This column is about the inevitable, wonderful, frightening, confusing concept of change. Simple definitions for change use words like alter, modify, or become transformed. Those are all well and good. But the concept of change is something that is unavoidable and necessary. In this paradigm, change is akin to evolution, which is what ensures an entity’s relevance in the world.
The idea that sports should evolve often endures a backlash from its followers, ones who grew up with it and “liked the way it was” or found comfort in its product. The elder statesmen and women have more time invested and have come to see the sport in a particular way that should not be faced with new ideas. The fans of sports are, in many ways, its arbiters and their sentiments carry influence.
This conservative mindset is not limited to just fans but also is prevalent in the management of sports. For example, look at how baseball, in this modernized and technological world, resisted the introduction of instant replay — something that one would have thought to have taken place years ago.
Motorsports, almost by contrast, has been forced to continually evolve to survive. Much like football, the sport adopted most measures out of concerns for safety. Say whatever you want about the inherent dangers involved in motorsports, but no one wants to watch people die doing them. All forms of racing have included some kind of safety changes as the technology of the machines improved.
But when sporting organizations mess with the status quo for reasons other than safety… welcome to the backlash.
Mike Neff offered his thoughts on the upcoming Grand Prix of Indianapolis. His piece was reasoned, thoughtful, articulate, and completely missed the point. Though it gave a review of how the Indianapolis 500 used to rule the month of May, it failed to address the most obvious concern: the past.
The article was one that opined the changing of the times and how the new Grand Prix was cheapening the product, lessening the meaning of the Indy 500. As noted, that’s been true since the Indy/IRL civil war that crippled open-wheel racing in America.
So the race no longer entices interest for the whole month of May. So what? Really, should any sporting event try to linger for that expanse of time? Even the Super Bowl only takes up two weeks of the sports cycle. To think that the 500 should take on such prominence in this age is positively laughable, but the bigger problem is the product itself.
The 500 used to be about getting great drivers together, the world over, and seeing who would emerge the victor. As Formula One grew in stature, a divide grew between those in that series and those racing the one in America. No longer could a field claim to have a full grid of open-wheel stars. That NASCAR began its rise to prominence in the 1980s also contributed to this issue as it took potential Indy drivers away from the sport.
The cheapening of the product is not about adding the GP of Indy. It is about the fact that when the green flag is shown to the field for the 500, a number of the 33 cars shouldn’t be there in the first place. In the last IndyCar race, held at Barber Motorsports Park, 23 drivers started. Where are these extra ten drivers coming from? How can that be considered the crème of the competition when they aren’t driving these cars with more regularity?
So the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is not about lessening the 500 as it is an evolution that the series hopes might bring more attention to the sport. The track no longer hosts just one race a year, and if Indianapolis is the heart of the sport, why shouldn’t it host a road course race to complement the storied one?
From this perspective, the new race actually enhances the sport and brings more focus to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Another way of looking at it is to sense the genuine attempt to help the product in a way that goes beyond the publicity that will surround Kurt Busch as he attempts to make the 500. That’s no crack on Busch as much as it is to note that Busch is one of those ten other drivers.
From a longitudinal perspective, the GP of Indy also serves another needed function, which is to make sure that IndyCar has a schedule worth following. The introduction of the duels at places like Belle Isle and Houston has seemed like a quick fix that pushes the series to have a solid number of races on the schedule. The duels also feel like a cheap way out. Bringing the GP to fruition does not follow that model and sets the series up to start a new tradition that very well may become, well, the new month of May.
Perhaps a better way to think of the new GP is to consider the alternative. For those fans who love the sport, and yes, that number seems to keep diminishing, the other choice would be not to hold the race and try to stick with the same thing and watch the series race further into oblivion. Hence, if you care about it, you want the series to try moves like this one, attempting to regain a foothold, nee, a toehold in the sporting landscape.
It’s easy to look back on eras and events with rose-colored glasses, imagining that the sepia-toned memories of yesteryear are the ones that should enjoy the most prominence. But by not changing, those memories will be the only lasting ones. Sports need change so that new memories can be formed, so that they can remain relevant. So that they can still mean something.