This week, Formula One triumphantly returns to the United States at a brand new race course as an internationally popular and well funded sport. Meanwhile, our own American Indy Car series is reeling from poor track attendance, low television ratings, financial woes and a lack of both vision and leadership. How is it possible that a gap this wide could exist between the two top tiers of open wheel racing, even though they share a common heritage, history and DNA? Or better yet, how can IndyCar regain its proper place as a world class, economically robust and popular racing series?
Both IndyCar and Formula One are cut from the same cloth as open wheel, open cockpit all-out thoroughbred race cars. Manufacturers such as March, Lotus and McLaren have had success in F1 and at Indy. Both series have a rich history and tradition unto themselves; seemingly parallel worlds in the racing universe that have crossed paths many times over the years.
From 1950 to 1960, the Indy 500 was actually a points scoring race on the FIA World Driving Championship schedule. Indy 500 winners who were also WDC winners include legendary names such as Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jacques Villenueve. Other 500 winners like Mark Donohue, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Eddie Cheever and J.P. Montoya also raced in Formula One. Three time F1 Champion Jackie Stewart almost won the 500 in 1966 and became the most beloved on-air driver analyst on the ABC broadcasts of the Indy 500, even when he was still an active Formula One driver. Ironically, even with all this crossover, the disparity between the two series became most pronounced when F1 actually raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course as the USGP from 2000 to 2007.
The Watkins Glen and Long Beach Grands Prix were originally stops on the Formula One calendar as well. Many future CART drivers raced in Long Beach when it was the USGP West such as Eddie Cheever, Derek Daly, Roberto Guerrero, Kevin Cogan and Nigel Mansell. Mansell would go on to win back to back Championships in Formula One and CART (IndyCar), while Mario Andretti won at Long Beach under the banner of both series.
While Indy and F1 cars look more like each other than they do with any other form of race car, there are profound differences between the two series. Formula One is truly world-wide, with each race taking place in a different country while IndyCar races almost exclusively in North America. F1 Grands Prix are run on purpose built road courses and temporary street circuits. IndyCar races on both as well, but the schedule includes various oval tracks around the country. The oval racing aspect is a rich part of IndyCar heritage that is not shared by Formula One and a major distinction between the two, making IndyCar a triple crown series that is unique to itself, requiring drivers to be more diverse and adaptable to the challenging variety of race courses in a single season.
In the current state of affairs, the differences between IndyCar and Formula One have grown to such an extent that one might forget all they share in common. Internationally, top level open wheel racing has become analagous, in effect, to World Cup Soccer in that the sport is marginally popular in the United States while the rest of the planet is filled with millions and millions of loyal, enthusiastic and dedicated fans. Likewise, track attendance, television ratings and revenues are sky high and continue to climb in the world of Formula One, while dwindling popularity, internal leadership problems and rising debt plague the embattled IndyCar series. To complete the “futbol” analogy, NASCAR in the US is akin to American gridiron football; extremely popular in the States and almost non-existent elsewhere. Yes, IndyCar also shares much with the Stock Car series, including tracks and drivers who have raced in both disciplines, but the similarities end there.
Realistically, IndyCar should (nor probably could) compete with neither NASCAR nor Formula One for viewership, attendance and revenues. IndyCar is an animal unto itself, a unique breed of cat with qualities that belong to no other. Therefore, all these contrasts and comparisons do not mean that IndyCar should compete with other series for their fans, rather, they should use the similarities and differences to forge their own rightful place in the racing firmament. This ‘grand triangulation’ is perhaps IndyCar’s greatest strength in the current climate: it’s a little like NASCAR, a little like Formula One and a whole lot like nothing else on Earth.
While the faithful choir of die hard IndyCar fans know this intuitively, the biggest potential for increasing viewership lies with the ‘sleeping giant’ of would-be fans who, quite simply, are underexposed and unaware of what this series is all about. And, many don’t even know it exists beyond the Indy 500. Thus, the elusive fan base needed to grow the sport is already out there, waiting in the wings for a cue to enter the stage and participate in the drama that is IndyCar. These are the people to whom NASCAR and Formula One are irrelevant; those who don’t jive with the oft repeated “wreckin’ is racin’” mantra in stock cars, and who also can’t get onboard with with an elite Euro-centric F1 that doesn’t have an American driver or team and seems as far removed from their lives as Singapore is from Indianapolis.
Enter IndyCar. Unfortunately, the IndyCar Series is America’s ‘best kept secret.’ This seems almost impossible to believe, considering all what it has going for it: the Greatest Spectacle in Racing (a.k.a. Indy 500), a truly diverse discipline that attracts some the best drivers from around the world and the greatest ambassador humanly possible in the form of Mario Andretti, who attends every race and often leads the first lap. Other Indy stars who have been household names for decades, like A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford, are also at the tracks each week but not as honorary legends hauled out of mothballs to wave at the crowd and sign a few autographs. No, these legends are too busy for all that: Foyt runs his team and Rutherford has been driving the pace car for over ten years. Does the casual fan even know this?
At the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach this year, I counted over 20 Indy 500 victories (about 25% of the total 500 wins!) that were present in the paddock and pit lane. Franchitti, Castroneves and Dixon have rings as active drivers; Foyt and Rahal as team owners; the aforementioned Lone Star J.R. in the pace car; Arie Luyendyk in the 2-seater, and, delivering the best “Drivers start your engines!” command in recent memory was Grand Marshall and 1963 Indy 500 winner, Parnelli Jones. Yes, while the millions of fans who were there during the golden era from the mid 80‘s to early 90‘s have gone out to pasture, those guys, these legends, never really retired and are still showing up on race days – because they are still working!
The Secret Society of IndyCar is about to blown wide open with this week’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. With all the world’s attention on the 2012 F1 Championship battle focused on this new circuit, it may very well “leak out” that North America has it’s own world-class, open wheel, open cockpit racing series right here at home. The cat will be further out of the bag next year when a much anticipated racing movie is released. I’m not talking about the animated story of a snail who wants to race the Indy 500, which includes the voice of 3-time 500 winner Dario Franchitti. This flick will no doubt be charming and entertaining, perhaps even becoming a family classic.
No, the film that will most likely bring IndyCar out of the where-are-they-now file is Ron Howard’s “Rush,” about the dramatic and compelling drivers and stories involved in the 1976 Formula One season. How could this be relevant to IndyCar, with unfamiliar names such as James Hunt and Niki Lauda, you ask? Will Howard make an awesome movie about something relatively obscure to an American audience that they will actually love? His 2001 movie, “A Beautiful Mind,” which was about a mathematician from West Virginia who went insane, won 4 Academy Awards® including Best Picture. Check. Does Howard know how to make an exciting action film that centers around technology, hardware and guts of steel heroes? I think “Apollo 13” has that one covered. Check.
But with all those foreign sounding names of drivers, cars and race courses and with the events portrayed now almost 40 years past, will the movie “Rush” resonate with people in the States? Well, there’s at least one name we all will be familiar with who raced with Hunt and Lauda at places like Zandvoort and the Nürburgring in 1976. That name belongs to the same man who drove the opening lap in a Lotus 79 at the dedication of the new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX just a couple weeks ago: That name is Mario Andretti.
So yes, Formula One does matter to IndyCar. Or at least it should.
© Chris Sheridan 11.14.2012