The three-headed monster of Indy 500 fandom

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29: A general view of cars racing during the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The month of May is just over a week old, but already the battle lines are drawn.

In one corner are the loyalists, the die-hards, the true believers for whom the grand dame at 16th and Georgetown is Mecca.

In another corner are loyalists of another stripe - fans who were reluctantly "unified" after years of conflict, fans who spent years doggedly whittling down the importance of the Greatest Spectacle in their minds to satisfy their chosen series' politics.

Then there is a third group, the great (and, some say, largely theoretical) mass of "event fans," composed of the same people who tune in every year for the Kentucky Derby, the U.S. Open, the Super Bowl, and other "keystone" events but largely ignore the sport in question the rest of the time.

The challenge before INDYCAR is to figure out a way to satisfy all three of those groups. In fact, it is arguably INDYCAR's biggest challenge if it hopes to survive in the future.

There is a misconception that at some murky point in the past, the Indy 500 was all things to all race fans. That is not the case. But it can be said that the race's appeal was significantly simpler to quantify in years past - it was the oldest, most prestigious auto racing event in America with the fastest closed-course race cars and the most daring drivers in the world.

In 2012, though, almost none of these descriptors apply.

Indy remains the oldest major auto race in America, and its overwhelming sense of tradition and sentiment is still embedded in the world consciousness. And, indeed, Indy remains the fastest closed-course race in the world, although the cars which race there no longer pursue speed records. But the encroachment of NASCAR chopped away at its status atop American racing's pyramid until there was room for the Daytona 500 to take its place alongside Indianapolis, and in terms of driver fame there is no contest whatsoever - the tin-toppers have crushed their open-wheel brethren convincingly.

As the INDYCAR series was weakened by the decade-plus of the Split and the coincidental fragmentation of the American attention span, so too was Indianapolis weakened and fragmented. The recasting of Indianapolis as the anchor of the IZOD IndyCar Series irretrievably forced upon the race a new identity - no longer a jewel in its own right, it is now simply the crown jewel in the INDYCAR schedule, a tremendously significant distinction. In fairness, this process was the end result of one begun by the CART series, whose principals initiated the sea change in how American open-wheel racing organized itself.

This fragmented identity is personified in the disparate groups of Indy 500 fans which now orbit around the race. The "true believers" - the fans for whom Tom Carnegie's and Jim Nabors' voices are akin to those from heaven - have seen their traditions age or be gradually eroded by the passage of time, the requirements of economy, and the change of philosophy in INDYCAR racing. Possessed of a fundamentalist mindset, they cling ever more desperately to whatever threads of familiarity and sentiment they can. In some cases, this results in outright denial, but in a general sense it is manifested as a "rose-colored glasses" attitude which brooks no criticism - constructive or otherwise.

The ex-CART and Champ Car loyalists are the ones most often in conflict with the "true believers." The abrupt unification of the Indy Racing League and Champ Car could not have been more disconcerting if it had been a merger of Barack Obama's and Rick Santorum's political campaigns. The mantra from day one of the Split was that the "cars and stars" trumped the importance of the Indianapolis 500, and while time and reality eventually disproved that theory, they did not stop it from becoming belief in many of the theory's proponents' minds. The resentment against the race and its often-fanatical defenders remains bitter in many cases, and so long as the Indy 500 remains "a shadow of its former glory" in terms of technology and speed, these fans tend to downplay the race's significance.

The third group - the "event fans" - tend to pay attention to Indianapolis out of habit. Even today, odds are that if you approach someone in the street and tell them to name one auto race, they will name the Indy 500. But that impulse has become rote - there is no real meaning there, because Indianapolis no longer stands for the romantic speed records and grueling endurance of eras past. In short, these casual acquaintances to the Greatest Spectacle know vaguely that the race is important - they simply do not understand why.

As mentioned before, finding an appeal for the Indy 500 for all three of these groups is of paramount importance for INDYCAR. Why? Because it has become clear that INDYCAR cannot survive solely on the strength of one - or even two - of these groups. It needs all three to have a chance to return to health and vigor.

This means that INDYCAR needs to find a "wow factor" for Indianapolis which resonates universally. It must at once embrace the race's past traditions, erase the bitter taste of the Split years to the point where it transcends series politics, and give the casual viewer a reason to investigate INDYCAR more closely.

It is a complicated witches' brew, for sure. But it is a magic that needs to be wrought upon the grand old dame of American racing before too long, or else it will eventually become simply a footnote to the nation's history - a curious and mildly interesting relic of an irretrievable age.

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