Ryan McGee, ESPN.com
Imagine: a World Series of Motorsport
As NASCAR rolls into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 21st year, it's time for what has become an annual tradition, the discussion about the slow decline of the Brickyard 400, once one of the sport's watershed events.
Meanwhile, the fabled speedway's full-time resident, IndyCar, has spent the week wrestling with the fallout from a wacky weekend in Iowa and the even wackier disciplinary rules rolled out in the days that followed.
It's a weird time for the motorsports industry. A tough time. Yet that time is taking place in an era when the on-track product across all forms of mechanized competition is the best it has ever been. Ever. (Sorry, way-back whiners, but it's true.)
So, how does the industry turn a slow decline into a sharp, snappy uptick? How does this weekend's once-epic Sprint Cup Series event recapture past glory? How can the many and varied forms of American motorsports reintroduce themselves to the nation that once embraced them so fully?
I have an idea. It's a proposal that would require unprecedented cooperation from longtime rivals. An ego-swallowing recipe that would create a grand alphabet soup of racing sanctioning bodies, served up on the greatest motorsports platter of them all.
Let's call it the World Series of Motorsport (WSM).
Imagine a weeklong Bonnaroo of racing, held in and around the Racing Capital of the World this very week, the one time of year when there is little or no other competition for the attention of the American sports fan. A 10-day motorsports march, bookended by this nation's two biggest racing series, with every other group featured in the days and nights in between.
For a minute, let's forget politics. Let's forget the corporate suits who always step in to ruin everything. Let's be willing to bend the space-time continuum of logistics -- although only a tad -- and allow ourselves to think about a racing utopia where gearheads of all disciplines can lock Nomex-encased arms and remind the world of just how ridiculously awesome this world is.
Trust me. This would work.
Day 1 - Friday
Opening ceremonies & Red Bull Air Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
The granddaddy of motorsports showcases kicks off with the motorsports legacy parade to end all motorsports legacy parades. The folks at the IMS Hall of Fame Museum open up their legendary basement and field a flotilla of legendary racing rides, driven by the legends themselves.
Imagine Richard Petty in his 43 followed by A.J. Foyt in his 14 followed by Parnelli Jones driving Ray Harroun's Marmon Wasp. Gasoline Alley hosts an impossible-to-believe autograph session. There's a concert at the start-finish line. And then the maniacs of the Red Bull Air Race fill the skies above the speedway, re-creating the spirit of the racetrack's inaugural event, a 1909 balloon race.
Day 2 - Saturday
Indy Lights & IndyCar qualifying on IMS road course; World of Outlaws on Snake Pit Dirt Track
Wait. What exactly is the Snake Pit Dirt Track? It's the .4-mile dirt oval that will be dug into the dirt down inside Turn 3 of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What, you think there's not enough room down there? Then you haven't stood down there. Or you haven't seen that infographic IMS likes to throw around showing how you could cram a pile of other famous sports stadiums and historic venues into its massive, 560-acre infield. And what series would be better to break in this new bullring than the World of Outlaws, with its modified and winged divisions.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the racetrack, IndyCar takes center stage as its junior circuit races on the IMS road course, followed by qualifying for ...
Day 3 - Sunday
IndyCar Grand Prix of Indianapolis on IMS road course; World of Outlaws on Snake Pit Dirt Track
Yep, that's right. We're moving the Indy GP from early May to mid-July. This year's aerobatic insanity proved that IndyCar needs to run on an oval as its warm-up to the Indy 500 anyway. The primary selling point of the inaugural GP was that it would add some needed buildup to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Well, the Indy 500 doesn't need that. The Brickyard 400 does. And this race, which has been great in its first two editions, would be the proper showcase for the series that calls IMS home to kick off one of the Speedway's biggest-ever moments.
Over on the Snake Pit Dirt Track, the Outlaws wrap up two days of clay-covered madness.
Day 4 - Monday
IMSA on IMS road course; UMP Modified/Late Models on Snake Pit Dirt Track; ARCA at Lucas Oil Raceway
With the IMS road course already up and running, the sports cars move in for two days of racing, which is plenty of time to run events for most of its divisions. The Snake Pit will be handed over to the DirtCar divisions, modifieds and late models.
The stock car transition will officially begin 6.5 miles away in Brownsburg, as ARCA goes to battle on the legendary .686-mile cage match formerly known as IRP and ORP, now the Lucas Oil Raceway. There's been some energy missing from this week ever since NASCAR bailed on the Brickyard's little cousin, and it's time to bring that back. Reviving Lucas Oil Raceway also gives the WSM night-time throwdowns all week.
Day 5 - Tuesday
IMSA on IMS road course; USAC Midgets & Sprints on Snake Pit Dirt Track; NASCAR K&N Series at Lucas Oil Raceway.
The sports car portion of the week culminates in a six-hour Tudor United Sportscar enduro, which will no doubt provide rides for IndyCar racers still hanging around after the Indy GP and NASCAR drivers eager to get going before the 400. Over in Turn 3, USAC makes its return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the Midgets and Sprints move into the Snake Pit.
And ... wait ... what kind of weird construction project is that happening over on the backstretch and behind the Pagoda?
Day 6 - Wednesday
AMA Superbikes on IMS road course; AMA Pro Flat Track on Snake Pit Dirt Track; AMA Motocross in Hulman Boulevard parking lot; USAC Silver Crown at Lucas Oil Raceway
Welcome to Motorcycle Mania. Before the USAC Silver Crown hits Lucas Oil Raceway for the night, the two-wheelers rule the big speedway. The AMA Superbikes take over the road course; AMA Flat Trackers take over the Snake Pit; and AMA Motocross knack-knacks its way around a dirt course that's been constructed in the long rectangular parking lot that runs alongside Hulman Boulevard. You say that seems like a lot of effort for a one-day dirt bike race? Well, we're not just using it for the bikes...
Day 7 - Thursday
NHRA on IMS oval backstretch; Rallycross on IMS road course/infield; NASCAR Modifieds at Lucas Oil Raceway A taste of the X Games joins the WSM lineup as Scott Speed and his pals run a loop that uses the half-dozen infield turns of the IMS road course located inside oval Turn 4 plus a couple of purposely wide dirt berms from the motocross course. Don't laugh. These guys have crammed makeshift circuits into all sorts of strange quarters over the years.
The ground pounders of the asphalt Whelen Modified Tour, north and south, officially kick off the NASCAR portion of the week, the first of a quadruple-header that will build toward the Brickyard 400 finale.
And now, as you hear John Force yammering in the distance, you realize what the construction project was over on the backstretch. That's right. We're going to run the NHRA's top four divisions -- nitro (Top Fuel and Funny Car), Pro Stock and Pro Stock Bikes -- at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Yes, the backstretch is flat enough. Yes, it is wide enough. Yes, it is long enough. Well, OK, it'd be tight. But this is too cool an idea not to at least try, right? They could pit and stage in the parking lot of the Hall of Fame Museum inside Turn 2 or on the roads outside the turn.
I guess we could just do this on the Lucas Oil Dragway. We totally could. But do we really want to take away from the U.S. Nationals, held there just eight weeks later? We could let the IHRA or the NHRA's lower divisions run over there. And have I mentioned how cool this would be?!
Yeah, you're right. Lucas Oil would be the way to go, but they're already busy over there and this is my event, so I'm going to try it this way. (If all else fails, we could run them down Hulman Boulevard.)
Day 8 - Friday
NHRA on IMS oval backstretch; Camping World Truck Series at Lucas Oil Raceway.
The NHRA runs its elimination rounds as the NASCAR Sprint Cup haulers fill up Gasoline Alley and the big oval begins to prep for the Brickyard 400. Over at Lucas Oil Raceway, the Camping World Truck Series returns to a place it never should have left.
Can you imagine if the trucks ran Eldora and Lucas Oil back to back?
Day 9 - Saturday
Brickyard 400 qualifying on IMS oval; Xfinity Series at Lucas Oil Raceway
The two-day (yes, two-day) Brickyard 400 weekend begins with practice and qualifying. That night, the Xfinity Series also returns to Lucas Oil Raceway. A place it also should have never left.
Day 10 - Sunday
Brickyard 400 on IMS oval; closing ceremonies/awards.
Finally, the World Series of Motorsport finishes with the Brickyard 400. After the winner of the now-refreshed crown jewel event is crowned, the winner of every race throughout the 10 days joins him (or her).
A grand World Series of Motorsport champion is crowned, the racer who collected the most points throughout the event. That award comes with a very large check, encouraging cross-discipline participation (this would be the greatest and busiest week in the life of a driver such as Kyle Larson). There is also an award given for the manufacturer that had the greatest success, the ultimate auto manufacturer bragging rights.
In the end, every winner lines up shoulder to shoulder for one giant simultaneous kiss of the fabled yard of bricks. Stock car racers, open-wheelers, sport car aces, motorcycle racers, dirt trackers and dragsters. (No, there's no Formula One. We didn't call them because we knew they wouldn't call us back.)
Smiles abounding beneath fireworks, the post-WSM concert starts. How about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, starting off their set by singing "Born To Run"?
As I said earlier ... trust me, this would work.
Quintessential NASCAR? Jeff Gordon has been it for years
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Somehow, we've ended the 2015 NASCAR season with a dictionary in our hands. Or maybe it's a thesaurus. Or both. Why? Because some way the hot button word of this thrilling, maddening, often confusing edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup has been, of all words, quintessential.
It's been more than a month since NASCAR Chairman Brian France used that 23-point Scrabble word to describe Joey Logano's bumper car move to win at Kansas Speedway, calling it "quintessential NASCAR."
Matt Kenseth, the man whom Logano spun, has used the word to fire back after being suspended for a retaliatory move one week later. He even employed it as a sarcastic hashtag to his 270,000 followers. During his State of the Sport press conference Friday, France used the word six times.
The debate that has raged since, from writers to sanctioning body reps to race fans to the racers themselves: What exactly is "quintessential NASCAR?"
I'm going to help everyone out here. No, you can't see what I'm doing, because this is a column and not a TV show, but I'm standing up in the Homestead-Miami Speedway media center on the eve of the season finale and I'm pointing directly at the driver walking by the window. The one I can barely see because he's surrounded by a couple of cops, a couple of hundred fans and more than a couple of TV cameras.
It's Jeff Gordon. And he is, ladies and gentlemen, quintessential NASCAR.
Gordon has driven stock cars that looked like shoeboxes and driven stock cars that were shaped like bullets. He's raced with and without a HANS device and hit walls with and without SAFER barriers.
Gordon is the last racer left whose name appears in a box score alongside Richard Petty, Alan Kulwicki or Davey Allison.
He's the last active racer who was on the roster of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers compiled for the sport's 50th anniversary in 1998. The last racer left to have had a genuine rivalry with Dale Earnhardt ... Senior.
He's the last multiple Winston Cup champion and the last winner of a big check from the Winston Million or No Bull 5. He's the last to have raced at North Wilkesboro or to have wheeled a Busch Grand National car. He even raced a Chevy Lumina.
Gordon once had a mullet and a terrible mustache. He's also had his hair coiffed by Hollywood stylists. He dated a Miss Winston beauty queen in secret, married her, and then suffered through a tabloid-documented divorce.
He has partied with rock stars, dated models, and married the smartest, most beautiful one of the bunch. Kids around the world have played with Gordon toys and now Gordon gets down on the floor to play with toys with his kids.
His name sits among Petty and David Pearson's as the top three winners in NASCAR Cup Series history, both races and pole positions.
He's the sport's all-time money winner, all-time leader in consecutive starts, second all-time in top-10 finishes and third in top-5s. He's second all-time in Driver Rating, a stat that's only existed during the second half of his career.
That's a stat compiled using loop data and computers. When Gordon started, races were still scored by rows of humans with stopwatches and clipboards.
Gordon's name has been rapped by Nelly and spoken in movies by Ashton Kutcher, Queen Latifah and Bugs Bunny. His jacket has been worn by a Barbie doll. If you don't believe me, you can look all that up on the Internet.
Speaking of which, Gordon is the last active driver to have raced before the Internet. He was also the first to wear his own personal .com address on his uniform. Throughout the years, that uniform has featured the logos of dozens of companies, some that no longer exist.
He's shoved guys and been shoved. He's cussed guys and been cussed. He's made passes that shouldn't have worked and didn't pull some that maybe he should have. He once played chicken with a lapped car to dupe Rusty Wallace. He once deked Bill Elliott to win the Daytona 500.
He once squeezed Dale Earnhardt so hard off of Daytona's Turn 2 that he actually out-intimidated The Intimidator. When Gordon won his fourth consecutive Southern 500 at Darlington, Darrell Waltrip came to Victory Lane for no reason other than to tell him that it was one of the most incredible things that he had ever seen.
Gordon's had a beer with Earnhardt, sipped 'shine with Junior Johnson, and sells self-labeled wine. Those old photos you see of drivers getting out of their cars and their faces covered with a dusting of black rubber like they were just flying biplanes over the Somme? He's the last guy left who's in those pictures.
Gordon once drove racecars that were painted, not wrapped. He had pit crews with fat guys. He won trophies that looked like trophies, not commissioned sculptures. Brass cups with plastic handles and cheap eagle outlines screwed into blocks of wood. He won races televised by The Nashville Network. He can breakdance.
He has run cars that were high downforce and low downforce with huge spoilers, smaller spoilers, flared fenders, flat fenders, splitters, scoops, Gurney flaps, escape hatches and none of the above.
He's driven Generation 4, 5 and 6 cars and not just the Car of Tomorrow, but the Car of Yesterday and the Car of Today. He won in them all.
He used to stay in hotels. Now he spends weekends in a carbon fiber motorcoach. These days he shows up via private jets and tricked-out choppers. All the drivers do.
But he's the last one left who used to sit in traffic on the way to the track, alongside the fans on the way to watch him race. Those fans booed him. A lot. Everywhere he went. Today they cheer him. A lot. Everywhere he goes. See the mob following him here at Homestead.
So, what changed?
Everything has changed. It's evolved. Some of it has been for the good, some of it for the bad. Gordon is the only racer in Sunday's field of 43 who has experienced it all. And that's why the kid who was once so loathed is now the man who is so loved.
Homestead will be his 797th and last Cup Series start, closing out a quarter century of racing. After 93 wins and four championships, maybe one more of each will be added Sunday night. Along the way, he's grown older and so have the people in the grandstands. They've all grown up together. We've all grown up together. The kid they once accused of ruining the good old days is now the last link to them.
The Artist Formerly Known As Wonder Boy is now NASCAR's Wonder Man. When his final checkered flag falls, win or lose, he'll ride into the South Florida sunset. The living legend covered in oil, champagne, Pepsi and DuPont auto finishes.
As he rides, the round of applause will ring from the dirt tracks of Indiana to Madison Avenue to wherever it is in heaven where St. Peter makes the racecar drivers hang out.
Watch it, relish it, appreciate it and commit it to memory. But above all, know that you can answer this fall's most over-asked question.
What exactly is quintessential NASCAR? Jeff Gordon is. But only for 267 more laps.
Kyle Busch wreck an ugly reminder
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Here we go again.
There's a wreck, a car slides through the grass, brakes locked, but still traveling faster than the rest of us will ever drive on the local highway. There's a wall in the distance and it's closing quick. Television viewers at home, fans in the grandstand, spotters atop that grandstand, and the driver behind the wheel of the out-of-control race car are all scanning that wall up ahead with one question in mind:
Does it have a SAFER barrier?
That's exactly what happened on Saturday evening at Daytona International Speedway, in the closing laps of an Xfinity Series race that ended up becoming just another bizarre chapter in this most calamitous of Speedweeks. Kyle Busch slid sideways out of a multicar crash just past the start-finish line. His Toyota Camry skidded toward the towering wall that separates the racing surface from the infield. From the TV booth to the media center to his wife, Samantha, sitting in the team's pit stall, everyone looked ahead, picked out the spot where he was going to hit and asked that same question:
Does it have a SAFER barrier?
The answer was no. Busch emerged from his car and collapsed to the grass at the feet of the safety crew. Later, as Ryan Reed celebrated his unlikely win, Busch was being transported to a hospital complaining of leg discomfort. The eventual diagnosis: a compound fracture of his lower right leg and a fracture in his left foot. On Sunday he will not be in the Daytona 500.
While Busch wasn't able to speak for himself, plenty of others spoke for him. From Jimmie Johnson to Jeff Burton to Max Papis, from the NASCAR garage to paddocks across every form of racing, the demand was the same across all forms of social media. "These drivers deserve safer barriers everywhere," tweeted Jeff Burton, the just-retired racer and now NBC broadcaster. "It's very expensive but we have to find a way."
As Busch was being carried into Halifax Medical Center, the men he'd just raced with were speaking out to the motorsports media. Ty Dillon, who finished third, said, "I think we're at the point where ... there should be SAFER barriers everywhere. I think we can afford it."
Saturday night's chorus wasn't just made up of drivers. It also included crew chiefs, spotters and mechanics. The loudest voices belonged to the wives and mothers. Mary Lou Hamlin, who saw her son, Denny, suffer a broken back at California's Auto Club Speedway in 2013, his physical reaction and collapse eerily similar to teammate Busch's on Saturday night, also took to Twitter: "Cannot understand why there isn't a safer barrier the entire track!!!"
Actually, this wasn't a chorus. This was a refrain, a replay of an all-too-familiar skip in the NASCAR CD player, one that seems to have a short in the speaker wire that's connected to the skyboxes of racetrack executives.
On Saturday night, Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood finally heard it all. Sitting alongside NASCAR VP of competition Steve O'Donnell, he took a break from his exhaustive promotion of the racetrack's $400 million grandstand renovations to admit, "We should have had a SAFER barrier there. We did not. We're going to fix that right now." And repeated "cost doesn't matter to me" early and often.
Sunday there will be tires stacked along that wall. By July there will be the SAFER barrier that should have been there in the first place. Now the hope is that other racetracks will take Saturday night's incident, combined with Chitwood's embarrassment, and start becoming proactive instead of reactive.
Fix what's broken instead of waiting on something broken to be fixed. Like bones. SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) first arrived in the stock car racing world in 2002 during the safety revolution that followed in the wake of Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500, one part of a puzzle that included new seats, head-and-neck restraints and car redesigns. At the time, NASCAR's still-new research and development center worked with the University of Nebraska, the pioneer of "soft wall" technology, to identify the most dangerous areas around the racetrack. Using that information, they bolted SAFER's metal-and-foam energy-absorbing materials to the existing concrete walls.
The reasons given for covering only selected spots? The still-exposed areas are rarely if ever hit, widening walls would alter the racing surface too much, it was too expensive, and the supply of the right steel tubing (8-by-8, 3/16-inch thick) was totally tapped out.
In the decade and a half since, those are still the reasons given. The only significant additions in recent years have been reactionary, such as the new SAFER barrier inside Turn 4 at Auto Club, which Denny Hamlin half-jokingly referred to last March as the "Hamlin's Vertebrae Memorial Wall."
The same year that Hamlin suffered his injury, Jeff Gordon plowed into the frontstretch wall at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The next morning he couldn't figure out why it was so hard for him to get out of bed. When he looked at his recording of the race, he was stunned to see there had been no SAFER where he hit. When he asked why, he was told no one ever hits that spot with much force. The same excuse he'd been given when he hit naked concrete at Las Vegas Motor Speedway ... and Richmond International Raceway ... and Dover International Speedway.
When asked why he believed those walls weren't covered, the living racing legend rubbed two fingers together. "There's only one reason: cost. That's it."
Last summer, my colleague Marty Smith wrote a piece on this website that sought to learn if cost really was the reason. He was given a long, sometimes rambling list of reasons. Ultimately cost was the root of most of it. In the end, the explanation was little more than a recycled and slightly updated version of the 2002 list. Last July O'Donnell told Smith: "It sounds simple to go ahead and put it up everywhere, but it's really not that simple."
On Saturday night he certainly wasn't as full steam ahead as Chitwood, but did amend his usual "We talk to racetracks about SAFER recommendations all the time" with a slightly more urgent "We will accelerate those talks [to get SAFER]."
So what if covering every square inch of every speedway wall would be overdoing it? So what if some charts and graphs somewhere on a scientist's laptop say that it would be nothing more than a symbolic act? So what if someone needs to figure out how to use 1/4-inch-thick steel instead of 3/16-inch-thick steel? And so what if a racetrack's plans to install escalators and video boards have to be put on hold to go buy some more $500-a-foot SAFER covering?
Wouldn't the peace of mind be worth it? Wouldn't easing the fears of racers, their fans and their families be worth it? Wouldn't it be worth it to finally erase that same old question, the one we all shouted Kyle Busch's way Saturday night?
Does it have a SAFER barrier?
We should always know that the answer is always yes.
To all the other racetrack operators out there: a "SAFER barrier cost doesn't matter to me" precedent has been set. Start ordering now.
State of sport closer
“This will be great for the sport…”
That little sentence, a seven-word would-be mission statement filled with such well-intended hope…how could we have possibly known that it would become a torpedo, set on about-face course, ultimately returning to blow holes in the hull of those who fired it.
“This will be so great for the sport…”
In two-plus decades spent in press boxes and media centers around the world, I’ve never heard that phrase uttered by anyone in football, baseball, or basketball. I’ve only ever head it within the realm of motorsports. And I have heard it a lot. It’s been recited and repeated ad nauseam by competitors, fans, media, and particularly the executives who steer auto racing. Less a statement and more an obsession, it’s been a prefix for every move, no matter how large or small, good or bad.
“This will be great for the sport, expanding into markets where we’ve never been.”
“This will be great for the sport, adding another 50,000 seats.”
“This will be great for the sport, so-and-so driver doing a walk-on role in that so-and-so movie.”
“This will be so great for the sport (fill in the blank).”
During this week’s State of the Sport series here in the motorsports corners of ESPN.com, there have been three common themes. The first: nothing is as great as it was 20 years ago. The second: the audience is shrinking and thusly the money is drying up. The third: the people in charge know all about those first two issues, but seeing as how they were the people who were also in charge when all of that started happening, they don’t really seem to know how to fix it … but they’re going to keep on smiling and claim that they do.
It is an unenviable task to say the least.
So, where did it go wrong? How could an industry that had experienced steady growth for more than half of a century and explosive growth in the quarter century after that, find itself here, in a looping spin like a too-loose car coming off the fourth turn?
Because the people holding the steering wheel made that single most common of auto racing mistakes. Their ride was running so well, it was so fast and their lead was so large that they started believing that they were the reason for the speed. They started believing they could do it themselves. So they began ignoring the people who built that car, paid for it, and installed that original can’t-miss setup.
The drivers of the sport tuned out their pit crew.
For the metaphor challenged, the “crew” I’m referring to is the fans. Not the newbies who showed up in the 2000’s and have all but vanished now. Rather, the old school original supporters of motorsports, or as NASCAR Chairman Brian France has long referred to them, the “core fans”.
At some point along the apex of the business room charts that track cash flow, those core fans were at best perceived as a group that would gladly gobble up anything they were served, no matter how spoiled it might turn out to be. At worst, they were perceived as no longer good enough. The search for those who might be more worthy – the so-called “mainstream sports fan” – is what ultimately steered the sport off the speedway and into the wilderness.
NASCAR was certainly not alone in casting this net, but no one’s efforts were more blatant. A decade ago, at the height of stock car racing’s boom, the internal strategies to recruit that mainstream audience included everything from telling racetracks not to book country music artists for prerace concerts and national anthems to erasing all mentions of its moonshining history from sanctioning body-backed television programs. Marketing mandates were handed down demanding all efforts be focused on the Cup Series drivers who ranked 1-5 in souvenir sales and not to waste time on the lower divisions, the Nationwide (now Xfinity) and Truck Series.
During this time NASCAR’s track ownership group went into battle with local governments in places like New York, Denver and Seattle to try and build facilities in those untapped markets. Meanwhile, the cookie cutter Car of Tomorrow was being rolled out, complete with a big black wing to try and appeal to the X Games/“Fast and Furious” youth. All of this took place while a new postseason Chase format was in its infancy and proving to be more polarizing than expected.
Not all of the ideas were bad. But when they were bad, they were spectacularly so. However, thanks to outrageous ticket sales, two rounds of lucrative TV contracts and a booming economy, the money was flowing in at such a rate that no one noticed when those self-inflicted bruises were administered. When they were, they just rubbed a $100 bill on it and moved on.
“This will be great for the sport…”
That same false sense of security - okay, invincibility - is what led CART to believe it didn’t need the Indianapolis 500 and for Indy to think that it didn’t need CART. Hey, the ragtag Indy Racing League had the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, right? It would always be able to draw 300,000 people, no matter if they had no idea who was in the race, right? Hey, CART had cooler cars and bigger names, so it didn’t matter if they were banned from the Speedway and started to feel more like Formula One Lite, right?
Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
Speaking of F1, it is the most recent series to be led by an emperor with new clothes ... actually, it’s plural, emperors with new clothes. One of them was even actually caught naked (Google: “Max Mosley, Nazi prostitutes” at your own peril).
Yes, even the largest racing series of them all, once considered second only to soccer in worldwide popularity, now finds itself caught in a backslide. Their assumption was that even if they flooded the sport with bloated bills, boring cars, circuits of sameness, and overbearing politics that the fans would keep showing up. They haven’t.
So, what happens when all those younger, cooler fans that everyone worked so hard to recruit in the 2000’s suddenly dematerialize? What happens when the millennials and their coveted demographics pack up and move on to whatever replaced auto racing as being on fleek? What happens when every edge of every envelope – ticket prices, grandstand capacity, souvenir costs, advertising rates, sponsorship asks – have been pushed so far that it all goes over the cliff like Wile E. Coyote into the canyon? What happens when an economic crash eight years ago yanks down the curtain and exposes an antiquated business model that was being propped up by stacks of cash that no longer exist?
I’ll tell you exactly what happens. I’ve seen this movie before. We all have. It’s the storyline of nearly every teenage high school angst flick ever made. The nerd has it pretty good with his fellow nerd friends, but longs to sit with the cool kids in the middle table at the cafeteria. Impossibly, those cool kids invite him over. Even more impossibly he becomes one of them, abandoning his old friends. But inevitably the cool kids are the ones who do the abandoning. Embarrassed, the nerd swallows his pride and returns back to his original friends, hat in hand. They’re hurt and they make him suffer, but ultimately they take him back and he realizes, oh damn, his friends were never the nerds. They were the cool kids all along.
The people who run auto racing were lured away by that seat at the middle table. Now they’ve been abandoned and they’re turning back to their old friends, the “core fans”, and praying that they’ll take them back.
But what exactly would those fans be coming back to? This is sport that now holds its events in smaller venues in primarily medium “traditional” markets. It’s a sport that is now televised primarily by a quilt work of cable networks. A sport that is cutting costs, reducing its sponsorship asks, reeling in ticket prices, bringing back cars with brand identity, once again promoting young drivers and redoubling efforts to sell the long-neglected lower feeder series. A sport that is no longer afraid to sell camo t-shirts and book country acts for the prerace shows. And it’s a sport that has worked diligently over the last half-decade to showcase its history, not try and act like moonshine and death didn’t happen.
It all feels very 1990. That’s no accident. Sure, this new/old approach may have been forced on them by failures, but it is happening. While sifting through the wreckage, they’ve dug so deep they just may have rediscovered their roots.
This will be great for the sport.
Time for IndyCar to see what new safety measures are in tool box
As Justin Wilson layed in a hospital the cries outside of that facility, outside of the IndyCar paddock, had already started.
Something has to be done.
You know what? Something will be done. Wilson died Monday night at age 37, but it's a safe assumption that the longtime safety advocate would want something to be done after he suffered a collision with debris from another car that ultimately led to his death. But what can be done?
The answer might be as clear as see-through plastic.
On Sunday afternoon, no sooner had the hospital helicopter left Pocono Raceway with the unconscious racer aboard than the speculation of what and how and when started.
Anyone with even a pedestrian knowledge of auto racing realized that Wilson's incident was the freak result of unpredictable dominoes. An innocent bystander injury.
That didn't -- it shouldn't -- stop the questions. Could the nose piece that flew into Wilson's helmet have been tethered? Could the still-new IndyCars with all their aerodynamic accessorizing be too quick to come apart in too-big pieces?
But the question that will be repeated the most over the coming weeks will be the issue that even the winner of Sunday's race couldn't resist chewing on aloud during his postrace interviews.
"These cars are inherently dangerous with the open cockpit like that, head exposed," said Ryan Hunter-Reay. "Maybe in the future we can work toward some type of [canopy]. We've seen some concept renderings of something that resembles a canopy. Not a full jet-fighter canopy, but something that can give us a little protection but keep the tradition of the sport."
Yes, racing with one's head in the wind is one the most storied traditions of the sport. That feeling of "nothing between me and God but the sky" has lured racers to Indianapolis for more than a century. When kids around the world grew up dreaming of becoming racers, a large part of the vision of those fantasies was to have one's helmet buffeted by the wind, just as it was for A.J. Foyt and Ayrton Senna and Ray Harroun, pilot of the Marmon Wasp, winner of the inaugural Indy 500 in 1911.
But did those legends literally throw caution to wind out of sheer bad-assedness or did they race that way only because no better protection was available?
Testing has been underway on racing canopies for some time now. It's a discussion that has been around for decades, but graduated into tangible research over the last six years. Formula One has looked into cockpit protection ever since Ferrari racer Felipe Massa suffered head trauma when struck by a flying spring in 2009, and renewed their work after the October 2014 crash that left F1 racer Jules Bianchi in a coma that lasted nine months before his death in July.
Cristiano da Matta hit a deer during a practice session in 2006. James Hinchcliffe was struck in the head by debris from Wilson's car during the 2014 road course event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The NHRA has allowed plastic canopies since 2013. It only took a couple of big names implementing them -- and still winning races -- to convince others to follow suit.
So the technology exists. Still, as early as Monday morning, open-wheel racers of all generations were already starting to ramble through excuses not to push forward, citing understandable concerns over being trapped in a burning race car and not-so-understandable reasoning of "Well, that's how we've always done it."
Just this past fall, IndyCar president of racing and operations Derrick Walker, a longtime open-wheel competitor, threw cold water on canopy talk, saying that such a massive addition -- even a partial canopy -- would have to be held off until the next generation of the Dallara-designed chassis will be introduced ... in 2018.
It feels an awful lot like it did in 2000, when racers were dying across all forms of motorsports. Yet the survivors pushed back against head and neck restraints and better racing seats because they said they were too cumbersome and too claustrophobic. "Besides," one young NASCAR driver said to me during that awful year, "you don't see Dale Earnhardt using that stuff."
But you know what Earnhardt, Foyt, Senna and Harroun all have in common, other than being legends? They're either dead or all of their friends are dead. Harroun quit racing shortly after his '11 Indy win, spooked by the danger. He was also sick of the fingers and criticism pointed his way from those angry that his was the only car on that first 500 grid that wasn't also carrying a riding mechanic.
They said flying solo was unsafe and that it flew in the face of tradition.
Harroun's answer? He invented the rear-view mirror.
"I tell young guys all the time, 'Stop trying to be cool.' The helmets and the protection that they have now ... if I'd had that when I was competing? You're dang right I would have used it. All of it. I wouldn't care how different or uncool it looked. Especially if an old, broken-down guy like me was telling them to stop being cool and start being smart."
Those are the words of Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure, a Charlotte resident and a key cog in former NFL players' fight against the lingering effects of 1970s and '80s tough-guy football.
His body is broken. He can barely hear. He suffers from brain damage. He wishes now that he and the league he played in had taken all the precautions and used all the technology available to them at the time.
"You are never going to make the game of football completely safe. That's just the nature of the game. You can't wrap everyone up in bubble wrap. But you can make it safer. There's always something better out there to grab and use. That never stops."
Those words translate directly into racing. So does his warning. Just ask the winner of Sunday's race.
"Unfortunately," Hunter-Reay said as his friend fought for his life an hour away in Allentown, "It's only natural that when there's a situation like this, a dire situation, it breeds innovation."
Something has to be done.