JOHNS: Is “Just Okay” Good Enough for IndyCar at PIR?

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The Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, directed by J.J. Abrams.

That is the impression I was left with after the dust had settled around Phoenix International Raceway following the first Verizon IndyCar Series race at the facility in a decade.

Everyone should know J.J. Abrams by now — the director responsible for rebooting two of the best-known science fiction movie franchises in history,Star Wars and Star Trek. Abrams, with his flashy visual style and eye for amazing setpieces, unfortunately produces movies that are the Hollywood equivalent of a piece of Fruit Stripe gum — a wonderful burst of flavor at the first bite, but becoming increasingly tasteless the longer you chew on it.

Like Abrams’ latest blockbuster, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix represented the culmination of years of breathless anticipation from the true believers. IndyCar fans’ anticipation mirrored that of the die-hardiest Stormtrooper-outfitted line-waiting denizen — sheer excitement, flavored with a subtext of real dread.Will this be worth the wait? they wondered. Is it going to be as bad as the last one?

It would not be that big of a stretch to say that more than a few IndyCar fans may have heard a John Williams fanfare in their heads when the 22 Dallara DW12s rolled out onto the asphalt and began taking hotlaps in the waning Phoenix sunlight.

By the end of the race, IndyCar fans were ready to call the race a success. A reported 20,000 fans in attendance, no big wrecks or injuries, blazing speed, and a few moments of absolute sheer exhilaration thanks to ballsy moves from drivers like Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan.

But in the finest Abrams tradition, with each passing minute came a sharper reminder of the plot holes.

The biggest one was the actual green flag racing. Simply put, it was largely a 190mph lockstep parade. It was remarkable enough to be noticed by two NASCAR drivers, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, on Twitter:

Well. That did not sit well with the true believers, and with a mighty Wookiee roar they descended upon the two “critics” with the passion of a thousand fiery Comic-Cons. Deep down, though, some of the fans heard an echo of what they themselves had complained about — too much downforce, not enough power — and their sense of unease about the race continued to rise. The proof was right there on the track, with the cars circling at incredible speed but largely unable to actually race except on restarts. The two NASCAR drivers were right… but still, as interlopers, their criticism was not welcome.

Then, too, were the half-empty grandstands. Now, let us be completely frank — anything above a quarter of PIR’s capacity would have been considered a win for INDYCAR. The last IndyCar Series race was so poorly attended that it spawned its own meme, when Marlo Klain of ESPN said, “I had more people at my wedding.” The announced attendance of 15,000 in 2005 was a clear overstatement, while this year’s official total of 20,000 appears accurate.

With that context in mind, fans called it a victory, or at least a sign of growth. But 20,000 fans still leave a lot of bare metal bleachers.

With a couple of days to think about it, more than a few IndyCar fans are starting to respond to queries of “What did you think of the race?” with the same hesitant smile and remark that Star Warsand Star Trek fans ended up using to describe Abrams’ debut at the helm of their favorite franchises — “It was… good.” Which, translated, means that it was “just okay,” but they are uncomfortable going that far in public.

Like any set of hardcore fans, IndyCar fans have become incredibly defensive against outside criticism. Who can blame them? Few fandoms have had to endure a trainwreck of the magnitude suffered by the Indy car community since 1996, and the agonizingly slow recovery process has been accompanied by a firestorm of outside criticism (or, worse, outright apathy) towards their beloved sport. The George Lucas Star Wars prequels could not have done more damage to a popular franchise than the Split did to Indy car racing.

So you will excuse IndyCar fans for being primed in advance to see a successful race. And you should excuse them for being defensive about the result being not quite the blockbuster they had desperately hoped for.

Let’s just hope that the sequel will be better.


The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularOpenWheel.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement. 

Tony Johns

Tony Johns is an award-winning publisher, writer, PR specialist, and designer with nearly 20 years' experience in the industry covering IndyCar, NASCAR, sports car racing, and West Coast short track racing. He lives among the tumbleweeds in Arizona and has an aversion to people on his porch.

1 Comment

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    April 18, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    20K? TRY MAYBE 15K.

    Sperber says he’s happy with an “NBA” crowd? Geez, the Suns do that number game after game, year after year. After years and years, there’s nothing special about a regular season NBA game, no special reason to go, yet 15-18k show up.

    IndyCar is gone for 10 years. We’re told it’s a big deal that they’re back. 30k in free tickets to testing, only about 7,000 showed up over several days. Should have been a warning sign right there.

    Raceday, after a decade away and the best indycar could do was about 25% capacity. Pathetic.

    But no surprise. Because PATHETIC is Indycar’s mantra: The Indy Pathetic Racing League.

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