Thursday, April 13, 2017

A bouquet for May

They say it began as a joke, a  provenance that has launched more than one great idea. And this is indisputably a great one.

For the first time since the 1960s, near as anyone can tell, an active Formula 1 driver is coming to Indianapolis in May. And he's bringing an iconic name with him.

The driver is Fernando Alonso, a two-time F1 champion. The iconic name is McLaren, the sleek rocket ships Roger Penske first mad famous at Indy, and which won the 500 three times in the 1970s.

It was a McLaren -- that winged, navy-and-yellow No. 66 Sunoco marvel you can find in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame museum these days -- that Mark Donohue drove beneath the checkers in 1972, the first Indy win among many for Roger Penske. Johnny Rutherford put a McLaren in the winner's circle in 1974 and '76, charging up through the field from 25th starting position in the former. And a man named Peter Revson stuck a McLaren on the pole in 1971, shattering the track record by more than 7 mph after it hadn't budged in three years.

And so this is Throwback Indy, as the 500 turns the page to a new century. This is a return to what so many consider its golden days, when the names were Foyt and Unser and Andretti and Gurney -- and also Clark and Hill and Stewart.

Because the presence of Alonso, too, is a momentous thing. Don't think for a second it isn't.

All sorts of theories have been advanced over the years for why the 500 isn't, you know, the 500  anymore, why IndyCar was eclipsed by NASCAR in the 1990s and remains eclipsed. Hardly any of those theories credit circumstances over which IndyCar has no control (the explosion of entertainment options ushered in by cable and now digital media, for instance), and that the measure for success in motorsports in America was outlandishly skewed out of round by NASCAR's unsustainable boom in the late '90s.

In truth, the 500 remains the largest single-day sporting event on the planet by miles and miles. Yet the notion persists, in many quarters, that it's Not What Is Used To Be -- and that one of the reasons it isn't is because too many of IndyCar's leading lights are not Americans.

A half-truth. At best.

It's true there are not the outsized domestic names there used to be, and that most of the star power these days comes from Aussies and New Zealanders and South Americans. But that in itself is a throwback proposition, too.

The 500, after all, has always had an international flavor, and a large portion of its appeal has derived from that. It wasn't just the Foyts and Unsers and Andrettis who made the alleged the golden age the golden age. It was the presence in the field, beginning in the early 1960s, of  a slew of drivers from Formula 1.

Jack Brabham. Jim Clark, who won in 1965.  Graham Hill, who won in '66. Jackie Stewart and Denis Hulme and Jochen Rindt.

All of them were as much a part of the Indy tradition as anyone; it is, after all, an event that drew international drivers and machines from the very beginning, and that was won by two Frenchmen and two Italians in its first six years of existence.

Now comes Alonso, and McLaren to continue that tradition, and to usher in the second 100 years.

Could there be anything more true to the nature of May in Indy? Or more indicative of the fact that, yes, the 500 still is the 500?

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