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Empathy for the IndyCar ovalistas

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Anemic crowds have been the norm at most IndyCar races outside of Indianapolis, Texas, and Iowa. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Anemic crowds have been the norm at most IndyCar races outside of Indianapolis, Texas, and Iowa. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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It's not the greatest time in the world to be a fan of IndyCar oval racing.

Not only is the number of oval races in the upcoming season drastically lower than anyone hoped, but the atmosphere around the paddock and in the management offices seems to be apathetic towards maintaining any sort of equal quota of left-turn-only events on the series schedule. At least, that's what oval fans tell me.

The reasons for this have been spelled out ad nauseum, but really, if you're a fan... how can those explanations erase the twisting sensation in the pit of your stomach when you see a road or street race replace an oval race?

For oval fans, this is not simply a betrayal of series history, but a personal insult. Every argument about why ovals aren't currently working for IndyCar illogically feels like a backhanded, thinly-veiled accusation... even though the idea that oval fans who actually take the time and money to attend one of these races are somehow to blame for their failure is ridiculous.

If you can pardon a digression, I will explain why I sympathize profoundly with oval fans, even though I understand and accept why they are doomed to be disappointed.

Anyone familiar with me knows that my other great sports passion is professional ice hockey. Those who know me closely have seen my sweater collection (don't call them "jerseys"), the game-used sticks, the McFarlane figurines, and the raft of other hockey memorabilia I have accumulated over the years. They also know I am a multi-year lower-bowl season ticket holder for the Phoenix Coyotes.

What they may not know is that prior to 2006, I could not have cared less about hockey outside of basic forensic interest.

I grew up in Indianapolis and saw Wayne Gretzky play once or twice for the WHA's Indianapolis Racers (the requisite replica sweater now hangs in my closet). I also got to see the NHL debut of Joe Thornton in Boston when I was working on the East Coast over a decade ago. But until I moved to the west side of Phoenix, I wasn't a fan.

That changed when my father started sharing his Coyotes season tickets with me after the mid-decade NHL lockout ended. It took me about a quarter of a season to realize what I had been missing. The Phoenix Coyotes at the time were desperately mismanaged and haphazardly coached by Wayne Gretzky (who I previously knew best from his Saturday Night Live skit... "Mooka-lacka-hicka means hockey..."), but I fell in love with the sport all the same.

It was actually kind of sad in a way - sad in the same way you might feel when you go to a sci-fi convention and wonder, "What on earth makes these people so addicted?" Because I got addicted to hockey. Not just the game, but the whole cloth of its history and its heritage. I even "went Canadian" a bit, to the point where I am now a slave to Canadian chocolate, ketchup chips, and explaining to my friends and family every Great White North reference uttered by Robin Scherbatsky on How I Met Your Mother.

You might be seeing the portent of doom on the horizon here as you read this buildup, particularly if you know hockey and therefore know just how precarious the situation with the Phoenix Coyotes is at the moment. I won't go into the whole sordid story, but for the past four years Phoenix hockey fans like me have lived with the knowledge that this season could be the last for the Coyotes in Arizona.

The reality is that a botched hijacking of the team by Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie just as the keys were about to be turned over to a new owner put the team on the precipice of relocation. But it's the perception that is tearing me and my fellow Coyotes fans apart.

The IndyCar ovalistas out there might feel a stirring of recognition when they hear of the way we Coyotes fans have been torn apart in the press and by other fanbases. Not enough fans show up for games. The Coyotes lose money every year. Phoenix will never be a good market for hockey. And so on and so forth.

After four years of this, we fans have built up an arsenal of excuses and rationalizations to explain why things are the way they are with the Coyotes, and in our defense many of our arguments make a lot of common sense. But that doesn't change the fact that it has proven impossible to find a buyer who wants to keep the team here who isn't also asking for ridiculous concessions from the city and the league. It also doesn't alter the fact that, barring a last-minute miracle, the team will be moving to a new city after this season.

How do I feel? Helpless. Furious. I want to pummel into unconsciousness the smug cornholes in Winnipeg, Toronto, Detroit, and all the other "traditional" markets who delight in spreading their schadenfreude over me and my fellows like a veneer of peanut butter on a sandwich. I take every critical assessment of the team, the market, and the fans personally.

But deep down, in the recesses of my logical mind, there is a dark and tiny part of me that relentlessly, inexorably looks at all of this with the kind of objectivity from which my fanboy self shies away. Emotionlessly, it informs me that reality does not deal in hope, rationalizations, and "what-ifs."

That dark little person lives in the minds of every ovalista out there too. It knows that IndyCar cannot afford to stage events where nobody shows up. It knows that oval fans can talk a great game, but if the gate receipts don't match it then that is all it really is - talk. And it knows that without invested promoters and prodigious feats of salesmanship, IndyCar oval races will not work in today's economy.

Still, there will be those who relentlessly cling to the smallest debris, thrashing about in the sea and screaming defiance even as they sink into the depths. For them, there is no inevitability, no reason that can make them accept the truth. In a way, I admire them for their tenacity.

In a larger sense, though, I cannot join them. Even as I gradually come to terms with the fact that I will lose my hockey team this summer, I must make peace with the reality that with the way things stand, oval races will continue to be an endangered species in IndyCar racing.

How, then, will I live with those two unpleasant certainties? Do I approach it with bitterness (damn you, Wayne Gretzky, for saving the team from relocation to Portland back in 2000!), or do I approach it with grudging acceptance and hope for future prospects?

It's easy to see which option is more healthy; far more difficult, though, to make the right choice.