INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — They have dinner together. They chat it up on Twitter. They offer congratulations on jobs well done, solace when things don't go so well.
Clearly, there's a lot of respect among the 33 drivers in Gasoline Alley.
Maybe a little too much.
While IndyCar is putting an increasingly entertaining product on the track — seriously, folks, this might be the best competition on the planet at the moment — it's clear heading into the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" that something is still missing.
For the answer to what that might be, look no farther than the good ol' boys. Those NASCAR guys mix it up with each other on a weekly basis, like they're auditioning for a spot in the WWE.
Sure, some of the antics are downright silly. I mean, did Nelson Piquet Jr. actually kick another driver in the groin after they scuffled on and off the track? C'mon, dude.
But you've got admit: They sure are entertaining.
Maybe if the open-wheelers had more feudin' and less niceties, they'd be making a bigger push to reclaim their rightful place in the American sporting hierarchy.
No less an authority than Mario Andretti says the racing is as good as it was during the glory days, when drivers such as himself, A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal, and Bobby and Al Unser dominated at the Indianapolis 500.
While Andretti certainly has skin in the game — his son, Michael, is a car owner and his grandson, Marco, is one of the favorites in Sunday's 500 — he's not just blowing smoke. Anyone who watched the last race at Sao Paulo, on one of those street courses that IndyCar purists despise, had to be impressed with the quality of the side-by-side racing, capped by James Hinchcliffe pulling off a brilliant pass on the final turn to beat Takuma Sato to the checkered flag.
But, judging by the minuscule television ratings and paltry crowds at just about every track except Indy, more is needed to bring back the fans who abandoned the sport during a bitter split in the 1990s.
A good start would be some good ol' fashioned rivalries, with plenty of animosity mixed in to spice things up.
Sort of like it was in Mario's day.
"I saw that with many of the rivalries when I came on the scene," Andretti reminisced. "You had guys there that were totally established, and I'm the rookie who's a thorn in their side. That's where a lot of that stuff comes from. A.J. was at the top of his game and five years my senior. He wasn't all that happy that I could actually challenge him. That's where it starts."
There are certainly the makings of a juicy rivalry between third-generation Marco and second-generation racer Graham Rahal, Bobby's son. They've sniped at each other several times — with even Mario getting in on the discord — and it's clear many of the hard feelings that began in a different era have been passed down to these promising 20-somethings.
"If there's one person I'd hate to see win the Indy 500, it's Marco Andretti," the younger Rahal said. "If there's one person he'd probably hate to see win it, it's me. That's just the way it is. There's no problem with that."
That's a start.
Now, more, more, more.
Of course, it's not as easy as just saying: Hey, guys, start hatin' on each other. As Mario points out, bitter rivalries and real animosity must develop on their own. This isn't some reality show or wrestling card where everything can be scripted and staged. If those feelings don't evolve naturally, it just comes across as hokey.
"These things either happen or they don't," Andretti said. "It depends on the characters involved."
Also, it's not really fair to compare NASCAR and IndyCar, though everyone does when discussing the reasons why the former surged in popularity just as the latter was fading into near-obscurity except for Memorial Day weekend.
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