To me, summer officially begins when I hear Jim Nabors singing "Back Home Again in Indiana" at the start of the Indianapolis 500.
Now that the race is ending, some thoughts:
The Indy 500 just does not have the iconic place in American culture that it did when I was a kid. Open-wheel racing folks have allowed themselves to be plowed over by NASCAR in the national popularity contest. How many people other than me were actually watching this broadcast?
When I was a kid, we always turned on the Indy 500 at my house -- though I remember it more often on my grandparents' TV in Emanuel County. Watching the race was a ritual. This was the late '70s and early '80s -- I remember names like Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. and A.J. Foyt in his orange car. How many average people today could name one person, just one person, who raced in the Indy 500 today? OK, maybe some can name Danica Patrick, because she's on commercials everywhere. How many others could they name?
I went to an IRL race once, a few years ago, in Nashville. It was pretty cool -- Tony Kanaan won and did a burnout right in front of the grandstands where I was sitting before being presented with a customized Gibson guitar as a trophy (hey, I'd much rather have that than get a grandfather clock from winning at Martinsville). I tried to follow the IRL a bit more closely after that, but it just could not keep my interest the way NASCAR could.
Some thoughts on why IndyCar is not as popular as NASCAR: Not as many races. It's harder for me to tell the cars apart during the broadcast -- I don't know if that's the fault of the IRL or of ABC's broadcasting; part of it may be the racing teams' tendency to assign identical color schemes to all their cars, such as the orange-and-white scheme on the Penske team's cars. Many of the drivers are from other countries -- which I think is cool, but I have a feeling that it could bother some American fans. I mean, we live in a country where NBC felt it necessary to remake The Office with an all-American cast and setting. If we have to have The Office remade in our image, we ain't gonna cotton to pulling for a sport where the Brits and the Brazilians outnumber us.
Some thoughts on Danica. I like Danica, and I want her to win -- her 3rd place finish just now is the highest ever for a woman at Indy, and I was pulling for her. But she's in danger of being deemed overrated. She won a race last year, the first ever by a woman in IndyCar, but it's just one race. The amount of media attention she gets is a little bit more than I think her record deserves. She's got to get up there and win another one, or, within a year or two, I predict the media is going to start saying she's seriously overrated.
Again, I want her to win, and I like her -- she's sharp, she's focused, and when you see her on the track or in interviews, she carries herself with seriousness. I like that about her. But I have my criticisms of her. I don't like the swimsuit pictures. I don't like the wink-wink, nudge-nudge GoDaddy.com commercials. I know she has said in past interviews that if her sex appeal helps her career, she's willing to use it. I really disagree with that approach, and I don't think it's positive for women in general. The message being sent is, "I'm a woman and I can get ahead if I'm hot-looking and I act in a sexually suggestive fashion." Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I want a woman driver to be respected because she's a good driver, not because she's a hot babe.
Thing about it is, I think Danica is good enough to be respected for being a good driver alone. I wish she would let the other stuff go.
Helio: I can't help but like Helio. He's really the Roberto Begnini of motorsports -- and not just in his victory exuberances (substituting fence-climbing for seat-jumping). I often don't have sympathy for rich people accused of income tax evasion, but when Helio and his sister-business manager said they really didn't know what they were getting into, I found them actually pretty darn believable. I get the feeling he's a nice guy, and sometimes an inadvertently funny guy, and he can sure drive a race car, but he probably can't balance a checkbook.
Other thoughts: Good Lord, didn't Vitor Meara have an awful race -- first he gets set on fire, then he's in a hellacious wreck.