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Indy 500 is now a local race, more than ever, and that’s presenting a problem when it comes to growth

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

It seems that year-in and year-out, it’s the same old story: everybody associated with IndyCar gets to Indianapolis for the 500 and the world is suddenly their oyster. IndyCar racing becomes more popular by the second.

Even my hero, Roger Penske, got into the act this year. During what used to be a Penske Racing media dinner but is now a Pennzoil-sponsored media lunch, Penske himself made mention of the series getting “a lot more attention” and more sponsors getting involved.

And you find yourself, despite your cynicism, getting caught up in the excitement. “Damn, yes!” you think to yourself. “IndyCar is on the move; the sky is the limit.”

Then comes race day and you notice the empty seats. Not many, because they’ve taken out a couple of grandstands in recent years, but they are still there. Try as they might, they can’t sell out the place any longer (other than the 100th anniversary one two years ago, which was jam-packed).

And then on Monday, the overnight TV ratings came out and they were a 3.4, which is pretty good but not really when you remember that just a few years ago they were 8 and 9.

So what is happening? Why are people not interested – or as interested as they once were – in what still can legitimately be called the Greatest Spectacle in Racing? There are many reasons, but I think one in particular is important.

Once upon a time, the 500 was a national/international race. Now it’s a local race.  Yes, it was always a local race but there was a lot more national and international attention paid to it in years gone by.

Indy car drivers, back in the day, lived in California, or Washington, or Arizona, or Pennsylvania, or Ontario or British Columbia. They would go to Indianapolis at 500 time and they lived in boarding houses or motels. Because they were from all over, their local media would write or broadcast stories about them racing at Indy and wouldn’t it be swell if Ronnie or Mario or Billy won the big Indy 500? People from back home would often travel to Indianapolis to cheer on their favourite son.

After the big race, the drivers would be off racing midgets or sprint cars at tracks all over the country. The local promoters would call them “Indy 500 drivers.” Then, in winter, they would return home to Los Angeles, or Phoenix, or Tacoma or wherever, where they would be recognized and admired.

These days, the drivers might be identified as being from this city or that country but the truth is, they all live in houses or condominiums in or around Indianapolis. Their local media may or not be interested in writing or broadcasting about them because their connection to their local community might be tenuous, at best.

The Montreal Gazette, for instance, published a story late last week about Quebecker Zachary Claman De Melo, who was making his first 500 start, but it wasn’t done by a Gazette reporter, it came from Canadian Press (which conducted the interview by phone from Toronto). Robbie Wickens comes from Guelph, where there is no longer a daily paper. Ditto James Hinchcliffe and Oakville.

(A quick interruption: I know I keep talking about newspapers here. And we all know what’s happening to them. But if anybody wants to find out about something quickly, and to know that the information is usually true and mostly accurate, the best place to look is still the paper itself or its website. Social media, despite all its benefits, is still unreliable when it comes to truth and accuracy.)

Unfortunately, the drivers are no longer out there, barnstorming around the country, carrying the message of IndyCar to the masses. It’s not that they can’t, it’s because they won’t. They prefer to hang around home – Indianapolis, remember? – and go to the gym. The NASCAR guys all used to be out and about, too, but fewer and fewer of them do that anymore either.

(A real throwback to the way it once was continues to be Kenny Schroeder, who was an open-wheel driver before going to NASCAR and is still racing seven days or nights a week. In fact, he will be at Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve out near Brantford tomorrow night, racing and signing autographs.)

And because television and streaming is so sophisticated these days, spectators don’t feel the pull they once did to get into their cars and travel to a big event like the Indy 500. Plus, the price of gasoline is high, the hotels and motels are in full ripoff mode once again and just try to get a table at a decent downtown Indianapolis restaurant during the three or four days around the race.

So, add up all of the above and you have big local interest in the Indianapolis 500 and waning national and international interest. There are other reasons, of course, but I suggest this one is major.

P.S. I like to  drive to Indy from Toronto. I can do it in 9-10 hours (with stops). In the past, when I would head out after the 500, I would write my stories and leave at about 7 p.m. and still run into traffic. Frequently, heading out on 70 East or 69 North, I would be in traffic for up to 100 miles before it would thin out.

That was then; this is now.

Last Sunday, I worked till about 7 p.m. I got into my car and I was downtown and in my hotel room in 30 minutes.  No traffic; no nothing.

It was almost spooky.

Okay, Wickens won $50,000 – that’s U.S. – for being named Rookie-of-the-Year in the 500 after he notched his ninth-place finish.  He joins racing luminaries like Jim Hurtubise, Parnelli Jones, Jim Clark, Mario Andretti,  Jackie Stewart and many others in being handed this prestigious award.

Ninth place is not a bad finish but not where Wickens wants to be. He’s looking for his first victory in the series and that could come this weekend in Detroit. Of course, being a good teammate, Wickens suggested at Indy that Hinchcliffe would be hard to beat in Detroit, he’d have so much to prove after missing out on qualifying for the 500.

We’ll see.

Roger Penske gave in interview to the Detroit News in which he talked about everything he – and others – have done for Detroit and what his racing organization has done for Belle Ilse State Park,which is in the Detroit River and the scene of the two Indy car races there this weekend. There is opposition to the race being allowed to continue there and the contract is up so the jockeying begins.

Here is the lowdown. Belle Isle State Park used to be a not very nice place. In fact, it was dangerous to go out there. Much like downtown Detroit after dark. But Penske, the late Mike Illitch and Dan Gilbert rolled up their sleeves and collectively, with the Ford Motor Co. and others, used their leadership qualities and a lot of their own money to bring the place back.

Penske, in addition to all sorts of other initiatives (twisting arms to get ambulances and police cruisers donated to the city, spearheading  the drive for downtown public transit, and so-on), spruced up Belle Isle so it would be presentable for an IndyCar race but then be available to the general public for about 48 other weeks of the year.

As a result, people are starting to live in downtown Detroit again and doing things that downtown people like to do, such as bike-riding and walking/hiking. A favourite place, it seems, is Belle Isle State Park and it’s those folks who don’t want car racing to continue out there.

I would suggest Penske and his team will be able to renew their contract to run a car race on the island. But its time is probably limited because as more and more people move downtown, the more vocal in their opposition they will become.

I never have a problem with people sticking up for their rights, but it would be nice if – at the same time – there was an appreciation of the time, effort and money put forth by people like Roger Penske to improve the infrastructure and environment.  I mean, if not for him, Gilbert and Illitch, those folks wouldn’t have a nice downtown and a nice park  where they could live and ride their bikes.

I mean, they didn’t do it.

The two Detroit races on Saturday and Sunday will be available on TV at 3:30 p.m. Go to your ABC station or Sportsnet 1 and/or Sportsnet 360 to watch and enjoy. Allen Bestwick will anchor the last two races ABC will televise before handing off to NBC. Canadian racing legend Scott Goodyear and ex-F1 and CART/IndyCar racer Eddie Cheever will handle the colour and the analysis.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will be on TSN Sunday at 2 p.m. for the Pocono 400.

Before wrapping up, there are rumours that Zach Brown and others from McLaren will be in Detroit this weekend to discuss the legendary F1 team getting involved once again in IndyCar racing. I think it’s very possible it will happen but I also don’t think Fernando Alonso will be a part of the package.

Yes, I can see him driving at Indianapolis. Maybe even at Long Beach. Toronto, even. I cannot see two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso racing on a less-than-one-mile-long oval in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.

Can’t see it. Won’t see it.

nmcdonald@thestar.ca