by Frank Santoroski @seveng1967
Sports fans come in many varieties. You have your know-it-all statisticians, armchair quarterbacks, dyed-in the-wool super fans, band-wagoners, fair-weather fans, and folks that really don’t follow, but still enjoy going out to the ball park for an afternoon.
Motor Racing is no different, having many levels of fandom. IndyCar Racing, however, seems to produce a wide spectrum of fans with vastly differing opinions. This is due to several factors. The roots of IndyCar racing lie with the Indianapolis 500, an event that pre-dates the formation of the current series by 85 years. Indy racing fans endured CART breaking off from USAC in 1979, an event that saw the end of USAC sanctioning a top-tier open wheel series, although they continued to sanction the 500 through 1997.
The power play by Tony George and the Speedway with the forming the IRL in 1996 seriously divided the fanbase with two separate series, running concurrently for 12 years. Now, ten years removed from the 2008 reunification, we are left with a variety of opinion, acrimony, and differing viewpoints.
Social media gives everyone a voice, and in reading and analyzing comments, questions, and quotes one can begin to see patterns that can be formed into groups of IndyCar fans.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all, although many fans will find a category that they mostly fit into, or perhaps a blend of two or more categories.
The Grizzled Veteran
The Grizzled Veterans are generally 55 years old and older, they lived through both splits, are tremendously knowledgeable, and continue to watch the current series. While they do watch with enthusiasm, they find the current state of affairs to be quite lacking when compared with the past.
In speaking with these fans, a few topics always come up, the first being a disdain for a spec car. They are quick to remind us of the innovation that was once the hallmark of the Indianapolis 500.
These fans saw the first rear-engine cars hit the Speedway, they saw the Turbine car ‘whoosh’ past the field in a futile attempt at 500 glory. They saw the advent of bolt-on rear wings increase the speeds over the 200mph mark in the 1970s.
They watched failed experiments like the Vel’s Parnelli cars with their dihedral wings, and Ken Hamilton’s Crop Duster. They marveled at Jim Hall’s Chapparral as the ‘Yellow Submarine’ ushered in the ground-effects era. They were there to see the first four-time Indy 500 winner, and the second…and third.
Their favorite drivers are the behemoths of the sport, A.J. Foyt, the Unsers, Mario, Parnelli Jones, Johnny Rutherford. Many also express a fondness for other big names of the day including Jim Clark, Lloyd Ruby, Gordon Johncock, etc.
Many of these fans abhor comparisons of their heroes with more recent drivers like Dixon, Franchitti, Castroneves or Bourdais. The fact will be brought up that the older drivers were more versatile, the cars were much more dangerous and difficult to drive, and that computer aids and telemetry take a lot out of the driver’s hands.
If you are on social media and read any of the following comments, you might be talking to a grizzled veteran.
“Pole day used to draw 100,000 fans”
“Milwaukee needs to come back on the schedule, the week after the 500.”
“There used to be 50 or 60 cars clamoring for 33 spots.”
Basically, any comment that begins, “Remember when…”
It’s easy to think to yourself that some of these guys are ‘living in the past’ when you face-palm at a suggestion that the series should bring roadsters back. But that’s not the case.
These fans are realists, deep in their heart they know that the clock will not turn back. They do, however, enjoy remembering how it used to be. And there is nothing wrong with that.
The Cautious Optimist
Like the Grizzled Veterans, many of the cautious optimists lived through the split and continued to watch even through the darkest times hoping that things would get better. This particular group represents a large portion of the fan base, but they tend to look forward, and not back, when discussing what is best for the series.
They are still critical of the series when it stumbles, and one of their biggest issues is the lack of promotion from the series, the sponsors, and the tracks. Many of these fans do, however, enjoy promoting the series the best they can whether it be through fan pages, social media groups, organizing trackside get-togethers, fantasy racing leagues, or just posting their photos from race weekends.
Like the grizzled veterans, the optimists would like to see more ovals, a longer schedule, and genuine stars. Drivers like Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe, Alexander Rossi, and Conor Daly that really put themselves out there have given these fans reason to celebrate. Likewise, the new car has met with positive reviews all around.
With an small but steady upswing in the ratings and attendance numbers, these fans have reason for their optimism, however they are not 100% sold that it will continue. The mistakes of the past are far too recent in their memories.
These will be the fans tuning in week in and week out, posting the series news, and offering up discussion, opinion and debate.
CART or Nothing..
Many of the fans that were loyal to CART through the split still follow the current series, but there are a significant number of fans that were just lost: casualties of the split, if you will.
In 1996, most of these fans felt that the IRL would be a little annoyance that would wither up and die. After all, CART had the big teams, the name drivers, and all the best tracks on the schedule, sans Indianapolis. The IRL featured a bunch of no-names and cars that CART fans described as ‘Crap Wagons.”
Well, the IRL did not go away, and in the end, CART was the entity that fizzled into oblivion. This particular segment of fans ended up feeling disenchanted, disenfranchised, angry and just bitter.
The ‘CART or Nothing’ fans want nothing to do with the current series, nothing to do with the Indianapolis 500, and still feel very wounded by the split. Despite any good news coming from the current series, these fans are just done. Period. To them, Top-tier American Open Wheel Racing ceased to exist sometime between 2003 and 2008.
These particular fans love to discuss everything that was good about CART. Most of them enjoy re-watching the old CART races on YouTube, or from stacks of VHS tapes that they have collected. One of their heroes is Paul Tracy, who was the standard-bearer for criticism of the IRL during the split.
They do also, however, continually re-hash the split and every sordid detail they can dredge up. Discussions run the gamut from intelligent debate to profanity-laced tirades. They also continue to argue that Paul Tracy was ‘robbed’ of an Indy 500 victory back in 2002.
These fans cannot even bring themselves to say the words ‘Tony George’ out loud, preferring to call him FTG. Similar animosity is aimed toward Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Bobby Rahal and anyone that was involved in the CART decision-making process towards the end.
When you read their comments, you realize that most of these fans are very knowledgeable and passionate about the CART Series. It is actually a bit sad that these fans are lost.
There are several social media groups and pages dedicated solely to the CART Series. While these pages are often frequented by those that do follow the current series, many of the “CART or Nothing” fans enjoy creating, moderating or visiting these pages.
To find them, post a picture of an IRL car in a CART group and see what happens.
OWRS, also known as The ChampCar World Series, had a brief, but eventful run as a sanctioning body after buying out the assets of CART. The series had a decidedly diluted field after most of the big money CART teams left. However, there remains is a small but loyal set of fans that absolutely love ChampCar.
The ChampCar Junkies are actually a very fun group to talk to, because they tend to focus on the positives of that series. One thing that they love to mention is the Panoz DP-01, the car specifically built for ChampCar. And, why wouldn’t they? The Panoz chassis was quite a remarkable race car that was mothballed after one season.
Many of these fans have this intense loyalty because they worked in ChampCar in some capacity during the four year run. They share a bond with one another that outsiders don’t understand.
Most of these folks still follow the current series, despite the feeling of having the carpet pulled out from under them with the merger. Many of them continue to root for Sebastien Bourdais, ChampCar’s four time champion. They have moved on, accepted the fact that ChampCar is no more, and most are happy with the current series.
There is, however, the curious case of Mark Plourde who acquired the ChampCar internet domain name after the merger. Plourde kept a fictional Champ Car website alive for nearly a decade after the merger, updating the site weekly with details of races that never happened. He inserted himself and his family members into the cast of characters painting an alternate reality where he himself becomes the winningest driver in the history of ChampCar.
Because little is known about the real Mark Plourde, it is unclear whether his efforts were the work of a brilliant satirist, or the fantasy world of an unstable individual. Whatever the case, Plourde eventually admitted that ChampCar is no more, and let the domain expire. He currently updates a website that blends real race results from the Verizon IndyCar Series into his fantasy world that features him as a team owner employing Tony Kanaan, Sebastien Bourdais and Gabby Chaves. Go figure…
Most motorsports fans don’t limit themselves to a single series, but many do have a favorite. If IndyCar is not necessarily your favorite, but you tune in and keep up with the news, then you are an Also-Fan. Your first love may be F1, NASCAR, SportsCars or dirt track midgets, but you are also a fan of IndyCar.
Fans that rank IndyCar as a second, third or even fourth favorite form of racing run the gamut from the incredibly knowledgeable follower down to casual observer/time permitting. This particular segment of fans contains folks who may one day become full-converts over to IndyCar, especially given the drop-off in NASCAR interest, and the lack of a deep field in Formula One.
Indeed, there is certainly a growing segment of fans that have turned away from other series, particularly NASCAR, and have begun to watch IndyCar. These fans are generally quite inquisitive, and generally less critical of IndyCar as a whole, because they like what they see,.
Because the Indianapolis 500 began as a stand-alone event that was not linked to a particular series, the race still has an identity all its own more than a century later. As one of the largest and most important races in the world, the 500 draws thousands of fans that, for various reasons, choose not to follow the whole series.
This is similar to people tuning into the Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby without watching another football game or horse race all year. The Indy-Only fans are important to the health of the series because, even during the lean years, the 500 continued its reign as the highest attended single-day sporting event in the world.
Indy-Only fans come in many varieties, but the bulk of them live in the Mid-West within a couple of hours of the Speedway. Most were introduced to the Speedway by a family member from a young age, and they have made the annual pilgrimage to the Brickyard ever since.
Some go for the race, pay close attention, and can share a wealth of Indianapolis 500 related facts, figures, and trivia. Others will watch the race, but may not necessarily know all of the drivers, but they do have their favorites. Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves have grown to be among the most-adored drivers at Indianapolis in recent years.
Some of these fans used to follow the whole series, but were turned off during the split. The lure of Indy, however, was too strong for them to break away. These fans feel very connected to the tradition and pomp and circumstance that comes with the 500. They will stand for the National Anthem, cheer for the balloon launch, marvel at the flyover, and predictably, become a bit choked up during the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
Others go to be a part of a huge event. Some have a week-long party in the Coke Lot, and may or may not actually make it into the track when the green flag flies. Some will drink and dance all day to the booming sounds coming out of the Snake Pit Stage, blissfully unaware that cars are flying around at 200+ mph.
Some folks start out as Indy-Only fans and become fans of the series. Others may watch a race or two if they are flipping channels and come across one, but don’t really go out of their way to follow. Some forget all about it until May rolls around.
Whatever the case, these loyal fans continue to come out in droves every Memorial Day weekend to make the 500 the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
The Indy Traditionalists are actually a sub-set of fans. You can be a veteran, optimist or an Indy-only and still be a traditionalist. These fans believe that the Speedway sits on hallowed ground, and that tradition must be preserved.
There are a few things that these fans cannot stand: The fact that NASCAR races at the Speedway, the fact that the infield road course exists, the IndyCar Grand Prix, the shortened qualifying format, the suggestion that more than 33 cars should ever start the race, the fact that the apron is gone, and they still haven’t forgiven Emerson Fittipaldi for drinking that damn orange juice in 1993.
These purists believe that the Speedway should only be used for the 500, thus their disgust with stock cars, formula one cars, motorcycles, and single-seater aircraft all having run at the track at one time or another. The SVRA event in June, however, gets a pass because it brings back a number of vintage IndyCars and retired heroes. The traditionalists do, however, cringe when the Pro-Am winner drinks milk. That should be reserved for the 500 winner.
After Jim Nabors sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” for the final time in 2014, it was the traditionalists that suggested that, going forward, the Speedway should utilize a recording of Nabors’ voice rather than seek out a new singer.
There is nothing inherently wrong with being resistant to change, or wanting to preserve tradition. Change is inevitable, but certainly not every one has to like it.
While the bulk of the rabid IndyCar fans are over 30, there is a growing number of younger fans that have latched on. Many are too young to remember the split, or only have vague memories of two different series running.
These young fans, ranging in age from toddlers to their 20s, are important because they represent the future health of the sport. They may have been introduced to IndyCar by a family member or friend, they may have stumbled upon it on their own, or they may have even developed a love for racing that started by playing video games.
Whatever the case, these fans tend to be very inquisitive and interested in technology. Sometimes these newer fans get caught up in discussions about the split, or the old series, or whatever is filling the comment blocks, but they have a hard time understanding exactly how deep the animosity runs.
These fans are more social media and tech-savvy than some of us older guys. They are more likely to get their racing news from seeing what their favorite drivers post on Instagram and Twitter, rather than from an article from Racer, Autoweek or the Indy Star. Podcasts and YouTube videos also resonate well with these young fans, and they are more likely to stream a race on a tablet than to turn on a television.
These young fans tend to gravitate towards the drivers that are more active on social media, like Newgarden, Rossi and Hinchcliffe, as well as some of the young up and coming drivers like Zach Veach and Kyle Kaiser.
These fans like what they see, and it is essential that the Series continue to reach out this segment of fans, and grow their numbers.
In similar fashion to Nigel Mansell in 1993, Formula One Champion, Fernando Alonso created a flurry of International attention when he entered the Indianapolis in 2017.
The race winner, Takuma Sato, caused a great deal of excitement in his native Japan,when he took the Borg-Warner Trophy home for a victory tour.
IndyCar’s bread and butter is in North America, but there have always been interested fans watching from other countries. In the past, CART, ChampCar and IndyCar have all staged International races with varying degrees of success in England, Germany, Japan, Brazil, Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands.
In the information age that we live in, International Fans now have easier access to IndyCar news, although for many of them, their level of interest is quite casual, compared to Formula One. These fans may or may not have access to race broadcasts, depending on where they live.
On social media, these fans from abroad ask a lot of good questions, and make a lot of comparisons to Formula One. The F1 Halo vs. IndyCar’s windscreen has been a hot topic among international fans, as IndyCar continues to test the viability of its driver head-protection solution.
Their favorite drivers will often be linked to their own nationality, as IndyCar offers a truly international field.
Again, there is no one-size-fits-all, as there are other fans and observers running the gamut from overly-optimistic ‘yes men’ to out-and-out haters. Every fan that tunes in or talks about IndyCar is important to the sport as we see what the future holds.