27 May 2007

The Indy 500 and the Hoosier Aristocracy

Dario Franchitti won the 91st Indianapolis 500 on Sunday in a sluggish race frequently interrupted by accidents and the persistent, and eventually realized, threat of rain that shortened the race to 164 of the scheduled 200 laps. Franchitti, a Scotsman of Italian descent, is the second Scottish-born driver to win the 500 following Jim Clark in 1965.

That may be a parallel that many of the nostalgia hawks and pubic faces of Indiana and Indianapolis have come to rue. Though the Indianapolis 500 carries all the trappings of militaristic pro-American "heartland values," most of the participants themselves are not good ol' boys (and they are no longer all boys), a distinction that the Hoosier Aristocracy has infamously struggled with coming to terms. Witness, among other things, the radio interviews with current governor and ex-Bush lackey Mitch Daniels or theocratic congressman Mike Pence, for whom the race is now just a business opportunity, a way to cash in on the partygoers and fluff the state's feathers for a national TV audience. Virtually all the teams and drivers in this year's 33-car field come from a road-racing background, sneered at by the traditionalists as the venue for wine-and-cheese sissies, and, while most of the male drivers are liked reasonably well by the Hoosier public, very few are really embraced.

And Jim Clark is one of the people responsible for bringing this about.

The Beatles and Stones were not the first British Invasion to sweep the USA in the early 1960's. In the early 60's, an English Formula One owner named Colin Chapman brought a revolutionary rear-engined car to Indianapolis, and, piloted by Clark and others, it quickly established an inevitable victory over the blocky, American "roadsters." In a matter of a few short years, every car in the field mimicked the Chapman Lotus' rear-engined design. It was the beginning of the ascendancy of Formula One and "formula car" racing, and the decline of the short-track, good ol' boy network. European designed-and-built cars have effectively dominated the Indianapolis 500 ever since, and consequently much of the present-day talent comes from that environment.

One could go on and on for pages, of course, but this is the genesis for almost all the petty disputes and squabbles, and many would also say the crushing unpopularity, plaguing American open wheel racing today. It's interesting in that context to note that Clark is generally well-regarded by the traditionalists in spite of his role in all this. There are two possibilities at play; first is noting that Clark became a racing fatality in 1968, and there is an unspoken rule among gearheads to speak no evil of someone killed in a racing accident. The second is that, for many of the nostalgics, Clark is simply a figure from their heavenly childhood, so there can naturally be no wrong in him.

I return to the caveat about male drivers, because, in the absence of an American conservative red-blooded male to rest their hopes, the eyes of the Hoosier Aristocracy have turned curiously to the figure of Danica Patrick, everyone's Favorite Driver in this bizarro world not known for visionary leadership in women's advances. More curious yet is that she is another example of the above phenomenon, having spent most of her formative racing years turning right in Europe. But Patrick, by far the most well-known of the record three female starters in 2007, represents the opportunity for attention from the American sports landscape from an event desperately crying out for it. (There was significantly more skepticism about Janet Guthrie, the first female starter in 1977 at a time when the race was still an unassailable landmark of the sporting scene.) But Patrick is also a convenient exhibition for the great conservative moan about Title IX and gender equality in sports ("why can't all the wimmin play against the men instead of stealing opportunities from poor, oppressed, white boys?").