My kids love the Triple Crown.
They know nothing about thoroughbred horse racing. They don't understand the odds, they don't know who the stars are of the sport (be they horses or riders or trainers), and they have no idea how much money a particular three-year-old horse has made in the season.
But every year they set aside three spring weekends to watch horse racing. They understand that the Kentucky Derby is the oldest, greatest horse race in America, and they understand that the winner of that race has the chance to do what only 11 horses have done in 80 years - win the Triple Crown.
That excites them about a sport that, for the rest of the year, may as well not exist at all.
The Triple Crown of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes has been the ultimate test for thoroughbred racing in this country for almost a century. The whole concept is so ingrained into the national consciousness that it turns a sport that is most famous for wagering into a spectacle where most of the general public forgets that it's all about money in the first place - a rather impressive accomplishment. The Triple Crown concept has such an impact that no less than 14 nations have their version of it, including Ireland, Hong Kong, Uruguay and Macau.
"Majors" concepts like the Triple Crown are used as a "gateway drug" for sports like horse racing and golf and other pursuits that feature long seasons with many events but no end-of-season overall title. It is, in short, the ability to celebrate greatness in microcosm.
The IZOD IndyCar Series itself experimented with its own Triple Crown decades ago, with the Indianapolis 500 paired with races at Pocono Raceway and the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway as a trifecta of 500-mile events. That was back in an era when 500-mile races were seen as tests of will and endurance, when the race distance taxed men and machines to their utmost limit.
Today, of course, 500-mile races are in plentiful supply. If the IndyCar Series wants to create a new Triple Crown, as was suggested by Randy Bernard at last week's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, there needs to be a different hook to grab people's attention.
NASCAR, the sanction that is responsible for flooding the landscape with 500-mile races, experimented with its own "majors" concept in concert with R.J. Reynolds starting in 1985 with the "Winston Million" and then changed in 1998 to the "Winston No-Bull 5" races.
The Winston Million program awarded $1 million to the driver and team that could capture three of the four "crown jewels" of the NASCAR Winston Cup season - the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, and the Southern 500 at Darlington. The races were marketed respectively as the "richest," the "fastest," the "longest" and the "oldest" races on the schedule. In the 17 years that the program ran, only two drivers were ever able to win the Winston Million - Bill Elliott in 1985, and Jeff Gordon in 1997. Elliott's feat got him on the cover of Sports Illustrated and forever marked him as "Million Dollar Bill."
When it became clear that a $1 million prize for winning NASCAR's four self-titled "majors" was no longer impressive enough to garner the public's interest, NASCAR and RJR changed the program to award $1 million per race for drivers who won at these events. Unfortunately, the idea of winning on a race-per-race basis devalued the entire "majors" concept and, with the loss of RJR as the program sponsor and the Francis Ferko anti-trust lawsuit that changed the landscape of NASCAR race dates, the "majors" program was discontinued by NASCAR. NASCAR's "Chase to the Championship" 10-race "playoff" system took its place, putting greater emphasis on the season-ending championship.
Still, the "majors" concept remains an attractive one for auto racing in general and IndyCar in particular because of the promotional and exposure benefits. What remains is to find out what sort of hook will bring in the most attention. Simply adding two 500-mile oval races and calling them "majors" will not work, as much because the IZOD IndyCar Series no longer focuses on oval racing as the fact that 500-mile races are no longer considered unique.
The strength of the present-day IZOD IndyCar Series is arguably its "cross-training" aspect - the fact that the series races on road circuits, street circuits, short ovals, intermediate ovals and superspeedways. No other racing series in the world can make that claim (not even NASCAR, which does not have street-course events). For that reason, any collection of IndyCar "majors" should reflect that level of event diversity.
IndyCar already has two prime events that qualify - the street race in Long Beach, and the Indianapolis 500. It follows that, in keeping with the "cross-training" aspect of the series, the two additional "major" events should be held at a short oval and a natural road course. For series purists and traditionalists, the only real choice for the latter would be Road America, the sprawling four-mile-long course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin with a rich history involving US open-wheel racing. However, Road America is not even on the IndyCar schedule this year, nor are there plans to bring it back in the near future. As for the short-oval race, Iowa Speedway is the only short oval track left on the IndyCar schedule.
As for other possible candidates for IndyCar "majors," one would be remiss to not consider Texas Motor Speedway. The track routinely sells out its IndyCar events and, with the demise of the Milwaukee Mile, now occupies the plum post-Indy slot on the schedule. The track also fits the "cross-training" bill as an intermediate-length oval at 1.5 miles, and only three drivers have ever won at both Indy and Texas. However, the race distance would need a bump from 550 kilometers (approximately 342 miles) to a full 500 miles to qualify.
Without Road America on the schedule, the only other natural road course on the IndyCar schedule that might qualify as a "major" would be Watkins Glen, New York. The Glen has plenty of historic value, having hosted top-level racing of all types (including Formula 1) for decades. Its proximity to the New York media market is significant as well.
A five-major program at Long Beach, Indianapolis, Texas, Watkins Glen, and Iowa would encompass the range of disciplines required to compete on the IndyCar circuit. As it happens, on the current IndyCar schedule all five of these theoretical "major" races are run consecutively, interrupted only by this weekend's race at Kansas, giving IndyCar a "block" of major races that it could promote in the same manner as NASCAR's Chase program. The downside is the effect that pimping a mid-season block of races would have on the prior and subsequent events, as well as the season championship.
Another point to consider is the program scope. Does IndyCar award honors only for a "major sweep" by a driver, or does it accept a subset of wins (3 of 5, for instance) as award-worthy? And what should be the prize? Certainly a five-race (and possibly consecutive) sweep would be a significant achievement - certainly worthy of a significant award.
Despite the logistical problems and issues facing the implementation of a "majors" program in IndyCar, the prospect itself is an exciting one - particularly if it is accompanied by a publicity-attracting prize. Such a program would achieve something that is long overdue - acknowledgment of the fact that while Indianapolis is the crown jewel of the sport, it is not the only one in the crown.