Wednesday, January 9, 2019

When Does the Nostalgia Wear Off?

When you hear that Indianapolis Motor Speedway has an announcement at 1:00 p.m. ET and IndyCar has an announcement at 1:30 p.m. ET, you are at attention. What could it be? It has to be something big.

Is it good news or bad?

It could be the new title sponsor. We are still waiting on that. It could be a new title sponsor and perhaps a title sponsor for the Indianapolis 500. That would be massive news and it would make sense that both were announced simultaneously especially if it was the same company or two related companies. 

Alexander Rossi and Scott Dixon are going to be there. This could be bad. What if it is announcing a championship format change where the top two drivers are going to be guaranteed a shot at the title in the finale but be some odd hybrid winner-take-all/points event where the top two are tied, third is ten points back and fourth in 20 points back and guarantees at least four drivers fighting for the title but isn't boiled down to one race and leave the door open for a driver to win on points? 

Those were all things that ran through my head this morning and early afternoon. 

None of that was the case. Mario Andretti is getting a commemorative logo in honor of the 50th anniversary of his Indianapolis 500 victory and the television schedule was announced. Dixon and Rossi were there for meetings and were tacked on to the press conference. Not that it is a bad thing to have the two championship contenders from 2018 on stage. Those are the guys who want out front. Remember, people are looking for a bandwagon to jump on. 

There is something that got me though when watching the Mario Andretti portion of the announcements. IndyCar has been doing a lot of commemorating the last decade and more than I can ever remember. It might be the way of the 21st century. After all, everything is done with business in mind. Every retiring superstar in baseball, basketball, hockey and motorsports gets a farewell tour. It is the same old shtick. Player announces retirement. Each city gives a gift/shows a video on the jumbotron. That player causes a spike in ticket sales for that game or games because he or she has set a finish line to his or her career and we can countdown to the day this person will never play again. A logo/badge/emblem/patch is made, emblazoned on t-shirts, hats, hoodies, backpacks, scarves, beach towels and key chains and sold as limited edition. 

It only makes sense IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway would jump on the same train as every other sports property but it is not just the logo. This is different. The last decade has been different. 

The previous decade was not a time for celebration. It was during the split. People were not in the mood for celebration. People were angry. There was a bit of hypocrisy to celebrate IndyCar's past when the series in charge of the Indianapolis 500 had split itself off from the existing series to create something new out of entirely different with a different cast of character. 

While it was not a time for celebration it could also be argued there was nothing to celebrate. That of course is not true but there is some truth in it. None of the winners from the 1950s lived to the golden anniversary of their Indianapolis 500 victory. Only two lived to see their 40th anniversary. IndyCar's golden era was too fresh. A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Rick Mears all retired in the 1990s and the achievements of those drivers belonged to a series separate from the one sanctioning the famed race. 

Fortunately, IndyCar reunified in 2008 and it could not have come at a better time. It was the same year as A.J. Foyt's 50th anniversary of his Indianapolis 500 debut. 

Looking back at the last decade it is interesting to see how IndyCar's resurgence has coincided with the golden anniversary of IndyCar's golden era. IndyCar and the Speedway have been able to sell nostalgia for the better part of the decade. The Centennial Era celebrated started in 2009, the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Indianapolis 500, and lasted through 2011, the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 but 2011 was not only a celebration of this century old race but it was also the 50th anniversary of Foyt's first victory, a victory that occurred during a culturally changing American. 

Baby boomer grew up with the names Foyt, Andretti and Unser and had STP decals adoring bicycles, gas station windows and toolboxes and workbenches in garages across this country. The consumer era was born. Kids could buy the matchbox versions of the Indianapolis 500 winner and play with them in the sandbox or on the living room floor at the feet of their parents. Television brought the image of the race into the homes of millions even if it was hours after the checkered flag had been waved. The Indianapolis 500 was the premier sporting events of the baby boomer generation. The Super Bowl came later but it was a time when the World Series, Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis 500 and Rose Bowl were king. 

The last decade has been a reminder of that great era. For the elder statesmen it is a look back to their childhoods. The days when the race was heard live over the radio in the backyard while dad stood at the grill and the kids rode bicycles in packs of a dozen strong. While the race was shown that night the alternatives were watching fireflies and listening to the cricket sing from the front porch. 

For the youths, it is about falling more in awe of these living legends that would by myths if they were not in our midst. It is about recoding every word these men speak because it is all we will eventually have of an era that took place in some cases before our parents were born. 

The wind has not let up after the 100th Indianapolis 500 nearly three yeas ago. Many though the 100th anniversary would be the end of IndyCar, a culmination that was great but fraught after watching the series go devolve from multi-million dollar, technological advance machinery to shoestring budgets with one engine and one chassis in town. Others thought the 100th Indianapolis 500 would be it. Where else could the race go? No other race has gone on this long with the level of popularity. It seemed 100 was the finish line. Once you reached it there was nowhere else to go and the masses would file out, say their final goodbyes and most would never return.

But there was more. The series and the track were sitting on a golden egg and it paid off big time.  Forgotten in the mix of these centennial marks were other great things about IndyCar. The arrival of Lotus, Parnelli Jones' victory, the 1964 race, which stands as a pivotal point for racing safety. 

After the 100th race there was the 50th anniversary of the 1967 race, the turbine and Jones' dominance fell victim to a $5 piece. Jones' loss was our gain, adding to the folklore of this event and how speed was only worth celebrating if reliability could take you 500 miles. The breakdown led the way to Foyt's third victory and put him level with Wilbur Shaw and Louis Meyer for most Indianapolis 500 victory. 

We weren't done yet. Last year was the 50th anniversary of Bobby Unser's first victory and it turned into a celebration of the entire Unser family history, which dated back to his brother Jerry's first start in 1958. 

Last year was also the 50th anniversary of the filming of Winning, the preeminent motion picture about the Indianapolis 500 and, incredibly, the film that gave us something bigger than a time capsule of the beloved era but one of IndyCar's greatest team owners, Paul Newman. 

Without that film, who knows if Newman ever gets into IndyCar at the level he does. What would IndyCar look like if Newman had never taken the role of Frank Capua? And we are talking about something greater than a man, a film and a role that turned people into fans. We are talking about what happened on track. 

Winning was released May 22, 1969 and eight days later Mario Andretti won the Indianapolis 500. Who would have thought that Memorial Day in 1969 that Newman and Andretti would ascend to the heights in terms of IndyCar importance together? 

There I am getting nostalgic thinking about the incredible weaving of humanity. But when it end? When does the nostalgia no longer become a selling point?

This year is Andretti's 50th anniversary. Next year is the 50th anniversary of Al Unser's first Indianapolis 500 and the year after that is the 50th anniversary of his second. In three year we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Team Penske's first Indianapolis 500 victory with Mark Donohue. 

The 1973 race will be tough to celebrate but the year after that is not only the 50th anniversary of Johnny Rutherford's first victory but McLaren's first victory as a team at Indianapolis. How timely that McLaren is looking to get back into IndyCar full-time? Let's hope it hangs in there until 2024. Then it will be the 50th anniversary of Uncle Bobby's second, Rutherford's second, Janet Guthrie becoming the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and in a sense it culminates with the 50th anniversary of Foyt's fourth victory. 

We have enough nostalgia to get us through 2027. If you want to get a bit further, 2028 will be the 50th anniversary of Al Unser's third and 2029 will be the golden anniversary of Rick Mears' first. 

When will it end though? Can IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 keep selling nostalgia into 2030? We take these walks down memory lane but eventually we will come to the bits of history that are less than savory. We will one day reach the darker days of the split. Will the fever still be there?

Of course, the late 90s do not have to be celebrated but we cannot keep celebrating the same moments. They will become old. On top of that eventually the living legends will pass. Our parents will pass and we will fall into the same problem with the 2000s when the legends are gone. It is hard to get up the excitement to celebrate people when they are no longer with us. We will be left with our past and the days we can recall will be those of conflict, two 500-mile races taking place simultaneously. It will be about who wasn't there. It will be the lost years when Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, Zanardi and Moore were not at Indianapolis. 

If IndyCar's wave of positivity over the last decade has been aided with the golden anniversary of IndyCar's golden era, what will IndyCar look like when we reach the golden anniversary for one of the most divisive periods in its history? 

This isn't about the next two years or five years or ten years. It is a concern that we harp too much on the past and what happens when selling the past co no longer prop up the present?

These anniversaries are wonderful celebrations and reminders of where the series was and how much has changed. At the same time, we need to start living in the present and celebrating what we have. 

The good news is I think IndyCar is at a better point to sell what it has than at any other point in the 21st century. The racing is great. At times the beauty brings me to the verge of tears from exhaustion over the excitement from green flag to checkered. We have come to appreciate Scott Dixon and Will Power and those Antipodeans are going to stick around in IndyCar for plenty more seasons. There are plenty of exciting millennial drivers: Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach and Spencer Pigot. Those names will hopefully all be around for the next decade and give the fan base and global audience a core group of drivers to embrace. 

There is a lot to celebrate in the final year of this decade but we should remember it is not only the past. The present is grand and many of us are ready to charge into the future.