As May 2018 comes to a close, I think back through the fifty May’s that I have experienced in my life, since 1968. In late 1968, I attended the Road America 500, a United States Road Racing Championship race — essentially an endurance Can-Am contest — won by Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott in a Lola against a field of Ferraris, McLarens, Porsches, Elvas… Now ask me if I remember this race… While not quite a senior moment, I was a mere 8-month-old baby in a stroller. I often wonder if my significant hearing impairment might have commenced on that long ago weekend?
Within the next four years, I would begin an affair of the heart with the month of May. If you are reading this and don’t understand the significance of this particular month, move on. May was the month-long Lalapalooza of all things IndyCar racing. It was a time that inspired and filled my mind with wonder. Teams from all over the world would converge on the little town of Speedway, Indiana with the highest tech and, equally, shade-tree-born innovation. The mission was all in the name of winning “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” It would kill some. It would leave many behind. In the end a single victor, surrounded by those who labored untold hours, days, weeks, months, would stand beside the great Borg-Warner trophy, who’s likeness would next adorn the iconic Cup.
I remember talking about the heroes of the day to my otherwise confused but fascinated second-grade classmates, and having a recall of the winners of the great 500-mile race like some could recite the Presidents of the United States in order. Johnny Rutherford would win that year, 1974 in the factory McLaren. While several, in 2018, would lament the non-qualification of James Hinchcliffe, in 1974, more than a dozen viable drivers went home, without a grid spot amongst the coveted thirty-three starting positions.
May meant so much… From Opening Day to Pole Day to Bump Day to Carburetion Day to the Big Race itself. The 500 was the greatest event in the greatest monument built to motorsport. Funny thing, the race itself was never broadcast live until 1986. Previous, there was only live-broadcast radio, followed by a network rebroadcast in the evening. Even before that, crowds clamored to movie houses to see the race on film – on the same day, in a mass-distributed miracle of modern technology.
In 1996, something changed. Fans know. But to put the blame squarely on the heir to the Hulman-George family legacy, is now as very short-sighted as the heir himself. There are so many other factors.
Now May has become just another month in the annual lap around the sun. For me, my wife and all three of my daughters celebrate birthdays in the first half of May. If that is not enough distraction, consider the state of motorsports in 21st century America. If anyone was to show enough interest to see the television ratings of the race on the Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend, they would see that most folks had better things to do.
May is now about social media, Roblox, endless youth soccer games, music lessons, politics, selfies, trying to stay above water… Just like any other month. The thrill of big-time motorsports is truly dying. The ratings continue into a free fall. NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 faired little better. At one time this was top-rated to a thrill-seeking American audience. Consider this was ABC’s last live 500 after over 40 years — and many more previously delayed airings. The race moves to NBC next year — along with seven other IndyCar series races. Here’s hoping that NBC will treat and promote it right.
When I loved the month of May, there were heroes: Daring tight-rope walkers with personalities whose stories and skill made them cults of personality — household names. Rough and tumble personalities A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, The Unsers, Gordon Johncock, Tony Bettenhausen, Mario Andretti… They got into cars on the edge, staring death in the face, taking crazy risks for the greatest prize in racing. Some would succeed, and become legend. Some would die — LIVE in concert. Just ask Angela Savage or Rich MacDonald about the risks their daddys took for the thrill of speed and the pursuit of greatness. Ironically, the last driver death in May at the Speedway was 1996, as pole sitter Scott Brayton crashed in practice — during the first year that the Indy Racing League ran the 500, while most of the CART teams went to Michigan to run their own ‘great spectacle.’
Today there are no true heroes. I casually know several in the field of the great race, and while they are relatively good guys, sadly, the lion’s share are dilettantes “bouncing off pillows.” These are rich kids sowing their oats in a world that seems not to care much anymore. Look, I get that there will be a bunch of fans who still count IndyCar drivers as heroes, but most couldn’t carry the helmet bags of the aforementioned race drivers of a far more glamorous and risky era. Certainly a quick survey of the typical man on the street could not reveal a single driver on this year’s grid — or the winner of this year’s race, for that matter.
If personality is lacking, so are the cars they drive. Are they fast? Absolutely! Are they more on edge than cars of the last decade? Indeed. Do they have any distinction from one another besides the corporate identity wrapped around the bodywork? Nope. Argue about engines. Ok, there are two: One American and one Japanese. Gone are the tire wars, the engine wars, the chassis wars — innovation. When those 13 guys went home in 1974, with their heads hung low, there were numerous different chassis, engines (some even converted school bus engines), teams… Four teams, with three to four cars each, with their entries in 2018 made up nearly half of the field as a multi-million dollar rental car service. How many of these drivers in this year’s Indy 500 field were “hired guns?” Be honest.
Attending this year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was awesome. But the “scene” outweighs the race itself by the Queen Mary-sized boatload. As for IndyCar, the racing is great! Very competitive, compelling to watch, with passing, seismic speeds and color. If you actually see it, the racing is quite exciting and emotional. But like the tree in the forest, if it falls and no one is there to see it, did it really happen?
Somehow, in my heart of hearts, I hope it recovers. I hope a new generation might discover the thrill of it. Sigh… Sadly I have my doubts. At least I have my fading memories of what May once was and what it meant to me.