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Transforming IndyCar from a topic to a story

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My first introduction to NASCAR legend Bobby Allison was a pre-race story told about him prior to the 1973 Indianapolis 500. (Photo: IMS)
My first introduction to NASCAR legend Bobby Allison was a pre-race story told about him prior to the 1973 Indianapolis 500. (Photo: IMS)

I'm going to make an admission that will probably get me in hot water with the Indy-rati out there.

I was born in Indianapolis on race weekend. I spent most of my early life only blocks away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But until I finished college, the only IndyCar race I ever watched was the Indianapolis 500.

That's right. Although philosophically methanol ran through my veins like platelets, I had no background or appreciation for USAC racing, CART, roadsters and Road America, midgets and Milwaukee, or any of the trappings of Indy car racing that everyone tells me is the absolute lifeblood of the sport.

If that's not embarrassing enough, I only learned that there were more IndyCar races than THE BIG ONE after playing video games in my college dorm room.

I learned everything I know about IndyCar history by researching it, not by experiencing it. I like to think I have a good basic foundation for IndyCar's past by now, but for most of my life I experienced IndyCar in the same way that the enormous majority of people around the world do today - by watching it once a year in late May at the Brickyard.

That's the secret about why I am so particular and anal about how the Indianapolis 500 is presented every year by ABC and the rest of the media. It's because for years that annual broadcast was the equivalent of my racing storybook.

My family planned our entire day around the Indy 500 broadcast. Granted, this was in a much different era than we live in now, but at the time the pre-race broadcast was as vital as the event itself for me. Why? Because it let me catch up on what the drivers I knew had been doing over the past year, and it introduced me to the ones with whom I wasn't familiar.

The pre-race broadcasts in those days were like watching a Ken Burns series of mini-documentaries. Thirty-three drivers were in the field, and each driver got his (and, later, her) own paragraph of introduction - not just their names and hometowns, but a virtual snapshot of their lives up to the moment they settled into their race cars after one of the Hulmans belted out the Most Famous Words.

The bigger names - as well as the lesser drivers with the most intriguing backstories - got Olympic-style soft-focus features showing them away from the track. Relaxing with family... kicking back in their old garage... walking through the meadows of their native country. The network wanted to introduce these drivers as people with personalities - putting faces and lives to the cipher-like visages of their racing helmets and firesuits.

As a kid, I sat rapt with attention as these vignettes paraded past me on the tiny TV screen in our living room. There was Lloyd Ruby, the colorful guy with the everpresent cowboy hat and gentle Texas twang. There were the Bettenhausens, back at the Speedway year after year, as much a part of the fabric of Indianapolis as the bricks at the start/finish line. And how about this - it's Al Unser's son, coming to race with his dad and uncle!

Now, for hardened veteran fans, these bits could have seemed like fluff pieces, unnecessary to the fabric of the Great Event itself. But for me, they were - and are to this day - much-loved and well-remembered stories that created an ongoing narrative for me as the years passed. They wove the fabric of the Indy 500's story into my DNA.

I'm sad that these stories have gradually been eroded as substance has taken a back seat to style and hype. The excuses are plentiful - the cost associated with broadcasting the race requires more airtime for sponsors; the advent of the Internet and availability of information outside of the broadcast; the need to grab a viewer's short attention span.

But the long and short of it is that the stories aren't getting told anymore in anything but a perfunctory, superficial manner. And yet people still wonder why it's so hard to get people interested in IndyCar these days.

I may be getting old and I may have grown up in a different time, but I will believe until my dying day that the best way to engage someone's attention is to tell them a story. Whether people stay interested in that narrative depends on the story you tell them.

I hope that this year - the first year A.D. (After Danica) - that someone decides to start telling these stories again on the one day of the year that the nation and the world elect to pay attention to this great sport and its engaging personalities. Certainly, without the crutch of Danica Patrick's star power, the story may be more challenging to sell to the hoi polloi - but then, isn't that the sort of challenge to which the media should aspire?

It's a story worth telling - worth sharing - to the new generation of starry-eyed kids who still love to dream.