Monday, August 21, 2017

Dying alone

Yesterday was Pocono day for the IndyCar crowd, and so there was I was, uncrowded. Sitting in the bar at Buffalo Wild Wings, watching the race. Only guy in the place doing so, even though they put it on, like, five screens at one point, which was kind of embarrassing because  (again, and I can't stress this enough) I was the only guy in the place watching the race.

It's old news now that IndyCar is little more than crickets and echoes away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but sometimes you have to sit in lonely splendor in a public place for that reality to hit home. I watched alone, and so did the people who were actually there. Which, from the brief glimpses of the grandstands every time the cars flashed past, were pretty lonely souls themselves.

I don't know where IndyCar goes from here. I truly do not.

I can't see it totally going away, but when you throw a 500-mile race in an old-school IndyCar venue and nobody comes (or next to nobody), you come awfully close to seeing it. Pocono was a ghost town yesterday, and the fact IndyCar could put only 22 cars on its 2 1/2-mile expanse only gilded that impression. Wheeling around the place, they looked unnervingly like the Seventh Cavalry's survivors clustered atop Custer Hill. All that was missing was the whisper of a prairie breeze and the mournful echo of a last, desperate bugle call.

I know, that sounds a bit over the top. But it's hard not to see the glass as half-empty when you watch what I watched yesterday, and read what I've been reading this summer.

IndyCar has always had its share of teams that ran May in Indianapolis as a one-off. But now even the kingpins are cutting back their commitment.

The doggiest of the top dogs, Penske Racing, has made no secret of the fact it's planning on moving Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves to its new sports-car venture in 2018. And Chip Ganassi, having lost long-time sponsor Target, will not pick up Tony Kanaan's option next season.

Which means, unless Kanaan hooks another ride (and he always seems to), the circuit will be without two of its biggest draws next season. IndyCar can only hope it finds bankable stars to replace them.

Possibilities exist. Josef Newgarden -- just 26 years old, immensely talented and immensely personable -- seems likely to emerge as IndyCar's longed-for American superstar, particularly if he becomes only the third American in 15 years to win the IndyCar title. The same goes for 28-year-old Graham Rahal, every bit as talented and as personable as Newgarden. And defending IndyCar champ Simon Pagenaud seems poised to become the circuit's next great star.

The problem, of course, is that IndyCar has never been able to maximize the star power at its disposal. Two of its most successful drivers, Scott Dixon and Will Power, are great talents and perfectly congenial men, but are quiet public souls who simply don't excite anyone. Ditto Marco Andretti, who has that great American racing name but who, like Dixon and Power, is not overserved with flamboyance.

Power, by the way, won the race at Pocono, holding off Newgarden in closing laps in the kind of riveting finish IndyCar provides as often as not. He was the first IndyCar driver ever to repeat at Pocono, and he did it from a lap down after pitting early to change a damaged nosecone.

So there was some drama there. There were some storylines. And there was virtually no one there to see it.

So what's the answer?

Again, I don't know. Motorsports are and always have been niche properties, and much of that niche in America is occupied by NASCAR, itself a waning entity. So maybe there isn't an answer -- or at least one that's viable.

I'd love to think that's not the case. But I'm starting to think it is.

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