, somewhere between 3,000-5,000 people showed up in Fontana, California, to watch them drive in circles for 500 miles.
The race wasn’t without thrills. Ryan Briscoe went airborne at over 200 miles per hour and crashed nose first into the infield dirt, but still no one cared, listened, or watched. IndyCar is so far from the national consciousness that on DirecTV when you search for “racing”, it doesn’t appear as a subcategory with Formula 1, NASCAR, and Motorcycle.
It’s so irrelevant that it’s idiotic for me to invest my time writing about it. If 100 people read this, it would be shocking. Apathy for IndyCar is so deeply entrenched that expressing an opinion about it is like preaching in an empty church. It feels good to get something off your chest, but without ears, even passionate thoughts well performed carry no meaning.
American open wheel racing – whether under the IndyCar banner or some other league that may be formed – can be fixed. It can prosper if the powers that be understand an irrefutable set of rules governing drama.
People need someone to root for, and someone to root against. Heroes and villains. Cowboys and Indians. Good and evil. Conflict.
IndyCars issues aren’t in technology or venues. They are in casting.
American tennis was never more popular than when John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors built passionate fan bases. Half loved Johnny Mac, and half hated him. Same with Connors. Neither was afraid to be loathed, and as a result, people watched.
IndyCar needs a brash lunatic who generates equal parts love and hate with both his words and driving. Building a brand of tepid affection seems to be the goal of race teams and drivers, and the result for the league is overwhelming disinterest.
Technology and precision are great, but they are not enough to galvanize an audience. For that, disparate personalities are needed.
A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser, and Tom Sneva were capable of both going fast and irritating/engaging race fans. They were countered by superb and quiet nice guy drivers like Al Unser, Rick Mears, and Johnny Rutherford. Is it any wonder they were the stars of open wheel racing’s golden era?
The problems with IndyCar can be fixed with a better cast. Otherwise, IndyCar bosses will long for the days when they drew 5,000 fans to Fontana and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway might be best used as a concert venue like this Saturday when the Rolling Stones visit.