Yeah, I’ve written about NASCAR and taken some heat here for being a Nextel Cup fan. It didn’t start out that way. My grandfather owned and built “Model B”-engined dirt track cars in the ’30s…
While photos of him with his cars and drivers shifted over the years to other family members, the photos hung proudly in his Esso (Remember Esso? I mean here, not Canada.) station, where I spent my ‘formative’ years helping the mechanics. Mom was a speed freak, as was my brother. Mom might still hold the unofficial Philly-to-Pittsburgh time of 4.5 hours in a ’67 Impala. Pop-pop had ‘connections,’ as the stories go, so we got to see the new Chevrolets that year before they were ‘officially’ announced. All these years later, I can still picture the brand new, gleaming white ’67 Impala SS 427 peering ominously from the back of the dealer’s shop. Man, I wanted her to get that one. Turned out she got a screaming red, 327 4-barrel fastback model, with the mandatory black vinyl top. Pretty car. Quick. But not the 427. Ah, the disappointments of life.
Way before Indy was televised, we hunkered down in the living room for 500 miles of radio-based drama, knowing granddad and grandmom were out there for their yearly Indy 500 pilgrimage. When most kids were limited to baseball cards clothes-pinned to roar in their bicycle spokes (Which I did, too.) and learning state capitals, I could rattle off driver names like Jim Hurtubise, Eddie Sachs, and Tony (Jr.) and Gary Bettenhausen (Sr. was killed during the 1958 500. I was only a baby at the time, but heard the stories growing up). In later years, when the pilgrimage became too much, Pop-pop, bro’ and I—all with our own generation-mismatched friends—would hang out in the garage. This wasn’t just a regular garage. It was a shrine off of a public ‘driveway’—the door was always open after he retired and moved all of his tools and equipment home. We fixed, tinkered, polished, laughed, exchanged stories and, of course, the old guys made it clear that we had no idea of what the hell we were talking about. We believed differently, but we all listened intently to Indy on the radio.
Wow, the names…the good times. I remember Jimmy Clark—”The Flying Scot,” a ‘foreigner’ of Grand Prix (Formula 1) fame—winning the ’65 Indy race not only in a rear-engined car (rocket science at a time when all the other cars were front-engined), but one painted green—still considered by some to be an unlucky color for a race car. Television clips of that win remain clearer in my head than even those of the Kennedy Assassination. My age was in the single digits.
Parnelli Jones. Dan Gurney. Three generations of Unsers and Andrettis. A lifetime of the fickle-finger-of-fate-pointing A.J. Foyt. The ol’ boy still hasn’t calmed down. Watching in awe as Tom Sneva broke the Indy ‘sound barrier’…the 200 mph mark. Danny Sullivan’s spin-’n'-win. Rick Mears’ post-win wisdom, “Drive what you see, not what you know.”
One needn’t know the names or details, just that Indy was more than a race. More than really fast cars going left. It was, truly, “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” It was family, friends, rooting for heroes and booing the villains. It was talent, guts, technology and engineering at their finest.
Through mismanagement, inferior marketing, and losing touch with its fan base—while NASCAR manages, markets, and knows its fans better than any sport on the planet—Indy is dying. This year, it seems that not even Bobby Rahal’s young, beautiful, and supremely talented protégé, Danica Patrick—who is this year’s fifth fastest driver in practice at 225.459 mph—can help resurrect the legend that is Indy.
Times change. Technology moves. People pass along their wisdom, and eventually pass away. Indy, however, just wasn’t supposed to die.