There was much angst on Sunday as the sun set on Indianapolis 500 qualifications at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Gasp, Danica Patrick hadn’t qualified for the race.
“Can you imagine an Indianapolis 500 without Danica Patrick?” said one veteran motorsports announcer at the Speedway.
Well, yes I can. To my knowledge, there have been 88 Indianapolis 500s without Danica. And the event earned the moniker “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” long before the GoDaddy girl ever put her hands on a steering wheel.
Fear not, at the 11th hour and in between rain drops, Patrick qualified her Andretti-Autosport car for the show, landing in the middle of row nine.
But my point remains. If the Indianapolis 500 is going to continue to be considered a great spectacle, the race and the series of which it is a part has to get over the notion that one driver—or even a handful of drivers—could make it or break it.
The Indianapolis 500 has to be bigger than any one driver, just like the Super Bowl and World Cup are bigger than any one player or team.
The fact is, race car drivers come and go. Same with teams. My guess is, that within five years, Danica Patrick will evaporate from the open-wheel race scene—if not for NASCAR, then for some other endeavor. Then what?
To be a great spectacle, an event has to endure. And the Indianapolis 500 has done that better than most American sports. We’re reminded of that as it celebrates its centennial this year.
There’s no doubt Patrick has brought much attention to the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series in recent years. It’s well understood that her merchandise outsells all other drivers’ merchandise combined.
Still, it’s not healthy for a sporting event or series to revolve around one athlete, or even one team.
It was A.J. Foyt who said during the early days of the Indy Racing League-CART split that it wasn’t Roger Penske (Foyt threw in a couple other names) who made Indianapolis. It was Indianapolis that made Roger Penske. Who were these people before they came to Indianapolis? asked Foyt, who won the race four times.
In this era of star athletes, it’s sometimes difficult to remember the stature of something like the Indianapolis 500. Do star players help leagues and series prosper? No question. But the stars must remain more dependent on the league than the league on the stars.
The IndyCar Series has become so bent on making its drivers into stars, some have forgotten the platform on which these stars are allowed to shine.