Summer Bedgood and Mark Howell · Wednesday May 22, 2013
Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll and also in the comments section below!
This Week’s Question: Which race is more important today: the Daytona 500 or the Indianapolis 500?
Summer Bedgood, Assistant Editor: Indianapolis 500
Pageantry and prestige come to mind. A race that defines a career, defines a season … defines a legend. Even the most casual of fans tune in for this event and this one race is remembered and celebrated more than any other race that year ten times over.
And I’m not talking about the Daytona 500.
The Indianapolis 500 is not just a race that diehard IndyCar and motorsports fans tune in to. Everyone who follows racing at all knows what it is, who is in it, who has won it, and understands the history behind it. They may not know who is leading the points or who won the last race, but they know that whoever wins this race will have his (or her) name in the history books forever.
It’s similar to watching the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness. Many of those who watch really don’t care about horses or horse racing 99% of the time, but the high stakes of the event and all of the hype leading up to it compels even the most disinterred among us to tune in just for the sake of not missing out. For the Indy 500, they may never watch another race that year, but they’ll know everything that happened in that one.
That’s not to say the Daytona 500 doesn’t carry similar prestige or history. Of course it’s important and there are those who similarly tune in for that one race all year. That’s expected. But if you’re like most race fans, you have friends, family, and acquaintances who just really don’t care about racing in general. They don’t know what you’re saying when you tell them about the latest storyline or know who the “underdogs” are. But they do watch one race a year…the Indianapolis 500.
The Indy 500 is not just a bigger race in terms of who watches, though. I remember when I was younger and working on some homework, when a question caught my eye. Though I don’t remember the exact wording, I know it specifically mentioned Mario Andretti, the Indianapolis 500, and the speeds reached in the race. At the time, I remember thinking, “Why can’t it be about the Daytona 500?!”
It’s because more people are familiar with the prestige of the Indianapolis 500 than the Daytona 500. It’s why, when some sort of “speed” reference is needed, you’ll hear someone say, “This would put the Indy 500 drivers to shame” or “Who are you, Mario Andretti?”
There is also something to be said about how much importance the general public places on either race in terms of the whole season. I think the general perception of the Daytona 500 is that it is kicking off the year, and that’s why the race holds such significance. For the Indianapolis 500, though, many people are ignorant as to where the race is in terms of the season and, instead, seem to view it as an independent event all its own. For instance, you’ll hear a sports commentator say, “The Daytona 500 kicks off \NASCAR’s season this weekend,” but when referencing the Indy 500, it will be, “The prestigious Indy 500 begins at 12 PM Eastern time this Sunday, and everyone is watching …” In other words, the Daytona 500 is generally acknowledged as a part of NASCAR’s season. The Indy 500 could just as easily be a standalone event with no seasonal significance and no one would know the difference. It’s just that kind of event.
There’s no doubt that NASCAR is winning the popularity battle right now, and the Daytona 500 is a better race by far. In fact, the Brickyard produces some of the worst racing in either series. But when it comes to public knowledge, cultural impact, and the hype surrounding the event, the Indianapolis 500 kicks the Daytona 500’s tail every time around.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Daytona 500
There is a perfectly valid reason why the Daytona 500 is considered “The Great American Race”; it’s called that because the event symbolizes much of what we presently consider to be “American”.
For starters, we need to remember that Daytona Beach was regarded (during racing’s infancy) as “the birthplace of speed”. Daytona’s flat sandy shores hosted daredevil drivers like Barney Oldfield, Alexander Winton, Frank Lockhart, and Sir William Campbell as they—among many others—tempted danger to set land speed records in the era before such trials moved west to the dry lake beds of Bonneville.
Before the inaugural running of the Daytona 500 in 1959, NASCAR’s best raced in some of Detroit’s finest as they battled for trophies and glory (and fans, too) along the storied beach-road course that incorporated both sand and asphalt. Construction of Daytona International Speedway was simply the next chapter of this exciting tale.
Part of NASCAR’s recognized heritage is its deep roots within all that is essential to our national culture, and there’s hardly a more truly “American” event than the annual running of the Daytona 500 each February. Where else – apart from your local short track – can you see so many American drivers racing door-to-door and nose-to-tail at better than 200 miles per hour in “American made” cars?
You can see similar action at the Indianapolis 500 every Memorial Day weekend, but you’d be hard-pressed to see many American drivers circling the Brickyard in cars so closely based on makes and models familiar to American motorists as NASCAR features. The motors at Indy might be from Honda, Toyota, and Chevrolet, but the chassis and bodies flashing by are a far cry from anything you might see sitting in the parking lot of your neighborhood supermarket.
Not that a NASCAR stock car is all that closely related to your father’s grocery getter, but the new Gen-6 models are more similar to their highway namesakes than we’ve seen in recent history. It’s far too soon to tell if this new design will seriously resonate with fans (the TV and attendance numbers thus far in 2013 say otherwise), but at least NASCAR races are a more accurate depiction of American motorsports as we have come to know them. Much more so than what we see at the Indianapolis 500 each May.
The starting grid for the Daytona 500 today more closely reflects what the grid at Indianapolis looked like in years past. NASCAR’s “Great American Race” offers up drivers named Johnson, Gordon, Truex, Earnhardt, Kenseth, Edwards, Harvick, Bowyer, and even Keselowski – names that are related to and representative of our nation’s immigrant experience. Many of these drivers had ancestors who raced before them and who played vital roles in the evolution of American motorsports.
But look at the Indianapolis 500 circa 2013. Of the drivers in the lineup for this Sunday’s race, 67% were born outside the United States (that’s 22 of the 33 who qualified). History and tradition only go so far at Indy these days, especially given that the patriotic relevance of this tried-and-true spectacle attracts more and more competitors from around the globe. While there’s nothing wrong with an influx of foreign drivers, American fans are unable to readily identify with the international vibe of the Memorial Day event.
Much of that inability to identify with the Indy 500 began with the infamous split that occurred during the mid-1990s – the feud between CART and the IRL that led to the running of two 500-mile open-wheel races on Memorial Day in 1995. That debacle not only made Indy-style racing more confusing to most general observers, but it also allowed NASCAR to exploit its simultaneous period of growing national popularity.
Suddenly it was the Daytona 500 that looked to be reflective of all that audiences valued about America. As all-things-Indy alienated fans and television audiences, NASCAR happily capitalized on the instability. “The Great American Race” is today just that, even with foreign-born drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose providing an international touch.
In 2004, while campaigning for that year’s presidential election, George W. Bush wanted to connect with a large number of voters. He wanted to visit with people at a major event where he’d find recognition and lots of publicity, an event that was symbolic of what was deemed most important about the United States.
The President skipped going to the Super Bowl. He also skipped going to the Indianapolis 500. He did, however, visit the Daytona 500.
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