Saturday, August 21, 2010

Speed remains soul of IndyCar Series racing

Sonoma, California – Lots of talk here this weekend about the future of the IndyCar Series.

Sunday’s Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway seems almost secondary to discussions about boosting the fortunes of the high-speed IZOD IndyCar series, which is still suffering from a split into two open-wheel series prior to the 1996 Indy 500.

The two series reunited back into one a couple years back, but TV viewership is somewhat embarrassing, and there are too many empty seats at the IndyCar venues – more empty seats than one can simply explain away by pointing to the economy.

So, where did things wrong?

Sure, the IRL-CART split of the 1990s was horribly timed, dishing out sustained damage. But I think it goes beyond that.

Somewhere along the line, I think IndyCar lost its edgy advantage, and a big part of that was wrapped up in speed. The Indianapolis 500 was a focal point of the speed frontier, an annual gathering of drivers and cars pushing the envelope and hurdling over speed barriers previously unreached.

That went away in the split, with the Indy Racing League opting to walk away from turbocharged engines after 1996. So, right at the very moment the two major open-wheel series were parting ways, the series that hosted the Indianapolis 500 also went away from the blazing speeds that saw 236 mph laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1996.

Safety, right? Of course, that’s a no-brainer. Keeping speeds down allows safety technology to further develop, and what engineers have done to make IndyCar car-bullets safer is nothing short of extraordinary. But again, at what cost?

When casual friends used to ask me about the difference between Indy car races and NASCAR stock cars events, I would tell them that going to a NASCAR race was like going to the annual air races in Reno – close and exciting – and watching an Indy car race was like watching the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight team – simultaneously breathtaking and terrifying.

I’m not endorsing danger, but I am pointing out that this mix of blinding speed and close racing with open wheels provided an adrenaline rush to millions of Indy car fans for decades. The rush is still felt at oval tracks, but let’s face it, the edge is not quite as ragged as it used to be.

The soul of the sport has always been speed and its untouched frontiers; I’m not sure fans are feeling that now.

New IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who worked wonders promoting Profession Bull Riders Inc. into something resembling mainstream sports status, seems to get it. The 2012-approved Indy engines will have turbocharged power, and the promised chassis designs should add some flair to the racing package. Bernard also wants to have the IndyCar Series champion rewarded with huge money, and he wants to better-market drivers. All good.

While I like the job the Versus network does with IndyCar events, I don’t see that niche channel pushing IndyCar’s profile higher. I kind of long for the old days of an ABC/ESPN partnership of IndyCar telecasts.

So, as IndyCar moves forward into the future, I wish the series a speedy return to its glorious past. Speeding things up might be a way to do that.

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