En route from Indianapolis to the Kentucky Speedway on Saturday afternoon, a navigational discrepancy occurred. The car’s lovely GPS Lady advised me to take a certain exit off of I-74 — my wife quickly & vehemently advised against it. Right or wrong, I chose to go with the one who had every single back road in America manually downloaded into her brain. It seemed like the smart play at the time. It was not.
Because for the next 100 or so miles, we crawled up & down winding dirt roads and one-lane blacktops at LITERALLY 12 mph. That’s not a joke. Nor hyperbole. GPS Lady apparently wanted to give us the scenic route — and if it took three weeks & a divorce to get there, so be it. Have you ever been in a terrible rush & slowly inched along behind a tractor tiller deep in Southern Indiana hill country as your scorned wife silently fumes next to you? Holy Jesus. Misery. Total misery. If I could’ve crawled into the glovebox right then, I would have. The resentment in the air was so thick, you could cut it with a court summons.
ME: You hungry? Let’s stop and get something to eat. Where should we –
WIFE: Why don’t you ask your stupid girlfriend?
A two-hour trip became an eternity. But all was not lost. Because somewhere along State Driveway 101 or whatever it was called, we happened to come across every decent-minded Hoosier’s holy land:
Milan, Indiana. The real-life home of the Hickory Huskers.
It was like popping out of the dense woods & straight into the Lost City of Atlantis … only AWESOMER. I had heard of Milan, of course — just as every Indiana native has. I wasn’t really sure it still actually existed, though, nor had I ever been there. I reacted accordingly: by parking the car & snapping pictures like a nerd & reverently bowing my head & snapping MORE pictures, totally in awe of its historical significance. Haha, my wife was now furious AND mortified!! But I had no time for that. THIS is the original home of the Goliath-killer, I thought — the Valley of Elah. Simply being there put me in the mood for some stone-cold GIANT SLAYING. It was a sign, alright. A sign of things to come later that night. A wonderful sign for Ed Carpenter or Dan Wheldon or ANYBODY else not affiliated with Penske or Ganassi. It had to be.
It was not.
Fast-forward to whenever it was Saturday night when it became clear that Helio was going to win. I’m not terribly sure when that was, exactly. With 10 laps to go? Five? My wife & I were watching from the pits — a difficult place to keep track of such things, particularly when neither of us are “race people.” All I know is that the entire area was crazy-ABUZZ with energy as Carpenter & company battled for the lead … and then totally & remarkably deflated when they weren’t. Everyone looked at the scoring pylon at roughly the same time & somehow saw #3 sitting atop it. And everyone kind of groaned. I won’t remember much from the race, but I’ll remember that unmistakable ARE YOU SHITTING ME?!?! vibe that quickly harshed our shit like a wet blanket of predictability.
Helio coasted to victory, of course. It was all kinds of anticlimactic. It was anticlimactic on steroids of some kind, but not really. Because steroids are unpredictable & volatile — no, this was “anticlimactic” on fiber pills & a sensible 8 hours of sleep. The kind that wears immaculate house slippers. Such a letdown.
Upon exiting the Speedway, it was obvious that fans weren’t happy about the outcome. But through gritted teeth, they repeatedly muttered the time-honored mantra: “That’s racing.” I heard it no less than 30 times.
Well you know what? That little mantra doesn’t sit well with the casual American sports fan. It certainly doesn’t sit well with me. It’s a vague, miscellaneous catch-all that tries to explain away the worst aspects of the sport, but does so poorly. It’s hollow & dumb and I have no use for it anymore.
Week in & week out, all the best drivers aren’t even in the field??? Mm-hmm. “That’s racing,” I’m told.
Nine different people can drive a better race than Helio Saturday night and LOSE to him? Yep. “That’s racing.”
In fact, Curt Cavin credits Helio’s unlikely win to an archaic relic of the past — seemingly tongue-in-cheek, but I can’t say for sure:
Remember, there are examples in other sports where the one who shouldn’t win utilizes the only advantage he has and does. Like when basketball teams held the ball in the era before the shot clock.
HOORAY FOR US INDYCAR FANS!!! We’re still subjected to the same broke-ass tactics that were outlawed by mainstream sports some 60 years ago!! (You know, because they were ruining the sport & so forth.) In Cavin’s basketball analogy, an inferior team would take an early lead & then win by holding onto the ball for the next 983 straight minutes. Captivating theater, it was not. It wasn’t even sporting. So it was fixed. See if this sounds familiar:
The National Basketball Association (NBA) had problems attracting fans (and television coverage) before the shot clock’s inception. This was largely due to teams killing the clock once they were leading in a game; without the shot clock, teams could pass the ball nearly endlessly without penalty … Very low-scoring games with many fouls were common, boring fans.
The shot-clock came into existence in 1954, by the way. Which brings us back full circle.
To where? you ask.
Why to Milan, of course — who won the Indiana High School Basketball title that very same year.
Some consider it the greatest upset of all time. A fluke for the ages. It most certainly wasn’t. It was simply a matter of the little guy being better than the powerhouse, which is a rarity for sure. But not an impossibility. Because unlike the fictional Hickory Huskers, the real-life Milan team was exceedingly well known beforehand. They didn’t just come out of nowhere with a new batshit crazy coach & a mute 2-guard savant; they advanced to the Final Four the year prior. They didn’t just beat country rubes & obscure mining towns to luck their way into the Championship game; they thrashed Oscar Robertson’s nationally renowned Crispus Attucks in the semi-finals — the team who would go on to win the next two Indiana state titles (1955 and 1956).
That final game was not a fluke. It was hardly an upset. Hollywood works like that, but not REAL sports. Because in real sports, there are no flukes. The best team might not always win, but whoever COMPETES the best does. Period. Every time, without exception. Be it an underdog or a favorite, a David or a Muncie Central. That’s sports.
And this is what’s so maddening about IndyCar. Those basic principles of legitimate competition seem absent. Because on a night when Ed Carpenter, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan all clearly competed better than anyone else, they all lost. To a middling, uninspired Goliath. On a fluke — a fortuitous, fuel-conserving loophole in the system that everyone hates. And worse still, they lost anticlimactically. Well of course they did.
And in case you’re confused as to why we have problems attracting fans (and television coverage), don’t be. Keep telling yourself this: That’s racing. And then please start thinking of ways to fix it.