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Friday, May 23, 2003
Updated: June 6, 9:52 AM ET
Crumbling Brickyard

By Jim Armstrong
Special to Page 2

Gentlemen, start your apathy.

And since, outside of Hootie Johnson's house, we're all one big, gender-equal, happy family, you can, too, ladies. Ignore the Indy 500, that is.

Helio Castroneves
An international superstar, Helio's feats go unnoticed in the U.S.
There was a time not so long ago when Indy had more It than the Addams family tree. The Battle at the Brickyard was as ingrained in American culture as rock 'n' roll, backseat makeout sessions at the drive-in and church on Sunday. Memorial Day weekends were reserved for Indy, double-headers, SPF 8, and backyard burgers and brewskis.

In the immortal words of Roberto "Steak, It's What's for Quitters" Duran, no mas. The Sunday before Memorial Day has turned into a good day to mow the lawn. Elvis is dead, Raquel Welch has her AARP card and Indy is yesterday's news. It still has the roar, but it's lost the buzz.

Granted, my interest in auto racing is fleeting at best. For that matter, my interest in autos is pretty much fleeting. I want the damn thing to start in mid-January and not blow up in mid-July. I couldn't find the carburetor if my life depended on it, and I use Visa, not Valvoline, for all my oil changes.

To me, a tranny is a guy wearing a dress on a dark street corner, not some accident waiting to happen under the hood. Heck, I only pump my own gas because they make me. That, plus I want to get out of there ASAP since you never know who's lurking around the lugnuts at those places these days.

But then, that's the point. Back in the day, even I cared about Indy. For one day a year, it was something you did, like putting on the storm windows. For that one day, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and the Unser boys were larger than life. Or at least bigger than Hank Aaron or Tom Seaver. Even those of us who didn't know the second thing about auto racing -- most of us could figure out the go-fast, turn-left thing -- watched Indy.

Let me guess. You're going to be busy doing something else on Sunday. I hear ya, dude. It makes me a little sad to admit it, but I could care less about Indy these days. It's one big blur to me, kind of like J-Lo's last marriage. They tell me the pole sitter is some guy named Helio Castroneves. Might as well be Julio Iglesias or Chico Esquela. I'd rather watch men's tennis, which hasn't been worth watching since Andre Agassi needed a haircut.

Is Gomer Pyle going to sing "Back Home in Indiana" before the race? Beats me. I haven't watched Indy for years and, judging from all the empty seats at the practice runs, I'm not alone. Indy is about as hip as Abba, as hot as Janet Reno, and as relevant as Gary Hart. Disco made a comeback, but Indy is gone for good, drowned in the mainstream of American consciousness.

There are those, of course, who believe race-car industry leaders have no one to blame but themselves. The 1996 IRL-CART spat turned into the nastiest divorce since The Donald and Ivana split up Boardwalk and Park Place. Before the breakup, Indy was the Yankees. It got all the best players, because it had all the money. In the aftermath of the breakup, the race was reduced to medium-market status -- not second rate, but not first class, either.

Indianapolis 500
Racing fans are becoming a rarity on Memorial Day Weekend.
I don't necessarily buy that argument. Sure, the IRL-CART dispute didn't help matters, but it's only part of the reason for Indy's demise. To paraphrase Otter when he meets Mrs. Wormer in the grocery store, I've got a bigger one. It's called NASCAR, which, as often as not these days, precedes the word rocks and an exclamation point or two.

You'll notice NASCAR's explosion in popularity has coincided with the IRL-CART fallout. But it's more than that, more than finding a convenient void to fill in people's pastime habits. Indy's problem is that it's still your father's Indy 500. It happens once a year, which is once more than it's promoted. Opening the gates and revving up the engines isn't enough anymore. With everything out there on the sports/entertainment landscape, it's easier than ever to get overlooked.

Then there's NASCAR, whose drivers have evolved into genuine American folk heroes, thanks in large part to a well-oiled marketing machine. Jeff Gordon, his buddy Ernie, and his other buddy Ernie have been meticulously molded and tightly packaged by Madison Avenue to the point where you wonder how stock-car racing was ever just a Southern thing in the first place. These days, NASCAR is about as popular in Dayton as it is at Daytona.

Not that I watch much of it, of course. IRL, CART, NASCAR, it's all alphabet soup to me. Which brings us to Sunday. I don't know about you, but I'm going to take a long nap.

Jim Armstrong, a sports columnist for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to Page 2.