Sunday, May 24, 2009

Culture: Indianapolis 500

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I didn't watch the Indianapolis 500 today. In fact, the last time I actually sat at a television and viewed any portion of the race was 2006. The tradition of watching what most still consider to be the premier automobile race in North America on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend has substantially disappeared from my life, and it probably will never return.

My earliest memories of the race were watching the television (inevitably on ABC) coverage of the event while visiting my grandparents in the Tri-Cities, a family tradition for Memorial Day weekend. I especially remember the dramatic 1985 battle between Danny Sullivan and Mario Andretti. The tradition of watching the race continued in college, as my freshman roommate and I would get together to watch the race in subsequent years, no matter where we happened to be living.

Growing up on the West Coast, the start of the Indianapolis 500 seemed rather early in the morning. More precisely, the start of television coverage of the Indianapolis 500 seemed too early. At least one year, the coverage started at 8:30 in the morning, when the race didn't actually start until 10:00. In my undergraduate years, that meant only race fans would be in the lounge and there would be no controversy about what channel to choose for television--nobody else would be trying to watch anything. More than one year, I remember wishing I had known when the race actually started so I could have stayed in bed a little longer.

Somewhere after the break-away of the Indy Racing League (IRL) in 1996 that greatly reduced the average caliber of the drivers for several years, I started to lose interest in the race. The fact that rival CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) went bankrupt and merged with the IRL, restoring the unity of North American open-wheel racing, hasn't changed my level of interest. The high profile of a female driver, Danika Patrick, hasn't helped (mostly because of her hyper-sexualized media appearances). Visiting "The Brickyard" itself while on a job interview trip to Indianapolis in 2004 didn't make much difference. Even some close racing in recent years--including just a 0.0635 second margin of victory in the last race I watched in 2006--hasn't helped.

A big part of the estrangement is that while Indy cars never seemed as relevant to the cars on the street as NASCAR, open-wheeled gas (er, formerly methanol and now ethanol) guzzlers seem to me more like reinforcement of the dying automobile industry than they seem to be about taking automobiles into a new "green" era. Until the racing series can convince me otherwise, it seems like just another marketing technique. Racing has always been supported by advertising and always will be, but to really interest me, it has to offer something more in addition to the advertising.

For as long as I live in Toronto, the fact that the second day of Doors Open always falls on the same day as the Indy 500 means that I will spend the day visiting buildings for free instead of watching television. Someday, (unlike this year, as I had seen a previous Hélio Castroneves' victory) I won't even have heard of the winner when I hear it reported. When that happens, I will know that I have grown away from the Indy 500 for good.

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