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MPM2Nite: The Merry, Merry, Month of May

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, Ind.

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 $6 ball-bearing seized in the car and handed the race to AJ Foyt? Hell, how many of you recall AJ 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 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 12-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%.

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 11 three-wide rows of cars coming to the checkers that’s just soul-stirring. Honestly, it gives me goosebumps 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, 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 Formula 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 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.

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