|2009 Indianapolis 500|
I've said it over and over in talking about the state of the sport. It's not some hot take but likely a pretty common opinion, I would guess. The Split refers to when the powers that be (aka, Tony George) decided to split the world of open-wheel racing into two branches: The Indy Racing League (IRL) and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams). It happened at a time when NASCAR sped off in popularity, plus other forms of entertainment started to appear. The internet started up, too.
Fans took sides and the sport floundered from its popularity in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. IndyCar merged back together in 2008.
While I still think it's true the sport won't fully recover from that move in the 90s to split, IndyCar is rejuvenated the past couple years. The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 no doubt brought some needed excitement and publicity to the sport.
I'm not sure what it is. Racing fans are a lot like hockey fans in some ways. They know their sport and they're passionate about it. There's just not much middle ground. Either you're a rabid racing fan, or you're on the outside thinking all it's about is cars turning left with drivers who aren't athletes behind the wheel. Casual race observers aren't as prominent, which is fine.
Building off the 500
This season, the Indianapolis 500, wanting to make a splash to build off last year's 100th momentum, announced the Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso will compete. He'll drive for his team Maclaren and the Andretti team. Folks in the racing world know that this move is a big one. Alonso is giving up driving in one of F1's premiere events, the Monaco Grand Prix, in order to run Indy. (F1 is another can of worms.)
If there is one race people might pay attention to all year, it would be the Indy 500. Anything to help boost the support for that race is a good thing.
The growth of the sport is the competition itself. As recently as a couple years ago, it was standard to expect race winners to come out of two teams: Team Penske and Team Ganassi. These perennial championship teams are multi-car teams always starting up front and winning races. Team owner Roger Penske has 16 Indy 500 runs as a car owner. Ganassi has been to the Indy winner's circle just four times but is always a contender for series championships and race wins.
More variety in the winner's circle
But other drivers from other teams have emerged to win races, providing a little variety. American driver Josef Newgarden got a deal with Penske in the offseason because of his success. Newgarden got the first Penske win under his belt with a victory on the road circuit in Alabama last weekend. Even the Andretti team has won a couple of Indy 500s, which is a huge deal in the karma circles.
Then take the excitement the 2017 season has already given us. It started in St. Petersburg for the street circuit (that I still have to get to soon). Sebastien Bourdais came all the way from the back of the field to win the race. He crashed in qualifying, failing to register a time for his 21st starting position.
In Long Beach, James Hinchcliffe added another chapter to his comeback story as he won the race. He nearly died during a crash in practice for the 2015 Indy 500. He came back to win the pole for last year's 500 before getting his first win since the accident now in Long Beach.
Bourdais drives for Dale Coyne Racing. Hincliffe is with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. Those aren't the powerhouse teams. Bourdais was a ChampCar (formerly CART) driver in the 2000s during the split years and was a four-time series champion. Like many drivers, he's fought to find a full-time ride in IndyCar. He followed up St. Pete with a runner-up finish in Long Beach.
Hinchcliffe's story writes itself. He almost bled to death at the brickyard. He recovered and came back for more. He's still looking for a win at the Indy 500. Both Bourdais and Hinchcliffe have Honda engines, which means two victories in the Honda-versus-Chevrolet battle in IndyCar.
A growing fan base?
The competition is exciting. Instead of just a couple teams competing for wins at each event, the field is much more wide open. Another sign things are going well for the sport? Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and Dallara all signed multi-year contract extensions.
One of the challenges IndyCar faces is a generation gap in fans. Sure, the Baby Boomers got to enjoy racing at its peak moments and many have stuck around. But what about younger fans? Are kids tuning in to watch racing? If their family members aren't, then probably not. They might opt for the X Games or Crashed Ice instead. (Not my cup of joe.)
The hope is that the more momentum from the Indy 500 last year and this year, the more interest it will create within a newer fan base. It's still a tough task. Just remember that IndyCar racing is more than simply driving. And it can't be said enough that television does not do those cars justice. Go see them in person if you get the chance.
It's hard to see IndyCar getting back to the popularity it once had a couple decades ago before The Split, but things have vastly improved, which is reason enough to have those rabid IndyCar fans smiling.