SONOMA, CA - AUGUST 26: Helio Castroneves, driver of the #3 Penske Truck Rental Chevrolet, holds a sign during driver introductions before the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma on August 26, 2012 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
You really need to read this blog from SPEED F1 pit reporter Will Buxton.
Buxton made the trip over the pond to the Colonies to catch the IZOD IndyCar GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma this past weekend. He wasn't here to cover the race, just attend it as a fan - albeit a fan with a bit more celebrity status than most of the rest of us enjoy.
His next racing stop is going to be at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, home of one of this planet's most incredible racing tracks, where the stars and cars of the Formula 1 World Championship will be taking to the asphalt in anger.
But if you believe his blog, that incredible combination of high-tech, high speed, and high society is actually going to suffer a bit by comparison. To IndyCar. And no, that's not a misprint.
The same IZOD IndyCar Series that can't even draw the equivalent of a small town to one of its race broadcasts on NBC Sports Network just flabbergasted a guy who works in a sport whose TV viewership could probably fill two or three Los Angeleses.
It's a bit hard to wrap your mind around it, isn't it?
But to me it's not very surprising when you think about it in context. Remember, Will Buxton is coming at IndyCar from a very different viewpoint than your average run-of-the-mill American sports fan.
There is a lot - a whole lot - you can say about IndyCar if you want to point out why it is an afterthought in the United States. Better writers than me have written lengthy epistles about why the Indianapolis 500 is no longer - and may never be again - the acknowledged greatest auto race in the world to anyone outside of Indiana or the inexorably aging fanbase who lived at a time when it was.
All of that, however, exists in a separate context from Will Buxton and, in fact, a great many "petrolheads" who have been exposed to other big-time racing series.
For people used to the world of Formula 1 (and, it can be argued with increasing frequency, NASCAR), IndyCar is a revelation. You see, IndyCar is a sport trying to get back into the limelight, and the difference between that paradigm and the one employed by F1 and NASCAR is significant.
IndyCar is accessible in ways that F1 never will be. Formula 1 has been for decades and will continue to be for the foreseeable future a self-appraised "sport of kings." It is consumed by megawattage, the accrued power of celebrity, wealth, and royalty of all types. Like a supercar or a crown jewel, it is to be seen and experienced from a distance unless you have a sufficient level of privilege.
IndyCar was like that once. Perhaps not to the same Saville Row extent, but it had a high enough opinion of itself that it could afford to be, and often was, haughty to the hoi polloi. The "people's motorsport" back then was NASCAR - the John C. Reilly to IndyCar's Paris Hilton.
No longer. Now IndyCar is in a position where it has to persuade people to take an interest, and the beneficiaries of that are the fans. Because there are no paddock-choking crowds of fans like the ones in NASCAR, the odds of fans actually interacting personally with the series' stars are far better. Outside of Indianapolis, there are none of the waiting lists for credentials on the same level of F1 or NASCAR - which means that the series' media people can deliver more personalized accommodation to interested journalists.
If we're being honest, IndyCar races other than the Indy 500 are not "bucket-list" events, so IndyCar has to find ways to add value to them to ensure that the fans get their money's worth. A ride-along with one of the greatest race car drivers who ever lived? Sure! Free autographs from almost every driver in the series at the track? Yep... step right up!
You see, humility forced upon IndyCar by its tumble from grace in the 1990s has wrought a great many changes in how it appeals to people who bother to experience it. It is, in fact, the converse of what happened to NASCAR during its explosion in popularity over the past twenty years. As NASCAR signed huge TV deals, packed in throngs of fans and pop culture hangers-on, it lost a great deal of that backwoods sittin'-on-a-cooler racer-next-door bonhomie which made it so ingratiating and appealing to blue-collar America. IndyCar, by virtue of losing the trappings of success, has rediscovered it.
In a sense, IndyCar has become a better motorsport series thanks to its ongoing struggles. Better, at least, for the fans - they're still working on the product and its management, as anyone who reads the headlines knows well. Right now, though, IndyCar may be one of the best investments of fan dollars in all of racing.
Whether that remains true if and when the series regains the prominence it so covets is open to speculation... but we can jump off that bridge when we come to it.