Sunday, September 17, 2017

IndyCar finally catching up with NASCAR behind a new, young, brash, good-looking American hero

SONOMA -- By most measurements and judgements these days –Donald Trump’s Rambling Tweetmeter withstanding– IndyCar Racing would appear to be more popular than NASCAR.
IndyCar wins the eye test. Its cars are sleeker and sexier than NASCAR’s. It’s like comparing a Ferrari to a Ford, and I don’t mean Harrison.
IndyCar wins the ear test. Its cars are not only faster, but sound faster. It’s the difference between listening to a race between the beep beep Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote with an Acme Co. rocket strapped to his chest.
And IndyCar wins the greatest popularity test of all: My mother-in-law’s Dancing With The Stars’ test. Mirror Ball Trophy finalists Helio Castroneves and James Hinchliffe were a champion and runner-up, respectively, in the DWTS competition when they competed while NASCAR put its best foot forward and served up Michael “Bust A Move” Waltrip, who danced like his clutch was broken before he was sent to the shop. He even got outlasted by 76-year-old perennial pot head Tommy Chong, which is like being outdanced by a drunken dinosaur with a walker.
And yet, even though IndyCars’ 2017 series-ending race at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday attracted the likes of David Lettermen and Grand Marshall Klay Thompson and produced the high drama of the possibility of six different drivers winning the championship, fewer people were on the edge of their seats. IndyCar’s season finale at Sears Point attracted less than half the crowd that the NASCAR race drew to the same track in the middle of its season. Butts in the seats and in front of the television set are ultimately the test of time that NASCAR wins hands down.
Well, I don’t get it.
As a kid growing up, the Indianapolis 500 was THE race to watch. They had death-defying drivers with cool names like Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, and Johnny Rutherford driving powerful and fancy cars that zoomed around the track like James Bond in a leer jet. Yet, somehow, the “It” Factor that IndyCar owned swung like a pendulum to NASCAR in the South which suddenly and steadily began growing its popularity from a Southern-only sport to mainstream America’s favorite race circuit. They won over more people with champions with mundane names like Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson from California and the nation’s attention shifted from A.J. Foyt and Bobby Rahal to a new racing era that included A.J. Allmendinger and Ricky Bobby.
IndyCar, of course, was its own worst enemy. Its circuit waged a civil war in 1996, splitting in two – CART and IRL – leaving a void that NASCAR swooped in to fill. It was like the Dodgers and Giants leaving New York for greener pastures in LA and San Francisco, leaving the Yankees to grab the spotlight and run with it.
Within a few years, NASCAR had twice as many races, more sponsors and TV networks eyeballing it, better marketing, and a surplus of personalities and budding rivalries. NASCAR traded paint and track position in wake of a period of time that can only be called the Indy Error. IndyCar’s edge disappeared faster than Billy Bush and a live microphone.
Two decades later, IndyCar is now better united and making a comeback. The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 this year drew a record crowd of 350,000 and IndyCar’s TV ratings are improving while NASCAR’s are declining.
“We have more people calling us wanting to get involved than than I’ve ever had before,” said legendary IndyCar owner Roger Penske.
The future for IndyCar is beginning to look brighter than NASCAR for change. They put Jeff Gordon in the pace car at this year’s Indy 500 and there is speculation that Kasey Kahne and perhaps Danica Patrick could switch from NASCAR to IndyCar. Patrick, of course, cut her teeth on IndyCar racing but her much-publicized jump to NASCAR didn’t pan out in the long run. She ran among the leaders in NASCAR each week about as often as the Cleveland Browns in the NFL.
And yet the fact that NASCAR drivers are more open to leaving and looking seriously at IndyCar bodes well for the open wheel people. These are testy times for both circuits and NASCAR seems to be relying more on gimmicks than good ole boys’ guff to win back fans.
Meanwhile, IndyCar is building a new generation of fans led by this year’s “All-American” circuit champion, Josef Newgarden, a rising star in a sport that desperately needs a boost. Newgarden is a handsome blond 26-year-old driver who was born in Tennessee and lives in NASCAR’s backyard, Charlotte, N.C. He drives a Chevy for Penske and he’s an American Ninja Warrior, having actually appeared in NBC’s popular televised obstacle-course competition.
In American Ninja, Newgarden managed to get past the first two obstacles on the course and celebrated by stripping off his “Indy Car Ninja” T-shirt to show-off his chiseled body. He fell into the water on his third obstacle.
The only tough obstacle he faced on the track on Sunday in Sonoma was the glare of a sunset that threatened to blind drivers’ sight coming up Turns 1 and 1A. Fortunately, the race, which didn’t start until 3:30 p.m. locally for NBC’s coverage, was a clean race with no cautions which didn’t bring the sunset into play at the end.
Newgarden placed second overall in the race, yet scored enough points to emerge as IndyCar champion. To celebrate, he wrapped himself in an American flag and became the torch bearer as the new spokesman for IndyCar. He didn’t waste any time promoting the future of his sport.
“If people don’t know, tell them about IndyCar racing,” Newgarden said.
Newgarden represents the new age of IndyCar and maybe it’s time for IndyCar to make its big move and that can only mean one thing. That’s right. It’s time to get another driver on Dancing With The Stars.


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