Indianapolis 500: Death of a great American race

Dario FranchittiMy dad served in the Army during the Korean War. He taught me at some toddling age that the single most exciting moment in all of sports is the start of the Indianapolis 500.

The Indy 500 used to be a Memorial Day Weekend tradition in our household. We would listen live on the portable radio, usually while tending to the spring vegetables and other yard work. We would watch it later on the prime time tape-delay on TV, even though we already knew who won. We never missed the start of the race on TV. Together with him, I watched the start of every Indy 500 from 1967 to 1986.

I could recognize the drivers by their cars, and vice versa. A.J. Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser and later Al Unser Jr., Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Rahal, Gordon Johncock, Mario Andretti.  I remember Andretti’s quote: “When somebody screws up in front of you at 200 miles per hour, man, school’s out.”

I remember Danny Sullivan going into a spectacular 360 degree spin and still managing to win the race. And I remember watching with my Dad the terrible race in 1973 when Swede Savage hit the wall and much of Salt Wathers car ended up in the grandstand.

This weekend, my dad is in an Alzheimer’s “community” 500 miles south of where I live and I forgot the race was on.

When I finally tuned in, 89 laps were already complete.

I couldn’t identify more than two or three of the cars, and almost all of the drivers names were unfamiliar to me. Still, I remembered that there is nothing like the look or the sound of an Indy car.

Within a minute, someone hit a wall. I started to realize that TV coverage of the race is now one of it’s problems. The replay of the accident began with a wide shot from quite far away. There were at least six cars in the frame. I had no idea which one I was supposed to be watching. I found myself missing the little electronic pointers that FOX uses on its NASCAR coverage. The TV coverage then went to a long aerial shot from a helicopter or something that panned across vast expanses of sparsely filled bleachers. Since when has the Indianapolis 500 not been a sell out?

The Great American Race used to matter. It is now in the wake of NASCAR in much the same way boxing has given way to MMA.

With seven laps to go (seven laps!) ABC’s coverage of the actual racing was confined to a small box on the left hand side of my screen while commercials were playing in a bigger box on the right hand side of the screen. Did I mention there were only seven laps to go in the race? Memo to ABC: that’s pathetic.

NASCAR has done a masterful job at out-branding and out smarting Indy Car racing in the last 20 years, including scheduling their own Coca Cola 600 on the same day as the Indianapolis 500. Indy Car has also provided a text-book example of “How Not To Keep Up With The Times” (can you name another Indy Car race besides the 500?).

NASCAR is so good at marketing they even have the Indy 500 promoting them.

My nine year-old son saw the “Go Daddy” Indy car and said “I thought Danica Patrick switched to NASCAR.” Apparently my nine year-old could explain this to the persons who, on the Official Indianapolis 500 website, posted something that showed Danica Patrick as the winner of the 2012 Indianapolis 500! Did I mention she wasn’t in the race, or even on that racing circuit anymore? Really. Memo to Official Indianapolis 500 website mavens: that’s pathetic.

NASCAR has perfected the human-interest angle and the “just regular Joe’s” image of their drivers. FOX’s camera angles and electronic enhancements of NASCAR races are vastly superior to what I saw on ABC yesterday. And Darrell Waltrip is to stock-car announcing what John Madden was to football.

The winner of the 2012 Indy 500 claimed his third victory in the race, and all three have come under a yellow flag! In other sports, teams or individuals sometimes “back into” preliminary playoffs, but not in their marquee event. Why is it considered a win if the other guys aren’t allowed to catch you on the last three-quarters of the last lap? Imagine the horses on the last turn of the Kentucky Derby. One falls. The other horses have to stop racing, maintain position, and whatever order they happened to be in at the time is the order in which they finish. “Down the stretch they come!” is moot and void.

It’s sad for me to think that, like my dad, the Indy 500 has gotten old. There’s a monument in Washington DC to the memory of those who, like my dad, served during the Korean War. I realize it’s only car racing, but I hope they never have to build a memorial to the Great American Race somewhere in Indiana.

So dad, on this Memorial Day weekend let me again offer the much-less-than-adequate “thank you” for your service to our country. I am grateful you came home but I know that you knew many who didn’t.

And… I’m sorry that we missed watching the start of the Indy 500 together.