Wine and cheese.
That's the metaphor that most American race fans used for IndyCar back in what most folks seem to think were the "salad days" for the category.
Back then, NASCAR was the "series of the people," the representation of blue-collar America's wild, danger-courting side. And the IndyCars were the province of snooty, pâté de foie gras-munching elitist toadies who couldn't be bothered with dirt, oil and smudges.
Generalizations though they were, there was an uncomfortable element of truth to them. Prior to NASCAR's boom period, the big money had yet to change the sport or the people who competed therein. IndyCar racing, on the other hand, had undergone a major character change with the advent of European-style formulae and an influx of drivers from overseas systems.
My, how things have changed.
These days, NASCAR is as blue collar as a Macy's department store. The pop culture boom that started in the mid-1990s and continues to this day turned a collection of good-ol'-boys-made-good into slick, big-league stars with personal assistants and PR armies - as apt to be chatting on a BlackBerry on a private jet as they might have been in the past riding a tractor and mucking out chicken coops like the late Dale Earnhardt used to do.
The "series of the people" is still that - but the people to whom NASCAR belongs have changed. Stock car racing kowtows to a corporate culture festooned with ties, collared shirts and advertising budgets. In the past, the "common man" felt ownership for the sport, but today it's as if the "common man" is only a lessee with an unflattering interest rate.
Meanwhile, the days of wine and cheese in IndyCar seem to be over. The heady heydays of the early 1990s - when IndyCar racing was a legitimate threat to Formula 1, enough so that Bernie Ecclestone himself felt the pressure - are no more. The only wine and cheese to be had lately are store-bought vintages and Kraft Singles.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Back in the day, the prevailing attitudes in the IndyCar circles of power were arrogance, ego and entitlement. If you've ever shopped at, say, the Borgata in tony Scottsdale, Arizona, you know the feeling that you'd have meandering through an IndyCar paddock in those days. There was a taste in the air of self-assured superiority and faint disdain. In fan circles, it was like belonging to a "Finer Things" club at work. Hence the resentment felt for grassroots fans towards the "wine and cheese" set.
To be sure, IndyCar and its community were knocked down more than a few pegs over the course of the 15-year Split. It was a long and painful process wherein enough humility was knocked into the powers-that-be to make them step back and take stock of how things were progressing - or, more precisely, how they were not progressing thanks to years of inertia. Because, you see, even as IndyCar's popularity and pop culture presence eroded, the attitudes did not - at least, not immediately.
The IZOD IndyCar Series today is a far different creature - for the most part, anyway - than the PPG IndyCar World Series was in the early 1990s. Sure, there is still the "Evil Empire" represented by Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske that dominates on and off the track. But in the IndyCar front offices there is a new sheriff in town, and even the "haves" among the IndyCar owners are realizing that things are going to be done differently from this point forward.
The biggest change - in my mind, anyway - seems to be that at the highest levels IndyCar wants to be relevant, and they are willing to mold the series to become so. This is dramatically different from both the pre-Split CART series and both the post-Split CART and IRL. The former believed that they made their technology relevant, and the latter believed that people should consider them relevant - even if they were not.
Randy Bernard's regime has taken a tack that is almost foreign to IndyCar racing of the past half-century - "You tell us what you want us to be, and we will adjust." Perhaps that is too accommodating for folks who haven't adjusted to today's economic and social realities, but it's a smarter move than dwelling on past successes and pretending that doing business the way IndyCar used to do it has any legitimate shot at rebuilding the series' fortunes.
To be fair, there's plenty of wine-and-cheese avenues for people to pursue - after all, there is always Formula 1 - but if current indications are correct, the IZOD IndyCar Series is moving forward more as a "series of the people" than a series that says, "Let them eat cake." Never mind that the change in focus was brought on by necessity or that the increased interaction with "common folk" is an expression of self-interest - what's important is that IndyCar racing looks like it will be more accessible and easier to appreciate than it has been in the past.
Sure, there may be a touch of wine-and-cheese left in the series, but like a true delicacy it's best used sparingly and for special occasions. The rest of the time, meat and potatoes should suit everyone just fine.