There was a time when the Indianapolis 500 meant everything in racing. Sadly, those days are gone.
Stock car racing was that thing that those southern boys did in the Carolinas. Open wheel racing was for the rest of us.
Open wheel or Indy Car racing is true racing, in my opinion. It is racing where the best car and the best driver can speed past an entire field. NASCAR with the tight rules of restrictor plate racing has to have drafting, and the racing while close, gets kind of compromised.
The names were as big as you would find in any sport. There were the Unsers, Papa Al and little Al, along with Emerson Fittipaldi, Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal, Johnny Rutherford, all champions of the great race.
Then there is the Andretti family, legendary father Mario, and his son Michael whose bad luck at Indy is as legendary as any other curse in sports.
These guys were superstars. They were on all the late night talk shows; even guest appeared on sitcoms, soap operas, commercials, etc.
You knew the Indy 500 Champions like you knew who won all of the Super Bowls. A.J. Foyt, the first to win four Indy 500 races. Then Al Unser did it, and finally Rick Mears joined in with their face to appear four times on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
But, something happened that would change the popularity of top-level open wheel racing in America. The main governing body of Indy Car racing was split up. CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) was the undeniable league in open wheel racing. CART was split due to mainly the work of one person.
Tony George is the grandson of Tony Hulman who purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 1940s.
Tony George had an idea to start the Indy Racing League (IRL). The IRL was created to level the playing field and challenge CART. George wanted an all-oval racing schedule, which he felt would give American drivers a better chance at success. He demanded that 25 of the 33 cars in the 1996 Indy 500 come from the IRL. CART could not use the Indy 500 as a point-scoring race.
If you think that was confusing, get a load of this. In 1996, CART ran the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway on the same day at the same time! The U.S. 500 was run three more times, but did not run on the same day as the Indy 500.
The 1996 Indy 500 had a roster that looked something like what you would see at a local USAC track on a Saturday night. There were 17 rookies in the field. One of those rookies, is a man by the name of Tony Stewart. That was another loss for Indy Racing. Stewart went to NASCAR a couple years later and won two Sprint Cups and is one of the most popular drivers in America.
As the next few Indy 500 races were run, the main CART owners like Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske found their way back to Indianapolis. In 2003, those teams defected CART for the IRL.
Coincidently in that year, CART filed for bankruptcy. CART re-opened and changed its name to Champ Car in 2004. Champ Car folded in 2008 after filing for bankruptcy.
There is finally one only Indy Car league, but the damage has been nearly catastrophic.
The Indy 500 is a mere shell of what it used to be. The sponsors are few and far between. The rough part for the Indy Racing League is that they had a tough time finding sponsors for all of their drivers when the economy was doing well. The drivers who used to know by heart are now seen in other places besides their cars.
Most people know Helio Castroneves for his Dancing With the Stars Championship than his back-to-back Indy 500 titles.
Dario Franchitti is know as the beau of Ashley Judd more than he is know as the 2007 Indy 500 Champion.
Most men know Danica Patrick for her provocative spreads in magazines, TV, Internet, etc. She has one career IRL victory. I will gladly give you a dollar if you know which race it was without looking it up. It was not even a race run in the United States.
I have a proposal to make the Indy 500 truly find itself again. It is radical and it still may not save the IRL, but it could put it back on the racing map.
Let one of the name drivers win. By name drivers, I mean Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti or Graham Rahal. If Patrick were to win the media attention would be on open wheel racing like it has never seen.
No offense to former Indy 500 Champions like Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon, or to top IRL drivers like Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, etc. On Monday, no one will really care too much if any of the other 30 drivers win on Sunday. There may be an exception if either the two other female drivers not named Danica (Sarah Fisher or Milka Duno) cross over the bricks first.
While you may miss out on some temporary glory, the IRL making its way back to relevancy could all the more enrich your sport. Bigger sports have “fixed” games in order to get the optimal financial result. Sometimes, they use the officials as a decoy to get this desired result.
Auto racing is not cheap. These six figure cars need sponsors, major ones.
What I am proposing may seem disingenuous, but I just do not want to see the great spectacle that is open wheel racing disappear. I fear that if some of these no-name drivers keep winning the race, ratings will continue to fall, and sponsors will leave and that may lead to the IRL following Champ Car into bankruptcy.
The legend that is the one and only Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors will be singing “Back Home Again In Indiana” on Sunday.
I wish that the Indy 500 would be the start of getting Indy Car racing back home again into the media spotlight.