The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: The Merry, Merry, Month of May by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday May 6, 2010

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MPM2Nite: The Merry, Merry, Month of May

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday May 6, 2010


Friends, gentle readers, editors, and detractors I ask you to indulge me for this week. You doubtless have tuned into this Matt-channel looking to read about NASCAR racing, or a topic even spherically related to stock cars. Well I’m sorry to disappoint ya’ll, but this week I’m going so far off the radar that Larry McReynolds and the meteorologists at the Weather Channel couldn’t find me with a pack of bloodhounds.

I am, after all, an old guy. I’ve been following this sport since before many of you were potty-trained. I’ve got the aches and pains, desperate moments trying to put the right name to the right face when I know I should know it, and the occasional health challenge to prove it. I’ve lived hard, I’ve lived fast, and if there’s been a thing or two I’d have changed growing up (a still incomplete challenge) overall I’m pleased with the adventure that is my so-called life over these five decades. In the words of the inestimable James Buffett, some of it’s magic and some of it’s tragic, but I’ve had a good life all the way.

Saturday’s Cup race was run on May 1st. I love May. It means the start of car show season and nearly daily Harley rides as the temperatures warm up to a level these old aching bones can tolerate. It’s a pretty good month to be a NASCAR fan, too, with Richmond, Darlington, Dover, the All-Star Race, and the World 600 all on the slate. Fast, loud cars on some of the circuit’s best circuits? I’ll be there with bells and whistles.

But I remain a fan of not only NASCAR racing but auto racing in general. And growing up, I recall when the month of May meant one thing for racing fans. It meant the Indy “By Gawd” 500. Indy wasn’t just the biggest story in auto racing, it was the biggest story in sports bar none. For one month, even stick and ball fans stopped caring so much about the fledgling baseball season, the NFL draft, or even the NHL and NBA playoffs, focusing instead on that two-and-a-half mile semi-oval at 2130 Michigan Street, Indy, IN.

The month of May is the host of many of NASCAR’s top races, but it’s also the time for what was once the world’s most prestigious race — the Indy 500.

For a solid month, the sport’s coverage focused on the Speedway as if drivers trying to make the race at Indy were the only thing that mattered. Sometimes, the rivalry was between established race teams that had won multiple 500s (remember when Roger Penske’s organization failed to qualify for the 500 late on bump day), new experimental technology cars, and female/foreign drivers all trying to make a field that didn’t have enough room for half of them. Remember when the late Jim Clark won the race in one of the first rear-engined cars competing against the boxy front-engined cars in 1965? That was a news story that reverberated not only across the United States, but around the globe. Remember when the turbine car nearly won the 500 for Andy Granetelli in 1967 before a six dollar ball-bearing seized in the car and handed the race to A.J. Foyt? Hell, how many of you recall A.J. won four Indy 500s, the defining moments of his legendary career winning in just about anything that had four tires and an engine?

Yeah, Indy used to be the top dog, even if the World 600 has slaughtered it in the ratings as of late. My own defining Indy 500 memory was back in 1972. Mark Donahue won the race driving for Roger Penske. A dear family friend growing up, Mrs. Marge Fixture had dated Mark Donahue in high school (he taught her to drive… how cool is that?) and remained his close personal friend. Knowing I was a rabid race fan, she saw to it I got a ride to the old Penske shop on Winding Way in Newtown Square, Pa. about a mile from my childhood home. Once there, I got to meet Mr. Donahue and Mr. Penske, I got to touch that hallowed trophy, and I got to sit in the race-winning car seemingly before Mark’s sweat even dried from the seat. For a bucktoothed twelve-year-old in blue jeans and a Mark Donahue T-shirt it was Nirvana cubed. I wept when Donahue died the day after my birthday in 1975 practicing for the Austrian Grand Prix. At 16, with a newly minted learner’s permit printed with the ink still drying, it was a terrifying wake up call that even a driver with talents far beyond what I could ever comprehend could die in a crash. Though I won’t deny driving like an asshole in my younger years, Donahue’s death always kept me at 90 percent.

Today, sadly, the Indy 500 remains more of a footnote as the sports season reaches the month of May. Tony George’s decision to split with CART opened up a decade long suicidal rift in U.S. open-wheel racing, a war that left his new IndyCar Series the only one left standing. George is gone now, and so is CART, but the sport has yet to heal and even begin to reassert its dominance it once enjoyed during the month of May.

Events like Pole Day, Bump Day, and the poorly-defined “Carb Day” used to draw a bigger crowd than most Cup races. Nowadays… well, not so much. In fact, the amount of fans left in the grandstands for those three events is downright embarrassing for what used to be the lead sports story in the month of May. Did Tony George’s open-wheel split hurt the sport? Is Lindsay Lohan going to win an Oscar this year, edging out Britney Spears for the statuette?

I remain a fan of the Indy 500 despite the lean years. They’ve got some engaging stars. Helio Castroneves is so remarkably upbeat in victory its hard not to like him. Dario Franchitti, with his Italian surname and Scottish accent remains an enigma, but he’s another friendly fellow. During the height of my interest in open-wheel racing, Alex Zanardi was my favorite, but he was badly injured in that race the weekend after 9-11.

I still sometimes dream, though, that the awesome progress medicine has made in prosthetics means Zanardi has one last Indy 500 left in him. Or maybe they could at least let him drive the pace car? I believe that four women entered last Saturday’s IRL race. Next to the NHRA, the IRL has the most diverse set of drivers out there already. It’s gotten to the point Danica-mania has died down to a tolerable level, at least on the open-wheel side of things. It does seem sometimes that white American male drivers are a bit in short supply, at least in top rides (ironic in that the IRL was formed to give American open-wheelers a pinnacle to shoot for) but in that series right now, sometimes you have to bring money to the table to land in the driver’s seat.

Still, any problems in the sport still fade away amidst the beauty of race day at Indianapolis. Even folks who profess not to like open-wheel racing can’t help but get caught up in the pageantry of the event. There’s something about the balloon launch and the sight of the field formed up in eleven, three-wide rows of cars coming to the checkers that’s just soul-stirring. Honestly, it gives me goose bumps every year.

Yeah, Indy isn’t perfect. Too many talented drivers and up-and-comers have died there, sometimes in horrifying wrecks that turned fans’ stomachs. But Indy was also the first big track to install the SAFER barriers.

What’s it going to take to return the Indy 500 to its former preeminence? Truthfully, it might be too late. The prolonged civil war in open-wheel caused both series to shed fans the way a golden retriever diving into a lake sheds fleas. It seems unlikely the newly-minted IndyCar Series will once again draw bigger crowds and get better ratings than stock car racing, despite Brian France’s best efforts to give them a chance.

One big boost, in this writer’s humble opinion, would be for the promoters at Indy and Charlotte to work out a way that drivers could run both races on the same day again. I’ve had issues with Tony Stewart, but I’d love to see him win an Indy 500 before he retires, though certainly not as much as he’d love that victory. Even a win by Robby Gordon at Indy would serve as a reminder of the era when guys like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, and Dan Gurney hopped from open-wheel cars, to stock cars, to sprint cars, to sports cars, and occasionally even Grand Prix cars with great success. In the increasingly diverse world of auto racing, it’s hard to imagine a driver succeeding in so many disciplines, though I’m not going to argue that point with Tony Stewart, the most multi-faceted driver of his generation.

But I’m not going to compare Stewart with Foyt or Andretti until he wins a 500 and a Grand Prix race, the Baja 500, or Le Mans. So cross-promotional efforts like the old Memorial Day Daily Double can only increase casual or non-fan interest in auto racing of all types. Hell, if they could convince Danica Patrick to run the Indy 500 and the World 600 the same day, the media’s heads might explode, even if she ran like a three-legged lamb in the 600 the first few times.

But let’s not stop at NASCAR. If we could overcome Bernie Eccelstone’s anti-American sentiment, it would also be fascinating to see drivers like Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton (no relation to Bobby) take a crack at the Indy 500 like their F-1 compatriots used to do in days of yore.

Most importantly, I think it’s time for IndyCar to start weaning itself from the spec-car formula. One of the chief charms of the old Indy 500 was the rules were pretty lax. That led to fascinating experiments like the turbine car, diesel-powered entrants, six-wheeled cars and all sorts of other fascinating stuff. None of the above experiments were too successful, but if nobody had tried rear-engined cars they’d never have succeeded, either. This whole deal with one chassis supplier and one engine supplier isn’t helping the sport. I don’t particularly care for Dallara Hondas racing other Dallara Hondas. I want to see some front-engined Fords out there, six-wheel Chevy-powered entrants, and maybe even some V10s and V12s again. A V16? Sign me up. Brock Yates, automotive writing emeritus, once proposed a series called “Formula Libre” in which any car that fit inside a set box would be allowed to compete. Auto racing has always been about innovation and experimentation, looking for what Mark Donahue used to call “the Unfair Advantage.”

There’s still innovators out there in the garage area. The folks who run major racing series just have them locked in boxes. I recall in the crazy old days of racing in the lost and lamented CanAm series, when a team ran a car with one snowmobile engine powering each wheel. It didn’t run worth a damn, but it was cool. A diecast of the old six-wheeled, Shadow Grand Prix car still hangs above my desk. An electric car that runs the whole 500 miles at Indy without a recharge? I think a few people would write about that.

Yes, the Indy 500 is a shadow of its former self, but come Sunday of Memorial Day weekend I’ll still be tuning in. It might be a terrible race and it might be a great race, but damn it, it’s the Indy 500. A lot of you might have no intentions of watching that race (based on TV ratings, a whole lot of you) but I invite you to tune in even if it’s just on in the background as you grill hot dogs, drink beer, and socialize with the neighbors on the first holiday weekend of summer.

Baby, everything dies, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Racing to the Point: NASCAR Has Its Own Heartbreak Kid
Beyond the Cockpit: Brittany Force, the Fastest Force
Voices from the Cheap Seats: Advertising for Dummies
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: Off Week-Richmond Edition
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05/06/2010 01:26 AM

Yeah, they need to adopt at least two chassis, but they’re not going to. Obviously, pretty much all racing series are in decline from say 1965-1995 when pretty much every racing series was good…probably mainly because the costs became prohibitive.

“In the increasingly diverse world of auto racing it’s hard to imagine a driver succeeding in so many disciplines though I’m not going to argue that point with Tony Stewart, the most multi-faceted driver of his generation.”

Nah, it’s Montoya. While Stewart is certainly way more accomplished in stock cars than Montoya is, Montoya has done pretty much everything there is to do in OW (save an F1 World Championship, and considering only Schumacher and Alonso did that while he was there, that’s forgivable). Montoya has a much, much bigger chance of say winning a Cup title or winning an increasingly meaningless Daytona 500 than Stewart has of winning Indy. He’s probably too old and not athletic enough to win the 500 as well, and if he couldn’t win the 500 in ’96-‘98 when the competition was weak, he clearly wouldn’t today.

Bruce Florman
05/06/2010 02:10 AM

Kind words for Tony Stewart?!? Who are you, and what have you done with the real Matt McLaughlin?

For the record, I agree with most of your points, particularly the emotional ones. I’m a bit torn about the “Formula Libre” concept though. I agree that seeing innovative technology and a wide range of vehicle designs is cool. But on the other hand, I look at Formula One, where the ludicrous budgets and closed-door politics play a much larger role than the individual skills of any driver, and I question whether that’s really the right direction to go. Back in the good old days, there wasn’t such a gap between the haves and have-nots because nobody in Corporate America thought that having their logo on the winning car was worth tens of millions of dollars. Now some do, at least in the big series, so it’s not clear how to open the door to innovation without creating a situation where the trophy simply goes to the highest bidder.

Yet further on the subject of money and racing… I don’t think that Bernie Eccelstone is anti-American, per se. Rather, I think that he has a philosophical standpoint that is fundamentally incompatible with American political reality. Bernie has made it abundantly clear that the local promoters of individual F1 races are not expected to make any money from the race itself. Every penny, peso, drachma or kopek generated from ticket sales, merchandising, and most importantly, broadcast rights, belongs to him and his investors. The cost of actually staging the race, in Bernie’s view, should be born by the government of whatever country holds the race, and justified as a promotional investment. Now I’m a pretty big fan of automobile racing, but I stand firmly opposed to taxpayers footing the bill for putting on a big race, as do most Americans, I think. So I’m fairly confident that we’ll see Formula One running in North Korea before we’ll see another F1 race in the USA, at least while Bernie continues to run that show. And Bernie certainly isn’t going to dilute the F1 brand by making it easier for F1 drivers to dabble in other series.

05/06/2010 06:34 AM

Nice job as usual, Matt, but I don’t think that’s the Speedway’s address. It’s on the corner of 16th St. and Georgetown, where else, Speedway, IN.

05/06/2010 08:27 AM

danica mania will resume in indy. all the noise will be “can she win the 500”…it happens every year.

matt said something nice about robby gordon is even more surprising than his comments about stewart.

05/06/2010 08:38 AM

What is the World 600?

05/06/2010 08:40 AM

The World 600 was a race that was run at Lowes Motor Speedway, neither of which exist today.

Some people are just stuck in the past.

The Mad Man
05/06/2010 09:47 AM

I’ll be doing my traditional Memorial Day weekend. Going to Charlotte for the World 600 and watching the Indy 500 on TV before we head to the track for the Cup race.

Like you Matt, I remember the glory days of Indy and racing in general. I use to listen to the radio and catch the Indy 500. The excitement was unbearable. It didn’t matter if it was AJ Foyt, Jimmie Clark, or Graham Hill winning, the Unsers, Rutherford, or the STP turbine cars. It was man and machine and the innovations of the mechnics and car builders that made it exciting. Then I’d catch the World 600. It got more exciting when drivers were able to do the double. It was a good thing for both series. But unfortunately, because of the blunders of both Tony George and BZF and the screwing overs on business deals between the two, I don’t know if we’ll ever see the double again. But should it ever return, I’d expect to see JPM and Robby Gordon try it. Tony’s gotten a little too big for the cockpit of a Indy car. Unless they allow a special bubble cockpit for him.

The thing with the Dallara-Honda engine is like the Cup cars whose bodies are all alike and whose engines are becoming increasingly alike which brings them even closer to the IROC cars of old. It would be nice to see Offy brought back from the grave along with some other engine manufacturers to liven up the IRL. At least then they might get some brand rivalries going again. The things dreams are made of.

05/06/2010 10:31 AM

I just cant wait for Danica to win the Indy 500 so she can blow out of IRL and come be the savior Nascar so desparately needs.

I forsee some kind of awesome comercial involving white t-shirts and water turning to wine.

05/06/2010 11:10 AM


And Tim Tebow can be her crew cheif. I mean, that covers the dad, and the “son”… who’s gunna be the ghost?

05/06/2010 11:11 AM

Great article Matt. I could feel the excitement you felt when you were writing this story. I have enjoyed Indy racing on radio and later on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. You could have mentioned the old Myer- Drake engines. They were tough. We need more than Honda power.There is so much that goes on in May at Indy we don’t have time to get all of it. I always looked forward to hearing Jim Nabors singing “Back Home in Indiana” although he and I are from Alabama.

05/06/2010 11:20 AM

Sean , it’s Stewart . While Tony has yet to race in F 1 , he has a far better open wheel resume than Montoya . Along with his IRL championship , Tony was also the winner of the USAC Triple Crown ( midgets , sprints , and champ cars all in the same year ) , the Chili Bowl , The Turkey Night Midget races , not to mention his World Go Cart Championship . All of those are open wheel .

I started watching the Indy 500 in 1961 , and while i’ll admit that the 60s , and 70s were my favorite years , i know enough about the earlier years to see how they would be someones favorite . Wilbur Shaw , Tony Bettenhausen , the sound of the Offys , and in the decades before that , the Millers and Duesenburgs . Every era has it’s fans . I don’t really see much wrong with the current IRL . It’s different , but still enjoyable . Except for the concept of the spec cars .
Spec cars , spec engines , spec tires , spec fuels are directly responsible for the decline in both fans and competitors in all forms of racing that rely on spec rules . Stock cars that are identical in look except for headlight decals , “ crate motors “ that turn Late Model racing into Street Stock racing , Indy cars that no longer allow the innovation that built the Indy car series . Mickey Thompson with his Buick and Chevy engine powered skateboards . Barney Navarro and his Rambler/AMC 6 cyl. powered cars , the V8 offy , the Smokey Yunick side car Indy car , even diesel powered Indy cars . Indianapolis , ans auto racing in general are the poorer for legislating out the ability to use your brain and talent instead of a checkbook to go racing .

05/06/2010 11:46 AM

NASCAR needs those “over ride” buttons!

05/06/2010 02:03 PM

Used to be Monaco, Indy and Charlotte. What a day! This year its the Turkey Grand Prix.
Seems appropriate.
The Indy 500 was on the F1 schedule.

For DansMom, what is the Firecracker?

Henry M
05/06/2010 02:06 PM

I remember watching the ’67 race on closed-circuit TV in a theatre in Denver while I was in college. Parnelli Jones could pass anyone anywhere; inside, outside, short-chute; it made no difference.

Remember Jim Hall’s “vacuum cleaner” in Can-Am?

Was it Smokey Yunick or Junior Johnson who brought a set of 4-bolt wheels to a race? They laughed and told him not to bring them back next week. Now he would be fined for “Un-approved parts”.

Those were the days, my friend.

05/06/2010 03:36 PM

I recall in the crazy old days of racing in the lost and lamented CanAm series, when a team ran a car with one snowmobile engine powering each wheel.

Are you referring to the Chaparral 2J ‘Sucker Car’? That used a snowmobile engine to run a couple of fans at the back to suck air from under the car and give it tremendous grip compared to wings and diffusers of the day. It ran for one season before being outlawed – but, as you say, it was not mechanically reliable. Its Chevy powerplant was good for 700+ hp… Must have been a treat to see running in anger!

Kevin in SoCal
05/06/2010 04:12 PM

My dad and I will be running our own cars at the dragstrip in Fontana on Memorial Day Sunday, but I’ll have the races taped and will watch them when I get home.

Was the World 600 run at Lowe’s Motor Speedway? I thought it was still Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the Coke 600 and Lowe’s came later.

05/06/2010 04:23 PM

Good stuff Matt.I like you remember the month of May being all Indy.The names like Unser,Andretti,Foyt,Bettenhausn and later Rahal were always discuss when we were trout fishing on Cape Cod when I was a kid.We played in the dirt with their cars,the Johnny Lighting Series I think they were called.Greed has taken over more people &businesses and ruined most of them.The sport of Auto Racing no matter what the flavor has seen its share and is now paying for it.
Matt here are another couple JB quotes for you

Bad Wolf
05/07/2010 12:19 AM

I used to be at the 500 back in the ’90s when it was at it’s pinnacle, and am glad I had the chance to see my heros from back in the day, like Foyt, Unser, Johncock, Mears and the young up and comers. The best I ever saw was Nigel Mansel, and could not believe what I was seeing and the control he had.

Walking into Indy for the first time on a 500 race day was like a religiuos experience, and all race fans were expected to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives, if they could get on the waiting list and get tickets someday.

Back then the draw of Indy was the history, and as Matt said the innovation and diversity of the machines. It used to be back in the ’80s and ’90s we had battles on the track between Chevy, Ford, Buick and Mercedes powered cars, and before that Offy’s and Cosworths. Get rid of the spec and open it up again and you will see more interist in the series.

John Andretti in the Richard Petty #43 might draw some stock car fans to the race, and it is pretty cool seeing Richard Petty backing an entry this year. If they are lucky Danica will go out early, and they might get some TV time.

I remember the 4 most famous words in racing back when I was at the track; “Mario is slowing down!!!”

05/07/2010 09:14 AM

If you make those words “Andretti is slowing down” they’ve been heard for over 40 years now!