SONOMA, CA - AUGUST 28: Fans looks on during the IZOD IndyCar Series Indy Grand Prix of Sonama race at Infineon Raceway on August 28, 2011 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
It seems inevitable that, as part of the self-examination that we are all engaged in right now concerning our sport, we encounter people who beg us, "Don't change IndyCar racing."
I have to sympathize with this plea because I have made it myself numerous times over the decades that I have been a fan. There is a certain locus in our brains' animal tissue where our lifelong idyll is fixed - the point in time when things were "the best they ever were." At least, that's how we remember it even if the reality and history do not support that memory.
There are some who are desperately frightened that the investigation into the aftermath of the IndyCar World Championships might lead to the very thing that some of us have called for repeatedly for years - the elimination of pack racing at 1.5-mile ovals. Their worries are every bit as legitimate as anyone else's, because in large part that kind of racing is the kind of IndyCar racing that lured them to the sport in the first place.
The IndyCar racing that I grew up with had none of the style of pack racing that provides all of those fraction-of-a-second finishes that today's fans love so much. My era was one when Gordon Johncock's win over Rick Mears at the Indy 500 was the closest finish in the race's history. But though the interval of that finish (0.16 seconds) seems in line with today's wild finishes, the way it happened was certainly different.
Mears, in fact, made up a huge deficit in the waning laps of the race - 12 seconds in 13 laps - to make the finish that close. That was what made the margin of victory so thrilling - the breathless anticipation of whether Mears would catch Johncock with his methodical, interval-shaving determination, and the uncertainty about whether he had enough laps to actually pass once he caught back up.
For reference's sake, in 1982, the year this went down, the next-closest finish in Indy 500 after the Johncock/Mears drama had been 2.16 seconds... in 1937.
It was a different era of racing, when proximity meant being on the same lap as the leaders... but also a time when deficits measured in full seconds - or even in laps - were not insuperable barriers to a possible race victory. Only a couple of years later, Bill Elliott would stun the NASCAR world by making up two full laps under green at the Winston 500. Making up two laps to win is not something that would stun today's fans (thanks to the Lucky Dog rule), but doing it under green was pretty special... and doing it at Talladega was nearly unbelievable.
Back then, a car could be totally out to lunch during one green flag run, and then after adjustments would storm to the front like a banshee. But in fairness, it was also an era when you'd be lucky to count the number of cars on the lead lap at the finish on more than one hand.
Racing today is a very different animal. The past two decades of major-league American racing have been about homogeneity as much as anything else. In NASCAR, the trend against manufacturer politics and creating more TV-friendly racing ultimately resulted in the Car of Tomorrow; in IndyCar, politics and a declining profile led to the series racing in a single type of chassis with a single engine and tire manufacturer. The on-track result has been the reduction of intervals to fractions of a second and the clustering of cars into packs. The off-track effect has been to alter the definition of change to small, incremental steps over extended periods of time.
The result has been far more TV-friendly racing - a favorite phrase among broadcasters is that "Anyone can win this race!" when in fact that sentiment is no more true today than it was in past decades. It has also resulted in a generation of fans for whom a two- or three-second gap between a leader and his pursuers might as well be two or three miles. Show a fan in 1970 or 1980 a train of 15 cars within half a lap of each other, and that fan would be flabbergasted. But today, that would likely be called a "parade" in desultory, bored tones.
But at the same time, racing has become more dull because those fractions of a second are as hard, if not more so, to overcome as any interval of seconds in earlier decades. Cars cannot separate themselves from the packs; they spend lap after lap side by side because they can't pull ahead and they can't afford to back out because of the momentum penalty.
Las Vegas illustrated the negative aspect of this form of racing in the most horrific manner possible. That is why IndyCar is looking to make changes, regardless of the fans' affinity for the pulse-pounding, ultra-tense three-wide contests.
The point of bringing this up is not to play a Robin Miller game of, "Racin' ain't the same as it was back when Vukie was smoking a Lucky Strike before putting his lap belt over his overall pants..." (I'm sure Robin would probably correct me on Vukovich's preferred brand of smokes if he ever bothered to read this). The racing I grew up with is not better than the racing today, it's just different. The same will be true twenty years from now. I would be a fickle fan indeed if I allowed myself to become fixed in a particular era and refused to adapt to the passage of time and circumstance.
What I want to communicate is that racing has continuously evolved over my forty years on this rock orbiting the Sun. In order to survive it must continue to do so, no matter the hue and cry from the inhabitants of the Inertia Age. My fellow curmudgeons and I are proof that you can survive the transition if you choose to do so.
Who knows - you might even enjoy the ride.