Q: At the age of nine (1957) I discovered Indy cars and was immediately taken with the laydown roadsters. I discovered Formula 1 in 1961, the year that Phil Hill took his title. I got to meet him many years later. And speaking of Toledo, I watched Gordon Johncock run Toledo Speedway in a supermodified many times before he got to the big time. But here’s the thing: I am a Black motorsports fan. Over the years I’ve seen just about every significant professional series run somewhere in the U.S. and I even met you at WGI over an IndyCar weekend. To me, every discipline has its fascination, and in that respect I am an omnivore.
However, something that the vast majority of your audience has never experienced is that over the years I went to Toledo Speedway, nearly always my father or my mother or my brother and later my son and I were the only Black people in the crowd of several thousand. However, I need to take you to task a bit. In general, motorsports has never done much to attract Black potential fans. Many like to fall back on the thought that if there were competitive Black drivers, it would make all the difference in the world. To me, while it would be helpful, that is not the end all/be all.
Many years ago I put a question to your colleague, Dave Despain, on Wind Tunnel. This was when James Stewart was an absolute terror at motocross events. Knowing that Despain was a big motorcycle fan, I asked if there had been a noticeable increase in Black patronage at the races. He said not that he was aware of, I asked if had any thoughts about why that is, and he said that he didn’t know.
What this suggests to me is that putting a good driver/rider out there with appropriate backing is not enough. Further, it would seem to be a short-sighted business practice to dismiss a potentially significant demographic. It isn’t like Black people don’t buy cars, tires, batteries, anti-freeze, oils, lubricants, etc. but that doesn’t come into play in their motorsports marketing plans. There is an old saying: “If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got.” That seems to be where we are in attracting Black fans. I appreciate that NASCAR is trying, but the others, not so much. Hopefully Lewis Hamilton’s initiative to bring more minorities into STEM programs and into motorsports will be helpful,l and that the concept will spread over here. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I do know that you have to prime the pump.
Don Hopings, Cathedral City, CA
RM: I love the fact you saw Gordy at Toledo, because he was a badass on the high banks too, and you’re obviously hopelessly hooked on speed, which is great. But I’m not sure there’s any easy solution or program to growing the Black fan base other than to have a superstar like Lewis Hamilton. And I may be wrong but I don’t see a lot of Black fans at F1 races, so success is no guarantee. Bill Lester, Tommy Thompson and Benny Scott tried, but were either too old or too under-financed, while George Mack did a good job on ovals despite having no experience but his backers ran into some problems, as I recall. As I’ve said, Willy T. had the talent, personality and clout (Bill Cosby) to give Black fans a reason to watch, but CART dropped the ball. I guess the bottom line is that until a top-notch team with a big-time sponsor gets behind a Bubba Wallace, it’s never going to make any difference. Finishing 20th every race doesn’t excite anyone. Yet NASCAR is way ahead of IndyCar in the diversity game right now, so it’s possible it could develop a marquee name, and the climate has never been more accepting than it is right now.
Q: You’re a legendary betting man. Considering Janet Guthrie made the IMS Hall of Fame this year not for competitive reasons but because she is the first female to race the 500, and considering America’s current chaotic societal climate, what are the odds the IMSHF inducts Willy T. Ribbs next year, not for his own lackadaisical Indy car competition record, but because he is the first Black driver to race the Indy 500, and these crazy times seem perfectly ripe for such an optic? Could you also ask Willy T. himself about that? I’d love to hear his take on it, too.
RM: It would seem to make sense since Willy T. was a pioneer just like Janet, and here’s what he had to say: “I could only say ‘thank you’ if it happened, because it’s the one HOF you want to be in as a racer. I went to Indy because it was the biggest race on the planet, and making the show in the final minutes remains one of my greatest thrills.”
Q: Because of safety issues at Pocono for IndyCar and, to a lesser extent, NASCAR, would putting in a bus-stop chicane before Turn 2 at Pocono have any beneficial effects? I appreciate your time and expertise.
Glenn Harris, Greenbelt, MD
RM: I don’t think so. NASCAR is fine at the Tricky Triangle, and Pocono isn’t going to tear up the track in the hopes that IndyCar returns some day.
Q: Since approximately one-third of the entire population of the USA live within a 300-mile radius of Pocono, do you think that Penske will have any interest into trying to revive that historic Indy track? I’ve been to F1, Indy, and even NASCAR races around the USA/Europe and I’ve never seen such a disorganized mess as I saw at Pocono during the past few years that IndyCar ran there.
I know the last year IndyCar raced, Pocono knew it was the end and didn’t really care, as they had two people working the ticket booth on Saturday morning with many disgruntled fans stuck outside the track while the cars were out practicing! I place some of the blame on IndyCar itself, like I do for their not knowing about the asphalt additive at Texas that ruined the high groove and race. That’s what made Texas! I know R.P. is 83, but I’m sure he has some smart people in his group that can manage to sell 50k tickets! That track was made for IndyCar!
Michael Dominic, Hershey, PA
RM: I would never say never with R.P. since he’s got history there (Mark Donohue won the inaugural Pocono 500 in 1971), but it didn’t appear to most of the IndyCar paddock that Pocono had much interest in promoting the races. Mario even called them out. So I’m not sure there’s enough interest on either side to ever explore getting back together.