Monday, May 30, 2005

Indy 500 Blogging

The big news in motorsports all this month was that for the first time ever a woman had a chance to win the Indy 500, and, on Sunday, she almost did. Danica Patrick's strong finish of 4th, ended up justifying the publicity blitz centered around her. She managed to live up to the hype, which is pretty amazing, since there hasn't been this much hype in the context of an Indy race in a long time.

It's kind of ironic, though, that the Indy Racing League and ABC Sports are trying to halt the declining viewership of the 500 by playing the diversity card. After all, its partly the "diversity" of the recent Indy 500 starting fields that has led to the declining ratings. But I guess the diversity brought in by an attractive, 23-year-old, American woman interests American TV-audiences more than the diversity brought in by Brit Dan Wheldon (who won yesterday) or Brazilian Helio Castroneves (who won in 2001 and 2002).

Although I was happy to see Danica do well, and while I understand that, in the context of the constructed media-spectacle-world of professional sports, her success at the big race is "historic", I was a little put off not so much by the amount of the hype but the kind of it. In the New York Times, Dave Caldwell writes:

Patrick, who has long black hair and weighs 100 pounds, has been marketed by the I.R.L. as an ingénue, posing her for more glamour media-guide photos than in her driving suit. But she can also drive fast.

And that's how she's come across in all her media appearances: she's attractive, young, stylish, etc.--the hot co-ed next door--which is fine, until you stop to think that Indy racing is dangerous. Bruno Junqueira is in surgery today because of a crash during yesterday's race--he "injured two vertebrae". And, in another crash, Larry Foyt fractured his spine. Ouch.

I got a little queasy at the thought of Danica--playing the lovely, spunky young heroine-of -a-feel-good-sports-movie role--getting a concussion, chipping her spine, or worse. It's one thing for the Indy Racing League and ABC to use Danica's sex appeal to sell a product, but it's another when the product that they're trying to sell could maim her (considerably hurting said sex appeal).

The IRL and ABC's pushing of the Danica-story wasn't the only thing about their broadcast that smelled of desperation. They opened the show with a 5 minutes video done in the style of the recent Sin City movie--black and white race footage with those trademarked red splotches thrown in, pseudo-hardboiled voice-overs introducing the drivers, Danica's sexy silhouette standing over a rain-drenched city skyline--that had me scratching my head. It was bizarre and kind of sad. Someone seems to have sold ABC on the idea that a Sin City homage would help the Indy 500 appeal to a young, hip audience. But it seems awfully wrongheaded to use a movie known mostly for sex and violence to introduce an event whose popularity has to do more with courage, excitement, family, and--the big one--tradition. It's as if they're trying to position the IRL as the hipper, sexier alternative to NASCAR. The whole thing was a striking example of the identity crisis that has really crippled Indy Racing's appeal to American audiences.

American open-wheel racing used to be considered much more prestigious than stock car racing, which was seen as being for southern rednecks only. But the big American open-wheel racing series--CART--did nothing to stop the best young American open-wheel drivers--like Jeff Gordon--from going to NASCAR, and filled their cars with Europeans and Latin Americans. Not surprisingly, while NASCAR's popularity grew, American open-wheel racing's fell. And the Indy 500, open-wheel's crown-jewel event, lost its former prestige. It was, after all, supposed to showcase the best race car drivers in America, but as soon as Jeff Gordon, America's best race car driver, decided not to participate in it, it lost a little of its luster. The Indy 500 now feels like an also ran to the Daytona 500, NASCAR's big event race.

No comments: