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The cult of personality's statute of limitations

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What happens to racing when the cars don’t matter anymore?

At one point in our history, races like the Indianapolis 500 made stars out of its drivers for the sole reason that they drove the cars that raced at the Brickyard. The same thing happened in NASCAR - the big names were the ones who “raced on the beach” in cars that people could put in their own driveways.

But as society’s focus gradually shifted from the automobile to celebrity as a vehicle for escapism, racing series discovered that they could shift the onus of selling their sport onto the people who drove the cars rather than the cars themselves. Racing technology began a slow but inexorable drift toward the periphery.

For someone like me who has been a race fan for nearly almost four decades, it seems impossible to contemplate. But drivers like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have achieved crossover celebrity among people who could care less that Gordon and Earnhardt don’t drive the Hyundai that is in their garage. Only the old-school NASCAR hardcores - a steadily shrinking minority - still seem to care that, for instance, Richard Petty now fields Fords, and that therefore they must change their loyalties to another Dodge team.

Meanwhile, the IndyCar series for the past few years has been skittering around on the floor like a rat looking for table scraps because their form of racing ran up against a couple of obstacles that they still haven't been able to surmount. Namely, (a) they artificially and intentionally slowed down their race cars, and (b) they spent a decade-and-a-half wallowing in a mud puddle of stupidity and egotism (i.e., the Split).

Reason (a) is a problem because one of the main reasons why Indy achieved pop culture success up until the 1990s was the fact that their cars ran the fastest closed-course speeds in the world. Prior to the formation of the Indy Racing League, IndyCars were still breaking speed records at Indianapolis to the tune of nearly 240mph average laps - which at that time was as fast as a pro stock dragster in a straight line.

One of the first things the fledgling IRL did was to embark on a speed-limiting formula. Their reasoning was two-fold: limit liability and hazard, and make it easier for “grassroots” drivers to move up to big-time IndyCar racing. This resulted in big, blocky, over-aero'ed race cars that proved to be so simple to drive that a dentist entered a couple of Indy 500s. Only the return of former CART team owners and their lobbying influence began to reverse this trend.

Reason (b) is a problem because after the Split, the “name” drivers went one way and Indianapolis went the other, and eventually, faced with a bitter, vitriolic civil war that tainted the entire landscape, those outside the hardcore lines lost interest. Ratings and attendance plummeted as a result. If that were not bad enough, the bank accounts on both sides were sucked dry from all of the infighting, which, combined with a decline in corporate interest and the current recession, has led to popular drivers being left on the sidelines in favor of less famous (and, in some cases less skilled) people with fatter wallets.

Fifteen years later, IndyCar racing has struggled to recapture the star power that the series used to enjoy. The IRL still has Indianapolis, which still carries some pop culture weight (albeit largely among an increasingly older demographic who remembers when the Indy 500 was still "America's race"). But the drivers are at best on the B- or C-list in terms of celebrity. IndyCar’s only real “breakout” star is considered such largely because she is a woman (and swimsuit model) in a man's sport and not because she wins races - and worse, she’s planning a career in stock cars as soon as next year. Helio Castroneves’ stint on Dancing With The Stars turned him into a star, but as “the racer guy who won Dancing With The Stars” - a distressingly large number of people still believe he races in NASCAR.

With IndyCar’s anemic personality cache, one would think that the cars once again would become the stars. But the IndyCar series’ car technology has reached a stagnant equilibrium of a "spec" chassis and motor with no real innovation. This has happened because of financial expediency, but the series is hamstrung all the same.

It is clear that the “spec” formula has seriously weakened IndyCar. In the past, people within the sport preached the benefit of "spec" rules and limiting innovation due to the costs involved. That attitude appears to be changing, and for good reason. With a single “dumbed down” chassis and engine formula, the increments in which success is measured are reduced to fractions of a second. Gaining those fractions of a second is an exercise in proving who can spend the most money in R&D, testing and fudging the rules. Hence, the competition for the top of the pyramid usually gets whittled down to one or two top teams with the most financial resources, and everyone else is left to pick up the sloppy seconds. Racing then becomes predictable and, thus, boring to the fans as the same storyline plays out over and over again.

NASCAR has found themselves in a similar dilemma. The advent of the Car of Tomorrow has led to increased safety, but it has also homogenized the competition. The only visual differences between makes are different sets of headlight and grille decals. The engine technology is differentiated in ways that are beyond the casual fan’s understanding and interest.

In the past, NASCAR would not have cared a whit about those things because of their heavy focus on personality over technology. But that has been a double-edged sword, as evidenced by the prolonged slump suffered by Dale Earnhardt Jr., which NASCAR's leadership has recently blamed for the slow but inexorable decline in ratings and attendance over the past couple of years. It has gotten bad enough that Danica Patrick’s recent stock car racing experiments have been called a hopeful sign for NASCAR - a “rising tide” of interest that will turn NASCAR’s fortunes around (where have we heard that before?).

Formula 1, in contrast, remains the best example in the world of people still willing to pay astronomical amounts of money for the privilege to be involved as sponsors, participants and fans. Why? Because F1 is all about innovation, even with the restrictions the FIA place on the sport from year to year. Even when Michael Schumacher retired, the sport still prospered. F1 is independent of its driver stars, even though because they race in F1 the drivers are celebrities, because every year there is a new story to tell about the technology.

It is for this reason that IndyCar racing needs the DeltaWing concept (if not the actual full-sized model car built around it, which has been a source of almost universal disapproval). DeltaWing represents a radical change in IndyCar thinking. It has the aura of innovation and new directions. Even better, it represents a better return on investment than the current rules - the cost of a DeltaWing and an owned engine is intended to cost less than half of a current IRL-spec Dallara and a leased Honda.

Think what you want about the DeltaWing car (and I am on record as not liking it very much), but when the foam model was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show, the term “DeltaWing” became the 35th most-searched-for term on Google. Worldwide. When was the last time anything outside of Danica Patrick garnered that kind of publicity for the series?

The thing about the cult of personality is that celebrity is ephemeral. Nobody knows when it will strike or how long it will last. That is why society today clamors incessantly for new stories, whether they’re about people or cars. The DeltaWing concept is like a brand new book full of new stories with many authors. Better yet, it is a way for the car to become the star in IndyCar racing once again.