By PAUL NEWBERRY
INDIANAPOLIS — They have dinner together. They chat it up on Twitter. They offer congratulations on jobs well done, solace when things don’t go so well.
Clearly, there’s a lot of respect among the 33 drivers in Gasoline Alley.
Maybe a little too much.
While IndyCar is putting an increasingly entertaining product on the track — seriously, folks, this might be the best competition on the planet at the moment — it’s clear heading into the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” that something is still missing.
For the answer to what that might be, look no farther than the good ol’ boys. Those NASCAR guys mix it up with each other on a weekly basis, like they’re auditioning for a spot in the WWE.
Sure, some of the antics are downright silly. I mean, did Nelson Piquet Jr. actually kick another driver in the groin after they scuffled on and off the track? C’mon, dude.
But you’ve got admit: They sure are entertaining.
Maybe if the open-wheelers had more feudin’ and less niceties, they’d be making a bigger push to reclaim their rightful place in the American sporting hierarchy.
No less an authority than Mario Andretti says the racing is as good as it was during the glory days, when drivers such as himself, A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal, and Bobby and Al Unser dominated at the Indianapolis 500.
While Andretti certainly has skin in the game — his son, Michael, is a car owner and his grandson, Marco, is one of the favorites in Sunday’s 500 — he’s not just blowing smoke. Anyone who watched the last race at Sao Paulo, on one of those street courses that IndyCar purists despise, had to be impressed with the quality of the side-by-side racing, capped by James Hinchcliffe pulling off a brilliant pass on the final turn to beat Takuma Sato to the checkered flag.
But, judging by the minuscule television ratings and paltry crowds at just about every track except Indy, more is needed to bring back the fans who abandoned the sport during a bitter split in the 1990s.
A good start would be some good ol’ fashioned rivalries, with plenty of animosity mixed in to spice things up.
Sort of like it was in Mario’s day.
“I saw that with many of the rivalries when I came on the scene,” Andretti reminisced. “You had guys there that were totally established, and I’m the rookie who’s a thorn in their side. That’s where a lot of that stuff comes from. A.J. was at the top of his game and five years my senior. He wasn’t all that happy that I could actually challenge him. That’s where it starts.”
There are certainly the makings of a juicy rivalry between third-generation Marco and second-generation racer Graham Rahal, Bobby’s son. They’ve sniped at each other several times — with even Mario getting in on the discord — and it’s clear many of the hard feelings that began in a different era have been passed down to these promising 20-somethings.
“If there’s one person I’d hate to see win the Indy 500, it’s Marco Andretti,” the younger Rahal said. “If there’s one person he’d probably hate to see win it, it’s me. That’s just the way it is. There’s no problem with that.”
That’s a start.
Now, more, more, more.
Of course, it’s not as easy as just saying: Hey, guys, start hatin’ on each other. As Mario points out, bitter rivalries and real animosity must develop on their own. This isn’t some reality show or wrestling card where everything can be scripted and staged. If those feelings don’t evolve naturally, it just comes across as hokey.
“These things either happen or they don’t,” Andretti said. “It depends on the characters involved.”
Also, it’s not really fair to compare NASCAR and IndyCar, though everyone does when discussing the reasons why the former surged in popularity just as the latter was fading into near-obscurity except for Memorial Day weekend.
These are two entirely different brands of racing. In the big, bulky stock cars, it’s possible to exact revenge right on the track with a gentle nudge in the rear bumper — or, perhaps, something even more flagrant and forceful. NASCAR insists it doesn’t want anyone causing intentional wrecks, but it also realized the sport was becoming too sterile even as it became more mainstream. So the powers-that-be told the boys behind the wheel to “have at it” — settle their problems on the track, within reason — and made it clear they wanted plenty of rubbin’ with their racin’.
In Atlanta a couple of years ago, I watched Carl Edwards drive back on the track in a mangled car that was down more than 100 laps, just so he could settle a score with Brad Keselowski by sending his car flying into the fence near the end of the race. Luckily, Keselowski’s machine didn’t go into the crowd. NASCAR surely knows it’s walking a fine line by almost encouraging that sort of behavior in a high-risk sport, but they’re not complaining when it gets the fans all stirred up, or when drivers take their back-and-forth feuds straight to social media.
Those sort of antics would never fly in IndyCar.
The slightest bit of contact in the high-tech cars can knock them out of a race — or worse, cause a hugely expensive wreck that many teams, still struggling to line up adequate sponsorship coming out of the recession, simply can’t afford. More ominously, these sleek machines produce much greater speeds than their stock car counterparts (qualifying runs at Indy approached 230 mph), and it’s simply far too dangerous to start resolving differences out on the track. Someone could end up dead in a series still shaken by the 2011 crash that killed two-time Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon.
“In NASCAR, you can do a lot of banging around and get pretty serious and even get yourself upside down,” Mario Andretti said. “All of those things can happen — and then you give an interview two seconds later. In our cars, and this is nothing new, you’ve got to be a little more correct. If you’re trying to do something to somebody, you might do yourself in first. You’ve got to be smart about it.”
Andretti is optimistic that more rivalries will develop as a large group of up-and-coming drivers begin to establish themselves. Including his 26-year-old grandson and the 24-year-old Rahal offspring, nearly half the field for the 500 — 16 drivers in all — are under the age of 30.
Keep an eye on 25-year-old JR Hildebrand, who nearly won the 500 two years ago before crashing on the final turn; 22-year-old Josef Newgarden, from Tennessee, of all places; 24-year-old Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland, the only female regular in the series with the departure of Danica Patrick to NASCAR; and 21-year-old Colombian rookie Carlos Munoz, who will start from the middle of the front row on Sunday.
“The thing that I see happening now is we have so much young talent so deep in the field,” Andretti said. “All of a sudden, as these dudes start carving their own way, there’s going to be some battles here and there. … It’s going to come down to some situations where things really matter, tempers heat up and all that. You can see some of these sorts of things looming. The competition is just so keen. These guys are ready to show their muscle. They don’t want to feel slighted.”
It can’t come soon enough for IndyCar.