INDIANAPOLIS -- Sometimes, a storm cloud is just a storm cloud.
Overcast skies and chilling winds are often just weather conditions, not ominous portents of gloom or catastrophe. But when it comes to IndyCar racing, it's tempting to make a metaphor out of everything, or at least everything that's discouraging.
Sunday's forecast, and the bitter winds and low ceiling of daybreak, felt like the stuff of pulp novel foreshadowing. It was a dark and stormy race day … The Indianapolis 500 has been postponed six times in 96 years. The last time it happened was in 1997, when two delays pushed the race to the Tuesday after Memorial Day. The Indianapolis 500 could barely endure such a delay nowadays. It would cripple the IndyCar series just as it stumbles to once again find its footing. An Indy 500 on a Tuesday might as well be an Indy 500 on Mars at midnight. No one would watch. Not enough people are watching now. Imagine: the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, hoping to do better in its timeslot than The Chew.
But the storm never came. The Indy 500 started on time and finished swiftly. It was a race of record speeds, record lead changes and few yellow flags. It was a victory for Tony Kaanan, a popular longtime bridesmaid, who took the lead for good in lap 197 during a short window between caution flags.
IndyCar enjoyed a break in the clouds, finally, briefly.
The racing league, whose every reintroduction to the mainstream audience these days feels like a sweaty handshake, offered plenty of thrills for first-time viewers. Fourteen different drivers, over one-third of the field, led at least one lap. There were 16 lead changes between laps 150 and 180 alone. The drivers enjoyed a blazing 134-lap stretch of unbroken green flags. There were two-car passes and sudden inside moves. There were no major crashes, but a handful of spinouts and plenty of flirtations with the wall.
Entering the final 20 laps, at least a dozen drivers had a legitimate chance at victory. A fan could pick a favorite contender based on his storyline. Do you like hometown heroes and small-team independent racers? Indianapolis' own Ed Carpenter, the pole sitter, held a constant spot among the leaders for the first 75 laps. Prefer hotshot rookies? Carlos Muñoz, a 21-year-old coming off some phenomenal qualifiers and a fourth place finish in Friday's IndyLights race (a classic race itself, with Peter Dempsey rocketing past Munoz and two others racing three-wide down the final straightaway), took his place among the leaders late in the race, finishing second. How about an American rookie with a NASCAR pedigree and a redemption angle? A.J. Allmendinger, booted from NASCAR last year for substance abuse problems, vaulted into the lead at the halfway point in the race and hung around until the end, finishing seventh.
Perhaps you prefer legendary names in racing? Marco Andretti was in the top five for most of the race (finishing fourth), diving in and out of the lead with Allmendinger, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Kanaan from lap 158 until his pit stop in lap 180. Three-time champion Helio Castroneves hovered around sixth place for most of the race, then blasted quickly from third to first with a two-car pass in lap 145. He led for just one lap, but it was enough to inspire visions of Castroneves joining the legendary four-time champions. Hunter-Reay, the defending IndyCar series champion, lurked near the front until taking the lead in lap 193, just before a yellow flag caused by a Graham Rahal spinout. He finished third. Will Power, perennial runner-up in the IndyCar rankings and a road racer by preference, took 16 mid-race spins in the lead.
It was that kind of race. If you didn't like who was winning, you just had to wait a lap.
Kanaan's "storyline" entering the race was that he was perpetually snakebit, much like the IndyCar series. An 11-year veteran, he lost in 2004 despite leading much of the race; he fell behind, and rain erased the final laps so he could not mount a comeback. He led in 2007 during a rain delay and was poised to win a shortened race before the clouds parted; Kanaan spun into the pits soon after the race resumed. The combination of Kanaan and rain often spells calamity, usually for Kanaan, who has earned a lot of fan support through his string of near misses and third-place finishes.
But the rain held off, and it was someone else's turn to be unlucky. Kanaan challenged Hunter-Reay for the lead moments after a restart, with Munoz in the mix to provide a few seconds of three-wide racing. Kanaan overtook the others just as Dario Franchitti crashed into a wall, drawing the caution flag that flew over the final laps. Ten seconds of frenetic racing erased ten years of mishaps. If it could happen to Kanaan, it could happen to IndyCar. But then, maybe a win is just a win.
Kanaan is relatively unknown to casual fans but is respected by IndyCar enthusiasts. This is how a company grows its brand: it galvanizes the base by giving diehards what they want, while offering plenty of appealing entry points for newcomers, from record speeds (the race average of 187.443 broke a record that stood since 1990), constant passing, parity among a group of drivers from different age groups, nationalities, and genders. Bert Bell, the NFL commissioner of the 1950's, would know just what to say about the 2013 Indy 500. On any given Memorial Day Sunday, a rookie could emerge, or a four-time champion could be crowned, a hometown hero could take the Borg-Warner Trophy, or a long-suffering runner-up could finally get his chance.
It was an exciting race. Yet it needed to be better to silence the IndyCar series' critics.
Passing and parity are a double-edged sword. Hunter-Reay lamented the inability to build a big lead in the race: the cars are too similar, and the aerodynamics cause the leader to punch a big hole in the wind for the cars behind him or her. "When you're up front leading, especially on a restart, it's like driving a bulldozer," he said. "You're just like: 'Everybody, come on by.'"
Twenty-three cars remained within nine seconds of the leader for the first 150 laps. It was intense, but a little too democratic to shed the "spec racing" label that haunts IndyCar. One car pulling away would result in a dull race, but a four-to-five car duel has some merits over a 14-car duel. If half the field is special, perhaps the field is not that special.
And then there was the finish under caution. There is no green-white-checker rule in the Indianapolis 500. If there was, the yellow flag after the Franchitti crash might have set up one of the greatest finishes in history, with Munoz, Hunter-Reay, and perhaps Andretti or Justin Wilson -- who hung in fifth place and hurdled through a race-best 226.940 mph lap 185 -- sprinting to chase Kanaan through five more hold-your-breath miles.
Instead, everyone coasted home. "I finally got a little bit of luck today," Kanaan said from Victory Lane. "We were in the wrong place at the wrong time," Hunter-Reay said about being in first place at the exact moment when he could be easily passed, then being deprived of the ability to retaliate.
As for IndyCar, it got something between a little bit of luck and another trip to the wrong place at the wrong time. The Indy 500 outran the storm that bore down on the Indianapolis region. It delivered the goods. But because of its very nature, the old-fashioned yellow-flag finish and the rigid car spec, it fell just short of delivering the greats. The Indy 500 was a big win but a missed opportunity for a must-watch mandate.
Perhaps the "spectacle" part of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is the problem. The word has a bad connotation. "Spectacle" suggests flim-flam, sparkle over substance, a charge that has been leveled at IndyCar many times in the last 20 years. Fans are not that impressed by spectacle these days: we watch All Star games out of a sense of obligation (if at all) and we flatten college bowl games under a playoff steamroller. We want events that count toward championships, but the Indy 500 arrives once per year trumpeting tradition: milk, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines," and Jim Nabors. There's an IndyCar series championship, but it's one that few casual fans think about and the Indy 500 itself often elbows into the background. (Andretti now leads the season series, for the record, overcoming James Hinchcliffe, who finished 21st). The Indianapolis 500 has become isolated ritual, removed from the rest of the sports calendar and placed into the "grand old celebrations" file.
That disconnect is a leftover from IndyCar's two decades of self-destruction, a Civil War which separated the best drivers from the best event, the bad old days that never quite recede in the rearview mirror. And no one wants the Indy 500's traditions replaced with Red Bull, "Let's get ready to rumble," and CeeLo Green. Tradition is great, but tradition is better when it's part of a meaningful, compelling series of races. Spectacle is great when it is backed up by tense competition and high stakes, but then it stops being "spectacle" and becomes "great sports."
Maybe The Greatest Spectacle in Racing should rebrand simply as Great Racing. More importantly, IndyCar needs to deliver great racing, not just for 198 laps on Memorial Day weekend, but throughout the year. Sunday was a start, and the series can use it as a building block: there's a double-header of races in Detroit in June, and Triple Crown races in the Poconos in July and California in October. There are rookies like Munoz and Allmendinger to promote alongside Kanaan, Andretti, Hunter-Reay, and the others. IndyCar's new leaders are promoting new innovations: aerodynamic kits are coming, and perhaps a green-white-checkered rule could find its way onto the table after Sunday's finish.
But then, before Kanaan could even leave the track, a light drizzle began. It grew into a steady rain. With IndyCar, the compulsion to lapse back into rainy-day metaphor comes quickly. The storm could only hold off for so long. The glow of the Indy 500 faded. Soon, darkness fell again on the star-crossed racing league.
Then again, sometimes the rain is just the rain.