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INDYCAR BLOG: Back to the future

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A while back, I was driving my oldest daughter and her friend home from one of their many activities. Traffic was light so my accelerator foot was a little heavier than usual. My daughter said, "Dad, you're going pretty fast, aren't you?"

"Don't worry," I joked, "we don't have enough road to get up to eighty-eight miles an hour."

Silence. Confused glances.

Adopting my best Doc Brown voice, I repeated, "EIGHTY-EIGHT MILES AN HOURRRR!!!"

This time, I got snickers. But not entertained snickers - more like the "Pssh, yeah, whatever" snickers that teenagers make when parents try to be cool and fail miserably at it.

Then I remembered - Back to the Future was released eleven years before they were born. What was a cornerstone of my pop culture life means about as much to them as, say, Marty did to me when I was a kid myself.

Marty is a great movie. It features fantastic acting by Ernest Borgnine and deservedly won the Best Picture Academy Award. But I didn't even know it existed until I was an adult and happened to catch it on Turner Classic Movies one sleepless night when I had nothing better to do. Why? Because it was released in 1955.

A few weeks after the episode in my car, I sat my kids down to watch Back to the Future. They liked the movie. A lot. But I found myself having to explain certain things that were hilarious to a child of the 80s. For example, I had to tell them that the judge at Marty McFly's high school band audition was really Huey Lewis. Then I had to follow up and tell them that Huey Lewis was actually the guy who wrote the song Marty and his band were covering. Then I had to point out where that song showed up in the movie - because it turns out that that was the first time they had heard "Power of Love" in their lives.

Eventually, they got the picture (no pun intended) and they laughed and had a good time. But they've never expressed a desire to watch it again and I haven't pressed them about it. If I'm being honest, the whole experience upset me a bit - irrationally so, but it did nonetheless.

For better or for worse, Back to the Future is iconic for me and people of my generation. It was a pop culture cornerstone for years and encapsulated so much of the 80s - the teen angst, the freedom from convention, the music, the styles. But it meant nothing to my kids. There was too much of a disconnect. It's a different world today, and while certain elements never change (the angst, the generation gap, and so forth), jokes about them are totally lost on kids who have no idea what Pepsi Free was.

Why is this related in any way to IndyCar? Because the way I and many of you "older" readers feel about Back to the Future is the same way that many IndyCar fans feel about the names Rahal, Andretti and Foyt or the invocation of the name "USAC" in connection with IndyCar. And the harsh truth is that more and more of the current and coming generation lack the context that makes those names important.

I can't count the number of blogs, forum posts and op-ed columns I have read over the past few years that have said something like, "If IndyCar racing is to survive, then Graham Rahal needs a full-time ride," or "You know what IndyCar's problem is? Not enough USAC midget and Silver Crown drivers getting a shot!" The thrust of these arguments is that having a Rahal as a star in IndyCar or getting Levi Jones to the top level of the sport is that spark, that missing connection that is keeping IndyCar from being more popular in this country.

That may have been true in years past - back when USAC was far more of a presence in the American racing scene, or back when Bobby Rahal was still driving and people identified his family name with celebrity and stardom. But it turns out that we fans who are advancing in years remember those times much more clearly - and care about them far more - than the demographic of consumers that IndyCar needs to become more relevant.

Take Graham Rahal for instance. For me and my social circle, we see Graham as a vital building block for IndyCar's future. But we see that because of his name and nationality - we link them back to what we consider to be the "glory days" of the sport. Thus, we tend to gloss over the fact that Graham has won only one race, has only run the full IndyCar schedule twice, and that his best finish at Indianapolis is 12th this year - the first year that he didn't wreck.

Everyone can see that Graham is a very personable kid. He seems to know race cars very well and gives good feedback. But whereas one group looks upon him as a prodigy, another (younger) group could very well see him as a bust... at least, based strictly upon the results he has achieved in his short career.

And lest you think I am bashing Graham here, you could also say the same about Marco Andretti. Here's a kid who has the best pedigree possible in motorsports and a legendary last name. And yet in five seasons he has one pole, one win, and 10 podium finishes. Respectable, maybe, but not eyeball-popping superstar material. Indeed, Marco gets as much (or more) attention for his bling as he does for his racing ability.

Someone asked me recently why I thought interest in motorsports was declining, and I answered that maybe it's because so much is invested in assumptions and ideas that are past their prime. Lately, racing promoters have booked bands like Foreigner or .38 Special for pre-race entertainment. I can sing "Hold On Loosely" at the top of my lungs in the shower with the best of them, but if I brought my kids to a pre-race .38 Special concert all they would do is point out the fat, old guys on stage and plug themselves back into Owl City or Maroon 5 on their iPods.

At some point, the reliance on past ideals and conventional wisdom has to be put aside to focus on something that new generations can embrace and understand without an exhaustive explanation of context. IndyCar doesn't need an Andretti or Rahal unless they are stars for more reasons than just their names. Nor does the series need an infusion of USAC talent simply because the drivers race in USAC - that is a paradigm that lost its meaning decades ago, but a certain group of fans simply didn't notice.

There comes a point where all of us have to admit to ourselves that, as time passes, fewer and fewer people will share the history we treasure. That is not an argument to ignore that history or consign it to oblivion - simply an admission that times change, philosophies change, and that clinging to an era or philosophy whose time is past is an exercise in futility.

It could very well be that the Next Big Thing could be Graham Rahal or Marco Andretti. It could be Levi Jones if he makes the transition from USAC. But it also could be someone like J.K. Vernay, J.R. Hildebrand or Ana Beatriz - drivers who don't have the "historic" names or the traditional curriculum vitae. If IndyCar focuses too much on the former to the detriment of the latter, they run the risk of being relevant only to an aging niche of fans who are already exhibiting signs of cranky porch-whittling.

There's nothing wrong with being sentimental or traditional. But to quote Doc Brown: "Your future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one." I think that what that means for IndyCar is that the rising generation of fans deserves a future enriched by the past... not encumbered by it.