Without doubt, parity is one of the strengths of the CART FedEx series. Through 15 rounds this year, we've had nine different winners, including four first-timers. Indeed, at any given race there are as many as 14 different drivers with a legitimate chance at winning.
Yet parity is not all it's cracked up to be and I, for one, don't like it. Part of the reason I am such a devoted fan today is because of the frequency with which Mario Andretti used to win. In all honesty, I would have enjoyed it even more if he had won every race between 1978 and 1986. Alas, a well-documented and long list of mechanical ailments prevented that from happening, but my determination to watch in hopes that he would overcome those maladies and beat the dreaded Unsers kept me interested.
By now, there are probably many readers who have concluded that I've lost a few screws. Parity and close finishes, the new general consensus goes, gets the casual viewer interested. Yet history says otherwise.
Consider golf. When Jack Nicholas was winning throughout the 1970s, the sport's popularity rose dramatically. His wins at Augusta are the stuff of legend for many players who took up the sport during that period.
When the Golden Bear started slipping in the 1980s, there were plenty of challengers to pick up the slack. In fact, there were so many challengers that it seemed that there was a new winner virtually every week. About the only time the crème rose to the top was at the majors.
That kind of parity did not produce a whole lot of interest, however. Outside the corporate hospitality tents, the sport reached a plateau in the 1980s and into the early 1990s. About the only thing people that could create any excitement was seeing Greg Norman leading the final round of a major tournament.
That all changed when a kid from Stanford appeared on the scene. His ability to hit 350-yard drives and put with a sensitivity that even Tom Watson or Ben Crenshaw couldn't match not only propelled Tiger Woods to the top of the sport, it also helped golf's popularity resume the meteoric rise that hadn't enjoyed since Nicholas.
Tennis, too, has seen a similar fade in fan interest after the retirement of characters such as John McEnroe. Stepping into their wake was a long list of gifted, yet seemingly colorless and equal replacements. Nobody emerged to create interest, making it so boring that many shifted their attention to the women's tour, where the triumvirate of the Williams sisters and Martina Hingis has created a battle that is worth watching.
Even NASCAR has seen some loss in interest this year and, you want to know why? Jeff Gordon isn't winning. Yes, you say, there were lots of people who hated seeing Gordon do well. But that's the point. He was a focal point even if he wasn't the crowd favorite. His winning, sometimes by hook or by crook, meant that everyone else was not. People either loved him or hated him.
Today, however, there is an awful lot of sympathy for Gordon, especially as now he's the one getting pushed aside. Stepping into the void is an interchangeable group of drivers spouting the same platitudes at the end of each week's 500 miler. They're all nice guys - except for Tony Stewart, of course. They're all politically correct. But they haven't created the level of envy that Gordon used to create and that has meant lower ratings.
Gordon was not the first to fill the role of the hated rival. Dale Earnhardt did not earn his stripes as "the Intimidator" by being lovey dovey with his rivals. And few can match the level of envy that Richard Petty generated back in the 1970s. The question is whether anyone can step in to fill the void. Tony Stewart is certainly obnoxious, but parity in the sport means that he doesn't win that often. So while people - like me - dislike him intensely, he is not a focal point except after the race.
All of this is to show that regardless of the sport, fan interest is generated not by parity but by a perverse combination of joy and envy. Joy if it is the team or player you support that wins and envy if it is not.
CART's rise in popularity in the latter half of the 1980s and first half of the 1990s coincided with the peaking of Team Penske. Who can forget the level of envy the Captain created in 1994 when he took advantage of the arcane engine rules at Indianapolis - before the current arcane engine rules were implemented at Indianapolis - to build a one-off push-rod engine that would have swept the first two spots had Fittipaldi not lost concentration, miss the apex of turn four and slam into the wall. I, for one, hated it and I couldn't wait to see them get beaten.
The circumstances in open-wheel racing are different today, and while there are a number of problems with that, there are also opportunities. First the problems: the drivers are just too likeable and agreeable. Take Adrian Fernandez. At the end of nearly every race, he's right there at the top, ultimately throwing a potential spanner in the championship hopes of many aspirants and their supporters. But you can't hate the guy; he's too nice. The same is true with Roberto Moreno, Gil de Ferran - who could hate a guy who hushed the victory lane crowd so that they wouldn't wake his slumbering baby - Helio Castro Neves and Christiano da Matta. The IRL has many of the same problems now that the competitiveness of the series has finally pushed the racing dentist to the sidelines, hopefully for good.
In years past, Paul Tracy and Robbie Gordon were the bad guys. They did not, however, become full-fledged victims because they were more prone to shoot themselves in the foot when they were in a position to win. This holds some potential, though. With Andretti almost assured of teaming with Tracy again, the war within Team Green could make the battles between Tracy and Franchitti look mild.
For now, CART has Juan Montoya, of course. He's young. He's arrogant. He's a foreigner. And he has done a very good job of pushing the American standard bearers aside in his quest for the glory he thinks - and does - rightfully deserve. His potential as a series villain was shown earlier this season at Chicago. There many of the fans in attendance applauded when his car suddenly shut down.
Then again, this is a problem for CART. To become a villain, a driver or team need to win year in and year out, through hook or through crook, if everyone is to hate them and thereby, raise them to the level of true legendary status. Unfortunately, it is likely that Montoya will take his gifts to F1. His presence could perversely create sympathy for Michael Schumacher as he is aggressively pushed aside by a young upstart from Colombia.
Given the limited availability of really good villains on the track to help us get over the torment of seeing our favorites lose, many CART and IRL fans have had to look for villains off track. Tony George and Andrew Craig are hated by supporters of the competing series for sins both real and imagined.
Yet here is the opportunity for both sides. The rivalry between the two series holds the potential for raising interest to a fever pitch. It happened this past year at Indianapolis and it gave the 500 an aura that it had lacked since 1995. Montoya nonchalantly waltzed into the hallowed Brickyard, shrugged his shoulders and ran away with the show - and the huge paycheck - much to the chagrin of the IRL faithful.
If smarter heads could develop some form of equivalency formula if not a common rules package, open-wheel racing could generate that kind of excitement at every oval race by expanding the rivalry beyond
the Indy 500. Such a rivalry would not only raise the number of cars on track - the prescription for more on-track passing proffered by Mario Andretti in his column in this month's Champ Car magazine - but also regularly take the war of words on to the track. It could be good versus evil; high tech versus low tech; specialization versus versatility; Ganassi versus Menard; Andretti versus Unser.
Such a scheme could create that kind of tension - even if it is just at ovals - that could generate interest in both series. A series to support and a series to hate. If only smarter heads could prevail.
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