This IndyCar driven by Nelson Piquet is beautiful - and it is twenty years old. Piquet's son is now an established racer. (Photo: IndyCar/IMS)
Twenty years is a long time.
In twenty years, a man can progress from being a happy father of a newborn to a happy father of a newlywed. He can go from embarking on his first career to beginning annual prostate exams.
In twenty years, the Internet went from being the confusing, text-based province of colleges, research bodies, and the military to an environment in which teenagers can awkwardly video-chat with each other in separate countries in real time.
Twenty years was about the length of time it took Josef Newgarden to go from pooping in his diapers and getting Gerbers all over his brand-new onesie to being the number one driver for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
What I'm getting at here is that there is a lot of water that goes under the bridge in twenty years. Things change. Times change.
It's just not always apparent to everyone.
Look, I'm not a doctor. I can't explain to you in psychological terms why human beings fixate on a particular time of their lives that becomes, for them, the "good old days." But it happens, and it happens to everyone.
I'm certainly not immune. I may be the only man on the planet who loves the Tom Hanks movie The Man With One Red Shoe. Virtually everyone else who has ever been born loathes this movie and counts it against Hanks as a vicious misstep in his rise to Hollywood stardom. And why not? It's got a dumb plot, a quirky visual style, and a leading lady who predates Keanu Reaves in personal dullness.
But for me, The Man With One Red Shoe is a classic. I can point to parts of it that I love - certain lines, the unfettered surly greatness of Dabney Coleman's character, the quirky and underrated Thomas Newman score - but honestly, the reason I love it so is when I saw it, not what I saw in it.
The thing is that human beings latch onto sights, smells, and sounds at a particular point of their development that resonate with them through time. These things remind them of happier and less complicated times - times in their lives which, as time marches on, become softened by the gradual blurring of the intervening years until they exist in a warm, pleasant haze.
That's why I love this rather dumb Tom Hanks movie, why I still get chills listening to Journey or Billy Joel songs, and why I don't light a match and burn the photo of myself wearing parachute pants and sporting a mullet. It's because that time of my life seems so easy, so awesome, compared to the present day. Those were my "good old days," and when I hear "Any Way You Want It," for a moment I am transported back to those days.
That is nostalgia for you. Nostalgia makes the things I thought were terrific stand out in sharp relief. But nostalgia also has another side effect - it works with the mind's already-powerful instinct to wipe out memories of not-so-great things like pain, frustration, sadness, and so forth. Nostalgia helps that process along until at some point memory becomes more or less totally sanitized.
I've said it before, though, and I'll say it again. The "good old days" were never as good as you remember they were.
That doesn't stop people from waxing poetic about how times were better then than they are now. And in terms of IndyCar racing, nostalgia tends to lead to revisionist history. All you hear about now from people who were around IndyCar racing in the early 1990s is how ridiculously awesome it was. And, sadly, these folks still use those years as the standard against which current IndyCar racing is judged and measured - even though twenty years have passed in the interim.
I wonder how many of these people recall that they too were beset by curmudgeons who kept harping on how real IndyCar racing happened back in the seventies. Those grumps had their own surly pests who scoffed at the pansies in the ‘70s who couldn't hold a candle to the greats of the 1950s. And on and on and on.
Because history is doomed to be repeated by those who do not respect it, it would be folly indeed to ignore the sport's legacy. But it is equal folly to fix oneself emotionally decades in the past. The farther we move past the events of ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, the more pathetic the constant harping on how today just doesn't measure up to yesterday becomes.
Admittedly, it is difficult to differentiate the past from the present for some longtime fans, particularly given that the evolution of the sport was arrested by the Split. An IndyCar from 20 years ago is very similar in many ways to the ones making their debut this season - far more similar than, say, a 1990s-vintage stock car would appear to a present-day vintage. Still, that inertia in technology and aesthetic should not act as an excuse for emotional, philosophical, or mental inertia.
Nostalgia is fine as long as it does not absorb and disable one's common sense. But when dealing with the present, one must be practical and not sentimental. For history to serve as an effective tool, it must be appraised in unflinchingly candid terms. For example, it's fine to point to CART in 1992 as a motorsports entity that rivaled NASCAR and Formula 1 in popularity, but it's not fine to omit the context that CART was hemorrhaging young talent left and right because nobody could raise enough money to buy a ride.
The IZOD IndyCar Series of 2012 is poised on the brink of a new beginning in so many different ways. It is good for those guiding its future to learn from the mistakes of the past. But I exhort them - and you, my fellow fans - to fix the core of your attention forward, not backward. IndyCar would benefit far more if your energies are directed to making a better future rather than rhapsodizing about the past.