KRAVITZ: Grand Prix isn’t a big deal (yet), but it’s still better than the old alternative–boredom

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KRAVITZ: Grand Prix isn’t a big deal (yet), but it’s still better than the old alternative – boredom

When I arrived in Indy in 2000, four years after the split that did its level best to ruin open-wheel racing, May was a giant yawn until Pole Day. Years earlier, the opening of the gates in early May was the start of a civic celebration, but soon, it became a huge bore. I’d walk into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and see a smattering of hard-core fans dotting the bleachers who were there to watch practice, and I’d wonder what could possibly be done to fill the void and some of those empty seats.

Mark Miles, the Hulman & Co. CEO, saw the same thing and he wondered the same thing:

How do we enliven May?

Now, nobody is going to suggest that this weekend’s Indy Grand Prix is a must-see element on the Indianapolis or the national calendar, but it’s something, and it’s something that represents a vast improvement over what we’ve had here before. This is the fifth Grand Prix in Speedway history, and more and more, it’s starting to feel like it truly belongs on the Indy motorsports calendar.

The old days of IndyCar are gone and they’re likely not coming back. Once upon a time, crowds gathered to watch those practices, to thrill at the sight of their favorite drivers and speeds that kept climbing higher and higher. But The Split happened. And society changed, in general. The younger demographic, which has the attention span of a gnat, became bored, preferring to play racing video games than watch the real things at the world’s greatest racetrack. May arrived with its usual hyper-media fanfare, and then it just lay there, stillborn, for two weeks before the arrival of qualifying.

Give Miles and his people credit; they went against the grain, came up with something that is anathema to the hardest of hard-core racing fans. They came up with the Grand Prix, and while it doesn’t draw enormous numbers in terms of attendance or TV exposure, it’s a vast improvement over how it used to be in the post-Split era. The TV ratings are miniscule, but at least there are ratings from its appearances on ABC (and NBC in the years to come); there are some eyeballs on the Speedway and the race, serving up an appetizer, a taste, for what will come with qualifying and then the Indianapolis 500 at month’s end.

I understand that it wasn’t popular – shoot, it was sacrilege -- with some long-time Indy enthusiasts, who view themselves as keepers of the flame. I understand that Indy is synonymous with ovals, not road courses. I understand cars here are supposed to go counter-clockwise and not clockwise. I understand the resistance to change, how this would be seen as something that would make Tony Hulman turn over in his grave. It was counter to everything longtime Indy residents knew and believed while having grown up with the month of May.

But…

It’s 2018 and tastes and times change. We need events. We need drama. We need a hard-and-fast reason to come to the Speedway in early May, a better reason to spend a few bucks and spend the day in the sun. It’s not enough anymore to simply open the doors to the grey old lady and say, “C’mon in, we have cars going around in circles at a high rate of speed!!" Not now. Not anymore.

“I think it’s fantastic,’’ said driver Simon Pagenaud. “I think it’s fantastic to start the month of May with this event. It just shows the true nature of the Verizon IndyCar Series. We race road courses, street courses, ovals, superspeedways, short ovals and here. We’re demonstrating what the series is all about and what IndyCar is all about. With the big wings to start the month and using the road course and then we’re going the other way with the speedway wings next week, so to me, that’s exciting because the fans can really see what IndyCar is all about in one month. So kicking off the first race at the speedway, at the road course here is always special, and for us to demonstrate our skills on both is important.’’

The only issue with the Indy Grand Prix is, it’s easy to overlook, especially for drivers. It still counts in the points race, still matters in the big picture, but when these teams settle in and come through Gasoline Alley, they’re primed for the big show, not the coming attraction. Preparing for the Indy 500 and competing in the 500 are a three-week process or longer. The Grand Prix is a two-day event.

“I have caught myself the last few days thinking about the 500 because the car is so different, so you’re really thinking about what is going to make the car work,’’ Will Power said. “But today (Thursday), you’ll be sitting down with your engineer, focusing on tomorrow and Saturday. Yeah, I think you’ll kind of forget about the 500 for a couple of days and then put 100% into being quick on the road course.’’

As someone who didn’t grow up with motorsports and only began showing interest in 2000 – I know just enough to be dangerous after 18 years – I can honestly say I much prefer the high-speed ovals to the road courses. Too often, the road courses can be a parade; in fact, the last three pole winners have won the Indy Grand Prix. But if you listen to the drivers, the new cars and the new aerokits have a chance to improve the ability to pass, even on the road course.

We’ll see.

The Grand Prix isn’t yet a must-see or must-attend event and it may never be, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternative. If you don’t change with the times, you get left behind.

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