By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. IndyCar, or INDYCAR as it wants to project itself, opened the 2015 Verizon IndyCar season with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with much fanfare, much of it of the self-congratulatory, back-patting variety, I might add. Be that as it may, this was going to be the new deal, an all-new beginning for IndyCar. New aero kits from Chevrolet and Honda would have racing enthusiasts returning to the fold in droves, happy that Indy-style racing was finally retuning to prominence.
Except that none of that happened.
First off, to have the season opener on a ludicrous, truncated street course that does little to showcase the pure speed of these cars is silly. I get the whole "we have to bring the racing to the people" conceit, as that has been used to cajole cities into spending money on races they had no business agreeing to for years. But the St. Petersburg venue leaves much to be desired on so many levels that just to say "well, it's warm, and it works for us as a season opener" isn't an explanation, it's an excuse. And a bad one at that.
And the new carbon-fiber, shrapnel-generating aero kits? Where do I begin? Quite simply they are an abomination - festering, ugly contraptions that bring nothing to the party in terms of sex appeal. Instead, they're generating a collective groan that I'm hearing from racing enthusiasts everywhere of, "Really, they're going with that? That's the best they got?" And the cut tires and other on-track chaos sure to be caused by them have already become the most talked-about feature of the 2015 season, and it has barely even started. I thought the "praying mantis"-style F1 car era marked the lowest of lows in terms of racing car visual appeal. But this, this is just plain abysmal.
But that isn't even the half of it. Mark Miles, IndyCar's CEO, is hell-bent for the series to "own" an abbreviated season, starting out with races in foreign venues (beginning in 2016) culminating in a season closer over Labor Day weekend, so as not to bump against NCAA football and NASCAR's Chase. But the logic is flawed and the plan is going to be costly, and on more than one level too.
First of all, there is absolutely no danger of IndyCar bumping up against NASCAR or college football - let alone the NFL - because IndyCar doesn't even register in the TV ratings game to begin with, unless we're talking about the Indianapolis 500, so it's a moot point. By pretending that IndyCar will do much better without fighting those forces is a level of delusion that borders on the unfathomable. The reality? The IndyCar season is comprised of one marquee event - the Indianapolis 500 - and a bunch of other basically forgettable events that fill out the schedule. It was like that back in the "old" USAC days and it still is today. It's not an easy pill to swallow for people who are immersed in the sport of Indy-style racing, but it's the High-Octane Truth.
Major league open-wheel racing has become the Sideshow Bob to a sport that is already on the ropes in this country. In fact if it weren't for the rote coverage of NASCAR by America's "stick and ball" media - because that's the only racing that they bother to acknowledge - racing would barely even register in the media at all.
Secondly, team owners like Chip Ganassi, who makes his living by racing, understandably can't see the logic of trying to keep employees of his IndyCar program occupied - and paid - for almost six months with nothing to do. The Mark Miles "vision" for the series isn't financially workable. That's not to suggest that IndyCar should mimic NASCAR's death march of a schedule, but to spread the season out makes more financial sense for everyone concerned.
I am absolutely confounded by IndyCar at this juncture. The Indianapolis 500 is still the greatest single motor race in the world, but the series surrounding it is a chaotic mess. I used to think progress - even in barely noticeable baby steps - would start to snowball into something, but that isn't even remotely the case. What we have is this:
- The aero kits were supposed to bring visual differentiation, raising fan interest. Instead they're ungainly and resolutely unattractive, and with their shrapnel-generating appendages, we can look forward to a season of yellow caution periods, punctuated by occasional bursts of actual racing.
- The Great Hope that repackaging the IndyCar "show" to compete for attention in a changed media landscape has so far been a nonstarter, and I see no indication that will change anytime soon, either.
- Add the abbreviated schedule, the lackluster venues, and a national media that couldn't care less and you're left with what is supposedly a premier open-wheel racing series in this country that's spinning its wheels.
I've said this before and I'll probably say it a thousand more times before I stop doing this website, but racing in a vacuum is not sustainable.
What do I mean by that?
Racing for the edification of the players involved is not enough. It's fine for the drivers and the team owners, and for the few sponsors who have talked themselves into believing that they're getting real value from it, but it's meaningless to the Big Picture media-entertainment landscape, and it's especially meaningless to the racing enthusiasts who want and expect more than that.
And all of this is coming from someone who is a huge enthusiast for the sport and who desperately wants the sport to do better. One who wants it to be much more and to be worthy of our attention.
What IndyCar is doing right now isn't sustainable. The powers that be at IndyCar think they're making a difference, that they finally have the bit in their teeth and they're making a go of it. But all they're really doing is managing the downward spiral. And it cannot continue, it pains me to say.
And for the record, the best racing of the weekend wasn't in St. Petersburg or even Martinsville. It was in Qatar, as the 36-year-old all-time great of motorcylce racing - Valentino Rossi - willed his way past Andrea Dovizioso's Ducati to win the season opener of the 2015 MotoGP season.
If only we had a third of the kind of interest, intensity and passion displayed in Qatar at the IndyCar opener.