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Buying low: Why I'm covering IndyCar racing at a low ebb

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Tony Johns (L) and Earl Ma (R) at Infineon Raceway in 2003. (Photo: Tony Johns/Thunderbird Creative Media)
Tony Johns (L) and Earl Ma (R) at Infineon Raceway in 2003. (Photo: Tony Johns/Thunderbird Creative Media)

At the end of 2007, I made a decision that, at the time, I thought was for the best: I retired from writing about racing.

I was burned out. I had spent 10 years covering NASCAR, Formula 1 and IndyCar racing, and I wasn't enjoying it anymore. I was disillusioned by politics, tired of swimming upstream against more established professionals in the business, and I felt like I was out of original ideas. It was time to do something else, I thought.

But mostly, the catalyst behind my retirement was Earl's death.

Earl Ma was my friend and writing partner for almost all of the decade I spent in the racing media. He died of complications from cancer soon after the 2007 Indianapolis 500. And when he went, so did much of my enthusiasm for the hobby we both shared.

But here I am, back at the grind once again... and again, it's also because of Earl.

I'm not going to go into the whole story about Earl and me and how we came to share our passion for motorsports. I've already written that story - you can read it if you want.

What's critical to the story I'm writing now is that Earl Ma, who was the most uptight Hawaiian I've ever met, was also one of the biggest IndyCar fans on earth. He was a bigger IndyCar fan than me, and that's saying something considering that I was born on race weekend in Indianapolis' Methodist Hospital and spent my first years in an apartment just down the road from the Brickyard.

In fact, Earl's last foray into the world before he died in a Hawaiian hospital bed was a trip to the Indy 500. He was in a wheelchair and was as weak as a kitten. His usual intensity - which in previous years was so strong that he would spend up to 48 hours without sleeping in order to edit his photographs and work on building custom models - was gone. But nothing was going to keep Earl from being where he felt he belonged during the final weeks of May - at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Earl loved Indy. He hated the Indy Racing League when it was formed and he tended to side with CART and, later, Champ Car when involved in debates about the sport. But Indy was always special. No politics, no disagreements on philosophy, no current events could ever change that for Earl. The 500 was the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Period.

Maybe that's why we bonded so well at first. As we worked together, we learned that our writing and photography styles were very complementary, but that love of Indy was the foot in the door for both of us. And as the years went by, as my cynicism over the sport of auto racing increased by exposure to the business thereof, Earl helped me to keep being a fan of Indy and IndyCar racing. His sense of wonder and enjoyment about Indy never dimmed.

I've thought about that a lot over the past year. After Earl died, so did our joint publishing endeavor. I didn't have the heart to continue it without Earl and his enthusiasm. And for two years, I enjoyed staying out of the rat race. I didn't miss the food line at the media center. I didn't miss the sweat-soaked photo vest and the dust-caked camera lenses. I had no remorse about the lack of e-mails telling me I didn't know what I was talking about, or even the phone calls at home from Fred Nation to talk about my latest column about Tony George.

But I did miss Indy.

I haven't been back to the Brickyard since Earl died. It's strange how you miss a racetrack with troughs for urinals, yellow-shirted security guards who like to channel Vogons, and a location that really isn't in the most picturesque part of the city. But being away from Indianapolis - in body and spirit - left a hole that I felt needed to be filled.

This is going to sound cheesy, but I also felt like Earl's memory was prodding me to get back to work. The only guilt I felt about retiring was that I was giving up on something to which Earl devoted a lot of time and effort. He wouldn't have wanted me to give it up just because he wasn't there to help keep me going.

So towards the end of 2009, I belatedly decided that Earl was right. I didn't just owe it to him to get back into the game - I owed it to myself, because Indy is too much a part of me to give up on it.

Does it make sense for me to be blogging about IndyCar racing at a time when the sport is at its lowest point in years? Maybe not to people without such a sentimental link to the subject matter. Money is tight, people are having a hard time finding rides, and there's a power vacuum at the top that has everyone uncertain about the future. NASCAR monopolizes American pop culture's focus on motorsports. And - if we're being totally honest - IndyCar racing coverage is a niche within a niche at SBNation.

To me, though, getting back on the IndyCar bandwagon is like buying a stock in a bear market. Right now, the value is low - but I don't expect that to last forever. The sport of IndyCar racing is on the cusp of a major shift in fortune; it's either going to bust or it's going to take off. Such is my faith and love for the sport, I am firmly in the latter camp. The Brickyard's centennial and the possibility of a revolution in IndyCar tech could mean big things for the sport in the next few years.

So here I am. I've had two years to clear my system of ennui and schadenfreude, and I find that I'm excited to be back on the beat. I'm looking forward to a racing season for the first time in a long while.

I think Earl would be proud of me.