The Frontstretch: Open Wheel Wednesday: Whither Worldwide Indy by Huston Ladner -- Wednesday April 24, 2013

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Open Wheel Wednesday: Whither Worldwide Indy

Huston Ladner · Wednesday April 24, 2013


IndyCar just held one of its premier events, the kind that is supposed to pull in fans and keep its name close to the top of the headlines. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was an interesting, entertaining, and compelling race, one that included the second first-time winner this year in the series, Takuma Sato. What’s not to like?

The NBC Sports Network has, thus far, done a fantastic job of producing and airing the three races this season. The effort put into production is high, the commentary solid, and the overall product sound. Add in the fact that the network is even airing ads for the series during its F1 telecasts, and it’s clear to see that NBCSN is finally giving the series some love. Again, what’s not to like?

Yet, for some reason, it doesn’t seem to matter. Takuma Sato is the first Japanese driver to win a major sporting event on American soil. That seems like it would be good enough to grab a place in the 24-hour news cycle – a place other than on a racing-specific site or publication.

Oh, and it was Long Beach, which features about 37 other races during the weekend, one of them a celebrity Pro-Am deal, won by Rutledge Wood. Sure, he may not bring the cache of Brad Pitt, but his presence brings something (or maybe not; maybe they should have gotten Pitt in the car and ensured he won).

Did IndyCar get much of a mention on Sportscenter? Did race recaps appear on any of the top sports sites? Or worse, did anyone notice or care? The resounding silence is enough of an answer.

The IZOD IndyCar Series has great international diversity…but does that make it hard for its audience to relate?

Those who follow, defend, or are fans of the sport still point at the Indy/CART split as the demise of the series and how it has forever lost its American market share to NASCAR. That explanation works. It cuts to the core of the issue and lays out an Occam’s Razor sensibility. (Occam’s Razor, simply stated: the simple answer is usually the one that works.)

But the truth is, the problem with the series is more complicated than that. The schedule has been a mess. The person who assumes the leadership role gets shuffled through a revolving door to a desk seemingly made out of cardboard – and just as the CEO or whatever his title is this week, tries to go to work, the desk crumbles beneath him and he’s back out the door. Those are just some of the series’ problems. But maybe there’s a different one.

Is IndyCar too European?

Looking at the 26 drivers who comprise what could be considered the full-time field, only eight of them are American. For a series that races predominantly on tracks in the U.S., that number does seem to be a bit skewed. Breaking it down further, ten of the drivers call a country in Europe home, be it Scotland, England, France, Switzerland or Spain. Then there are the remaining drivers, from Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

If IndyCar wants to be the poster child for people in the world getting along, it seems to put itself in that position quite well. But that aspect is also one of the things that might be hindering the series. See, there’s that other open-wheel racing thing, Formula-something-or-other, and they’ve got that whole international thing going for them too.

Are all these remarks a way to point out that Americans are xenophobes? Nope. It is, however, intended to note that the series had been inundated with foreign drivers and that it has been a while since Sam Hornish, Jr. raced and won the championship. That’s not to overlook Ryan Hunter-Reay and his performance last year, but instead to point out that it had been a number of years since an American finished in the overall top spot before 2012.

Dario Franchitti. Will Power. Scott Dixon. Helio Castroneves. These drivers are the ones who have carried the series for a number of years.

Though fans may be willing to return to IndyCar, when they do so they don’t have a way of relating to many drivers in the series. Marco Andretti is a name to draw on, much like Graham Rahal, but with so much of the field being foreign, it may be hard to find an in-road.

The series split is over, and has been for a few years now. Though some fans may hold a grudge, it is likely that it is not the reason overall interest is low.
There’s a lot to like about IndyCar this year. Though Castroneves may lead the standings after three races, the powerful teams of Ganassi, Penske, and Andretti all seem to be faltering a bit. That two drivers who had never won before earned victories shows that there is a depth to the talent. The series is returning to Pocono for the first time in ages. There’s a reason to watch the races beyond just the 500.

But maybe there is that whiff of raising a glass with the pinky extended. Maybe fans see a little too much Jean Girard from Talladega Nights. Oh well, the world is flat, c’est la vie. Ciao. Gracias por leer.

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04/24/2013 08:42 AM

I really hope NBC Sports takes off and is successful. The more competition the better. And it would help me stay away from BSPN.

04/24/2013 02:14 PM

“Is IndyCar too European?”…The answer is maybe but probably not.

As Americans we are by in large raised to prefer Americans; this is no different than most other nations around the world. It certainly doesn’t help but it’s not the biggest issue for the series. The idea of an “All American” open wheel series was tried once and after some initial curiosity, the interest waned.

The drivers the series has are just fine. They’re some of the best at what they do and they, for the most part, have personalities that make them seem human, not just sponsor spewing PR machines.

The issue is, in the US, motorsports overall are in a state of decline and it’s in this environment that IndyCar is trying to stage a comeback. The fact that IndyCar has held its ground would seem to be a good sign especially considering the issues the series has. IndyCar didn’t fall this far in a single year and it always takes longer to gain back than to lose. Here’s hoping the folks who lay out the money are patient.

04/24/2013 06:21 PM

Is an extended middle finger preferable to an extended pinky? The way Nascar is going, I suspect more and more fans will look to open wheel for some good competitive racing without Brian France, The Chase and all the other baggage Nascar is creating. Tony George did his part to completely screw things up. Think how advanced American motorsports would be without the two Princes of the Lucky Sperm Club, Brian and Tony. Lucky us.

04/25/2013 10:01 PM

Just started following IndyCar last year, and as much as I hate to say it, I often find myself more excited about an Indy race than a Cup race that week. Especially when Indy visits the oval. I was a hater for a long while, I’m glad I’ve seen the light.