Tuesday, May 21, 2002
The Greatest Spectacle in Racing
By Jack Arute ESPN.com
There is no contest. The Indianapolis 500 is the biggest motoring event in the world. Suitors to Indy's moniker "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" all fall well short of the appeal, heritage, scope and attention. I should know. I have covered all three.
There is no need to knock Indy's contenders. They have ever-increasing audiences and hold elevated positions of importance in racing's hierarchy. Daytona is "The Great American Race", Monaco is motor racing's Cannes Festival. But Indy is more than a jewel in racing's crown. It has a mass appeal forged over 85 renditions and more than 90 years.
It is this mass appeal that sets Indy apart.
If you canvassed mainstream America, they would likely say race cars were "stock cars" -- a tribute to the growing popularity of NASCAR. Ask them about a race though, and they will still cite the Indy 500 as The Race!
It happens. Thoroughbred Racing's Breeder's Cup offers richer purses. Winning the Triple Crown establishes a horse's immortality. But it is the Kentucky Derby that sticks out as horse racing's ultimate prize.
The choice of the Kentucky Derby to illustrate my point is because, like horse racing, auto racing is looked upon by many as a fringe sport. Again, the evolution of sports interests shows a decided increase in attention paid to auto racing, but it still is considered "outside the circle" of stick and ball sports like baseball, hockey, football and basketball.
A cloud hangs over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, looking north, taken
from the Goodyear blimp on Friday, May 24, 1996. Turn one is at the lower
Just listen to sports talk radio. Peruse your daily sports page. May opens them up to auto racing -- both negative and positive.
There are those who say that the Indianapolis 500 has lost some of its luster since the open-wheel Indy Car community split into two discipline oriented series; CART, with its road racing concentration and the Indy Racing League with its ovals only philosophy. Truth be known, the Indianapolis 500 has emerged from a transition period to occupy a stronger spot than in recent years.
Billy Boat, the slowest qualifier for this year's "500" made the show with a 10-mile average speed of 226.589 mph. Last year that would have earned him the pole position for the race! Meanwhile, a two-time Formula One winner couldn't get enough speed to make a qualifying attempt and left the Brickyard to race in Sonoma, Calif., in an American Le Mans event.
There are six former "500" champs in the field. Plus, CART's defending point champion, the IRL's 2001 titleist, the current point leaders in both series, a Winston Cup driver, a woman and an African-American are all part of this year's starting grid.
No other race limits its starting grid to the fastest 33 cars. Daytona has a complex provisional formula to ensure that star drivers get into the field if they encounter problems. If 33 cars had posted a speed faster than Bruno Junqueria's 231.342 mph pole run, the diminutive Brazilian would have earned Indy's pole award only to watch the race this Sunday from the grandstands.
Tradition drives much of what sets Indy apart. Kilted Gordon Pipers bagpipe their way around the track grounds that include several holes of a Pete Dye designed PGA championship golf course.
Milk is the reward given to Indy winners. That and their gold likeness on a $100,000 sterling silver five-foot cup called the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Some may think that starting 11 rows of cars three abreast tests the limits of a speedway first designed for cars that ran 75 mph instead of the 228.648 average qualifying speed for this year's field. But the drivers who submit themselves to this start know that they must give deference to the tradition and watch out for each other.
The bottom line is that Monaco and Daytona are dependant upon Formula One and NASCAR for their success. Without the lure of F1's world driving title or NASCAR's coveted Winston Cup, both of these individual events would wither on the vine.
The Indianapolis 500, on the other hand, supports rather than depends upon the Indy Racing League. Critics have always insisted that without Indy, the IRL would not succeed. They are likely correct. The IRL's biggest asset is the "500".