Monday, June 6, 2016

Return to irrelevance

There was a college baseball game on one screen Sunday at Buffalo Wild Wings, Wright State vs. Louisville. The Cubs were losing to the Diamondbacks on another. College softball was on two more screens; drag racing on another; motocross on yet another.

So many TVs. So little IndyCar.

Actually, no IndyCar.

A week after its most momentous occasion in decades -- the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 -- the participants were running the streets up in Detroit, and you couldn't find them on a bet. Seven days before, a record crowd of 350,000 and a huge national television audience watched the IndyCar boys (and girl; hi, there, Pippa Mann) swap the lead 54 times at Indy. Thirteen drivers took turns running up front. In the end, it was rookie Alexander Rossi who took the historic checkers, coasting home on dry tanks as runnerup Carlos Munoz desperately tried to run him down.

And seven days later?


"Hey, could I get the IndyCar race on one of these?" I finally asked.

The bartender shrugged. Sure. And a few minutes later, there was Will Power holding off Simon Pagenaud for the win, ending a season-long slump for the Australian driver.

That was the good news, at least for Power. The bad news, for Power and everyone else in IndyCar, is I had to ask to see it.

In a sports bar. In America. On a June afternoon when so little was going on they were putting the same college softball game on two screens.

 Nothing more starkly illuminates IndyCar's problem, which is that it can't get America interested in its product. This despite the alleged bump it was supposed to get from all that 100th 500 exposure. This despite the fact it's consistently the best show in American motorsports. This despite the fact that, if there seems to be a lot of Aussies and Brazilians and Colombians out there these days, IndyCar has always had an international presence, even when A.J. and Mario and the rest of  'em were running.

The difference is there isn't an A.J. or Mario or Lone Star JR waving from the winner's podium every week, and that's why IndyCar vanishes off the radar every month of the year except May. There simply isn't a dominant American driver on the circuit right now -- Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal probably come closest, but not nearly close enough -- and that diminished American presence translates to diminished American interest.

Racing fans in America are, after all, a provincial lot. Always have been. And so until an American emerges who can move the needle, IndyCar will always run a poor second to NASCAR, despite the fact it's now putting a superior product out there.

The evidence is right up there on those TV screens. Or, actually, not.

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