IndyCar picks NASCAR star over Andretti & Unser

IndyCar gives NASCAR free PR with Jeff Gordon as Pace Car driver
IndyCar gives NASCAR free PR with Jeff Gordon as Pace Car driver

Look, I really don't care who drives the pace car at an automobile race. Granted, I get the whole to-do about having a celebrity like Donald Trump or Morgan Freeman being part of your event. But at the end of the day I doubt anyone ever bought a ticket to see Trump, Freeman, or the Easter Bunny – granted, that would be something – drive the pace car.

That said, I find the selection of Jeff Gordon to drive the pace car for this year's Indianapolis 500 puzzling on numerous levels. Not that I have any problem with Gordon, who is of course retiring from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at the end of this season, and boasts a resume worthy of our celebration. Still, wouldn't the Brickyard weekend be more appropriate for said adulation?

Also, let me be clear in saying I’m not looking to start any IndyCar v. NASCAR thing. But I say this with ABSOLUTE certainty: Hell will freeze over before Helio Castroneves or Ryan Hunter-Reay drive the pace car for the Daytona 500. And Castroneves and Hunter-Reay have contributed the exact same thing to NASCAR, Gordon has to IndyCar: nothing.

Of course, this isn’t how the cheerleading Central Indiana Media Gentry sees things. Giddy with hometown delight, many of them have spent the last week gooing and gushing about Gordon's often overstated Indiana roots or how Gordon grew up dreaming of winning the Indy 500, which conveniently seems to ignore nothing is stopping Gordon from fulfilling said dream, as qualifying for the 99th Indianapolis 500 begins next Saturday.

My question is what does Gordon's presence do for Indy car racing? For example, picture a casual fan tuning in to watch the only IndyCar race they will see this year. They see the legendary Jeff Gordon driving the pace car for the greatest race in the world. Why, they might ask. Call me crazy but, “so he can rest up for another race later that evening" doesn't exactly scream “this is the greatest race in the world!"

Also, while May has already begun with attention being devoted to Gordon, I wonder: is IMS also going to tell the important IndyCar stories coming into the month? These would include:

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay, the best American IndyCar driver of this era, and his bid to repeat
  • Hometown boy Ed Carpenter going for a third straight pole and possibly scoring a breakthrough 500 win
  • Helio Castroneves' bid for a fourth win
  • Josef Newgarden's coming of age
  • Juan Pablo Montoya having a resurgent season and potentially being the first person to win races 15 years apart.

These stories may be told at some point during the month of May. However, with Gordon driving the pace car, I can assure you of one that will be told.

The great IndyCar driver Mario Andretti and Al Unser Sr. have never driven the Indy 500 pace car. IndyCar chose to thumb their nose at IndyCar's best in favor of a star from arch-enemy NASCAR
The great IndyCar driver Mario Andretti (and Al Unser Sr.) have never driven the Indy 500 pace car. IndyCar chose to thumb their nose at IndyCar's best in favor of a star from arch-enemy NASCAR

Debunking a Myth

A very common narrative, one that oddly exists in both the world of Indy Car and NASCAR is that Gordon making the move south in the early 1990s represented a seismic shift in the balance of power between Indy Car and NASCAR. Gordon, then a standout sprint car racer, famously went to the Cleveland Indy Car race in 1990 and depending on who you talk to, was denied credentials to the paddock. Team owners, who his representation group did speak with, apparently asked dismissive questions such as “can he road race," and “what kind of money does he bring?"

Frustrated, Gordon turned south and found fame and fortune. NASCAR went on a meteoric rise, while Indy Car racing would enter a destructive civil war that nearly crippled the sport. And Gordon is often seen as a principal figure in the rise of NASCAR and decline of Indy Car; the symbol of the talented grass roots American who was denied an opportunity by the haughty, ignorant Indy Car establishment at the time in lieu of foreigners with bigger checkbooks.

The truth is actually, a little more complicated.

Obviously, Gordon was a talented sprint car racer and yes all indications are he was given the cold shoulder by the then-CART establishment. But it’s not as if sprint car racing was where Indy car stars of the day were being found. In fact, I’d argue that sprint car racing hasn’t been relevant to modern Indy cars since about the mid-1960s. I’d also offer that the last great Indy car driver to come up through the ranks driving front-engine sprint cars on dirt was Johnny Rutherford. While there are others who had sprint car training (Al Unser, Jr.), many also had formula car training after their sprint car days. Tom Sneva won in sprint car racing, but he also famously drove a rear-engine sprinter. Current driver Ed Carpenter came up driving sprints, but then went into junior-level Indy Car series.

To make a long story short: there are exceptions. Tony Stewart comes to mind winning an IRL title, albeit against a very weak field. However, no great IndyCar driver has gone directly from a dirt front-engine car to the big cars in get this: nearly HALF A CENTURY!

Also, it’s ludicrous to assume the team owners then would know Gordon would be well, Gordon. While I suppose one could argue it was the team owners’ failure to neglect grassroots racers like Gordon, the simple truth was front-engine sprint cars were not producing Indy car greats. And that shift did not occur with Gordon, or because of Gordon. It occurred about a quarter of a century prior to Gordon.

Nevertheless, whatever anyone thinks of the Gordon-to-NASCAR move, IMS has welcomed a review of a saga that doesn’t exactly conjure up warm-and-fuzzy feelings in the world of IndyCar.

24

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]It appears that IMS is devoting significant energy to honoring Gordon this month. Following up on the Gordon news from above, I was sitting in the Townsend Bell Indy 500 press conference a few weeks ago at Long Beach, when Bell noted he was running the #24 as a tribute to Gordon, mentioning both he and Gordon had Northern California roots. Something of a loose connection I surmised, having never previously thought to utter Jeff Gordon and Townsend Bell in the same breadth.

Well, not only is Bell running the number 24, but Gordon's famous yellow 24 numbering, with a Gordon-collage inside the #24 Robert Graham Chevrolet.

Bizarre!

Looking externally, not internally

Keep in mind, IMS/INDYCAR have shown very little creativity with promoting their own stars in recent years. We remember a few years ago after Hunter-Reay won the championship, and practically begged the series to let him do more promotion wise. Of course, then-CEO Randy Bernard was deposed shortly into the offseason and the company was undergoing the Boston Consulting Group internal review. The IMS fortress went silent, except during a time in late November-early December, after Roger Penske publicly offered a ride in the 2013 Indy 500 to NASCAR star Tony Stewart.

IMS was giddy with delight at the prospect of Stewart running the 500. I wrote at the time their own champion couldn’t even get his own hash tag, yet IMS/INDYCAR had social media campaigns, and was willing to rework the schedule all so Stewart could run.

In the end, Stewart did not run, something that was obvious to anyone who knew of the logistics involved. Yet, that didn’t stop the IMS/INDYCAR desperation act.

Fast forward to now

4-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser also gets passed over for a NASCAR star
4-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser also gets passed over for a NASCAR star

Although this is a different subject for a different time, I suppose one way to interpret this unwillingness of the series and Speedway to promote IndyCar stars, is as an indication they don’t believe they have anyone worth promoting. For now, from the perspective of one looking at May as IndyCar’s greatest platform, it’s difficult to comprehend what IMS is seeking to accomplish with what is shaping up to be Jeff Gordon tribute month. As we showed IMS has given those who are covering the event, the platform with which to review Gordon’s decision to go south. And while I argued that the narrative is something of a myth, people do see Gordon as symbolic of the rise of NASCAR and subsequent decline of Indy car. Why does IMS feel the need to parade such a face before the whole world.

I suppose many attending the race will revel in Gordon’s Indiana connection, and applaud him for his vast accomplishments in motor racing. Fair enough. But Gordon will drive his pace laps, stick around till about lap 50, and head off to Charlotte for Coca-Cola 600. The star of the 99th Indianapolis 500 will be off to Charlotte. And all I’d like to know is: what’s the plan from there?

Brian Carroccio is a senior motorsports columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.


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