In the years of Indycar’s decline (which I personally date approximately 1994 to 2009), several extrinsic events (not including the rise of NASCAR as well as other sports options) conspired with cruel timing to hasten its slide. With the myopia of hindsight, we see none of these events could be avoided yet the magnitude of their occurrence may very well have been underestimated.
1. The Law of Diminishing Returns: An early economic theory notes the tendency of additional input units to reach a point where they have progressively less marginal effect. I was in college during the mid-to-late 80s and studying this very subject. As an Indycar fan then, I could see how the speeds were already effectively reaching their plateau when driver safety and rapidly rising costs to produce more speed became ever larger obstacles to overcome, rendering the then-current formula unsustainable. I associate the natural occurrence of this progression for the loss of the ‘speed-freak/mayhem fan’ whose attention each year was strictly focused on surpassing the next speed (and danger) threshold. With no supporting evidence, I place this at approximately 5% – 10% of the fanbase.
2. Legend Retirements: In an two-year span we lost to retirement nearly all of the Indycar greats of the previous 30 years. Consider these retirements from May 1992 through May of 1994 listed with
Retirement date – Name (Indy 500 wins, Total USAC/CART wins, Total USAC/CART Season Championships) source: ChampCarStats.com
May 1992 – Johncock (2, 25, 1)
Dec. 1992 – Mears (4, 29, 6)
May 1993 – Foyt (4, 67, 7)
May 1994 – Al Unser (4, 39, 4), Rutherford (3, 27, 2), Mario Andretti (1, 52, 4)
Six incredible drivers, 18 Indy 500 wins, 239 total race wins, 26 National Championships, and considerable influence over the previous 30 years of Indycar forever removed from the racing fields. This sport, within just a matter of a few years was now, despite a fairly strong generation following those drivers, set up for a serious decline. Eventually this day would come for all these greats but to lose them within a 24 month span was a shock that the sport has yet to fully (if ever) recover. Again with no supporting evidence, I would estimate that approximately 20% of the fanbase was lost following the 1994 season.
Those two extrinsic factors, in combination with other major advents of the time; influx of lesser known (and numerous) drivers of foreign origin, poor management of CART, fractious divide from the formation of The Indy Racing League, and more professional sports options to command viewers’ attention, all lead and attributed to the current state of Indycar.
“Why do I mention all this?”, you ask. Now with the talk of what may be the most recognizable driver in the series on the verge of departure from Indycar, there is a great deal of debate about just how important the drivers are in the equation of success. I’d say very important, but one thing that has been around longer than the legends and continues to be here to this day, seems to be a second-rate piece of the puzzle and I couldn’t disagree more.
The original star of this series, dating back to 1911, has been and, in my opinion, should be today, the car.
How many of you instantly recognize the STP Paxton Turbine as ‘revolutionary’ or the Novi as ‘brutish’? The virtues of the ‘reliable’ Watson roadster were well known. Old Calhoun, for feck sake, was a Watson with its own name. The cars could be as finicky and cantankerous as the chaps who drove them and we loved that about them. I still prefer those days to the uber-competitive, micro-engineered and soulless shells that have carried the drivers of the last 8 years.
As we know, the vehicular options have been ever-limited since the late-80s and, in going from sport to entertainment, the vehicle in the equation has been neutralized to being a mere specification of the ‘sport’, rather than one of it’s illustrious characters. To make the car one of the stars again will take some doing, but unfortunately not even as its upcoming iteration would be. Similar or identical cars simply isn’t something the American public appreciates or wants. Just ask NASCAR. Not once have I heard how much someone likes all cars being the same. It not only eliminates some of the drama, it takes away from the enjoyment.
In an age where Indycar needs additive solutions, not subtractive ones, and I fully understand there is a ‘new car’ in testing as we speak and that horse is out of the barn so to speak, we cannot miss the next opportunity (if there is one) to be more free and open.
Make the cars wild. Make the motors amazing. Allow the engineers to come up with amazing solutions to the questions of limited amounts of combustible energy. Allow this platform to create a place the mass automotive manufacturers will want to pour resources into and elevate the value-cost quotient. Eliminate the significant reliance on the rolling billboard model (whose value is dropping every year, by the way).
Let Indycar be the place to reignite our country’s passion for driving.
Let Indycar give us new heroes and villains – cars included.
2012-13 is essentially giving us little different from 1997.
2014 could very well be Indycar’s last chance to roll the dice.
What really is there to lose?