Sao Paulo Indy 300 - Day 3I don’t believe in fate or destiny, but I understand why others might. Sometimes, seemingly unrelated circumstances coincide so perfectly to form a singular result that it’s difficult to not believe in an unseen and powerful guidance shaping the outcome.

Like many Canadians of a similar background and age to my own, I loved open-wheel racing before I even understood that it was open-wheel racing that I loved. Also, like many Canadians of a similar background and age to my own, my love for North America’s premier source for open-wheel racing came to an abrupt halt in the mid-nineties when the departure of Jacques Villeneuve from the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series conspired with the introduction of the Indy Racing League (IRL) – and subsequent desecration of the Indy 500 – to reduce the relevance of the sport on the entire continent.

Eighteen years later, the IndyCar Series is haunted by this past, even as it strives to return to a time when its brand of racing attracted new fans and captivated long-time supporters. Leading the charge to fight these ghosts and bring the sport back to an era of increased public interest is a 26-year-old driver from Oakville, Ontario – James Hinchcliffe.

After winning the 2011 IndyCar Rookie of the Year, the former Newman-Haas and current Andretti Autosport driver has emerged as a championship contender in 2013 thanks to two early season victories, including a thrilling win at the Sao Paulo Indy 300 that has people talking of “all-time finishes.”

While Hinchcliffe’s success on the track has been promising, his affability off of it has become just as important. The driver’s social media presence combined with the accessibility of his viral videos, wherein he imitates current and former auto racing personalities, have granted him a level of notoriety that translates into increased public awareness for himself and greater promotion for his sport.

His resulting popularity is a godsend to a beleaguered IndyCar Series in search of relevance once again. Hinchcliffe is talented, articulate, and perhaps most importantly, he’ll talk to anybody.

Upon meeting Hinchcliffe there’s an immediate understanding as to how befitting his nickname – the Mayor of Hinchtown is. He has an intangible ability, most recognizable as the one frequently misused by politicians (and typically absent in athletes), to be captivating while simultaneously making those around him feel as though they’re equally interesting.

He is an absolute necessity for a sport that has done so much to alienate its former fan base, and so little to attract a new one, that what should be a popular and excited sport is often relegated to the back end of sports highlight shows, and until recently, has had trouble finding a permanent home on television.

This wasn’t always the case. In Canada, there is a lost generation of auto racing enthusiasts whose fascination with the sport was not annexed by destiny, fate or the will of the stars, but by a horrible combination of mismanagement, tragedy and the self-interest of others.

Toronto’s first CART sanctioned IndyCar race happened on my sixth birthday – July 20th, 1986. In the spring of the previous year, the promotional division of Molson Breweries proposed to run an open-wheel race at Exhibition Place that would cost the company more than $50 million in insurance costs alone. Canadian sports writer Stephen Brunt, then working for the Globe and Mail, referred to the race as “the most expensive beer commercial in Canadian history.”

The advertisement almost never occurred at all, as Toronto City Council approved the race by only two votes. Then, the Fédération Internationale de Sport Automobile, pursuing its ongoing dispute with CART, threatened to suspend any members who participated in the race. Finally, the brewery that sponsored the event was only allowed to name the race the Molson Indy when the Ontario Supreme Court ruled a week before the CART series came to Toronto that the Indianapolis Speedway wouldn’t suffer damage to their brand through Molson’s use of the “Indy” name.

If we understand sports to be appealing based on the vicarious relationship we have with it – that we put ourselves in the place of the athletes that we watch so that their success/failures are our own success/failures – imagine the spectacular thrill that auto racing provides to a child who has never been behind the wheel of a vehicle of any sorts other than maybe a go-cart. Car racing was vicarious and fantastical at the same time.

Young sports fans who watched baseball or soccer could know and understand exactly what was happening because they could play baseball and soccer with their friends. The same wasn’t true of auto racing. There was an element of spectacle that couldn’t be duplicated by other sports.

Fortunately for those of us mesmerized by the very first Molson Indy, it was just the beginning. Open-wheel racing took off in Canada. There were more events, and perhaps most importantly, more drivers. Over the next ten years, we went from cheering for Andretti, Rahal and Sullivan to Goodyear, Tracy and Villeneuve.

While the Canadian element certainly grabbed our interest, it was the CART format that held it. Less aristocratic than Formula One, yet more demure than NASCAR, IndyCar racing was every bit as popular on television as NASCAR domestically, and it was in the process of challenging F1 for prestige internationally with the additions of former champions Emerson Fittiipaldi and Nigel Mansell.

And then, it all fell apart.

At the conclusion of the 1995 season, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George removed the marquee Indy 500 out of the CART series, and placed it in his new IRL start up series, which would be raced by cars utilizing restricted technology only on oval circuits and featuring mainly American drivers. The split eliminated any of the prestige that the series had built up in previous years, and created two lesser products for auto racing enthusiasts out of a single great one.

Meanwhile, Jacques Villenueuve, the 1995 CART series champion who had become the first and only Canadian driver to win the Indianapolis 500, moved to F1 prior to the 1996 season, and took with him much of the interest that now teenage Canadians had in competitive racing. While he was winning races around the world, and competing for the F1 championship, the competing CART and IRL circuits sputtered, marred by lawsuits against each other, and the deaths of American driver Jeff Krosnoff and volunteer corner marshal Gary Avrin at the 1996 Molson Indy – the very same race that first gathered so much national interest in the sport in Canada.

After Villenueve won the F1 driver’s championship in 1997, the Champ Cars and IndyCars seemed little more than a memory to many of us, like the distant cousins of Formula One, always disappointing and bickering. Even when Villeneuve’s career took a turn for the worse following his championship season, and interest in F1 again began to wane due to the class structure of the engines, the death of promising Canadian driver Greg Moore at the California Speedway during the final race of the 1999 CART Championship Series affected us more than any previous moment on the circuit.

It was devastating. The fantastical spectacle that had attracted us as children turned tragic with a crushing moment of reality. The illusion was broken.

Life and death are serious business, and we become especially aware of the fragile fence that keeps these two elements separate when we’re reminded of it in a setting that is anything but serious. Car racing is supposed to be fun. Death is anything but. Stark contrasts concentrate feelings unlike any other phenomena, and it left many of us feeling conflicted to the idea of racing that risked one’s safety.

Following Moore’s death, CART remained more focused on its competition with the IRL than the competition on its circuit, effectively failing to resolve the feelings of its shaken fans. Lacking the central leadership of the IRL under Tony George, CART team owners were unable to agree on a new engine formula, with some hoping to adopt similar structures to the ones in place for the IRL (as a means of eventually unifying the two series), while others wanted to continue to develop smaller engines with more boost as a decidedly different form of racing.

At the Detroit race in 2001, the failure of team owners to work together for the greater good came to a head. Toyota accused Honda and Ford/Cosworth of illegally altering the pop-off valve, which controls the amount of boost pressure delivered by the turbocharger. Political nonsense and lawsuits ensued, resulting in an exodus from the series. The powerhouse Penske team made plans to depart immediately, Honda intended to leave at the end of the 2002 season, and Toyota planned to switch to the IRL for 2003.

The in-fighting contributed to CART’s eventual bankruptcy and resulted in an attempt by the remaining teams to re-brand the series as Champ Car in 2003. Their efforts were as effective as a drowning person flailing in a large body of water. It failed because the balance of power had already shifted. In addition to the open-wheel racing of the IRL, which would absorb Champ Car in 2008, NASCAR had supplanted open-wheel racing as the most popular auto racing sport in North America.

While the IRL originated with the idea of providing a “more even playing field” for racing teams by utilizing less expensive cars propelled by technologically limited engines, these restrictions were only successful in terms of being less of a failure than CART/Champ Car. The Indianapolis 500 as the marquee event of open-wheel racing in North America became a shell of its former self following the split. This was brought on by the failure of the IRL to recognize the Indy 500 as a competitive race first, and a cultural phenomenon second.

The contempt for the actual race is perhaps best evidenced by Tony George and Indianapolis Motor Speedway marketing director Bill Donaldson once telling auto sports writer Gordon Kirby:

We could run golf carts around here and still fill the place.

Evidently, they could not. Following the formation of the IRL, NASCAR’s Daytona 500 has consistently drawn more television viewers than the Indianapolis 500, and as a result more sponsorship dollars. The chain reaction continued with a talent drain, as top drivers and top driver names began leaving their respective open-wheel circuits for the more lucrative NASCAR.

After the IRL was finally permitted by law to use “IndyCar” in its title, it became the IndyCar Series, and has grown progressively away from the principles with which it was founded. Wealthy teams dominate the points, several foreign-born racers are now competing and nine of the races are contested through the streets of cities, and not on ovals. It’s actually quite similar to the CART series that it broke away from seventeen years ago.

This is good, but also maddening.

It’s good because the series of racing that attracted a great many of us to auto racing as a sport is making a comeback, but it’s frustrating because it took seventeen years of wandering the wilderness to realize something that fans knew all along: IndyCar racing was really entertaining as it was. The challenge for the most recent incarnation is to not only draw young fans just as the sport did more than two decades ago, but also bring back those estranged by the succession of alienating events – including the many Canadians now in their late twenties and early thirties – during the years between the split and now.

The IndyCar Series is in a better position to accomplish this than at any point over the last two decades. In addition to the emergence of Hinchcliffe – as both a talented driver and spokesperson for the sport – the series features a roster of young drivers that make the current product exciting while offering much hope for the future as well.

The ages of those on the starting grid of Sunday’s 2013 Indianapolis 500 have more in common with the guest list of a trendy nightclub than what we’d imagine to be the participants in a typical auto race. The list includes:

  • Conor Daly (21-years-old);
  • Carlos Munoz (21-years-old);
  • Josef Newgarden (22-years-old);
  • Graham Rahal (24-years-old);
  • Simona de Silvestro (24-years-old);
  • J.R. Hildebrand (25-years-old); and
  • Marco Andretti (26-years-old).

As a means of introducing my interview with Hinchcliffe, I made a joke about him being willing to speak with anyone. Humor aside, there is a point to that. The younger racers are keenly aware of how important fan interaction, be it directly through social media or through media channels, is to not just their marketability as drivers, but also the sport that allows them that occupation.

As we learned from Hinchcliffe, it’s not a coincidence that Go Daddy, an internet domain registrar and web hosting company, sponsors the most internet-friendly personality on the circuit. Part of the racer’s off-course talents are found in his personality. This is every bit as marketable to a sponsor as it is to the entire sport.

Through technology, sports are more accessible today than ever before. As fans, we have smart phone applications feeding us results, websites offering us instant analysis, television networks broadcasting live events, and social media for us to share our opinions on all of the information we receive. It’s a wonderful time to be a sports fan.

However, I wonder to what degree this accessibility limits our exposure to new things. It’s easy to get to what we want to know, so easy in fact, that we needn’t toil through what we don’t. For a very long time IndyCar racing has been in the latter category, not the former. For all that the IndyCar Series has done wrong, it has absolutely done the right thing in using the tools of accessibility to shift that categorization.

Fortunately for them, they have a heck of a driver to spearhead that effort. Perhaps, the unrelated circumstances that had previously coincided to harm the sport are finally coming together to head in the right direction this time. Oddly enough, it still has something to do with the stars.