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What is IndyCar?

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Perhaps the better question is “What will IndyCar become?” No one expects the current dynamic to define the sport forever. What, then, should IndyCar strive for in the future?

The almost reflexive answer from many fans is to “open things up.” In short, the series should set a broad, basic template (focused largely on safety) for teams and manufacturers to meet as they wish. It would, the argument goes, “bring innovation back to Indianapolis,” allow more teams (no longer hobbled by expensive engine leases) to compete on their own terms and usher in a new era of record speeds.

Factually, there is little to dispute. An open rulebook would, by definition, increase innovation, let a variety of teams compete (even the shoestring operations) and break track records. If so, this is a no-brainer, right?

If the year was 1989, then it would be a no-brainer. A quick look at my calendar, however, suggests that it is actually 2014. In the intervening 25 years, much has changed. Obviously, a damaging split brought the sport to its knees, costing it fans and sponsors. Like it or not, there is simply less money flowing into the sport right now, and there is a realistic possibility that, in the short-term, an open rulebook could bankrupt several teams. Is the promise of innovation worth that risk?

If a major goal is to attract new fans (without alienating the existing base), one has to wonder if “Millennials” would actually care? Is “car culture” dying in America? Even if it does still exist, it might begin to revolve around innovations that focus on protecting the environment. That’s a worthy goal, but it hardly gets casual viewers excited.

Ignoring environmental aspects will lead to huge horsepower and speed numbers, but will enough people care? A track record will produce a short-term blip of interest, but will it be sustained? Does raw speed inspire us anymore?

Increasingly, the population sees the automobile as a tool, not a toy. Safety and fuel mileage rule the day. Innovation, as racers conceive the term, might not connect with the public as it used to. If it did, far more would care about America’s increasingly dormant space program.

I suspect that it is at least in part a desire to return to the CART-era 80’s and 90’s that fuels this belief. It is not really a political argument; plenty of “IRL supporters” feel this way too. Many just want to return to an era when the cars were sexier (who doesn’t?) and IndyCar made national headlines.

Unfortunately, we cannot just will the 1990’s back into existence. Put simply, there is no “quick fix.” A destructive split, along with a series of horrible decisions by management, nearly ended the sport for good.

On the eve of the 98th Indianapolis 500 (you could do worse than betting on Scott Dixon), there will be numerous articles asking how “Indy can return to the fast lane.” It frightens some to consider the possibility that, simply, “it can’t.” There must be something that can be done!

It is human nature to only appreciate something fully in retrospect. In many ways, this is a positive instinct. It prevents us from a state of complacency, ensuring that we don’t “settle.” Unfortunately, it also blinds us from enjoying what is in front of us.

IndyCar fans ought to appreciate what they have: A competitive field, likable drivers and close racing. If the series can learn how to continue on with only a modest bump in ratings and attendance, that should be good enough because, in the end, we might have reached the point where most of the public has moved on permanently from the sport.

The goal should not be returning to glories past. Chasing after ghosts rarely ends well. Instead, Mark Miles needs to come up with a plan that gradually builds the sport, while preserving what remains good about.

Much like the DW-12, such a plan is not sexy and, in many ways, has been forced upon the sport. To everyone’s surprise, though, the car has been surprisingly racy. A smart, measured plan for the future can have a similar outcome. In this case, maybe we should appreciate “good enough.”

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