SULLIVAN: World In A Bubble

Patrick Sullivan

Just before the driver’s meeting for the USAC National Midget Series race at Ocala, Florida, Levi Jones was carefully studying something on his telephone. Noticing that I was standing next to him, he turned and said, “This virus thing may end up being a big deal.” It was when I reached the Orlando Airport’ and saw scores of people already wearing face masks, that it began to hit me that Levi could be right.

Weeks later, while sitting in a meeting at Indiana University that included people from medicine, public health, and nursing, among others, I felt a wave of anxiety roll over me. I knew then it really was going to be a significant issue. Still, even at this point, it never dawned on me how devastating this could be.

Nearly a half-century ago, a child named David Vetter was born in the state of Texas with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), and in order to keep him free from potentially harmful pathogens drastic measures had to be taken. The tale of the child who became known as “the boy in the bubble” was a tragic one. Now, in order to limit the potential damage from an invisible villain known as covid-19, we have, as much as possible, put the world in a bubble.

No matter how much we care, and how much we are all invested in racing, to use the phrase of today it is a non-essential industry. It certainly seems essential to those for whom racing is their livelihood. All we can do now is wait. Old racing films are fine. Admittedly, I’m probably never going to get excited about televised iRacing, but nor do I begrudge those who do. Yet, make no mistake about it, this is a critical juncture in this sport. Some short tracks, some teams, and perhaps even some racing organizations, are not going to survive this time. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is what I believe.

In a point I have made repeatedly in this column, times change, and so do consumer tastes. Racing is a form of entertainment, it is simple as that. We can all look at those old racing films, and all of us are forced to admit that our grandstands today don’t look like that anymore.

Here is my concern. In Indianapolis, one of the laments that is repeated year after year concerns the size of the crowd on pole day. Yes, it was packed to the gills in the early ‘60s. It was also a time when there were three television stations and Indianapolis was known as Naptown. Today, it should be added, qualifications are on television. However, at one point, maybe a decade ago, a comment was made that is relevant to this discussion. One of the leading owners, I think it was Bobby Rahal, looked at the stands on pole day and noted, “People got out of the habit of coming.”

That’s the danger we face. I’m typing this in my office, which also has a nice wide screen television. It hasn’t been on for three weeks. It is a place where I often watched sports. I have season tickets to the Indiana Pacers and the pro soccer team The Eleven. Do I miss live sports events? Yes. Nonetheless, psychologically I have moved on for the moment.

When racing returns, and it will, there are two immediate issues that will be confronted. First, some will still be reluctant to be in large crowds. It is an even bigger problem for a sport that has far too many people in the stands that look like me, and fewer who look like Christopher Bell or Tyler Courtney. I will be eligible for Medicare by the time this column is in print. I have looked at the stats and my butt has been in the quarantine.

The second major consideration is the impact on individual income. Many of our fans are hardworking hourly employees. They’re the people that have been hit the hardest. In short, when disposable cash is in short supply, things like a trip to the race track can seem particularly superfluous. The same issue is at hand one level up. If you have a small business and you enjoyed helping a local race team, suddenly that $500 or $1,000 seems like a commitment you just can’t make at the moment.

Houston, we’ve got a problem. So the question looms: How do we attack this? As fans of the sport it is pretty obvious what we need to do. When we all feel comfortable, we need to get to the track. It might also be a time to consider that we are all in this together, a spirit that frankly seems lacking on occasion. If you are in a position to help a racer or a team you like, this is a time to offer such support. Anything will help.

As for racing series and promoters, the number one thing that should be on your mind right now goes right back to Bobby Rahal. How do we make sure people who have been in the habit of coming come back, and how might we get others to take up the habit? Einstein is said to have remarked, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Creativity is difficult simply because our brain is constantly trying to make sense of our world through previous knowledge and experiences. Our mind is constantly defaulting back to the ‘safe zone’ of what we already know.”

I have no idea if Einstein ever attended a race, but his point hits home here. We have to figure out new ways to get butts back in the seat. Last year, after reviving Paragon Speedway, Joe Spiker had a free grandstand night. The place was packed, and the concession stand staff were forced to work at warp speed. I don’t know what Joe’s bottom line was, but what I do know is that he got people back to Paragon Speedway.

Once during the Goodguys Rod and Custom Show at Indianapolis Raceway Park, we staged a concert at intermission. I thought it was a completely dumb idea. That is, until I noticed the crowd was enjoying it. When it comes to unusual promotions, minor league baseball offers a treasure trove of ideas. Remember those outrageous drag racing radio ads that pumped up excitement. What are the digital age equivalents?

At this point, very few things should be out of bounds. We have to do different things, and we have to do them now. I get it. You might not like it but, I’m sorry, you don’t count. You already subscribe to a racing magazine. Grumpy old guys like me love yelling, “Come on, let’s race!” No, we can’t alienate our core fans. However, the problem is this: grumpy old men aren’t going to keep this sport alive.


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