By on May 31, 2019

I’m a casual racing fan, at best. That may sound weird coming from a car guy, but I’ve come to learn over the years that being into cars doesn’t obligate you to be into racing.

I’ve had stints of deeper fandom in the past. Teenage me talked my dad into taking me to Indianapolis for the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race way back in the ‘90s, and I used to risk ridicule (particularly the R-word, indicating a crimson-hued neck) from my suburban peers by wearing NASCAR t-shirts to high school.

But times and interests change. The NASCAR and IndyCar drivers I grew up watching got old and retired. NASCAR kept messing with the rules while Tony George damn near killed Indy car racing with the CART/IRL split. Furthermore, I’ve always gravitated towards baseball, football, basketball, and hockey even more so than racing, and there’s only so much time on any given Sunday. Sometimes other sports took precedence.

I realize the above “confession” may bother a certain subset of auto journalists on Twitter who brag about getting up at 3 a.m. to watch F1 races, and another subset of auto journalists on Twitter who derisively refer to stick-and-ball sports as “sportsball.” To which I say, I like what I like.

I bring this up because even as a casual fan, there are two races I make sure to watch each year: The Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. I dragged my ass out of bed before 8 a.m. after a night out in Sin City to watch this year’s running (figuratively – the hotel TV was easily viewed from a prone position) because I can’t let a Memorial Day weekend slip by without watching the greatest spectacle in racing.

Important races like Daytona and Indy are a little like the Super Bowl – you’re not guaranteed to see an entertaining event. Just like some Super Bowls end in blowouts (or an ugly yet close game like the 2019 version), some 500s end up being snoozefests in which a dominant car/driver leads a parade for three hours before taking the checker.

Or you get an interminable crash-fest like this year’s Daytona – a race that seemingly would never end.

That’s not what happened at the Brickyard last Sunday. Those who tuned into NBC’s first broadcast (I have mixed feelings on how that went, see below) were indeed treated to a race in which the winning driver was dominant, but they also got to see a master class in how NOT to conduct pit stops, a furious charge from Alexander Rossi that included a shaking-fist salute at over 200 miles per hour, angry Graham Rahal doing his best impression of a NASCAR driver after Sebastien Bourdais squeezed him out of the race and created the day’s only “big” crash, and a race in which caution flags were mostly kept shelved.

Perhaps more importantly to those who value drama and unpredictability, as dominant as pole-sitter and eventual winner Simon Pagenaud was, the race was still in doubt. Even as Pagenaud continued to lead lap after lap, several other drivers remained in the mix for the win. It wasn’t just Rossi, charging furiously after an equipment failure during refueling cost him time. Scott Dixon’s fuel-saver strategy kept him in the mix, and others like Josef Newgarden and Ed Carpenter were hanging around, waiting for the right chance to take the lead – and hold it until the end.

Indeed, my ladyfriend asked me to predict the winner at about the halfway mark, and I said it would be Dixon, even though he wasn’t in the top three at that point. I figured his ability to stretch fuel would earn him the win – Pagenaud was in attack mode all race and burning fuel faster than those behind him due to his position as the leader, while Rossi’s charge was probably putting him a position where he might need to pit at an inopportune moment.

Instead, a mostly flag-free race got red flagged after Bourdais and Rahal’s tangle with 20 laps to go created a mess. Pagenaud was the most obvious benefactor – he’d no longer have to worry about having enough fuel to finish. All he’d have to do is hold off Rossi. Which he did, but not before the two swapped the lead several times, with Pagenaud making a ballsy pass just before Turn 4 to take the lead for good.

It wasn’t a perfect race. The pit-road hijinks would be comical if it wasn’t for the danger involved for the drivers and crews. Helio Castroneves rear-ending another driver in pit lane? A crewman for Jordan King taking a tire to the back of the knee? It looked like amateur hour at times.

But a race need not be perfect to be entertaining. And this 500 was. Yes, by my informal and unscientific count, NBC seemed to be heavier on commercial breaks than predecessor ABC, and occasionally seemed heavy-handed in promoting the sponsors. That was annoying, no matter how necessary sponsorship is for paying the bills.

Announcer Leigh Diffey occasionally seemed to over-hype minor moments and talked over the first lap (the best announcers shut up and let the engines roar for the first couple of minutes), and the switching back and forth from the booth to Mike Tirico and former racers Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. down below was sometimes awkward. Not to mention that the broadcast was a little too focused on those who had a chance for the Borg Warner trophy – drivers with interesting stories who weren’t running up front were all but ignored. I can’t believe NBC couldn’t find 30 seconds out of a three-hour race to talk a bit about Pippa Mann or whoever.

That said, Patrick’s and Earnhardt’s insights as former drivers were valuable, Tirico remains a solid broadcast host who can seemingly helm the coverage of any sport (the man went from the Preakness to Indy to game one of the Stanley Cup Final), and NBC didn’t screw up coverage of any of the race’s many traditions.

As a casual race fan who doesn’t tune in each week or obsess over the championship chase, all I hope for when setting aside a chunk of my holiday weekend is entertainment. And I got it.

This year’s 500 served as more than a reminder that racing is more than just cars “going around in circles.” It also showed that one need not understand pit strategy or other behind-the-scenes stuff – the kind of things that hardcore fans pay attention to, and use to point out to non-fans that racing is more than just the whole circle thing – to be entertained.

So yeah, to those of you who dismiss racing as not worth your time, give it another try. Stop your channel surfing when you see a race and give it a gander. You might find yourself enjoying it.

Just don’t tell car Twitter. You might get asked to watch F1 at 3 a.m.

[Image: Shutterstock/Jonathan Weiss]

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16 Comments on “The 2019 Indy 500 Was a Reminder That Racing Can Be Fun...”

  • avatar

    Yes, it was a pretty good race all round, and a terrific, stand up and cheer on your driver finish.

    Actually the Indy 500 has been very good for about the last 3 or 4 years. I’ve been going for 30 years and have only missed a couple of them in that time. There was a period, especially back during the split, when the 500 could be lackluster.

    The truth is that Indycar racing in general is in a golden period right now. They’re now including more road courses (Barber, Mid Ohio, Road America, etc.) which mixes things up. The driving in general is at a very high level. And the current formula (spec Dallara chassis with choice of aero packages, choice of Honda or Chevy engine) consistently delivers competitive and exciting racing.

    • 0 avatar

      Correct! I am a long time CART/CHAMP fan but Indy just keeps getting better and better it seems. The competition is super close, cars are separated by mere thousands of a second. Anyone in the field can win. Sure the bigger teams normally win, but the little guy sneaks in occasionally and someone unexpected is always mixing it up. The drivers all have stories and personalities. The cars look good (not over aero-ed) and sound great to boot. Even the powerplants are relatable with V6 turbos.

      I can’t watch CRASHCAR, its beyond stupid that they wreck 15 cars (or more!) every week all season long. I do watch F1 but honestly its terrible with the Merc winning constantly. Which is only slightly different then Red Bull a few years ago, or the prancing horse cars winning before that. Actually F1 wouldn’t be bad if you could just watch the mid-field battles but obviously TV only shows the front runners.

      Everyone should do themselves a favor and attend an Indy car race. I got the 500 off as a bucket list item but the regular race locations are much better because the crowd levels are manageable. Plus the cost is very reasonable. We go to the season opener in St Pete, FL every year. Granted I live in FL so I just drive over but the atmosphere and driver interaction level is excellent. These guys don’t stand behind velvet ropes all day. With a pit pass (very affordable) you will be within touching distance of the engineers wrenching on the car. The drivers are super fan friendly, they seem to understand that F1 and NASCAR got too full of themselves and have lost touch. At times Indy still has a small dirt track feel to it on practice and qualifying days. Come race day the crowds expand and its a more like what you see on TV.

      Indy’s support series (at tracks other then the ovals) means you get lots of racing action in between practice and qualifying. Once again I can’t stress how good the value per ticket is with Indy.

  • avatar

    About the only thing I find interesting about these oval track conga lines is the choreography occuring during the pit stops. The rapid fueling, hydrating and tire changing is always great to watch.

    If a race doesn’t involve both right and left turns I am not interested. Even in those races the best view is from the auto/helmet cameras rather than from above or from a grandstand.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    Agreed, best 500 in some time. Truly exciting finish, remarkably I was able to watch it Mon. night without looking at the result beforehand. This race was more exciting than the handful of F1 races I’ve seen so far.That series to me is in a tech fueled downward spiral. However I still prefer Continental Sports Car /Grand AM most.I’d like to catch it live the next time they come to Kansas.

  • avatar

    I actually attended Indy twice when I was a kid – one race, and one time trial. I remember the time trial as being far more enjoyable – the cars are little more than blurs going 200 mph, so the race is very hard to follow in person. During the time trials, we were able to get close to the pits, and see the crews and cars. That was incredibly cool.

  • avatar

    Great race, broadcast no.
    The Mike, Danica + Junior show was a waste. There’s nothing salvageable there.
    I’ve never “got” Rutledge Wood.
    Tracy was yammering on for a good 5-10 seconds after the “Big” one. I know he was concentrating on delivering his thoughts but no spotters screaming in their ears? Tracy also blew something else. Forget what but it wasn’t close to what happened.

    Kind of same thing in Monaco GP. I forget if it was qualifying or the race. One of the Ferraris grazed the Armco. You could hear it hit. The announcers took 10 seconds to acknowledge it.

    Marco, Marco, Marco……Marco…..Marco.
    2 wins in 13 years. Highest points position at the end of a year, 5th. Once.
    Just think if he had good equipment.

    BTW, I do get up at 3 AM for the races.

    Indy car racing is better than F1 racing.
    F1 qualifying is fantastic. Better than the races.
    One side of me is sad Alonso didn’t make the race.
    The other side is thrilled as it shows a “Spec” race is tougher than
    people think.

    NASCAR? Only if it’s raining outside and I’m bored out of my mind. I was a true believer for years.
    I’d much prefer the Days of Thunder NASCAR than what exists now.
    That’s not to say that the drivers and teams are not talented and they were before. But the rules and reliability have soured me on it.

    • 0 avatar

      About NASCAR, I started watching it in the early-90s and was faithful until the constant rule changes, plus the end of the smaller tracks for the superspeedways. The small tracks were fun with the tight racing. Plus, the winner clearly won, instead of today’s where they do everything that they can in the name of fairness to prevent the winners from winning (IMHO).

  • avatar

    I follow IndyCar closely, but seem to always miss the 500. I’m very glad I was able to catch this one, it was epic. The broiadcast, not so much. Way too many commercials, and the three folks in the pit lane box just weren’t needed.

    I also follow Weathertech sports car racing. F1 seems be a tire management exercise these days.

  • avatar

    Why is racing better than most other sports? Because all other sports only require one ball.

    Seriously, my wife got me into NASCAR in the early 90s…but the continual decline of the quality of the race, the incessant rule changes, and retirement of the great names began to take their toll. We both lost interest…though my wife still watches the big three..Daytona, Brickyard, and what was once the Firecracker Five Hundred…

  • avatar

    The only kind of car races that are fun are (1) circle dirt track races
    in which the drivers build their own cars, (2) figure 8 racing, (3)
    demolition derbies. The last 2 probably really aren’t truly racing,
    but they’re a good excuse to drink beer and get rowdy. The rest of it
    is booooorrrrrrrriiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnngggggggggggggg.

  • avatar

    IMSA sports car racing is good too. Daytona 24 hours, Sebring 12 hours, etc. Close racing, most auto manufacturers represented, plenty of on-track action.

  • avatar

    While I might like Indy races in theory, the TV coverage sucks. The commentators are horrible, the commercials excessive, and today they didn’t even bother showing the end of the race due to the rain delay.

    F1 at least has quality commentators and doesn’t cut away to commercials constantly.

    NASCAR died with Dale Earnhardt.

    • 0 avatar

      That and spec racing makes me vomit a bit in my mouth.

    • 0 avatar

      I was with you a bit on the first paragraph. Leigh Diffey and Tracy Bell banter take away some listening enjoyment. But I can at least listen to them.

      F1? Those stooges are the worst I have ever heard. Booth full of overtly biased stooges. When I was watching f1, the broadcast would quite often be muted.I quit watching F1 towards end of last year and wont be back until I read about some real improvements in the show. Liberty needs to find someone else besides Sky team to announce their streaming product.

  • avatar

    I can relate. I’m also a football/baseball/basketball kind of guy, but got to attend Indy in 2008 on a corporate trip with Motorola, who was sponsoring Danica’s team at the time. First class all the way – hotel, food, booze, private party with the Green Racing Team, meet & greet with Danica & the team, Cheap Trick playing live at the party, suite near the pagoda on the inside for the race, with seating on top also. Absolutely incredible experience and I’d sooner do another Indy 500 than go to another Super Bowl (I’ve been to 2 and they just don’t compare). We also had garage and pit passes and the access they give fans is unreal. So cool to be hanging in the pits just before race time, or visiting garages and hob-nobbing with the crews as they prep for the race. Such a spectacular weekend all around.

    As for this year’s contest – the race was great, but I agree that NBC’s coverage was awful compared to ABC. Tirico is the wrong guy to be the point main. I actually liked Danica’s commentary OK but it was lost in the overall crappy production. Hopefully it returns to ABC eventually.

  • avatar

    Heads up! Anyone looking for consistently good racing should look into MotoGP and WSBK. MotoGP in particular has been scintillating, and the physical + exposed nature of motorcycle racing really draws you in. There are a boatload of really interesting storylines among the various riders and factories as well.

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