With the IZOD IndyCar Series season about to begin in Florida, and the teeth-gnashing still going on about how NASCAR managed to get a leg up back in the late 1900s to not only overtake Indy car racing in popularity but to almost decimate it, I’m going to tell you how and why it happened.
First, the split in 1996 didn’t help but it was far from being the only reason.
You have to remember that the first season of Indy Racing League competition was made up of three races. That’s correct. There were only three races on the whole 1996 schedule — the Walt Disney World race in January, the Phoenix race in March and the Indianapolis 500 in May. Three races. You know why?
But, as I said, the split was only one of a number of factors and here are the others.
1. Traditionally, Indy car racers came from small ovals in primarily rural areas of the United States. The legendary names — Foyt, Andretti, Rutherford, Johncock, Sachs, Bryan and so-on — all came from those tracks where they were heroes on Saturday night. The fans followed them to the big league.
Starting in or around the mid-1980s, road racers who were largely unknown - Teo Fabi, Guido Dacco, Fulvio Bullabio, Marco Grecco, Dominic Dobson and so-on - started to drive Indy cars and the series lost its connection with its roots.
2. Indy car racing, like Formula One, was always seen as a cut above the stock cars.
In the 1980s, NASCAR went uptown. It moved its season-ending awards banquet from Charlotte, N.C., to New York City. The headquarters was the ultra-snooty Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. They made the drivers and crew chiefs dress up in tuxedos; before they were allowed into the banquet hall, NASCAR had someone at the door checking to make sure everybody had clean fingernails.
I’m not making that up.
NASCAR took its cars and its drivers to Park Avenue and the advertising executives over on Madison Avenue took notice. It was pure genius.
3. Finally, in 1990, a midget and sprint car oval track champion named Jeff Gordon expected to move up to Indy cars. Rebuffed, he “went south” and started to race stock cars. He took his fans with him.
Since then, dozens of other “open-wheel” drivers like Gordon, including Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kenny Schraeder, Ryan Newman and others have gone on to race in NASCAR instead of Indy cars and their fans have gone with them, too.
The people who own the IndyCar series recently commissioned studies on how to “grow” their series. I’ll tell them how — and it won’t cost them a cent.
1. Start hiring drivers who have a following. Why is Tristan Vautier in an Indy car and Kyle Larson not. Explain that to me.
2. in company with (1), above, start trying to reconnect with Indy car racing’s roots. When was the last time a driver went to a small speedway on a Saturday night to shake hands, pose for pictures and sign autographs? That’s right — nobody can remember. That might be a big part of the problem. So start doing that.
3. Finally, forget flying the starting field for the Indy 500 into New York for a few hours in May so they can pose for a photo in Times Square. Book that banquet hall at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in November (it's available; NASCAR's gone to Vegas now) and have a season-ending week of appearances on TV shows and parties culminating with a banquet to end all banquets.
Have the champion drop the puck to start a Rangers game, be introduced at a Nets game and toss the coin when either the Giants or Jets play.
Hey — maybe Madison Avenue will take notice.
NOTES: The second race of the young Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series will take place at St. Pete’s at the weekend. Leading the standings is 18-year-old Scott Hargrove of Vancouver, B.C. Garret Grist, 18, of Grimsby had a second-place finish in the first two races and Jesse Lazare, who’s only 15, had a fourth in the second race. . . .
Once upon a time, you couldn’t get a seat for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. As was shown at Bristol last weekend, those days are gone. So tracks are offering incentives. If you buy a seat for the November race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, for example, and refer someone who also buys a ticket, you can qualify to receive goodies. For more information, go to homesteadmiamispeedway.com/referafan . . .
With the Sprint Cup on the West Coast for a race at California Speedway on Sunday, Tony Stewart has decided to run with the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series at the Stockton (Calif.) Dirt Track on Friday night. Would Ryan Hunter-Reay or Marco Andretti do something like that? Nope — but it would sure help the IndyCar series, don't you think? . . . .
Ontario Sprint car racer Ryan Litt of London will start his 2013 season with the U.S.-based Must See Racing Sprint Car Series at Pensacola, Fla., and Mobile, Ala. this coming weekend. Litt’s determined to win the traditional Little 500 sprint car race at Anderson Speedway, just north of Indianapolis, the night before the Big 500 at the IMSpeedway. He’s come close before but thinks this could be his year. . . .
Pfaff Automotive Partners has named Chris Green as lead driver for the Pfaff Castrol Motorsports team in this year’s Porsche GT3 Challenge Cup Canada. Green entered four Gold Cup-class races in 2012 and won all four, so Pfaff has signed a good shoe. . . .