SONOMA, CA - AUGUST 26: Dario Franchitti of Scotland, driver of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Honda signs autographs during practice for the IZOD IndyCar Series Grand Prix at Infineon Raceway on August 26, 2011 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Do you want to know the most frequently asked question I get these days?
It's a variation of the following: "How much longer do they expect me to be a fan of INDYCAR??"
They in this case is a blanket term that includes everyone from Randy Bernard to Brian Barnhart to Tony Cotman to team owners to drivers to sponsors, depending on who's uttering the question and in what context.
Now, let's be frank - if there's one thing that has been constant over the years, it's the prevailing opinion of INDYCAR's hardcore fans that the series is doooooomed. Lately, though, there seems to be a lot of sentiment - aided and abetted by certain hack-level bloggers and their constant complaining - that INDYCAR isn't even worth sticking with until its inevitable demise.
"How much longer..."
Last month I published a list of reasons why INDYCAR fans ought to be positive about the series. But there was one big reason that I left out that I really shouldn't have: the people who make INDYCAR what it is.
Attribute it to whatever you want - a lack of fame or prestige that makes them desperate for exposure is the normal excuse I read - but the personalities in INDYCAR are some of the most accessible in professional sports.
Many pro athletes use their social media accounts as advertising and the most personal notice they give to fans is to retweet pleas for attention for birthdays and funerals. Not so the INDYCAR paddock. You can find nearly all of the drivers from the IZOD IndyCar Series on Twitter and Facebook, and what's more the majority of them will actually respond to you conversationally. Some drivers are better at it than others, and yes there are one or two drivers who sadly fall into the stereotypical mold - but on the whole, INDYCAR-affiliated drivers (including drivers from Firestone Indy Lights, USF2000, and Star Mazda) treat you like a real person, and that is very rare.
And it's not just the drivers who excel at personal outreach. The public relations staffs on both the series and driver side are superstars. I hate to name names because I will inevitably leave out someone deserving of praise, but people like Arni Sribhen, Amy Konrath, and Liza Markle represent INDYCAR and IZOD with professional courtesy even with the avalanche of negative feedback they are forced to weather as the public face of the sport. The driver and team PR people, meanwhile, are some of the more inventive in sports. Sure, they have to be because INDYCAR is in a recognition drought - but there is relatively little of the big-leaguing that goes on with other PR firms and representatives in other sports among INDYCAR reps.
Happily, this sense of bonhomie is not limited to the anonymity of the Internet. In person, INDYCAR people are even more friendly, generous, and affable. Unless they are busy at work or under high pressure levels, INDYCAR people go to sometimes extraordinary lengths to prove that you matter. Yes, you, the doom-and-gloom fan who expects to be cold-shouldered by anyone connected to the sport (thanks a lot, yellow shirts) - you can be treated like an actual human being by professionals and athletes in a major sport.
I want to give a personal example here that I think is very relevant to current events. A few years ago when I was starting to expand into INDYCAR coverage, I was invited to a Penske Racing media dinner at the Penske Racing Museum in Scottsdale. I spent the evening talking about the sport with Helio Castroneves and Tim Cindric, both of whom were seated at my table. This was a treat for me because Helio was Penske's hottest driver and recently a consecutive winner of Indy 500s.
But it was the guy sitting to my right with whom I spent most of the night conversing. We actually spent over an hour deep in discussion about the sport, its direction, and its future. Long-time readers of Pop Off Valve know how opinionated and long-winded I am in print, but this was one of the first times I let myself be that way in person. The guy I was talking to took it in stride with good humor, and none of his answers were pat, spin-filled PR statements. It was a real, honest off-the-record powwow.
You may not believe it, but that guy was Brian Barnhart. He probably wouldn't remember me or that dinner conversation if you asked him, but I haven't forgotten and likely never will.
I think about that night a lot, particularly with the recent controversies surrounding INDYCAR Race Control. It's why, even when I am at my snarkiest and most critical, I still try not to make things personal. I may disagree with a theory, a concept, or an action - but I do my best to limit my reaction to those specific things and not carry it over to create a generalized (and almost assuredly incorrect) assessment of the person responsible for them. I can, therefore, say that Brian Barnhart may not be suited to run Race Control, but not because he's inherently evil (as others have alleged), but because almost everyone eventually acquires a level of authority that is above their level to manage capably. It doesn't make them worse people - it just means that they have reached a certain professional limit that exceeds their capacity.
So if you ask me, "How much longer do you expect me to be a fan of INDYCAR?" my answer is simple. As long as INDYCAR stays true to the exceptional caliber of people who work in the sport, as long as they keep treating us like people who matter, we ought to keep giving them the benefit of the doubt and our support. Criticize, but do so constructively - as if you believed your criticism could contribute to making substantive changes that benefit INDYCAR and those involved in it, instead of being an excuse to cut someone down and make yourself feel bigger.
And for heaven's sake, stop saying the sky is falling when it's just a passing storm.