Auto-racing, as the most passionate fans of the discipline here in the States are quite used to hearing, is a niche sport.
That seems a bit funny to consider, on this of all dates, as Memorial Day weekend provides some of the biggest motorsports spectacles of the year. Sunday morning, a continent away, the exuberant excess of Monte Carlo gave way to one of the more remarkable Monaco Grand Prix runs in recent memory, as the richest, most prestigious, most technologically advanced form of racing in the world saw their biggest event settled by a crew that just up and forgot to have the right tires at the ready. Oops.
Some hours later, in Indianapolis, a man who once dreamed of the Monaco podium settled for a swig of milk instead, as Alexander Rossi, whose very name seemed to destine him for the lavish cosmopolitanism of Formula One, instead found victory lane in his very first run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After a lifetime spent trying to break into the world’s circuit, this California native finally found stardom in the most American way possible: By refusing to pull over for gas.
And while Rossi’s win was racing at its most fortuitous, later that night, in NASCAR’s home base of Charlotte, North Carolina, Martin Truex Jr. needed no luck of any sort, taking the Coca-Cola with one of the most dominant displays in the sport’s history. The 36-year-old veteran led a record 588 miles, and appeared, at various points during the four hour marathon, to be merely toying with the rest of the field.
All of which is to say that between epic snafus, brilliant strategy, and sheer technical prowess, Sunday offered a little something for everyone, not merely the racing diehards, who follow the machinations of the garage, week in and week out, but also the curious, the casuals, the “mainstream” sports fans who only peek in at the traveling asphalt circus from time to time. Auto-racing would love to capture more of these eyeballs, of course, because this is, after all, a sport built on exposure, on promotion, on climbing out of your Toyota and thanking Sprint for the opportunity to bring the Bass Pro Shops Camry to Gatorade Victory Lane.
And there is no denying that motorsports, in all of its various forms, have seen better, more prosperous days. Formula One continues to be plagued by cost concerns, which is a little like saying that the Tower of Pisa continues to be plagued by balance concerns. Meanwhile, here in the States, the IndyCar Series continues to seek a slow, but steady rebuild from the devastating IRL/CART split that tore American open-wheel racing apart for more than a decade. The 100th running of the Indy 500 saw a complete sellout that lifted the local television blackout, though the race just barely filled the 33-car field.
NASCAR, meanwhile, continues to struggle with falling attendance, and soft television ratings. While there have been any number of efforts to reverse that trend, from an always-evolving Chase format, to a “Boys Have At It” attempt to inject more personality, to a renewed focus on youth, on diversity, on digital efforts and social media, the sport has been unable to reclaim the glory days of the 90s, when tracks expanded, networks took notice, and Gordon and Earnhardt brought stock car racing to heights that no-one had heretofore conceived of.
So yes, call it a niche audience, call it a fringe following, call it the “cult” of motorsports. It’s undoubtedly true that in 2016, the roar of the engines doesn’t quite command the public consciousness as it once did, doesn’t dominate the conversation like a Splash Brothers shooting spree, a Clayton Kershaw fastball, or the latest DeflateGate amicus brief. Racing, these days, appears to live in the shadows of the “stick and ball” sports, content to make the occasional splash every time there’s a miraculous pass at the finish, or a fist-fight in the pit-box.
Sadly, it has become far too commonplace to judge motorsports against the competition, to compare it to what once was, and to lament what’s missing. But for myself, and I suspect, for any number of gearheads around the country, Sunday served as proof that racing doesn’t need the zeitgeist to continue to put on one hell of a show. Where else, after all, can one find the spectacularly cringeworthy human drama of a pit crew failure that may or may not have been a result of partying a little too hard in the run up to the race? What could be more compelling than a team-owner who came up short of the Indy 500 for his entire driving career, only to watch his newest hire snag the Borg-Warner in his very first attempt? How could anyone not be moved by a driver finally winning the big one in front of a hometown crowd, and being greeted by his girlfriend, now cancer free after a two-year battle, in victory lane?
That, ultimately, is what pulls us back to the track. Sure, we may love the machines, but it’s the people behind them who provide the stories that truly satisfy. For every tenth of a second gained in practice, every extra gallon of gas saved under caution, every aggressive pass made without a single solitary thought of the consequences, there’s someone there, pushing themselves to the very limit, determined to get the very most out of themselves in a sport with absolutely no margin for error. It’s not a “niche sport” for those on the inside. Instead, it’s the very life they lead, day in, and day out.
Following his 600 mile clinic at Charlotte, the not-so-dramatic conclusion to the biggest day in motorsports, Martin Truex Jr. answered questions in the media center, and reflected on the lessons of a life spent in racing, and specifically, the perspective he’s gained through watching girlfriend Sherry Pollex fight ovarian cancer.
“I kind of look at things a lot different than I used to,” noted Truex, “I used to get mad when I didn’t win, and things didn’t go your way you’d say why me, and why does this keep happening? But after you go through something like that… it changes your outlook. You don’t say why me, and you realize that any day at the racetrack is a good day, and the bad days really aren’t so bad.”
Racing, in 2016, wants to be more popular, more affordable, more accessible, and more exciting. There are improvements to be made, bridges to be built, and a whole lot of effort needed to bring motorsports back to the heights it once occupied, the pinnacle of pride and prestige. And it’s only natural that auto-racing’s biggest fans should lead the charge, should long to share their passion with others, to spread the gospel of the garage, one commemorative diecast at a time.
But indeed, to crib from Mr. Truex, Sunday reminded us that a bad day at the racetrack beats a good day anywhere else. This is our niche after all, and whether or not the rest of the world comes around, there’s an awful lot of fun to be had once the green flag flies.