2024 04 06 Port Royal Mike Wagner Logan Wagner Ryan Newton Paul Arch Photo Dsc 6380 (319)a
Sprint car racers Ryan Newton (66), Mike Wagner (55) and Logan Wagner battle each other and “dirty air” at Pennsylvania’s Port Royal Speedway. (Paul Arch photo)

SULLIVAN: There’s Too Much Noise

INDIANAPOLIS – About 50 years ago I was tooling through the streets of Lawrence, Kan., on my prized Campania Sport bicycle when I plowed through a pothole that was a bit too deep. I hopped off and noticed a blip on the rim of my front wheel.

My friend Chuck Magerl (today the proprietor of the popular Free State Brewery) and I ran a little bookstore in a cooperative grocery store. One of our titles was a funky little publication on bicycle maintenance. Putting the book into use I turned to the appropriate page where I was instructed to get a tongue depressor, place it against the damaged area and then use pliers or even a vice grip to repair the damage.

The next sentence was key. It said something like this, “Caution! At your fingertips at this very moment lies the risk of destroying the entire roundness of your rim.”

Consistent with the times that sentence seemed meaningful, and it is still instructive to me now.

It is a natural impulse to attempt to make something good better. Yet, as was true at the very moment I was trying to fix my bike so many years ago, such efforts can occasionally go horribly array. This brings us back to now. While in some parts of the country racing is well underway, in Indiana Mother Nature holds the decided advantage. I have been able to follow along via various media outlets and to me there is way too much noise in the dominant narratives.

For those who have read my column for any length of time, it is clear that I love sports of all types. This last weekend I saw the Indianapolis Indians sweep a doubleheader, followed this up with an Indiana Pacers win over the Miami Heat the next night and then ventured to Detroit with my wife to catch the Red Wings.

Here is the deal. There are a few subtle differences, but baseball is baseball, basketball is basketball and hockey is hockey. The rules and the entire nature of these games are the same everywhere you turn and nearly so at every level. Sometimes problems are front and center, but for the most part the discussion largely focuses on contests and the top performers.

While racing follows a similar pattern, this year I watched a racing news show that spoke of soaking tires in a child’s swimming pool, the improper use of cleaning products, and thus, multiple conversations about doping tires. I know why these rules are in place and I can understand issues of fairness and integrity with the best of them.

However, hearing about lab tests, potential false positive results and impassioned testimony just leaves me cold. At some point as a fan, I confess I don’t care. Years ago, NASCAR decided that when folks left the grounds, they knew who the winner was. I’m not even about to argue whether it was right or wrong — but that was the choice.

Officials should care, and some hardcore racing aficionados love to argue various points of view. However, does John Q. Public care? Not so much.

To me there are some important distinctions between sports. My daughter was an excellent gymnast. I would go to her meets and watch a routine or her performance on an apparatus and wait for the score. I know there were various points to consider, but the fact of the matter is that something less than objective was also involved in the assessment of merit. This rears its head at every Olympics.

At the same time my son played hockey. The final score involved how many times the puck went in the net. Racing to me has been just like that. Who completed the set number of laps the fastest was the winner. It was as simple as that. It has always been pure, raw and clear.

That’s what mattered to me then and matters to me now. This last week I participated in a protracted conversation about formats, in particular how a B main should be lined up. I completely understand how vital this is to participants, particularly those who race for a living. However, I have consistently made one observation for decades.

No matter what the format, the fastest drivers and teams always get to the front. If you need a printed guide to explain a format to the crowd, it is way too complicated. Officials care, and hardcore fans that read this column care, but what about the bulk of those in attendance? They are there to be entertained. They don’t care. It needs to make basic sense to them.

The latest hot topic in winged sprint car racing is “dirty air.” Can we have a show of hands for those who are amazed that we are talking about “dirty air” in sprint car racing? It is a conversation that drove me up the wall a bit in NASCAR and IndyCar circles.

Now, there is a lively conversation about the size of a wicker bill. My gosh, the first time I really knew a wicker bill existed was in a 1997 IRL race at Phoenix when Tony Stewart’s Team Menard squad ripped it off his rear wing in an unsuccessful attempt to run down Jim Guthrie driving for Blueprint Racing.

I never imagined this would enter the lexicon of sprint car racing. Then again, I remember when a wing was just something you attached to the top of your car. In a recent exchange open-wheel racing and Indy 500 veteran Donnie Beechler shared that his father built his first wing out of two-by-fours. Suffice it to say Beechler wasn’t worried about his wing angle or what adjustments to make in flight.

Progress is progress and you always want to improve the product. Nonetheless, when technology and rules become the predominant focus of the discussion somehow the most essential elements of the sport seem to get kicked to the curb.

Formula 1 is the most technologically advanced form of racing in the world. The uptick of interest in America hasn’t been driven by nuts and bolts, but rather a reality show that highlighted the personalities and the glamour.

Frankly, I’m weary of lab results, wicker bills and dirty air. To me, the most important aspect of racing is the human factor. To me what drives the sport is the unique personalities of the participants, rivalries and the drama of competition. When the best in the business are dicing side by side, I’m not thinking about doped tires, the benefits of assorted sizes of wicker bills or how the races were lined up.

We shouldn’t bury the lede as far as the public is concerned. It is critical to heed the warning offered in my bicycle repair manual from the 1970s. It was important that I not destroy the essential roundness of my rim and in racing we must guard against forgetting what constitutes the very essence of our sport.


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