Where have all the rivalries gone?

IndyCar commentary — By on November 3, 2009 6:12 pm

(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

All right.  Let’s dive into an offshoot topic from yesterday’s post.

The overall question:  why aren’t we more invested in the drivers these days?

A lack of meaningful rivalries was one of the first things that came to mind.

If there was one thing that defined the final four years of Champ Car, it was the Tracy/Bourdais rivalry.  I defy anyone to find a Champ Car fan who didn’t/doesn’t hold fiercely strong views on the matter.  In fact, many people who didn’t follow the series all that closely still knew this story well enough to have an opinion.  There were t-shirts and everything.

And people are still influenced by it.  Planet-IRL.com’s own editor-in-chief, Kohl, flatly refused to assist with the recent online push to convince Monster to sponsor Paul Tracy full-time because his feelings against PT are so strong.  (You can witness some of that vitriol first-hand in Planet-IRL’s most recent podcast with special guest Crash Gladys.)

Of course, this isn’t the only rivalry that’s existed over the years.  Once upon a time, we had Foyt and Andretti, Unser and Andretti, Unser Jr. and Andretti, Mansell and Andretti.

(Wow.  That Andretti name comes up a lot in this subject, doesn’t it?)

And the list goes on.  But no such interactions exist in today’s field.  There have been flashes in the pan — when Milka threw the towel at Danica in Mid-Ohio in 2008, it made national news.  But that one was never really destined to stick.  (A rivalry sort of demands that the parties involved be at more or less the same level of competitiveness.)

For the most part, what we’re getting is watered-down, sanitized versions of the drivers’ personalities.  Many of them are hesitant to speak their minds for fear of offending the sponsors to which they cling so tenuously.

For example, Danica’s apparently been sent to charm school — the fiery temper we’re used to seeing from her was significantly cooled this season.

And although Dario is rarely caught calling anyone out on anything, he did write a blog entry after Motegi where he ripped pretty soundly into Rafa Matos.  (You can find it here.)  Apparently, drivers have been lining up in droves to give Rafa a hard time about his antics on the racetrack.  Not sure about the rest of you, but this blog entry is the first I’d heard about it.  And I suspect that Dario may have felt pretty safe about putting his comments where he did because not very many people seem to know about the Speed IndyCar blogs at all.

There was a glimmer of potential at Indy.  When Marco Andretti and Mario Moraes tangled on the first lap, Marco climbed out of his car and called Mario clueless, declaring with exasperation, “that kid doesn’t get it and he never will.”  The potential for an interesting story here is high:  an American versus a Brazilian, both around the same age, one from one of racing’s greatest families and the other a relative unknown.  But after these initial comments, nothing ever came of this.  Whether they just never had words for each other again, I can’t say.  But I can’t help but suspect that what actually happened is that Marco was given a talking-to and told to keep his mouth shut.

Unfortunately, by pushing this culture on the drivers, the people responsible are having the exact opposite effect of what they intend — they’re actually doing the sponsors a major disservice.  Nothing gets TV time like a good throwdown, on or off the racetrack.  If the sport hopes to get any attention outside of the group of fans that already follow it, it needs to allow these stories to develop to give people something to talk about around the water cooler on Monday morning.

There’s a fine line to be walked with this, though.  I’ll openly admit that I don’t watch NASCAR very closely — I find most aspects of it to be artificially contrived to generate ratings, and it’s quite off-putting.  But the sense I get from those who do follow it is that people are getting very tired of the over-marketing that’s happening over there these days.  I’m told that little tiffs between drivers are milked for well beyond what they’re worth and that fans are becoming wise to it.  (I don’t have any examples to draw from to back this point up.  If anyone does, please leave a comment.)

After the IndyCar championship was decided in Homestead, I posited that one of the things we can hang our hat on at the moment is that we’re allowing our racing to unfold naturally and with integrity.  This must continue to be the case.  We can’t force an artificial rivalry on guys like, say, Dixon and Briscoe — who people generally perceive to be professional and understated — and expect it to work.

But if we can stop muzzling the drivers who are more fiery and opinionated, and if we can bring in some household names to stir the pot up a little (Paul Tracy comes to mind), these things should develop honestly on their own.

The important thing is to generate this thought process:  “well, driver X who I love didn’t win, but at least he/she finished ahead of driver Y who I hate.”  If casual fans think this way, it means they care, and they might even tune in again to see what happens in the next race.  And few things would be more effective at spurring the advancement of the sport than a growing fan base that cares.

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