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Pessimism is our birthright: Coping with IndyCar fan skepticism

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The #4 National Guard Dallara driven by JR Hildebrand in testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on April 4, 2012. (Photo: Bret Kelley/INDYCAR)
The #4 National Guard Dallara driven by JR Hildebrand in testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on April 4, 2012. (Photo: Bret Kelley/INDYCAR)

"You're such a pessimist."

We were having an argument about something, as is the wont for most married couples. I thought I was expressing healthy skepticism, and my wife couldn't imagine why I would want to.

I don't know what she was expecting as a rejoinder to her accusation, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't laughter. But before she could get more angry because she thought I was mocking her, I responded in a way that turned her fury into confusion:

"I'm not a pessimist. I'm an IndyCar fan."

I'm old enough to remember the days when IndyCar fans were regarded as snooty, egotistical, wine-and-cheese consumers whose sense of elitism was outweighed only by their penchant to casually dismiss every other racing discipline in the world. I'm also young enough that I don't remember when they were the salt-of-the-earth USAC loyalists, fans as apt to want a clod of dirt catapulted into their faces by racing tires as seeing their heroes attack speed records at the Brickyard.

Fandom, you see, goes in cycles based on their contextual era. The IndyCar fans of the roadster era are significantly different in general nature than the ones who dominated the heyday of CART from 1979 to 1992, and that is because the environment in which their fandom was forged was significantly different.

Modern IndyCar fans, as a group, are usually characterized by two things - their dogged loyalty, and their dogged tendency to see the glass as half-empty. It's simple to figure out why - the die-hard fans who are left from a two-decade-long battle for supremacy between the Tony George faction and the power cabal who made up CART have been battered by steadily declining series popularity, broken promises, and a sad, inevitable inability to live up to even the smallest levels of hype.

In other words, the current generation of fans is comprised of children of great expectations in the most Dickensian sense. All the classic characters are there - the spurned Miss Havishams who lament the loss of either the CART or IRL era and train their progeny to bitterness accordingly; the Estellas, born of those prejudices and destined for a rude awakening as they discover that events are never as black-and-white as they seem; the Pips, whose modest ambitions are overinflated by empty promises of future greatness which are ultimately punctured by reality.

We are a dysfunctional lot, for sure. At times, IndyCar fans can be as generous and friendly as anyone in the world; at others, however, they can be as nasty as political enemies. In the latter instance, it is often because of defense mechanisms - so used to being promised things that go undelivered, so used to offering their hearts and passions to people and institutions who end up stomping on them or (worse) casually throwing them out with the refuse, they hunker down behind emotional barricades and try to minimize the damage.

We see plenty of evidence of this with every announcement that INDYCAR makes, and you can see the archival evidence at the fan forums which have institutionalized this way of thinking and behaving. This pessimism is an ingrained trait, threatening to become as inheritable as brown hair or pigeon-toes.

It was on display in spades after this week's INDYCAR testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The DW12s were on the track debuting their updated speedway bumper "batwings" for the first time, and for many drivers it was an occasion for their first laps of testing with the Dallara oval package at the Brickyard.

In retrospect, the big mistake that INDYCAR made was to allow their speed target for the Indianapolis 500 to leak to the public. 225mph, they said, is an achievable goal for the DW12. It wasn't reached in this first general test - but to hear the resulting hue and cry from the fans, you'd have thought that the cars were spontaneously combusting on track. That's the scope of the disaster that many vocal fans believed was in progress.

The fastest speed, turned by Marco Andretti, was 218mph. Seven miles per hour under the Month of May target. And seven miles per hour too slow for the fans.

Now, if you are interested in perspective, the average human walking speed is four miles per hour. Seven miles per hour is a brisk walk, just on the border of becoming a jog. It becomes obvious when you watch a human being accelerate to a seven mile per hour pace - arms swing faster, legs stiffen with effort, the face tightens.

Watch a car drive at seven miles per hour, however, and you're likely to erupt in frustration within moments - "HIT THE GAS, YOU MORON!" That's how slow a car looks because... well, it's going slow.

But if you left it to IndyCar fans, seven miles an hour is not just too slow, it is a margin between the life and death of the series. JESUS GOD, THE DALLARA DW12 IS NOT MEETING ITS SPEED GOALS! IT IS SEVEN MILES PER HOUR UNDER THE TARGET! And off they go to write Sylvia Plath poetry.

We could counter this with Roger Penske's assertion that fans cannot tell the difference in speed once a car gets past 200mph. I'm not sure how accurate that is for hardcore fans - but the truism in that statement is that it's only glaringly obvious on track when a car is going 218mph when other cars are going 230mph.

It is also worth mentioning that in the current era the average race pace in the Indianapolis 500 with full fuel and a race-day setup hovers right around... well, you guessed it, 218mph.

Let's add a bit more context. The cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway test were the same cars, with the same engines mounted, that will be racing in less than two weeks in Long Beach. The engine rules currently in place in INDYCAR are fairly stringent, as evidenced by the grid penalties suffered by two Lotus teams who changed engines on race weekends. So the teams were not precisely milking the last bit of performance out of either the engines or the chassis.

A way for even the most casual fan to tell that teams were not working on aggressive Indianapolis speed setups is to look at the photographs of the cars in testing. In almost every head-on DW12 photo, you can see the back edge of the rear wing poking up over the leading edge. When teams are trimmed out for top speeds for Indy 500 qualifying, they almost universally employ a negative angle on the rear wing - which means that the back edge of the rear wing is lower than the leading edge. In head-on photos, therefore, you would not see the wing's trailing edge.

Given all of those elements, the fact that the IndyCars were within seven miles per hour of their target Month of May speed should be a good sign - particularly given that initial testing at Indy with the older aero kit resulted in speeds in the 210mph range.

None of that seemed to get through to the fans, though. Skepticism would be putting the prevailing sentiment mildly. Disaster was a word bandied about. Failure also made a few guest starring appearances. And this negativity was abetted by third-party rumors that team owners, crews, and drivers were dissatisfied with the car's handling and performance.

I have news for all of you - team owners, crews, and drivers are always dissatisfied with their car's performance, right up until they are spraying the Moet on the podium. The amount of complaining that goes on at every test, every practice, every race weekend session makes sense when you put it in the proper context. But take those quotes out of context and, say, leak them on Twitter with no follow-up explanation, and it sounds like a crisis of confidence.

It was a depressing denouement to a day which should have been one for celebration - after all, the IndyCars were back on track at Indy! Break out the tenderloins and root beer! But it was not to be, because there was second-guessing to be done.

My wife, bless her heart, does not follow IndyCar racing, so she is often perplexed by my tendency to be skeptical. She would be astonished to know that in some IndyCar fan circles I am known as the resident Pollyanna, blowing sunshine up people's skirts and blissfully ignoring the dark reality behind the sunny outlook.

Someday, somehow, a new generation of fans will rise up who will dispel this black cloud that hangs over INDYCAR fandom. I just hope they hurry.