I’m a sap. There, I’ve admitted it. Everyone thinks I only care about sports, action movies, and sophomoric comedy for entertainment, and to some degree, they are right. I like all those things. But in the deep, dark corners of my heart lurks that bane of manliness, that enemy of all things male: the hopeless romantic. Please don’t judge me harshly. It is my belief that some form of romanticism plays hide-and-seek in the souls of all men. It is what keeps us from really being the miserable bastards that most people assume we are. My guilty romantic pleasure is the genre of movies called romantic comedy. Show me someone making a life-altering decision or suffering from the injustices of the world around them, and a salty tear will roll down my cheek to the amusement of my family. Of course, I fake coughs, yawns, and eyeglass adjustments to cover the tears, but I fool no one. If the movie includes an animal, then audible sobs ensue. This is my deep secret and my shame. The question is how this baloney relates to IndyCar. The answer can be found in the romantic comedy Fever Pitch.
In the movie, Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore star as Ben and Lindsey, two mismatched lovers with entirely different perspectives about life. Ben is a Boston Red Sox fan who has given his complete devotion to a franchise that continues to break his heart with epic collapses and mismanagement.¹ The movie examines the humor, absurdity, and pathos of giving your heart and soul to something that cannot love you back. All hard-core IndyCar fans can see the connection of this to the IZOD IndyCar Series. One of my go-to conceits in this blog is to connect movie lines to the doings in IndyCar. Let me show you how IndyCar and Fever Pitch dovetail.
Ben: We scout the players. We say which players they should keep.
Lindsey: Which players they should get rid of? And the Red Sox ask your opinion?
Ben: Well, not yet. But if they ever do…
Ben attends Spring Training in Florida every year and tries to explain to Lindsey why this is a completely rational obsession. Ben is channeling the hard-core IndyCar fans and bloggers. These individuals (and I am a card-carrying member) are heavily invested in IndyCar, quite likely in a way that seems unhealthy to the uninitiated but in a way that seems normal to us. Like Ben, the hard-core fans on Twitter, Track Forum, and on the various blogs just know what the answer is if only someone would listen to us. IndyCar fans are like the long-suffering Red Sox or Cubs fans. We show up every year only to have management, owners, promoters, and/or drivers break our hearts, but unlike the devoted fans of those star-crossed baseball franchises, many of us are coming out of our self-induced hypnosis. We realize that our love is not being reciprocated by that entity to which we give ourselves. Bill Zahren (@pressdog) asks for level-headedness about this topic here, and Tony Johns (@TonyJWriter) questions the value of the emotional investment required to be an IndyCar fan here. Both writers opine often about the emotional and financial investment needed to be a hard-core fan and reference, in one way or another, the business concept of return on investment (ROI). The basic question is this: is the time and money put into following IndyCar worth what IndyCar gives us? And that’s really the question facing IndyCar fans right now. Of course, there are always the Kool-Aid drinkers who may see problems, but never lose their hope and emotional connection. For better or worse, that’s me.
Ryan: You love the Red Sox, but have they ever loved you back?
Ben: Who do you think you are, Dr. Phil? Go on, get outta here!
A character in the movie asks Ben this existential question: how can you love something that is incapable of loving you back. Most of us deal with this issue by simply ignoring it. Like Ben in the movie, we put our hands over our ears and pretend that the question was never asked. The reason IndyCar fans are coming out of their “Yes, sir. May I have another?” dysfunctional relationship with IndyCar is because they honestly felt that someone in charge, Randy Bernard, was actually loving them back. This novel approach to marketing, paying attention to and acknowledging the concerns of your customers, made the fans feel like shareholders. And the fans liked it. But unlike the baseball fans in Boston shelling out their money to pack the stands, this reaching out to fans in IndyCar did not immediately pay the dividends of packed houses at racing venues around the country. So like dysfunctional sports franchises across the country, the owners of IndyCar sacked their leader because he did not change the culture that they created. What he did do was show the fans a little love back, which goes a long way with any fan. It is nice to know you are appreciated. Do you feel me? But the owners and the drivers wanted to feel a little love, too. When they didn’t, they were no longer fans.
Troy: Why do we inflict this on ourselves?
Ben: Why? I’ll tell you why, ’cause the Red Sox never let you down.
Ben: That’s right. I mean – why? Because they haven’t won a World Series in a century or so? So what? They’re here. Every April, they’re here. At 1:05 or at 7:05, there is a game. And if it gets rained out, guess what? They make it up to you. Does anyone else in your life do that? The Red Sox don’t get divorced. This is a real family. This is the family that’s here for you.
Ben and his friend are talking about why they put themselves through the rigors and heartbreak of being Sox fans. Even though the Sox never won (until the movie was made in 2004), they still showed up and that act gave you hope. A common thread of current INDYCAR fans seems to be exactly that. Why do we do it? Is it worth it? The payoff is simply the renewal of the thing you love without reservation. Every year it’s still there. The fans of IndyCar mark the calendar by the month of May. Regardless of the sanctioning body, the car, the drivers, or the owners, the Indianapolis 500 lets us all know that one thing will never let us down. We truly know what it’s like to be a fan, to love something that is bigger than us, to know that the total really can be more than the sum of its parts. But as much as this seems to complete many of us, it is not enough.
With all the justifiable jerking of knees and gnashing of teeth by American open-wheel fans about the series, the owners, the drivers, and the management, the big picture is still simple. INDYCAR needs to grow new fans at the risk of alienating the hard-core fans who do not exist in enough numbers to drive the series forwards. It’s a dilemma. And the true hard-core lovers of open-wheel, with all of our opinions and solutions, really do not have the answers. The answers that Mark Miles of Hulman & Co., Jeff Belklus of IMS and INDYCAR, and whoever is eventually hired to run the series have to focus on how to create new fans who will eventually become the hard-core fans of the future. Those new fans may not reflect the car/driver/track ethos that current long-time fans have. The series may need concerts, carnivals, support series, feature-length animated movies, and other draws to get and keep fans. IndyCar fans are starting to ask why they “inflict this on ourselves.” American open-wheel racing need new fans. But just like baking bread or brewing beer, it needs the yeast of the hard-core fan to get them started. How will INDYCAR chose to keep the old and grow the new? That’s the real question.
Uncle Carl: [after seeing little Ben is liking the Red Sox after his first game] Careful, kid. They’ll break your heart.
Ben’s Uncle Carl is the man who initiated Ben into the nuances of worshiping at the Church of the Red Sox. His admonition to his nephew is a powerful warning to all fans of IndyCar, new or old. I guess the possibility of having our hearts broken is the risk we all take in loving open-wheel racing. The problem is IndyCar is running out of hearts to break.
1. The movie was filmed in 2004 and was expected to end with the Red Sox once again disappointing their fans and with Ben and Lindsey coming together to show that love is more important and enduring than sports, but the Red Sox won the World Series and forced a new ending to be written. Fact and fiction once again freaks us out.