Today is the scheduled running of the 91st Indianapolis 500, but rain threatens to postpone or significantly delay the classic event. I emphasize the word classic, because the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is no longer that. Declining fan interest, dwindling attendance, reduced TV ratings, empty hotel rooms in Indy: all add up to the stark reality. The Indy 500 is not only no longer America’s favorite auto race, it’s not even the most popular on Memorial Day (having long since been supplanted by NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600).
For me, it’s a sad truth. I grew up in Ohio and was an open-wheel nut. I loved listening to the Indy 500 on my transistor radio or car radio as a kid and young adult, and then eagerly looked forward to ABC’s Sunday night tape delay broadcast to see the highlights. I created my own outdoor Indy track to race my Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, and in the winter had a cardboard track to run them in the off-season. As a young adult, I almost religiously played Avalon Hill’s USAC Indy 500 board game, and created my own driver cards each year for drivers that ran in the series but missed Indy. When AH discontinued making the driver cards, I made my own for years, as well as tracks for other races in the series.
Names like Foyt, Andretti, Sneva, Rutherford, Johncock, Unser, Rahal, Sullivan, Danny Ongais (The Flyin’ Hawaiian), Mears, etc. were among my favorites. Al Unser Sr. was and is my favorite driver of any race series; Little Al became my son’s favorite driver. Ohio boasted two Indy car races every year – Mid-Ohio tracetrack in Lexington and my favorite, the temporary course in Cleveland at Burke Lakefront Airport, not far from my home. Walking around and seeing Mario Andretti, Big Al, and other drivers and owners close-up was an absolute blast!
The past few years, it’s been hard to really catch on to names like De Ferran, Castroneves, Hornish, Rice, Lazier, Cheever, Wheldon, etc. Most, despite being Indy 500 winners, don’t have the name recognition as most of the mid-pack runners in NASCAR. Some of the backmarkers in NASCAR are more widely known due to TV endorsements (can anyone say Michael Waltrip?).
Lack of effective marketing, the retirement or lack of performance from the household names of the 70s and 80s, the split with CART, etc. have all been blamed for the decline of Indy-style racing. As I get older, the more I appreciate my childhood and youth. The Indy 500 has become a fond memory for me, one that I will cherish and treasure. However, while I will watch today’s (or tomorrow’s) race with my son Tom, it won’t be with any passion. Oh, perhaps Michael Andretti will do OK, and perhaps Little Al won’t crash like he has so often recently, but the magic that made the Indianapolis 500 special for me is long gone.
Adieu, my old friend!