Is The Indianapolis 500 Still Relevant?

So many times lately, I have read different comments here and on other sites that the Indianapolis 500 is no longer relevant in today’s sports world. Outwardly, I’ll selfishly bristle at such a comment – but deep down, I’ll always wonder to myself if it is true.

Of course, in order to discuss such a topic, you must first define what relevance is. Already, we are in murky waters. What is completely relevant to me, is more than likely totally irrelevant to the next person. On the other hand – something that is so important to that same person may be an afterthought in my mind.

It’s partially a generational thing, but not completely. On this site, I’ve read many comments from readers in their twenties that hold fast to the same ideals and principles of the Indianapolis 500; while there are those in their forties, fifties and even sixties that could care less about the things I consider to be significant. It’s those varying opinions that keep these discussions so interesting. Talk radio would be pretty bland if we all said and thought the same thing.

Tony Johns of Pop Off Valve made an accurate comparison between the Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby. Millions of non-fans of horse racing (myself included) tune in and watch the Kentucky Derby every May. I’ve never attended a horse race in my life and it may stay that way forever. I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a horse race that wasn’t The Derby, The Preakness or The Belmont Stakes (although I own a copy of Seabiscuit, if that counts for anything). The point is…I am like most Americans. I’ll watch the top event of a sport – especially if it is laden with tradition like the Derby, the Indianapolis 500 or Wimbledon – even if I don’t follow the sport for the remainder of the year.

In 1992, I had just returned from the Indy 500 when my (then) wife dragged me to a stuffy, yuppie cocktail affair. There, one of the dullness crowd wandered up as I was waxing on about where I had just been. You know the type – they will drop the name of a top participant in any sport, just to try and fit in. Well, after hearing me talk about Al Unser, Jr. holding on against Scott Goodyear – the suit with a drink asked me if those cars and drivers ever raced anywhere besides Indianapolis. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, I went on to explain the CART season as the bore nodded politely as my words quickly passed into one ear and out the other.

Without knowing it, the yuppie had revealed a problem even back then, when CART was supposedly even with NASCAR in TV ratings. Fans tuned into the Indianapolis 500 without knowing what they were watching. Back then; ABC/ESPN gave CART better treatment than what they give to the IZOD IndyCar Series. That 1992 race was chocked full of ads for the Detroit Grand Prix, which was the next race on the schedule. Obviously, everyone didn’t receive the message that there was an entire season with these cars.

So if most people are only tuning once a year, what do they see? On the surface, it isn’t much. The appearance of Brent Musburger gives the telecast instant credibility in the eyes of the casual viewer, as we hardcore fans wince at his mispronunciations and his frothing over anything that is Danica Patrick. Somewhere in the telecast is a “B-List” rock band serving a purpose I haven’t figured out yet. They see a couple of perceived has-beens, in Florence Henderson and Jim Nabors, singing before the race. They don’t understand that Jim Nabors is an icon in our eyes. Lately, they’ve been treated to a sloppy and ragged start, although they’ve been told throughout the telecast about the rows of three.

If they’re lucky, they’ll get a good race. Forgive me for sounding blasphemous, but I don’t think Indy has had a good race since 2006. Then strangely enough, the winner will drink milk – although lately, the winner has seemed more content with dousing the crowd instead actually drinking it.

At face value, is this a great way to spend over four hours in front of a television? Of course, my answer would be “Is there a better way to spend four hours?” But most of the American viewing public does not get into the Indianapolis 500 the way you and I do.

Years ago, this was an awe-inspiring event. I grew up in the days before cable TV, when there were few choices to watch. The first race I attended, in 1965, was also the first race to be shown as a feature on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Even then, it was shown days later as an edited version in black & white. Prior to that, the American public was given only glimpses of the world’s largest single day sporting event – generally seeing only the crashes that had taken place.

The crashes in those days had far worse consequences than they do now. The tubular frame roadsters usually came out far better than the driver. It was not unusual for a driver to drive a car that another driver had lost his life in, the year before.

As much as I hate to admit it – this may have been part of the allure of the general public. These were brave men in a no non-sense profession. Of the thirty-three men who made up the starting grid of AJ Foyt’s rookie year in 1958, thirteen would eventually lose their life in a racecar – one, Pat O’Connor, on that afternoon. These men were idolized as they literally flirted with death every time they strapped themselves into a car.

The speeds today are much faster than they were in the fifties and sixties, but with the much needed safety designs that have been put into the cars of today – we have become rather blasé to even the most spectacular looking crashes, as the drivers almost always pop out unscathed and still thanking their list of sponsors. Only every now and then are we reminded by the fates of Tony Renna, Greg Moore, Jeff Krosnoff, Scott Brayton and Jovy Marcello over the past twenty years – that this is still a very dangerous sport.

Not to be macabre, but is death what made this sport glamorous? It can be argued that NASCAR’s popularity surged only after a string of fatalities from 1999 to the death of their biggest star in 2001. Fatalities in open-wheel racing were commonplace from its beginnings. I am not suggesting that fans want to see fatalities. What I am suggesting is that seeing drivers push themselves and their cars to the edge and beyond – despite the potential for disaster, is what originally drew fans to this sport. When a bruised ego or an owner’s budget is all that is at stake – it doesn’t make for compelling drama.

Yes, I know that when things go wrong – they can still go really wrong. But the same applies for commercial air travel, yet no one buys tickets to watch someone fly Delta. Robin Miller is fond of saying that the drivers of yesteryear were true gladiators. That’s true, but I don’t want to take away from today’s drivers. It still takes a lot of skill and courage to get into these machines and excel. But society no longer seems impressed with that.

The lack of innovation is also mentioned – here and other sites. While I am a huge proponent of innovation, will that make the Indy 500 more relevant in today’s market? In the sixties, innovation meant speed – plain and simple. Today, innovation means green technology. It’s not important to be fast, it’s just important to be efficient. While the merits of saving the planet may be an admirable thing, I’m just not sure it’s a selling point for the Indianapolis 500.

So after many paragraphs, we’re back where we started. Is the Indianapolis 500 still relevant today? The answer is still murky. It isn’t near as much as it used to be, but what is? Not a whole lot. But to those of us who grew up watching this event and have grown to love the sport – the answer is yes, it is still extremely relevant. The real question is…what happens when we’re gone?

George Phillips

23 Responses to “Is The Indianapolis 500 Still Relevant?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    George, I believe that back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s (and prior) that it was indeed the steely eyed men with internationaly known household names, that climbed into these four wheel rockets that helped create and perpetuated the tradition of speed and hanging it out over the edge.
    The majority of those drivers began their carreers on dirt and short tracks in smalltown USA. Their names, Andretti, Foyt, Unser, et-al and the legends they became in the region of their small towns lent itself to the culmination, the pinnacle that was Indy in those days.
    It is also true that the mortality rate was incredibly high in those days, to the point where many drivers in a macabe ritual, exchanged Christmas cards during the summer, as they knew many of them would likely no longer be around by Christmas.
    I do not think that the average fan then revered the race so much because of the almost certainty of a crash, but I do believe there was great admiration for the men and teams that were there pushing the equipment and themselves to the edge. (much like many of us may have admired the courage of an aircraft test pilot) Lets also remember that years back, teams usually only had one car and one engine. The engines back then were designed to stay together for about 501 miles, plus whatever minimal time was needed for warm up laps, qualifying and carb day, there was not a whole lot of endless running of laps and rolling out an endless string of alternate cars as they were smacked into the wall as there is today….
    Anyway, when you throw the names of legend up there, then you throw the names of today up there, regardless of where they are from, who really knows where any of these men and woman came from, what they drove or where they drove???? Today many drivers seem to appear out of nowhere, yes I know about our ladder series etc., but years ago most of the drivers were turning wrenches in a local garage, they were mechanics apprentices in their teens, then drove for the guy they worked for et-al. Since much of the technology for where we are at now, was developed in the mid to late 60;s through the 90’s, by the guys who drove the cars in many cases, many drivers now know little if anything about how an internal combustion engine works, never mind how to differentiate between mechanical and aero instability. The whole spec series has become so technologically evolved that it now takes a team of dozens/hundreds and a bankroll of millions to run a team.
    So, we are left with a bunch of drivers that no one ever heard of, and a spec. series that the average person little understands most especially from a technological complexity standpoint. Most of us have followed this sport wide eyed since we were children. But for those that are much newer to open wheel in America, they have little as far as legend, tradition, or viseral feeling to hang their hat on.
    It’s a small wonder that NAPCAR attracts many more fans. Lets face it, not only has the driver dance card changed at the 500, so has the average fans sophistication.

  2. Risk is a huge part of what made the sport glamorous. Foyt and Andretti were their day’s version of gladiators, lion tamers and bull fighters. At the same time the Apollo astronauts were celebrated with equal enthusiasm.

    Now that a race contains less perceived risk than a drive around 465, it should not be a shock that police chases are better at holding an audience than an Indycar race.

    To thrive this series needs to appeal to the average joe who doesn’t care about the minutia of racing.

  3. Jack in NC Says:

    The bigger question is, is ANY sport really relevant? Does one particular team winning the NCAA Final Four, or the Superbowl, or the World Series really change my life? Hardly. I would argue that auto racing used to be more relevant than any other sport due to the innovations that eventually found their way into everyday automobiles. When I learned to drive in the 1960’s the typical family car had drum brakes, leaf springs with a solid rear axle, a carburetor, and no seatbelts. Indy cars in those days had fuel injection, independent suspension, disc brakes, seatbelts and shoulder harnesses – all commonplace today. I would further argue that as Green technology becomes more important, such automotive innovations as carbon fiber technology will find its way into mainstream cars, so perhaps Indy is really still relevant. Whatever, it’s enjoyable to watch and that’s about all any sport can really claim.

    • Tim Nothhelfer Says:

      Agree…….The manufactures need a compelling reason to involve themselves in racing. If the development work has applications off the track that helps their products have a competitive edge in the market. This concept is simple and works.

  4. Here’s the easiest way to put this (this occured a few weeks ago with a coworker who KNOWS I’m a racing fan):

    coworker: Hey, what’s the weekend you’re taking off again?
    me: I thought I mentioned, I’m going to the Indy 500 time trials.
    coworker: They still run that? I thought it was just the Brickyard thing now.

  5. It’s still relavant to me and everybody else who grew up with it (I’m a product of the 80’s, BTW), but from an American sporting landscape, it’s not.

    2005 and 2008 have been the only 500’s the last 5 years that has seen an increase in TV rating from the year before and 2008 only drew a 4.6, which is 8% off of what the 2006 race drew.

    Granted, maybe ABC’s coverage has a lot to do with it (see the Kentucky Derby’s switch from ABC to NBC, see the NBA Finals on ABC vs NBC in the post-Jordan era), but until the 500 is on another network we’ll never know for sure.

  6. Unfortunately, I don’t think the regular IIRS schedule is at all relevant to the average sports fan. But I’m not sure it’s ever been that relevant historically. And now I think it ranks right up there with events like monster trucks and collegiate bowling.

    do think the 500 still has some importance to the average fan. I think it’s similar to the Derby–except the Derby has some built-in interest due to gambling and the fact that the actual race only takes three minutes out of your day rather than four hours.

    I think the wrecking topic is interesting. There hasn’t been much in the way of wrecks this year (which is awesome) but if you want to make the local news or espn I guess you have to have a wreck. The highlight reel for the Nascar races will cut from wreck to wreck–just like homeruns in baseball or dunks in basketball. The espn highlight reel for the IIRS always shows…oh yeah…nothing.

  7. Yeah, it’s still relevant, but I’m afraid that’s sliding. I agree, we haven’t had a good race since 2006. If you love Indy for the pomp and pageantry, all is well. That pomp and pageantry is entertaining/exciting for the people who attend the race, but it doesn’t translate well onto TV. I’m afraid that the race has relied too heavily on the pomp and pageantry in the last few years and the race itself has become the motorsports version of a 55-10 Super Bowl. IndyCar needs to focus on restoring quality to the actual race, or ratings and relevance will continue to slide.

    • It is easy to say the problem is competition and the closeness of the racing, but when indy came into it’s own and when it was at its zenith, we had drivers winning with no one on the lead lap, or 20, 30 seconds behind at best.
      I don’t think its one big thing, I think it has been the summation of a lot of litlle things, that are subject to the cultural winds that blows through our country. For the last 20 years all that was “good and right” with this country began south of the mason dixon line and nascar rode that wave past open wheel racing that seemed divisive, fractured and corrupt at the time. Perhaps one day it will be ok to be from the midwest, to have parents that had blue collar jobs that allowed you to do more with your life. That competitive impuleses towards foreigners takes the tone of competive rivalry, not exclusion.
      For now it is up to us to keep the dream and legend alive and for the league, teams and drivers to manage the details with acumen, consensus and integrity. Winds will change, they always do these things are cyclical and America will fall in love with its first motor driven obsession once again.

  8. Here in Uruguay and Argentina, ESPN is broadcasting every race this season, but don’t get one single second in SportsCenter. Every other channel ignores it. Last year’s Indy 500 had a whole page in El Observador, a major daily newspaper in Montevideo, but others would just write a 20-word piece in a corner of the “other sports” section.

  9. […] this morning, only to find the water cold & sobering. Why? Because George Phillips asks Is the Indy 500 Still Relevant? To which I reply, with an exaggerated double hand toss for added effect: BAH!! Who […]

  10. The 2009 Indianapolis 500 was the least watched 500 since they started to air it live in 1986. The 3.9 T.V. rating equated to the lowest overnight household viewership in 500 hundred history, if there is some relevance in that the race still draws the largest single day audience, but that doesn’t mean the on track product is relevant. Most of my friends used to watch Indycar races at my house in the 80’s and 90’s then they all lost interest shortly after the split, I think back then people came for the superstars and the sexiness (and it was sexy back then) and stayed for the racing. They need to find a way to make Indycar racing sexy again, give people a reason to watch, the author talked about the 1992 CART season, total viewers for that season world wide was 600+ million viewers worldwide, those kind of numbers will cure all of Indycar’s problems, the question is, how?

  11. Awesome post George!

  12. I try to do my part to bridge the generation gap by taking my daughters to the track at least once a year. I also plan to take them to the Museum soon. In order to bring back the “relevance” of the 500, you need to start pushing 3 numbers 2-4-0…as in 240 mph. Every time they start creeping back up in speed they start tinkering to bring them back down. If it is driver safety they are worried about, then why have racing anyway. Indy has led the way in driver safety, they have done their job…now let the drivers do theirs. They want to go fast. It is time to get them going again. Randy Bernard wants to promote it as the fastest race cars in the world, then let’s get it done. Can you imagine the buzz created when cars start approaching Arie Luyendyk’s record??

  13. Travis R Says:

    I think one way of measuring the relevancy is to look at the mainstream media the day after: pick up a newspaper (other than the Indy Star) on the day after and see if a picture of the winner is at least on the front page. Are CNN, Fox, and the other news channels covering it on their morning news programs? Is it on the front page of the mainstream websites? I think that would at least indicate how it ranks amongst all the typical news of murders, disasters, and politics.

    One thing I’ve always wondered about the TV ratings is also related to when the race is run. Being held on the Sunday in the middle of the weekend that officially kicks off summer seems like it would have a negative impact on viewership. A lot of people go camping or do other things that keep them out of the reach of a TV. What if the Indy 500 were moved to Memorial Day, or to Saturday, or maybe even a week earlier or later? I imagine having it on the long weekend helps ticket sales, but at the cost of TV ratings. Which is most important in this day and age?

  14. billytheskink Says:

    “Danger has always been a passenger. Like the track and the speed, it is a constant. Ever present, it too is a part of the lure. Without that risk, the men are just ordinary.”
    – Paul Page – Indy 500 Intro, 1991

    A poetic way of saying that the possibility for something to go horribly wrong at Indy helped make it such a compelling race to watch.
    I don’t know if that’s still true or not, and I don’t think I want to find out. The drivers probably don’t either.

  15. I disagree that danger has much to do with it. I don’t see that.

    On the other hand, the on track action is an issue. Yeah, in the past drivers won by 1+laps, but there was always a good chance you’d pull out by a lot, only to crash/mechanical failure and not win. Now, with spec Dallara/Honda’s, if you’ve got a 5 second lead with 20 laps left, you’ve got it in the bag.

    I think Indy’s still pretty relevant to racing and sports fans.

  16. […] crap, along other things including the usually great George Oilpressure’s questioning of the modern relevance of the Indianapolis 500, has me laughing.  Y’all won’t be my buzzkill. I can’t make it past […]

  17. George, reading today’s column was a good way to reflect on what the Indianapolis 500 means today in terms of relevence. The race is always compared with the Kentucky Derby as a one off event. In my opinion, it has always been easy for the Derby to draw a larger audiance because it only lasts for a little over two minutes. How easy is that to watch for someone who doesn’t follow horse racing and doesn’t have a clue about any of the horse’s ability or previous results and that they are 3 year olds. The Indianapolis 500 is a completley different animal and it can make for a long day (fine with me!). Both, however, share in the traditions and pageantry and there is a draw, of sorts, to that. In the end, yes, the Indianapolis 500 is relevent and without it there isn’t any point to American open wheel racing. Of course, that is just my opinion.

  18. Jim Bob Says:

    Relevent? Yes. Important? Not as much as it should be.

    The years of 2003-2006 really hurt the perception of the event. When you could barely find enough cars to even enter the event, it looks bad.

    Sponsors aren’t coming back. Good drivers are still shut out. Young Americans (for the 2nd straight year, it appears there will be ZERO American rookie drivers at Indy) are endangered species.

    Leadership keeps changing. “Visions” keep changing. These people can’t even agree what the damn series should be called; let alone what the future cars/engines will be or why it still costs so damn much for a unpopular series/sport.

    Instability and uncertainity of the sport, has also helped bring down the Indy 500…..which is what Tony George was so afraid of initially in the early 1990’s.

    Will it ever come back? With the current leadership and people involved, I doubt it. Still too many dunces and self-served asshats, to ever have a popular, marketable American racing event again. These same “genius’s” who think dumping on fans of the original IRL, continuing to hire fewer American drivers and instituting the delta wing/penis car as the future look of your sport, are the ones you think are going to reinvigorate the Indy 500? Fat chance.

    The ultimate nightmare is the Indy 500 does bounce back and does become relevent again….as a NASCAR sanctioned stock car event, at a facility now owned by ISC. Don’t think this isn’t possible down the road.

    • Is it really that much fun being the turd in the punchbowl, Jim Bob?

      All of that stuff that you talked about up there…it’s all being worked on. Like, as we speak. You know how people talk about a president’s “first 100 days in office”? Well, Randy’s still got 26 days left of his first 100 days. The guy hasn’t even had a chance to see cars turn a wheel at the Speedway yet. Maybe we oughta give the guy a chance to see what the Month of May and Race Day are like before we start making decrees about what the guy’s all about and what he wants to see happen to the series?

      How about you relax for two days before your next “anti-Present Day IndyCar” missive? I’m not saying that you can’t go ahead and start working on your 18th ulcer, just give us all a break for a couple of days.

    • Last I checked it seemed that sponsers WERE coming back or coming for the first time to the series. As for the name, I think we all agree it is the IZOD IndyCar Series.

  19. Relevance is a tough question. Today, almost nothing is relevant to everybody. There is so much out there that caters to everyone’s different tastes that there isn’t one thing that captures people’s imagination. When astronauts went to the moon, it was relevant to everybody. It captures the imagination. The Indy 500 captures the imagination of the public but probably not like it used to. It captures mine because I grew up with it and love it and live and breath it. It used to be that everyone in that race was risking life and limb to be the fastest. Safety ought to be paramount, but speed should be the ultimate goal. I remember as a kid, the only thing I wanted to know about practice was if there was a new track record or if anyone was close. I’d love to see it happen again. The problem seems to me to be that the fans are put in too much danger when cars are too fast. If we can figure out how to keep the fans safe and maximize safety for the drivers, I wish they’d just let them race their faces off. I don’t want to see people die, but I’d sure like the race to capture my imagination once again when we break 250 or 260 or however fast they can go. That is coolness. We need coolness.

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