Monday, May 23, 2016

Provincialism go home

IndyCar owner Sam Schmidt's day began with him driving a specially-designed Chevy Corvette around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 152 mph, not a bad bit of stepping along for a former hotshoe who was left a quadriplegic by a crash at Orlando 16 years ago. But then he watched one of his drivers hang it on the edge and keep it there for four laps in the last of the day, winning the pole position for the 100th Indianapolis 500 by less than an eyeblink.

So you could forgive a bit of cognitive dissonance.

"God bless America," Schmidt said down on pit road, as his polesitter, James Hinchcliffe, let out that breath he'd likely been holding for four laps.

The no longer ink-stained scribes in the IMS media center immediately picked up on the irony.

"God bless America? Hey, Sam, your guy broke up the all-American front row," someone said, or words to that effect.

Provincialism is a big deal in auto racing, or at least it's perceived to be. And so when Hinchcliffe, a Canadian, snatched the pole from Josef Newgardan, a Tennessean, a few wise guys immediately started crafting phony wise-guy ledes.

"How about 'Maybe we should build a wall after all'?" one of them said.

OK. So it was me.

I was, of course, joking, because provincialism is a bad fit for Indianapolis in May, where the 500 is the century-old phenomenon it is because there has always been a shine of international glamor to it. If the Unsers and Foyts and Andrettis have made it an American event, the Jim Clarks and Tony Kanaans and Dario Franchittis have made it a world presence. Ten countries will be represented in this year's field, drivers who hail from Toowomba, Australia (Will Power) to Ipswich, England (Pippa Mann) to Moscow, Russia (Mikhail Aleshin). There are three drivers in the field from Bogota, Colombia, alone (Carlos Munoz, Juan Pablo Montoya, Gabby Chavez).

So this is not a solely American thing and never has been. And here's the odd thing: As much as the largely American crowd might have been rooting for Newgarden, Ryan Hunter-Reay (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) and Townsend Bell (San Luis Obispo, Calif.) to hang onto the front row -- it would have been the first all-American front row at Indy since 2001 -- the Canadian who crashed the party is as hugely popular as anyone.

Which follows the trend. And it's why, here at the Blob, we've never bought the notion that IndyCar fell off the map after A.J., Mario, Al and Bobby and Rick Mears retired and no comparably dominant Americans stepped in to fill the void.

Nonsense. Some of the most popular drivers in 500 history have been, like Hinchcliffe, visitors. Clark, Graham Hill, Emerson Fittipaldi, Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti ... the list goes on and on.

What you want, and what will give the sport a boost, is to have at least some Americans who can be public faces for the sport. That's the issue right now for IndyCar. With the possible exception of Graham Rahal, there aren't enough Americans who've managed to be successful enough to capture the public imagination the way A.J. and Mario and the Unsers did. It's a balance issue, and the balance isn't there right now.

So, yeah, a lot of people were rooting for the all-American front row. But at the same time, they weren't rooting against Hinchcliffe -- one of the most popular and accessible drivers in IndyCar, and who was owed some good karma from the Speedway after the place tried to kill him last year.

And who, of course, is also a proud Canadian who waved the maple leaf after winning the pole yesterday, and who feels a kinship with the late Greg Moore, an IndyCar star from Canada who was killed in a race and whom Hinchcliffe grew up following.

"I still wear red gloves in honor of Greg," Hinchcliffe said. "You can say anytime I get in the car there's someone else with me there."

A sentiment that knows no borders.

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