Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 27, 2012

On IndyCar’s Big Day, Dario Goes From Last To First

There are a handful of events that transcend their sport. They define a day or a date on the calendar, and become appointment television for casual fans who otherwise know little about the sport. America all but comes to a halt on Super Sunday. On the first Saturday in May fans who don’t know the difference between a filly and a gelding cheer on the twenty horses that run for the roses. Since 1911, the eyes of sports fans have turned to Indianapolis on Memorial Day weekend. There were 33 starters as always for this year’s 500; but while the race isn’t about to go the way of the Marmon Model 32 that won the inaugural event these are not bright days for open-wheeled racing in America and its premier event.

The last time anyone but the most ardent of IndyCar fans likely tuned into a race was last October, when the series was scheduled to run its season-ending World Championship race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That was the grim Sunday when the black cloud of death appeared out of an impossibly blue western sky, claiming 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon in a horrific accident on lap 13 at the high-banked oval. But while the tragedy gave the sport the kind of publicity no one wants, IndyCar’s larger problems were apparent that day well before the fiery crash. As the fragile vehicles hurtled around the track at speeds approaching 220 mph, the television cameras showed them racing in front of large patches of empty grandstand. Las Vegas Motor Speedway seats 142,000; but despite months of publicity and the fact that both the series’ point’s championship and rookie of the year awards were still undecided, IndyCar’s season-ending race drew just an estimated 50,000.

The problems go back more than a decade and a half, to 1996 when Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George formed the Indy Racing League to compete directly with CART, which had been the sole governing body for open-wheeled racing in this country. The bitter conflict between the IRL and CART dragged on for years, dividing race teams and fans and creating ongoing uncertainty about which drivers would be able to appear in which races. It also served to drain precious resources from a brutally expensive sport; simply put, there was neither enough money nor sponsors to sustain two separate racing series.

Even as the proponents of open-wheeled racing fought their internecine battle, NASCAR began to grow from a largely regional sport headquartered in the south to one with national presence and appeal. By 2008, Tony George’s IRL had become IndyCar and had absorbed the Champ Car series, the twice-bankrupt successor to CART. But by that time NASCAR and its brightly painted stock cars had far surpassed the open-wheeled racers in television coverage, fan appeal, and as an occupational goal for young kids in go-karts. The Indianapolis 500 may still call itself The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500 is The Great American Race in both name and by the size of its television audience. Casual fans, who once at least recognized the names of American race drivers like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, or Bobby Rahal, are now more likely to have at least a passing familiarity with NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart.

The 2012 IndyCar season consists of just sixteen races spread out over six months, one-fourth of which are outside the United States. Of the 33 drivers who started this year’s 500, only 9 were Americans. The IndyCar Series has become to American automobile racing what the LPGA is to American professional golf; and that is not a comparison that Series CEO Randy Bernard would welcome.

All of which is too bad, because with all due respect to my friends who are NASCAR devotees, as a spectator sport the stock cars run second to the open-wheeled racers. As I saw in person at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last August, and on television at this year’s Indianapolis 500 this Sunday, the IndyCars are faster and more nimble, both of which make for more exciting racing. While there were patches of empty seats even at the Series’ premier event, certainly those fans who made it to the Brickyard for this year’s 500 were treated to a very exciting race.

In person, as is the case with NASCAR, the dominant sensory impression of auto racing is the sound. It’s like being in the middle of a very large swarm of very, very, angry bees for three hours straight. It’s sound that one feels as much as one hears. While some of that is inevitably lost on television, what is gained on the flat screen is the ability to catch all of the action; which one can’t do in person at a 2 ½ mile super speedway like Indianapolis.

Wherever one was watching, what was on display was a race in which 10 different drivers led at some point, just short of the race record of 12. There were 34 lead changes over the course of the afternoon, smashing the old record of 29. For a time both Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, third and second generation members of two of open-wheeled racing’s royal families were in the mix before falling back. Canadian James Hinchcliffe, last season’s Rookie of the Year who succeeded Danica Patrick in the #27 Go car, was a factor throughout the race, eventually finishing sixth. Hinchcliffe might well have won the race but for a consistent inability to get his car going on any of the restarts.

As the laps counted down it was the two red cars of Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon who came to the front of the pack. Both had started in the middle of the field, but Franchitti had fallen all the way to last place after an incident in the pits on his very first stop early in the race. Displaying the poise and savvy of a four-time Series champion and two-time 500 winner, the 39-year old Scotsman with the Italian last name gradually worked his way through the field. Over the final laps he and teammate Dixon battled with Brazilian Tony Kannan and Takuma Sato of Japan. Franchitti was first across the line as the white flag waved signaling one lap remaining. As the cars went into Turn One Sato made his bid for the lead, diving underneath Franchitti. But Sato’s left wheels got down onto the apron of the track, a spot from which several cars had already lost control. In an instant Sato’s car got loose and spun up into the track’s outer wall, bringing out a final caution flag and making Franchitti a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

Even as Franchitti headed for victory lane and the very large swarm of very, very, angry bees was gradually going silent, the IndyCar Series was moving out of its annual moment in the spotlight. Until the sport can develop a more robust schedule and attract a new generation of American drivers, it’s likely to remain on the fringes of most sports fans’ interests. But on its one afternoon in the sun, IndyCar and Dario Franchitti delivered all the excitement any fan could want.

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