Flat Spot On – IndyCar Out of the Box

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 17 2021

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has taken his talents to IndyCar this weekend. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

For those not familiar with the history, the long-running competition between NASCAR and the IndyCar Series, the current brand for America’s premier open-wheel organization, is hardly noticeable. Those who fought this battle for so long – ever since the creation of the Daytona International Speedway as a rival to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – are either war weary or have moved on to the Big Track in the Sky.

In the current scheme, everybody seems to view Jimmie Johnson’s great open-wheel experiment as a personal journey and not a political statement. Can the seven-time NASCAR champ make the transition to an IndyCar?

There was a time when the interplay was so intense that NASCAR President Bill France Jr. called Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. into his office to tell him to slow down during practice for the 1993 Daytona 500 – or else.

Unser Jr. paid no heed and the axe fell before qualifying, when inspectors forced his crew, led by Waddell Wilson, to jack the car up so high that not even Unser Jr. could find any speed. After word got around the paddock about this turn of events, Dale Earnhardt turned the IndyCar driver early in the race and put his Hendrick Motorsports entry on the hook.

Alas, that was the old days, back when how drivers fared when crossing over to the “other” series, like seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson is attempting this year, formed the major standard for comparing the two rival types of racing. The other standards, of course, are less palpable than human-interest stories: ticket sales, TV ratings and sponsor sales.

One of these criteria is about pure driving and the other is about succeeding as a business in American racing.

When it comes to how crossover drivers have fared, IndyCar has not always looked good in the 2000s, a period when Indy 500 winners and IndyCar champions Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. stumbled with good teams in NASCAR and Danica Patrick struck out when it came to Victory Lane.

If you add in the fact the Brickyard 400 sold out overnight when it first arrived in 1994 (helping to finance the internecine war launched by the Indy Racing League against CART), then NASCAR has long maintained an edge in both performance and popularity.

But over the long haul, most recently with John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya, IndyCar drivers have always been able to win races in NASCAR. The most famous such occasion occurred when Mario Andretti drove his Homan-Moody Ford from the apron out to the far edge of Daytona’s high banks in the corners to pass Fred Lorenzen and win the 500 in 1967, his first major victory. And before that, Milwaukee Mile winner Johnny Mantz snookered the NASCAR field in the first-ever superspeedway race at Darlington, S.C. in 1950.

By contrast, NASCAR’s first Triple Crown winner, Lee Roy Yarbrough, put his career on the rocks after crashing in Turn 1 at Indy, symbolic of the misfortunes of stock car drivers who tried switching to open wheel racing after the U.S. factories withdrew from racing in the early 1970s.

Not a single regular in NASCAR has ever won an IndyCar race, including three-time champion Cale Yarborough, who ran the 1971 season for Gene White with two fifth-place finishes at Trenton and Michigan as his best. That brings us to the IndyCar season opener at Barber Motorsports Park, where NASCAR’s most recent seven-time champion is coming to grips, or not, with driving an IndyCar for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Despite a rough start in qualifying at Barber, it’s good for the sport of motor racing that Johnson is venturing over to the heavily winged juggernauts featuring lots of tire and a narrow fuselage. I mean, who else other than Jimmie can joke like an old buddy on air with longtime network TV anchor and fellow New York City aficionado Al Roker? It would be even more fantastic if Johnson decided to attempt the Indy 500, but that’s a prospect probably ruled out by the 45-year-old’s family given the imminent danger at the Speedway.    

Both NASCAR and IndyCar, where former NASCAR team owner Jay Frye plays a major role in day-to-day operations, are surviving the pandemic. Each organization has made an excellent adaptation to the crisis and are showing portents of a relatively robust future once COVID-19 is subdued, if not eliminated.

Alas, the TV ratings of neither NASCAR nor IndyCar are exactly stellar these days. Their declines in ratings are relative and fit a pattern similar to other American sports leagues dealing with older fans dropping out or newer fans with decidedly different ways of absorbing live sports. 

In this light, each series faces a daunting task when it comes to the next round of TV contracts. IndyCar will become collateral damage with the demise of NBC Sports at the end of this year. NASCAR’s current 10-year contract runs out in 2024.

As for ticket sales, just down the interstate from Barber lies the Talladega Superspeedway, where the once popular grandstands on the back straight have been razed. But they once held more fans than Barber’s entire capacity, which says a lot about IndyCar’s ticket sales being limited by its road racing schedule in terms of both appeal and the relative lack of seating capacity at road circuits or street courses.

At least both NASCAR and IndyCar can currently claim “sellouts” under COVID-19 restrictions. But what about NASCAR’s push to add more road races to its schedule? This confirms the appeal of road racing among the current generation of fans, but the NASCAR version occurs on courses with large grandstands where fans, if they choose, can see the cars for most of a lap. (A double-header of IndyCars and NASCAR’s stock cars at, say, Daytona, would be interesting.)

NASCAR is currently riding a youth wave with its most popular driver, Chase Elliott, returning this year as a 20-something champion. Christopher Bell, who displaced Erik Jones at Joe Gibbs Racing, is looking like the next Bobby Allison. William Byron has won a second race before graduating from college. And, in the wings, is Austin Cindric, son of Roger Penske’s former IndyCar team manager Tim Cindric, himself the son of an IndyCar engine builder.

That’s not to discount the redoubtable and also relatively young Ryan Blaney, whose best friend is Bubba Wallace, major league racing’s only Black driver and a strong prospect for Michael Jordan, who brings some fresh blood on the team ownership side.

IndyCar continues to follow a familiar path of a revolving door for young drivers who bring money and some who bring real, long-lasting talent like Colton Herta, Spaniard Alex Palau or Mexico’s “Pato” O’Ward, the latter driving for McLaren’s re-established IndyCar team. Most intriguing is a 27-year-old rookie who is a reminder of Mark Donohue. The latter started in Trans-Am “saloon cars” for Penske Racing before stepping into a McLaren-built chassis to win Indy in 1972. 

New Zealander Scott McLaughlin’s switch from a trio of Australian Supercar titles for Penske Racing into the top level of open-wheel machines comprises a major crossover effort. If Johnson’s switch to IndyCar is reminiscent of guys whose NASCAR days were at least temporarily panned out, McLaughlin’s big jump is a reminder of the days when his coach, four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, and all other rookies at the Speedway had to make a big leap to get competitive.

Then there’s Romain Grosjean, another in a long line of Formula 1 refugees looking to extend their careers – and maybe win a major series race. Frenchman Grosjean brings F1 panache due to his nearly 200 starts there, an excellent command of English and an all-around good guy element. He’s a classic catch by team co-owner Dale Coyne, who specializes in shrewdness when it comes to getting the most out of budgets, sponsors and drivers. 

IndyCar’s ongoing formula was started by CART, where foreign drivers who are already trained well on road courses seek to adapt to ovals, particularly Indy. Is that enough to boost ratings and attendance along with the story line of Kiwi Scott Dixon trying to win his seventh title? Does the series have enough American talent to appeal to Americans? Can Johnson, never a particularly popular NASCAR champion, make more than a cameo appearance in an open cockpit? Or will he become the latest in a long line of NASCAR drivers who run out of luck after jumping into a single seater.

Stay tuned. 

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the new release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning in Reverse.”  Ingram’s current book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” includes a comprehensive account of Dale Earnhardt’s last-lap crash at Daytona in 2001. Published by RJP Books, signed copies of “CRASH!” are available at www.jingrambooks.com.)


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 17 2021
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