Thursday, May 4, 2017

Alonso: The Biggest Thing Since Crystal Pepsi?

Quick. Name your favorite ABBA song. No, I'm serious. Do it. I don't care if you love or hate Swedish disco. I'll bet you five bucks your favorite ABBA song is the one the entire racing, if not sports, world finds itself singing right now, the song I ruled my third place crown to at my 8th grade sweetheart dance; ya know, "Fernando?"
Unless you've lived under a rock for the last month, you know that two-time Formula One World Champ Fernando Alonso is skipping the GP in Monaco to run his first Indy 500, and if the audience that logged on (Over two million viewers, according to to witness his ROP test at IMS yesterday is any indication, Fernando could be the biggest and best thing to hit The Speedway since my Dad was rocking Baby Got Back in his Geo Metro in '93.
To understand, one has to remember late 1992, and the utter phenomenon that race fans experienced when Nigel Mansell, the reigning Formula One World Champion decided to jump the pond and try his hand at CART. Sure, we had Mario and AJ winning everything under the sun and returning to run IndyCars at the drop of a hat, your John Andrettis and Robby Gordons were racing whatever caught their eye (or Ford's in Robby's case), and Michael Andretti had gone to F1, but this was Nigel Freaking Mansell: The biggest star in the motorsports world, with a 'stache second only to Dale Earnhardt and a worldwide following that'd have made stick and ball stars like Deion Sanders blush. He was coming to CART, and oh by the way, would serve as teammate to Mario Andretti, driving for Newman/Haas. If that's not a Tag Team that'll make you say "Whoomp, There It Is," I don't know what is.
Coming off a tremendous stretch of races at the Indy 500, capped with an instant classic involving Little Al going over Scott Goodyear the previous year, the stage was set for the 1993 running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing to be a barn burner, in large part due to the allure of the immensely popular World Champ trying his hand at the world's most important race. (A race, mind you, that was once part of  a World Championship schedule.) It was the pinnacle of motorsport, and here was motorsport's pinnacle driver, ready to take on the task. It was an era in which The 500 had no problem selling out year after year, and yet Mansell-Mania was runnin' wild, turning the race from a must-see American motorsports event to a must-see world sporting event, with a 9.3 ratings share on ABC in the US. His third place effort helped him sail to the 1993 CART/IndyCar Championship, but within a few years, the glory and prestige of the era would fade alongside mullets and ratings for The Chevy Chase Show.
The split in '96 so badly damaged the sport on both sides and robbed Indy of star power to the point the race was dubbed the IRL 500, and NASCAR's 600 miler in North Carolina would win the weekend in TV ratings for almost 20 years. And while that's not to take away from the Laziers, Hornishes, or Kenny Bracks of the IRL era, and while we had Montoya in 2000, Helio's 2 in a row, Dario's general existence, and Danica-Mania in 2005 to generate buzz, few can argue that the glory of The 500 was filtered through rose colored glasses as opposed to reality for a while. The race just lacked that spark. Not even NASCAR stars trying "The Double" could have that Mansell-Mania impact.
But what's old is new again, the kids say the 90s are back, and as a matter of fact I'm sipping on the long discontinued 1993 carbonated classic Crystal Pepsi, which was brought back last summer. And  I'll be the first to tell ya, it's feeling like it's second verse, same as the first as we pop the cork on the 30 day party known as the Month of May.
No, Fernando Alonso isn't the reigning Champ, and sure, he's been to Indy before on the old F1 course, but Fernando's decision to run the Indy 500 has generated a more organic frenzy than anything IndyCar has seen since Masnell-Mania almost a quarter century ago. Let's not forget, too, the similar circumstances. Thanks in most years to the DW12, every single Indianapolis 500 of the decade so far has been a classic in its own right; Wheldon over Hildebrand in 2011, Sato vs. Franchitti in '12, 68 lead changes and TK finally winning in '13, Hunter Reay denying Helio in '14, Montoya's comeback in '15, and the shocker with Rossi last year have all helped bring The 500 back to former glory. No longer are the classic moments all on grainy film or dusty videotape, but rather they're so fresh in fans' minds they're almost tangible. Ticket sales for the event are up, anticipation is through the roof, and tangible, too, is the excitement for one of  the racing world's pinnacle drivers again taking on the world's pinnacle race, with many F1 fans or general sports fans taking their first look at an Indy 500, and hopefully liking what they see. Adding fuel to the excitement is the memory of last year, when another F1 driver, racing for the same team as Alonso, shocked the world and won The Greatest Spectacle In Racing. If all goes well, this could usher in a lucrative new era for Indianapolis Motor Speedway and an exciting era for the fans.
But for now, the eyes of the world are watching, just like in '93.

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