In case you haven’t noticed, and chances are pretty good that you haven’t, the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 is happening this Sunday.
It wasn’t all that long ago when the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” wasn’t just a big deal for race fans, it was part of the national fabric and as important a part of Memorial Day Weekend as cookouts, swimming pools and veteran’s celebrations.
Much like the Kentucky Derby, Daytona 500 and Wimbledon Finals, it was one of those annual “sports spectacles” that everybody followed, regardless of whether they paid attention to the sport for the other 364 days of the year.
From 1965 through 1985, ABC televised the race through tape delay on Sunday night, meaning the only way to follow it live was on the radio.
As a kid growing up in Virginia in the 1970s and early 1980s, I remember that regardless of whether we were off on a family camping trip, visiting family, or at a picnic, on the Sunday afternoon of Memorial Day Weekend we always had the radio on and were listening to the race.
I then couldn’t wait until that night when I actually got to see what I had heard through ABC’s coverage of the race. I don’t really remember it bothering me that I already knew the winner.
In fact sometimes, especially in 1981 when Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti were embroiled in a controversial finish, watching it after-the-fact actually made it more interesting and exciting.
It may have just been my childhood belief that everyone cared about the same things I did, but it seemed like listening to the Indianapolis 500 wasn’t just something our family did, it was part of the American lexicon.
In 1986 ABC began televising the race live and the first year of the live broadcast proved to be disappointing as the race was rained out of its original weekend and not run until the following Saturday.
Even though that was certainly not the start to live coverage of this prestigious event that ABC had hoped for, I don’t think moving the television coverage to Sunday afternoon can be blamed for why the Indianapolis 500 no longer carries the national weight that it did in past generations.
For that, there is plenty of blame to pass around.
Even though I grew up in a NASCAR hotbed, with the exception of Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, the biggest names in racing weren’t in NASCAR they were in Indy car racing.
A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, the Unser brothers and many others were recognized names in sports and their stories were well known and documented.
Mario Andretti became synonymous in pop culture with speed and his name has been referenced in a number of popular songs.
Over time, that started to change as many of the familiar drivers from Indy’s past started to retire and the growing popularity of NASCAR led to many of the top American drivers gravitating away from open wheel racing and toward stock car racing.
This left the Indianapolis 500 with a noticeable void that seemingly was going to be filled by two sons of Indy legends, Al Unser, Jr. and Michael Andretti, along with a talented group of foreign drivers including Roberto Guerrero, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jacques Villeneuve.
Through the mid-1990s, the race remained a popular national event with these talented drivers providing some of the most exciting finishes in the history of the prestigious race.
However, a dispute between Speedway owner Tony George and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) in 1995 stopped the momentum right in its tracks and created a credibility void that the race is still trying to overcome nearly 15 years later.
Beginning in 1996, George reserved most of the spots in the race for drivers in his new Indy Racing League Series, which led to a boycott by CART. A year later, the two series started using different equipment and drivers with little history or pedigree replaced most of the familiar names in the Indianapolis 500.
Eventually most of the top open wheel drivers in the sport started returning to Indianapolis, but the damage had been done. Interest in open wheel racing in the United States has significantly declined over the last 15 years, leading to the merging of the two series in 2008.
The continued popularity of NASCAR has also hurt Indy’s national credibility as three recent champions: Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish, Jr., and Dario Franchitti, have had mediocre –at best– success driving in NASCAR.
Perhaps sensing an opportunity, in 1993 NASCAR moved their regular Charlotte event to the Sunday night before Memorial Day.
While Indy and CART were fighting among themselves, the world also changed. The advent of the internet, cable television and a variety of new technology gadgets are among the many factors that have splintered the interests of the American public and made it significantly more difficult for any specific event to capture the interest of the public as some events regularly did in past generations.
Events like the Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby still draw near record attendance, but their appeal beyond the core audience has waned.
Even the popularity of Indy driver Danica Patrick, who has brought sex appeal to the sport, has done little to help the race regain national prominence.
Though Patrick has proven her ability with three top 10 finishes in four starts at Indy, many outside the sport see her as little more than a sideshow and publicity stunt. Her popularity has also been met with resistance by some of the more successful drivers in the sport.
Another popular Indy driver, two-time winner Helio Castroneves, tried to increase exposure for the sport as a contestant on the popular Dancing with the Stars. He won the competition and became more widely recognized, but any positive impact may have been tarnished when he was later charged –and acquitted– of tax fraud.
Though it may not have the national status it once enjoyed, the Indianapolis 500 is still one of the great American sporting events and will always be a big part of my Memorial Day Weekend.
I sure hope I can find it on the radio.