200 mph is the easy part
As a kid, strong and shining institutions seem immutable: they arise from a misty golden past and will continue even stronger into the future. To see them decline instead of increase is something of a shock and (to me at least) a rallying cry to take up their cause.
I have always loved the instruments of accelerating human movement: automobiles, airplanes, and ships. In the ’90s, IndyCar racing was enjoying a wave of popularity in America: it was our homegrown open-wheel racing series. Not so anymore. On YouTube, which usually squelches unauthorized uploads of sports broadcasts with a silicon fist, videos of full races generously posted by the IndyCar authorities barely manage to scratch together a couple thousand views.
But I’ve a soft spot for lost causes and have been following every race of IndyCar this season. And the drama is truly exciting. During the first couple of races, the series and drivers were still recovering from the death of Dan Wheldon, the winner of the 2011 Indy 500, on the track last year. The cars were redesigned to improve safety (but also reduced speed and style).
IndyCar has also taken cues from the vastly more popular (in Europe, that is) Formula 1 series. They have resolved a long-standing dispute in the series by combining two competing organizations into one. They have been racing on street courses — not just the traditional ovals — for the past several years. In 2012, IndyCar introduced technological diversity to the cars by allowing teams to choose engine and chassis manufacturers. Currently, Chevy and Lotus have jumped into the game in addition to the incumbent Honda (although it’s both comical and sad to see Lotus cars break down so early in each race — their engines need more development).
The drivers are also fun to watch. James Hinchcliffe doesn’t shy from pulling practical jokes on camera before races. Dario Franchitti, a Scotsman, is my favorite. He won the Indy 500 this year but has struggled in almost every other race. Will Power and Scott Dixon are the steady and successful ones, rarely making mistakes. Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato race by the seat of their pants but often find their cars diving headlong into the wall. Tony Kanaan, a veteran, has recruited his friend Rubens Barrichello, a Formula 1 veteran, to race in IndyCar this year. Barrichello hasn’t competed on ovals for a long time and is forced to relearn this skill.
The sport is top-notch, but the ratings are low. And the competitors need money from sponsors to upkeep their race cars. But IndyCar isn’t the only historic racing competition struggling to attract a younger generation of fans. Red Bull Air Race, a throwback to the days of early aviation, has been hard pressed to stage a competition for the last couple of years. America’s Cup, the world’s oldest sailing race, has also been trying to revamp its image by switching to edgier catamarans and hiring Stan Honey (the guy who brought you the highlighted line of scrimmage on your TV when watching football) to concoct a mixture of moving graphics that makes America’s Cup races clearer for TV audiences.
Racing sports are hamstrung by cultural prejudices. Sailing is too aristocratic; auto racing is low-brow; air racing is much too quaint. This is silly. Americans helped populate the world with all kinds of speedy vehicles, but we have been overlooking the institutions that celebrate this achievement. Try watching and enjoy!