Sunday, June 5, 2005

"The Sad State of Indy"

Robert Weintraub makes a few good points in this Slate piece designed to get the Danica Patrick backlash rolling:

Patrick competes in a racing series that has been watered down to the point of irrelevance. While beating men in such a macho domain is laudable, it should be noted somewhere--OK, here--that her accomplishment represents less of a cultural shift than a reflection of the sad state of affairs at Indy.

This is certainly true: the Indy 500 is simply not as competitive a race as NASCAR's major event, the Daytona 500. However, I did find some things to nitpick in Weintraub's argument: he tends to stretch some facts and leave others out in order to score points against Patrick.

Take the comparison Weintraub makes betweeen Patrick and Shawna Robinson:

If you think Patrick's talent and charisma would have been enough to win her a top ride in any era, just take a look at NASCAR's Shawna Robinson. Like Patrick, Robinson is strikingly beautiful and has loads of talent—she sat on the pole in a Busch Series race (the rung just below NASCAR's major leagues), the only woman ever to do so. But Robinson isn't a star. Since NASCAR is stocked with talent, she's been stuck on a small team with iffy sponsorship support. Racing for a second-tier team led to second-tier results, and Robinson lost her regular ride earlier this season. Had she gone into Indy racing, she'd be a legend by now.

There's a couple of problems with this. First, winning a pole requires driving well for about 2 laps (3 miles at Atlanta, where Robinson won her pole). That's a little bit different than finishing 4th in a 500 mile race. Even so, the year Robinson won a Busch pole (1994) her best finish was 10th place in a 150 mile race.

Second, in 1994, the Busch series (and NASCAR in general) was not as competitive as it is today. Moreover, Weintraub is making an assumption that Robinson is as talented as Patrick, and there's really no evidence to back that up.

Finally, Weintraub is simply ignoring the difference between open-wheel racing and stock car racing. True: drivers who grew up racing open-wheel have had real success racing stock cars in NASCAR--Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, for example. But there's no evidence that has shown success at racing stock cars has led to success racing open-wheel cars.

(Even though drivers are more likely to follow the money to NASCAR than walk away from the money by going to the IRL, if it were at all easy to go from stock cars to open-wheel racing, I would think that we'd have seen an examples of at least one second-tier NASCAR driver who decided to cross over to the IRL in order to have a better chance of being a star.)

While Patrick probably would do pretty poorly if she competed in a NASCAR event, there's no evidence that someone like Kevin Harvick, a NASCAR star who has raced stock cars exclusively, would fare any better if he were to take place in a top level open-wheel race.

Weintraub's biggest problem is that he has a blindspot when it comes to the way American open-wheel racing has been hurt by its "diversity". He writes:

No one has been interested in the Indy 500 for a decade. The vehicles that greats like Foyt and Andretti raced to glory are called Indy cars. The series they raced in was called CART, and until the mid-1990s it was the dominant domestic motor-sports franchise. But in 1994, Tony George, the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, announced the formation of the Indy Racing League. George wrapped himself in the flag, claiming the move was designed to promote American drivers and sponsors. In reality, it was a blatant power grab.

CART owners responded by boycotting the Indy 500 and running the swiftly forgotten U.S. 500 in its place. While the media waited for one series to establish dominance, fans and sponsors burned rubber toward NASCAR. Ratings bottomed out, attendance declined, and the next generation of talented drivers stopped dreaming of running at Indy—except at NASCAR's Brickyard 400. CART went bankrupt in 2003, but the IRL hasn't capitalized.

(Let me get Weintraub's mistakes out of the way: USAC and not CART sanctioned the Indy 500 and the interest American audiences had in open-wheel racing was already declining at the time of the IRL-CART split.)

Now, Tony George was certainly making a power grab, and he was looking out for himself more than anyone else, but his central point was valid: American audiences want to watch American drivers. As more and more foreign drivers entered CART, more and more of American open-wheel racing's audience moved to NASCAR. This started a viscious circle: NASCAR started getting more money, which they were able to use to woo American drivers away from open-wheel racing, leading to fewer Americans actually caring about open-wheel racing, which led to more money for NASCAR and less for CART and the IRL. Tony George was unwilling or unable to spend the money necessary to keep the best American drivers in the IRL, and so, 10 years later, the series is filled with foreign drivers who aren't good enough to compete in F1 and American drivers who haven't been offered rides in NASCAR.

Weintraub writes:

If we're searching for an analogy for Patrick's achievement, imagine if Annika Sorenstam placed fourth in a PGA Tour event after the top golfers broke away to form their own tour. Instead of besting Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, let's say that Sorenstam knocked off Ty Tryon and Billy Andrade. A milestone in women's sports? Sure. A feat that's slightly tempered by the diluted level of competition? Most definitely.

This isn't quite fair, because the difference between the IRL and NASCAR is more signifcant than that between rival golf leagues--open-wheel racing simply isn't the same thing as stock car racing--but it's close enough to the sorry truth.

(More Danica Patrick commentary from yours truly here...)


Anonymous said...

And on a lookist note, Shawna Robinson is not as hot as Danica.

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