The Indy 500 Fans Are Scared to See
The Indy 500 is the only race on the IndyCar schedule that anyone pays attention to. But this year it's got people's attention for all the wrong reasons.
Photo by PA Images
This weekend, the IndyCar Series runs by far its biggest race of the year: the 99th Indianapolis 500. The 250-lap race is the centrepiece event for this faded racing power, a huge sporting spectacle that pulls in the region of 300,000 spectators to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and attracts a domestic TV audience of around seven million, as well as plenty more overseas viewers. IndyCar is like a once-wealthy family that has lost its money and prestige; the Indy 500 is the sole remaining piece of jewellery it pulls from the cupboard once a year to remind you that things were not always this way.
But that is the problem: it is about the only race anyone outside a small number of hardcore fans pays any attention to. Without it, the series would quickly cease to hold any significance and fold. And most racing fans wouldn't notice it had gone.
As one of those hardcores, I don't write this with any satisfaction. But it is a fact that motor racing in America is dominated by NASCAR, with Formula 1 also increasing its popularity in recent years by adding a successful race in Texas.
IndyCar meanwhile tore itself apart with a long-running and devise feud that began in the mid-90s and didn't end until 2008. I won't bore you with the details – not least because it would require several thousand words – but the upshot is that by the time IndyCar got its act together NASCAR had filled the void. Almost nobody was watching anymore.
Except at the Indy 500. Its U.S viewing figures have dwindled too, but it still attracts a solid audience, and of course more than a quarter of a million people on race day. That number alone makes the event relevant.
But the race – like the series – exists purely on its historic significance. The most recognisable names today are the same as they were 20 or 30 years ago: Andretti and Rahal. But while past greats Mario and his son Michael Andretti were winning machines, the third generation – 28-year-old Marco – has struggled to achieve anything other than mediocre status. Similarly, Bobby Rahal won three titles and the Indy 500, but his son Graham – while more naturally gifted than Marco – has not yet lived up to that legacy.
The series wants new stars and tears its hair out over having too many foreign drivers. But Ryan Hunter-Reay – an all-American boy who won the title in 2012 and the Indy 500 last year – has not moved the needle. IndyCar remains largely irrelevant to American fans. Again, I do not write that with any sense of satisfaction, it is simply a fact. The TV numbers for its non-Indy 500 races – which are on average less than 400,000 – bear this out.
And so the series moves on to its most important – let's be honest, it's only truly important – race weekend. But even this is being run under a dark cloud. Four huge accidents during practice have soured the mood and left question marks over the safety of Sunday's race. Fans have been wondering aloud on social media as to whether they want to a watch when a huge accident seems so likely.
The first was suffered by Helio Castroneves, a three-time winner of the race and one of the most experienced drivers on the grid. Fortunately, he was able to walk away and joke about it. Then Josef Newgarden got upside-down. The 24-year-old has three seasons' experience in the series and recently won his first race; he is immensely talented and viewed as a future champion, assuming he doesn't make the leap to Formula 1. Like Castroneves, he knows what he's doing at Indy.
The third befell Ed Carpenter (his is the crash pictured at the top of this page). Ed's CV? 10 years of IndyCar racing, multiple wins, and pole position for the last two 500s. Again, a man who knows how to handle the track.
Number four was by the worst. James Hinchcliffe – another multiple winner with plenty of experience – had his crash on Monday. The accident did not look worse than the previous three, but his injuries – as reported below by RACER – were significant. The details are not for the squeamish.
"[O]ne of the suspension wishbones penetrated the [chassis], and subsequently caused the majority of the physical damage Hinchcliffe received. RACER has confirmed through multiple sources that Hinchcliffe had the steel wishbone enter and exit his right leg, then enter his upper left thigh, and continue into his pelvic region before it came to a stop. The suspension component pinned the 28-year-old in the car, leading the safety team to cut the wishbone from the chassis to allow Hinchcliffe's extraction."
The 28-year-old Canadian was losing blood rapidly, but quick action from medical staff saved Hinchcliffe's life (whatever criticism you might level at IndyCar, no one can question the skill and commitment of its safety team). His season is already over, just as the whole series is to the wider sporting world once the chequered flag drops at Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon.
You would like to hope that nothing goes wrong this weekend. Technical alterations have been made to the cars to prevent these sorts of accidents occurring on Sunday, and there is no question that the 33 competing drivers – all of whom are skilled and intelligent – will race with safety on their mind. That said, they are all racing drivers – and they will primarily race to win.
Whatever happens, IndyCar will continue to search for relevance in a world that seems to have left it behind. It will look to leverage the Indy 500 to make its other events more popular. And it will try to regain the millions of fans it lost between the mid-90s and 2008.
Yet it seems that whenever IndyCar is on the verge of a positive step, something varying from dreadful to plain stupid happens to set it back once more. Hopefully this weekend will not follow that pattern. Hopefully the series' most high profile event will be a routine affair.