IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe, of Canada, drives through the first turn on his qualification run on the first day of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Tom Strattman)
INDIANAPOLIS -- James Hinchcliffe can't understand it.
In this sports-crazed nation, there are skilled athletes who willingly get behind the wheel of exotic-looking race cars and risk their lives at more than 200 mph, yet the interest level in what they're doing 364 days out of the year can be measured on a scale that starts at Zero, goes up to Negligible and roughly peaks out at Where's Danica.
"IndyCar is the best-kept series in sports," Hinchcliffe moaned Thursday from the infield at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "It's infuriating."
For a few hours Sunday, he and 32 other drivers will get a sense of what it's like to be part of an actual, big-time sport. The stands will be (mostly) filled with real, live people, hundreds of thousands of them, in fact. The television ratings will be measured in whole numbers instead of fractions. And the one who crosses the line first at the Indy 500 will get a bit of the Kardashian treatment -- or at least hear his or her name uttered on SportsCenter.
Then comes Monday, when IndyCar racing slinks back to a not-so-appealing club, the one it shares with other fading sports genres. The America's Cup. Baseball's All-Star Game. The Penn Relays. Heavyweight title fights. The Cotton Bowl. You know, games and events that fans once paid attention to, but are now on a path carved out by the dodo bird.
"If people would just come to a race," pleaded Hinchcliffe, who might very well be on his way to stardom if only he could dribble a basketball or throw a football as well as he drives a high-powered machine. "It's such a cool product."
To be truly cool, there's got to be some people who care. (Sit down, gearheads, we're not talking to you.) For IndyCar to regain anything resembling the gravitas it had during that glorious era when icons such as A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti reigned over the Brickyard, there must be some serious changes.
So, we went to the ones who have more of a vested interest than anyone else -- the drivers themselves. All 33 of them were available for a couple of hours Thursday, the perfect time to get their take on curing the ills of IndyCar before the sport flat-lines altogether.
The ideas ranged from pie-in-the-sky (several suggested putting all the races on national TV, which IndyCar would surely agree to if there was a major network that actually thought it would attract more viewers than poker) to those who feel better merchandising is the key ("I want to go in Toys 'R' Us and be able to buy a toy Indy car," rookie driver Josef Newgarten said.)
We took the best of what was offered and threw in a proposal of our own, all with the idea of turning IndyCar into a major player instead of just a niche:
-- Speed, speed, speed.
This one seems the most obvious, but the latest generation of cars introduced this year are plodding around the 2-1/2-mile oval at slightly slower speeds than the clunky relics they replaced. While NASCAR has always been about rubbin' and racin,' Indy was built on going faster than ever before. With an increased emphasis on safety, series officials began applying the brakes when qualifying speeds crept into 235-mph range. Well, it's time to give 'em the gas again. "More speed. That's all we need," Townsend Bell said. "You can't do anything else until you improve the product." Besides, even with the horrific accident that killed last year's Indy 500 winner, Dan Wheldon, the cars and tracks are safer than they've ever been. As Bell put it, "It's important that we don't confuse safe with being as safe as possible. This is not a safe sport."
-- Take the gloves off, or at least the muzzles.
While no sports league tolerates open criticism of its officials, IndyCar would be well served to give its drivers a little more leeway with their lips. There's some intriguing personalities in the garage, from the social media-savvy Hinchcliffe to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves (yes, he's won something beyond a televised dance competition). Let's hear what these guys have to say, really have to say, even if does leave some bigwigs a bit red in the face. "The racing part of the show tends to appeal to someone who already likes racing," Ryan Hunter-Reay said. "If we're going to bring in new fans, we've got to let the personalities show."
-- See you next week at this same time.
There's absolutely no consistency to the start times on this year's schedule. The gamut runs from 11 a.m. ET (when the green flag drops at Indy) to 11:55 p.m. (when, because of the time difference, a new street race in China begins for its TV audience in the States). In all, there are eight different start times for the 16 races, which makes it tough for those at home to keep up, even if they could find the NBC Sports Network on their dials. "The key is to make it easier to follow," Justin Wilson said. "I know when a NASCAR race is going to be on. For the most part, it's either Saturday night or Sunday afternoons. We need to pick a start time that's universal."
-- Expansion, please.
Everyone knows that 16 races are not enough, which is why IndyCar officials are actively pursuing more events. They've already announced a new street race in Houston for 2013 and are downright desperate to get more ovals on the schedule. "We're out of the public's eye too much," second-generation driver Graham Rahal complained. Also, there are just five oval events this season, which has left an unacceptable tilt in favor of road and street courses. That must be addressed, taking into account the kind of ovals that are courted. Tony Kanaan has the right idea when he said there should be more mile-and-under tracks, where the best racers can really shine. "On the big tracks, it's just flat out all the time," he said. "You don't need any talent for that."
And here's one idea from the reporter's notebook:
-- Lure a big-name driver away from NASCAR.
While money is certainly tight, IndyCar would be well-served to pool its resources and try to raid one of the good ol' boys. No, we're not talking about trying to bring back Danica Patrick. That ship has sailed. And a megastar along the lines of Jimmie Johnson or Dale Earnhardt Jr. is aiming way too high. But maybe someone such as Kurt Busch, who took a lesser ride after he was let go by Penske Racing. If nothing else, the volatile former Cup champion would certainly be good for some headlines.
Three-time defending IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti has his own idea. He knows the open-wheel series has never really recovered from the damage caused by an ugly rift nearly two decades ago that resulted in two rival series -- one led by then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, the other by the car owners.
"I would like to jump in a time machine, go back to 1995, and tell the owners and Tony George not to split," Franchitti said. "As soon as my time machine is done, I know where I'm going."
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press.