Monday, December 13, 2010
Opinion: IndyCar Fans Need To Bring The Hate
Twitter is a fabulous distraction when you're bored - or, alternately, during the commercial breaks of football games on Sunday. It's especially fun to peruse through your follower list and see the strange bedfellows that are made during some matchups, none of them strangers than some of my blogging colleagues (and Indianapolis natives) rooting for the New England Patriots during their matchup with the Chicago Bears yesterday.
Now, being a Boston native, I found this hilarious. The Patriots and the Colts, despite the odd geographic combination, comprise one of the best rivalries in all of sports right now, up there with Yankees-Red Sox, Steelers-Ravens, LeBron James and Brett Favre-the world, and so on. These are intensely polarizing matchups; each side's fans paint their team as a group of heroes, while the other side is rendered as villains worse than Kim Jong Il.
Seeing some of these diehards jump ship for a day, if only to root against a team they somehow hate even more, is humorous and interesting at the same time. Sports psychologists could probably write a book on it.
But it brought me to an important realization: we don't really have a "bad guy" in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
NASCAR has Kyle Busch, the mercurial wunderkind who carries himself with all the grace of a raging alcoholic. Busch has a checkers-or-wreckers attitude that frequently gets him into hot water with his competitors; it's hard to walk through the NASCAR garage and see somebody who hasn't been pissed off by a Rowdy Busch outburst or daring move in the final laps of some race.
That hatred sells, though. Because of that strong contingent that loves Busch, me included, his souvenir sales are among the tops in the business. He's handsomely paid, or at least paid well enough to have started his own Truck Series team. And because of all the boos he garners week in and week out, he's a constant media presence, one of the few drivers in the sport that is always in the middle of a story.
It's not the nicest thing to say in the world, but let's face facts. We sports fans love to hate. Colts fans hate the Patriots. Celtics fans hate the Lakers. As a lifelong Boston Bruins fan, I despise the Montreal Canadiens organization with all my heart for their dirty play and tendency to employ thugs. Pick a sports team, any sports team, and ask one of their fans about a hated enemy, and see if you hear anything different. Hatred - and the necessity of subjective analysis - are the two things that separate sports from the other major news subjects of the world. (That would explain why so many sports blogs exist.)
But what do we have in IndyCar for a true rivalry? The closest thing that's come up as of late is Danica Patrick-Tony Kanaan, and that's got too many issues with it. Open wheel lifers love Kanaan; he's been a full-timer since 1998, has won championships, and is a friendly (if intense) guy. Patrick brought in an entire new fanbase to the sport, and while she may draw the ire of more fans in this rivalry, she can't be the villain per se because of how much marketing money is spent on her. It just doesn't make marketing sense to paint your most popular driver as the bad one, does it?
The closest thing that we have right now to hatred is our dislike for the dominance of Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. Many bloggers refer to them, somewhat derisively, as the "Red Cars" or the "Death Star." It's a start, I suppose. But of the five drivers on those two teams, there's nobody with a really abrasive personality. Helio Castroneves is one of the sport's most popular drivers, rarely caught without a smile on his face. Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe are generally personable. IndyCar fans are still getting used to Will Power. Scott Dixon is comically neutral, at least if you read the old Silent Pagoda posts on him.
It's the wrong kind of hatred. We can't just have everybody rooting against the concept of domination, because it happens in every form of racing. But what else do IndyCar fans really have to hate? ESPN, particularly Marty Reid and/or Nicole Briscoe? The International Speedway Corporation? Danica's threat to jump ship to NASCAR - even though some of us want her gone?
Maybe I'm focusing on the wrong thing here. It is pretty cool that a newcomer can step into the sport, pick just about any driver as their favorite, and share a mutual respect for the rest of the field after watching a race or two. Maybe that's part of what makes us unique. But I'm not so sure.
Somebody's gotta step up and become that universal villain, much like Kyle Busch in NASCAR, to take us to the next level. They need to be just as talented on the track as they are abrasive off of it, they need to get under people's skin, and most importantly, they need to win races, or challenge for the championship.
Could it be a reinvented J.R. Hildebrand, as a hotshot rookie with Panther Racing? Could Marco Andretti live up to his family name? Could it be Alex Tagliani, Mario Moraes, or Paul Tracy? Hell, could it even be Danica? There are plenty of possibilities.
But until somebody steps up, I guess we have to focus our disgust on corporate entities. That'll totally get us somewhere.