Is IndyCar Too Indy-Centric?

Recently, there has been a growing feeling among some fans that the Verizon IndyCar Series is too Indy-centric; meaning that the series places way too much importance on the Indianapolis 500. I will say right now that I am not one who thinks this. But there are some people that I have a great deal of respect for that do feel this way, so I think it’s something that is worth discussing.

Those that feel this way think that all of the marketing and promotional efforts are heavily slanted towards the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; while all the other tracks are forgotten about and left to fend for themselves. That’s an obvious over-exaggeration of their stance, but you get the idea.

When the series ran raced here in Nashville from 2001-2008, I never felt that way. I felt that the race was well-promoted. Big-name drivers like Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish were sent here two to three weeks in advance for promotional activities. They made all the in-studio sports-talk radio stops and one year they even recorded a very forgettable country music song at one of the many local recording studios. It was also in Nashville during one of those promotional tours that Ed Carpenter made his infamous comment on a local radio station that Danica Patrick’s on-track temperament was dependent upon what time of the month it was. Ouch!

But that was also almost a decade ago. It was also two regimes ago, when Tony George was in charge and the series was still predominantly ovals. Times and leadership have changed, and so has the vision for IndyCar.

Some say that this current regime considers Indianapolis the racing capitol of the world. After all, there are signs within the IMS grounds proclaiming just that. They feel that they figure the Indianapolis 500 is the main event and that the events at other tracks should consider themselves lucky to be a part of that and to trade off of their good name.

I can see their point, but I don’t necessarily agree with it. I maintain that there would be no sustainable American open-wheel series without the Indianapolis 500. You see how long CART survived without racing at Indianapolis, and they had practically all of the big names.

This series is not called MilwaukeeCar , IowaCar or PoconoCar for a reason. The general public does not identify open-wheel racing with those tracks, even though they have all provided excellent races within the series over the years. Some could argue that Milwaukee has a longer history with these kinds of cars because the track is six years older than IMS. But as good as Milwaukee was for this type of racing over the years, it never came close to the stature or prestige as the Indianapolis 500.

Until the recent NASCAR boom, open-wheel racing was what popped into most people’s mind when anyone mentioned racing or race cars. More specifically, it was the Indianapolis 500 that came to mind. Many songs were written mentioning the Indy 500 when the composer wanted to convey speed or a racing theme. All those bad racing movies in the thirties, forties and fifties were centered around the Indianapolis 500 – not Riverside, Trenton or Langhorne.

The series is called IndyCar because it features the cars that run in the Indianapolis 500. That is the lure that draws people in. When CART re-branded itself as Champ Car, to set itself apart from IndyCar – they completely lost their identity. Even though their cars met the specs to run in the 1995 Indianapolis 500, they were no longer associated with the type of cars that ran in the famous race.

You can debate all you want if the Indianapolis 500 deserves the notoriety that has come its way, but there is no denying that it is the biggest race in the world. Is it the toughest race in the world? Probably not and more than likely, it’s probably not considered the toughest or most challenging race in the IndyCar schedule. The demanding and bumpy streets of Toronto may beat a driver to death much more than IMS, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be considered the most prestigious to win. Sorry, it may not be fare – but that’s the way it is.

The Kentucky Derby is not the most grueling horse race in the Triple Crown. That would be the Belmont Stakes. But what is the most famous and celebrated horse race on the schedule? The Kentucky Derby. It’s the same with The Masters in golf. Other events may pose a bigger challenge, but ask each golfer what the one event they want to win is. My guess is that to a man, they’ll all say The Masters.

The Verizon IndyCar Series will run from mid-March to mid-September next year. Their premier event takes place roughly one-third of the way through the schedule. Some say that’s awkward to not have it at the end. I don’t see it that way. Only the four major stick and ball sports have their seasons climax at the end. Golf, Horse Racing and practically all forms of motor racing have their premier event in the first third of their calendar.

Getting back to the original question as to whether or not IndyCar is too Indy-centric; the critics think the Indianapolis 500 should carry the same significance as Long Beach, Barber or Belle Isle. According to them, anything more is unfair to the other tracks and the fans in those markets. The emphasis on the Indianapolis 500 is the reason that other events have come and gone rather quickly, if you believe what you hear.

As I mentioned, those that think this way have some good points. I’ve always been a strong believer that the Indianapolis 500 should be scored just like any other race. If the winner at St. Petersburg gets fifty points, I think the winner of the Indianapolis 500 should also get fifty points. Anything else is gimmicky and gives a good argument for those that feel the series puts all of its emphasis on the end of May.

But I don’t think the series puts too much emphasis on the Indianapolis 500. I think it’s about right. The entire series exists to prop up the Indianapolis 500. One would have to be very naive to think anything else. The rest of the series matters to the teams, drivers and us – the hard-core fans; but does it really matter to the casual fan? Not too much.

When CART was in its glory years, I went to a party about a week after attending the 1992 Indianapolis 500. I was talking about it to someone about ten years older than I was. He was an avid sports fan and knew his stuff. As he listened to me talking about the race, he asked me if those cars were used for anything else throughout the year. He was shocked when I told him there was an entire series for those cars and drivers. He had no idea. Sadly, I don’t think that is an isolated story. That happened almost twenty-five years ago, but it could have happened just as easily this year.

CART management ran the Indianapolis 500 against their will, but they knew certain drivers and owners insisted on it. Many scoffed at the idea of taking an entire month to do what was usually done in a three-day weekend. They didn’t get the tradition that came with the race. When Dario Franchitti first ran the race in 2002, he admits he didn’t see what the big deal was. He eventually found out and soon became to appreciate and love the great history of the event.

Today many fans don’t get it – especially road-racing aficionados. They just don’t know why people like me dream all year about one race and only one race.

The very first race of any kind that I went to was the 1965 Indianapolis 500, won by the great Jim Clark. He was flanked on the front-row by two other greats – AJ Foyt on the pole and Dan Gurney on the outside. Although I was six at the time, it wasn’t lost on me that I had witnessed something very special that day. It was that one race we went to each year while I was growing up. We didn’t go to any other races anywhere else – just that one. That was the race that made me a fan. I eventually grew to like watching races at Michigan, Milwaukee and Long Beach; but it was the Indianapolis 500 that got into my blood.

So to those that think that IndyCar puts way too much emphasis on the Indianapolis 500 at the expense of the other races, I respectfully disagree. I think the fact that these drivers and cars race in the Indianapolis 500 is the selling point that promoters use. The way I see it, the other tracks are probably grateful that they are aligned with the Indianapolis 500 instead of seeing it as a burden. Whatever the case, the Indianapolis 500 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so this perception is probably not going anywhere either.

George Phillips

26 Responses to “Is IndyCar Too Indy-Centric?”

  1. First to vote … May I deny “that it is the biggest race in the world” while several legendary 24-hour races each have dozens more competitors?

    • The term “biggest” is not a literal interpretation. How do you define “big”? Does it mean the most participants? Is the longest, the most prestigious, the most famous or the best attended? Are Super Bowls really super? Usually not.

      If you ask most of the general public to name one race, most would probably name the Indianapolis 500 over the Rolex 24 – even though it has more participants. – GP

      • And George (and Brian the early vote guy) let us not forget it IS the most well attended single day sporting event in the LARGEST ARENA in the WORLD! THAT, Brian buddy, means it’s the BIGGEST.

        • Brian McKay Says:

          The 24 Hours of Le Mans is “is the biggest race in the world” insofar as many more drivers in many more teams race on a much-longer track in a much-larger setting for many more hours for thousands more miles.
          263,500 spectators were there for two days in June.
          The world’s 24-hour races which use two calendar days aren’t inferior to a partial-day race that was started by 32 Dallara cars.

        • Actually, the LeMans 24 hr race draws more spectators now than Indy does. And it’s worldwide television audience is larger.

          It also has far more manufacturer participation. As far as the largest arena, how exactly do you measure that? If by “footprint” then the area of LeMans is far larger. If it’s just attendance, then LeMans is larger as well.

          In the USA Indianapolis is the largest event by in person attendance, but it’s not even close to what the combined audience ( tv and live attendance) is for the Super Bowl, or the World series.

          In short, it is NO LONGER the biggest.

      • I will suppose that if we poll five thousand randomly-selected television-viewing adult persons in U.S.A. and Canada to ask what is “is the biggest race in the world,” the most-frequent answer would likely be the Daytona 500.

        I allege that if we were to poll five thousand randomly-selected television-viewing adult persons in Europe for “the biggest race in the world,” most would reply ‘the 24 Hours of Le Mans,’ especially in late May and in June.

        I’m not a big fan of marketing hyperbole and falsehoods such as Daytona International Speedway is the “World Center of Racing.”

        • billytheskink Says:

          Daytona’s moniker is not that much of a hyperbole. Back when the speedway was constructed, the geographic center of all known racing tracks in the world was in nearby DeLand, Florida.

          If I’m not mistaken, it is closer to Ocala nowadays. Still, that’s not too far away, maybe a couple hours.

  2. Indy is quite honestly the only race in Indycar these days that the public even remotely cares about anymore. Without Indy, Indycar doesn’t exist. It should be the attention. I wish there were a bit more involvement by Indycar marketing people for all of their events though.

  3. I miss the days when Phoenix was the test session to Indy and then Milwaukee was the after party. It was always that way, and that the schedule moved on to the summer. But now it’s like every race is a build up to Indy.

    They don’t have much to hang their hats on but I think some consistency could help that. I also think what I mentioned above was natural build up where now everything is so forced.

    I really do also hated that Indy was the first oval on the schedule for a long time, why! Phoenix beign back in there early is nice because you can see people get a good trial in before the 500.

    • The car and team setups for Phoenix and Indy are so different, though, that I have no idea how Phoenix being before Indy means that there is now a good “trial” before Indy. Once upon a time, I thought that same thing, but upon further reflection, I’m not totally sure how Phoenix or any other non-speedway oval is any better a warm up for the 500 than any other race.

  4. I don’t think Indycar is too Indy-centric. It appears to me Indy is almost a “necessary evil” to those who want this to be a road/street course racing league, or F1 Lite. And that is where the most complaints come from.

    I wish it was more Indy-centric. Then we would have more emphasis placed back on the month of May, and on those traditions rather than the gimmicks of current years. And we might have Phoenix as a lead in to Indy and Milwaukee as the after party as Andrew mentions above.

    If the George family thinks the current direction of Indycar is being done to protect their investment in Indianapolis, they may be the most misled of all.

  5. Even if you don’t believe it, finally somebody with the guts to bring it up. I find Indianapolis people to be kind of obnoxious, The Colts are better (not without Peyton), the 500 is the only race that matters…etc. Get over yourselves.

  6. It’s good that Indianapolis 500 remains special. But IndyCar has serious issues promoting the other races, especially with television ratings.

    The 24 Hours of Nürburgring has a much longer circuit and larger field than Le Mans. But GT3 cars are no match to LMP1, the same way Nascar cars are no match to IndyCar.

    By the way, only talented drivers can win the Indianapolis 500. You can’t say that about the Daytona 500.

    • ” By the way, only talented drivers can win the Indianapolis 500″

      How do you explain Eddie Cheever, then?


      • This past may, Eddie actually claimed on air and then again on twitter that he hit 250 mph going into T1 at IMS. I call BS on that one, as I never heard of any trap speeds over the 240s from the Penske/Beast. So yeah, there’s little explanation for Eddie at times, is there?

  7. billytheskink Says:

    I voted yes, but not because I believe too much is made of the Indianapolis 500. The focus on the 500 is understandable, it is the series biggest asset, a great tradition in American sports, and is treated accordingly. I honestly love every minute of the Indy hype. Following the practice sessions, George’s trivia contest, TTOGA and Trackside, alternating my cellular phone ringtone weekly between the Delta Force theme and Back Home Again during the month of May. It’s a blast.

    I voted yes because the series and the 500 have different goals to accomplish but operate under essentially the same management and resources. I want a successful Indycar series, not just a successful 500. Can Indycar’s management devote the attention they need to make the series a success if they must also devote attention to the 500 itself? Perhaps, but my perception is that they quite often cannot or will not. That is where being Indy-centric becomes a problem for the sport. Other races don’t have to mean as much as the 500, but they have to mean something if they are to continue to exist.

    But enough of that, let’s talk about what is really important here: there apparently exists a country record sung by Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves. A country record. Sam Hornish Jr. Helio Castroneves. Singing on said record. Amazing.
    I need to hear this, and not just so I can compare it to “NASCAR Sings”. Anyone know where I can find this?

  8. Historically (and arguably) the 500 is the biggest race in the world. It’s the money-maker and attention-getter for Indycar. It deserves the attention it gets.

    However, I do think the other races would benefit greatly if Indycar put more attention and moola towards marketing the other races on the schedule.

  9. The Indianapolis 500 is THE Greatest Race in the World.

  10. Most people I talk racing with in San Antonio have no idea what an Indy car is. They don’t even know what “open wheel race car” means. They do know about the Indy 500 and NASCAR, but not much about either.

  11. The series could survive losing any given race on the schedule except the Indy 500. They better keep pumping it up.

  12. It’s no longer the most difficult race on the schedule from a technical point of view, nor is it the most physically challenging for the drivers in this essentially spec car era. So while it’s still the biggest, it no longer has the significance that it once had when it was a true showcase of technical innovation, and a single car team had the potential to win by virtue of its own ingenuity.

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