Each May, it seems like Ed Hinton uses his ESPN.com pulpit to announce to the masses, "the Indianapolis 500 is not what it used to be."
Frankly, he's been at this for nearly 13 years now (see a similar article from the June 2, 1997, Sports Illustrated), and to a fan of the race, it's getting pretty damn old.
I wrote about a column of his a year ago (from the Andretti-Petty alliance at Indianapolis), and unfortunately, I'm writing about another salvo he's firing at the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 this time, too.
In preparation for this year's Indianapolis 500, IndyCar fans are treated to a four-part series from Mr. Hinton (the only time of the year he writes about the IZOD IndyCar Series), recounting The Split from a man who was Sports Illustrated's auto-racing journalist at the time, and who now shills for NASCAR on a weekly basis. And while these articles are informative (this one has some good nuggets and background leading up to 1996), the timing of it strikes me as odd (and his comparison to the American Civil War is ridiculous).
Call me crazy, but you'd think that ABC would want to promote the hell out of the positives of Indianapolis and ESPN.com would reflect this. You know, since screaming "this race isn't what it was" really drives eyeballs to the TV sets, among other reasons.
I'm not going to bore anyone with the details; the split happened when I was 13; the warring factions have reunited and are building a strong, competitive series. If Ed Hinton wants to look back and wax poetic about the days of CART and how NASCAR became "America's true racing circuit" (my quotes, not his), that's his business.
But let's not re-examine The Split two-and-a-half years after reunification (May of 2008 might have been a better time for this to run). And let's not perpetuate the myth of NASCAR as the "great American sport;" it's not - Indianapolis and IndyCar racing was around well before the moonshiners in the South ever got together.
Furthermore, can we end the falsehoods that the Indianapolis 500 has been irreparably scarred by The Split? Yes, the 500 had some lean years (I know, I was there). But, let's acknowledge that the 500 (and IndyCar racing) have been trending upward of late. Attendance is coming back. Sponsorships are (slowly) growing; with an economic turnaround, I would expect more sponsorships and more full fields.
The spark behind IMS is still there. Are the days of massive crowds on qualifications behind us? Probably. But I know I'll be there, with some folks who have never attending qualifications before, so it's a start. Lost in the whole "attendance" debate is this: just as the series suffered due to the retirements of Mears, Rutherford, Unser, Sullivan, Rahal, etc., a new generation of fan was growing up. This generation didn't have the money required to attend races.
Now that generation has some pocket change (I know, I'm one of them), allowing them to make it to the track(s).
Give it some time, Mr. Hinton. Stop worrying about events that took place in 1995 and 1996. Look at the present and the future. People have stopped watching cars travel in circles non-stop. The series you cover has encouraged drivers to wreck each other in an effort keep eyes on the TV, but can't put butts in seats right now.
Meanwhile, attendance for the IZOD IndyCar Series has been strong (Kansas excepted). 250,000-plus will pack IMS on May 30 - a crowd that NASCAR would kill for. Fans are excited to watch cars topping 225 mph going wheel-to-wheel with danger lurking at every corner (as opposed to bumper cars). Speed and glamor are coming back into vogue, with the help of IZOD, a committed title sponsor.
The Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series are on the way back; they've been on the way back since early 2009 (the 500 since before then). Now if you'd stop looking to the past for your articles, you might notice this.
UPDATE (May 21, 10:30 a.m.): Having gotten around to reading Part II of Hinton's four-part series on The Split, I must say that this portion is worth reading. Look, I still disagree with the timing of it, and how this is rehashed by the same author every May, but Part II is informative in nature, and generally well-written.