Friday, June 2, 2006

Indy vs. NASCAR

I learned some things last time I asked for comments to a posting. (Who knew that other staff got a cut of the tips in some restaurants, or that the ritziest places actually charge their waitpeople to work there? Everyone but me, most likely…) So, I’m asking for comments again. What’s NASCAR got that IndyCar doesn’t?

The Indianapolis 500 ran last weekend, and once again lived up to the title, “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.” A great run by Dan Wheldon all day gave way to a photo finish between a driver who had never managed to complete 500 miles before, and the rookie grandson and son of the great Andrettis. And yet, when I came back to the office on Tuesday, nobody but me had a clue. Meanwhile, NASCAR is still growing, pulling in more fans, more sponsors, and more TV exposure all the time. I can go down to the mall and buy all sorts of NASCAR memorabilia – hats, jackets, bumper stickers…but if I ask about Indy, they may point me to the back corner to find a couple of Danica Patrick posters and a dusty Rick Mears sticker - or they may just look at me funny and send me to another store.

Here’s what Indy has.

Speed – The top average speed for a NASCAR race is 188 MPH, with qualifying at 213. That was back in 1988, before the addition of various rules to slow the cars to safer speeds. This year’s Daytona 500 pulled an average speed of 143 MPH, with the polewinner qualifying at 189. That’s on a 2 ½ mile oval with banking on the turns up to 31 degrees. The Indy 500, on a 2 ½ mile rectangular oval with only 9 degrees of banking, ran a 157 MPH average, with the top qualifying speed at over 229. I’m scared to look up what speeds they get on a track with real banking!

Skill – I’m sorry, NASCAR fans, but bumping and nudging is not a measure of skill. In Indy’s open-wheel cars, a bump, nudge, tap, or any other form of contact usually means BOTH drivers hit the wall – so even the worst driver on the track is good enough to avoid that most of the time. If you want to see real white-knuckles racing, look at the picture I posted with this entry – four-wide on the straightaway, fighting for position at 220 miles per hour. None of them touched. Dan Wheldon in the red-and-white car went on to win the race. IndyCar drivers have the skill to stay within a few inches of one another WITHOUT scratching up their paint jobs – or the wall.

Diversity – Indy brings drivers from everywhere. We’ve got drivers from all over the world. A lot of our drivers come from Formula One racing, and find out that turning left 800 times is more challenging than they thought. We’ve got the most famous woman in racing, Danica Patrick – we’ve had women drivers from time to time over the last 30 years, but Danica has the skill and the backing to truly be competitive. She’s still young, but she’s learning fast – I expect her to win some races in another year or two. And we even enticed NASCAR’s own Jeff Gordon into an IndyCar several times. Still not a lot of black drivers…but we’ll get there.

Spectacle – Let’s be honest, some racing fans are watching to see accidents, and even the best driver miscalculates sometimes. This year, two-time winner Helio Castroneves pulled off a rookie mistake and sent himself and Buddy Rice into the wall. I don’t watch NASCAR, so I haven’t seen many of their crashes, but I can’t believe they could be more spectacular than an IndyCar hitting the wall – that usually brings a burst of flame and pieces flying everywhere. To add to the fun, the car may then bounce off and come shooting across the track to the infield – across the path of the other cars still running at 200+. Best of all, those spectacular crashes only rarely result in serious injury – those pieces flying off and the SAFER barriers developed at Indy absorb most of the energy and let the driver walk away, disappointed, but ready to try again at the next race.

Tradition – This year was the 90th running of the Indy 500. There’s not a motor race in the world that can touch that. It’s the most famous race in the world – period. Most people may not watch it, but everyone has heard of it. It has unbreakable traditions, like the playing of Taps, singing Back Home Again in Indiana, drinking the milk in Victory Circle, and of course, the ugliest trophy in sports. We’ve got famous driving families – this year we had a second-generation Foyt, a second-generation Unser (coming back from retirement!), a second-generation Luyendyk, a second-generation Jones, two second-generation Laziers, and a second- and a THIRD-generation Andretti. We have the team rivalries between Penske and Rahal-Letterman, Penske and Ganassi – well, really, Penske and everybody. We even have ongoing stories like the Andretti curse, now 37 years old – which reared up again this year to bite Michael and Marco on the last lap. I realize that the rest of the IRL schedule doesn’t have all of that, but there’s no race anywhere with more tradition than the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

The only thing I can think of in NASCAR’s favor is the stock car tradition – and that is long gone. If they really want to make NASCAR interesting, give the drivers and mechanics new cars straight off the showroom floor and a limited budget at NAPA Auto Parts to buy improvements. Okay, make it an UNlimited budget – as long as the final result is both street-legal and something I could theoretically build in my garage. Now THAT would make for some interesting racing.

So I ask again – what’s NASCAR got that Indy doesn’t?

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