The Indy 500 past and present
Q: Hi, Greg. I read your column every week, and with the Indy 500 coming up, I'm wondering your thoughts on the current state of Indy Car racing compared to yesteryear. Bill K., Mass.
A: Bill, there are some realities that I've forced myself to accept when dealing with modern-day motorsports and how technology and pricing have impacted the major leagues. Currently, I don't think there is any better racing than what the IZOD series presents on a race-to-race basis, be it road course or oval. Precisely, some of the most exciting races I've seen the past five years have been in this top-flight open-wheel division. This year, all competitors are also running new Dallara-chassis cars that are all built in Indiana. (American jobs!)
I recall countless pre-television-era Indy 500 Memorial Days where I spent the better part of five hours clinging to a radio while chomping on hot dogs off the grill. These are memories that will never be duplicated. Back then, radio demanded that your mind paint the pictures while the broadcasters brought you the daredevil and death-defying moments on each and every lap.
Granted, the current IZOD Indycar Series is stacked with many foreign drivers that will never pack the stands when compared to those of the American, USAC-bred multitask drivers who roamed our tracks decades ago. As for putting more American drivers in those IndyCar seats, what I do know as “necessary” are suitcases filled with dollars, which always trumps American driving talent with no money. This reality is a direct result of our still shaky economy and for better or worse, I don't see that changing any time soon.
However, I can live with the "too many" foreign drivers, as long as I see the IZOD IndyCar Series moving forward instead of backward. In the 1960s and 1970s, an average of two to four of the 33 Indy 500 starters were from other than North American soil. Yet let's not forget that the foreign talent back then was indeed justified, bringing true race aptitude to the Brickyard. When you talked of a Jimmy Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi, Graham Hill, Denny Hulme, Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt or Jack Brabham racing at Indy, it is agreed that these deserving chauffeurs sure spiced up the show.
With this said, I indeed loved the days when the Unser brothers, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and so many other Americans dominated the fields in midgets, sprints and “champ cars.” Yet we can't dismiss that the modern-day flip side of the coin that finds some of the deserving foreigners like Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon or Tony Kanaan attracting a fare share of fans. These drivers deserve seats based on driving skill and the "paid dues" factors.
In summary, the cost to race is in the big leagues like the Indy 500 is extremely expensive. Owners make driver decisions based not on American flag waving loyalty (although I'm sure they wish they could), they make their decisions based on foreign drivers with cash (be it monies or sponsor), their own sponsor situation, or a combination of the two.
As for me, I’m making sure my grill is ready, the hot dogs sausage and burgers are fresh and the checkered flag waves this weekend in an exciting Indy 500 finish.
Thanks for the question.
Greg Zyla writes weekly for GateHouse Media and welcomes reader questions on collector cars and old-time motorsports at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840 or at email@example.com.