Note to USA Today: Luster may be overrated
The headline in Friday’s USA Today said, “Indy 500 hoping it can recapture lost luster.”
Anyone who has been to an Indianapolis 500 in the past several years – and I’m willing to bet that does not include whoever wrote that headline – is likely to agree that the race is probably as lustrous as it’s going to get.
No active Formula One racer is going to blow off the Monaco Grand Prix to spend a week or two in Indianapolis trying to participate in that race. Other than that, I’m not sure how you could “recapture lost luster” for the 500.
The accompanying story suggests that the presence of 1995 winner Jacques Villeneuve, now 43, and the returning Juan Pablo Montoya might bolster the race’s international profile, being a pair of drivers with “worldwide cachet and renown,” but in the end, both were also-rans.
Bottom line: I challenge anyone to attend the race in person to tell me that the Indianapolis 500 doesn’t matter. Certainly it is a global event of whatever scale you want to attribute to it, but like winner Ryan Hunter-Reay suggested in the winner’s circle, this is an American deal. An Indiana deal. An Indianapolis deal. And having attended plenty of the world’s most prestigious events, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which is the only one that can rival Indy in sheer pageantry and circumstance – nothing comes close to Indy.
These are truly hallowed grounds. The track has been the site of sheer celebration and profound tragedy, and every emotion in between. And if you get the opportunity to kneel and touch the yard of bricks at the start-finish line, you get the sense that they have logged and catalogued all of it.
Sure, a headline like “Indy 500 hoping it can recapture lost luster” would have been appropriate in 1996, and for at least a few years after. Having covered that May 26, 1996 race, it was inescapable that the Indy Racing League was a fledgling, near desperate series.
On May 17, polesitter Scott Brayton was killed. The next day, Dan Drinan nearly was. The starting grid had drivers like Racin Gardner and Brad Murphey and Paul Durant who probably wouldn’t be there if so many regulars like Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. weren’t off at Michigan running in the CART-sanctioned, similarly grim U.S. 500 the same day. Buddy Lazier won Indy, and while nobody begrudged him the victory, there had to be an asterisk next to his name in many fans’ mental record books.
For the next few years the Indy Racing League and the 500 was a genuine mixed bag – it was hard to point to the utter professionalism of the field when Dr. Jack Miller, The Racing Dentist, was present – in part due to his ability to get toothpaste sponsorship.
Gradually, some “luster” returned, but the race-day event itself never wavered from being a slick, carefully produced spectacle – maybe Al Unser, Jr., wasn’t in the lineup, but Jim Nabors and Florence Henderson stuck around.
Yes, there were some empty seats at the Indianapolis 500, just like there were NASCAR Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600, and I’m pretty sure I saw a few flashes of naked aluminum at the Monaco GP.
But if USA Today – or anybody – thinks we’ll ever see the luster at the Indianapolis 500 like we did in the 1960s, when giants like Dan Gurney, Jim Clark, Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt walked the earth – well, it won’t happen. But this year, I don’t think there was a single driver in the starting 33 that didn’t belong.
After the race yesterday, I’m fine with what the Indianapolis 500 is. It may not be what it once was, but it’s still better than anything else.