ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — If only the rest of the world could have seen how Bobby Rahal looked at a picture of Michael Andretti during his daily workouts and realized how emotionally charged their rivalry used to be.
Tense adversaries on the track, Rahal stayed motivated by hanging that picture in the gym to push him the extra little bit in his training.
The IndyCar Series sure could use some of that venom these days.
A week after NASCAR got another round of off-track drama with a Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano feud, the IndyCar Series heads into Sunday’s season opener with a glaring hole in the rivalry department.
“So much is expected of us to be so PC and I’m not one to go on my Twitter and fire at people,” Marco Andretti said. “We have a certain amount of mutual respect for each other in IndyCar, and the difference from NASCAR is we are open-wheel and we know the consequences. But I’m sure if we had fenders, we’d have a lot more rivals because we’d have a lot more bumping.”
Although the IndyCar product is considered to be one of the best forms of racing, its lack of drama may be its biggest problem. Sure, tight title races are interesting and exciting, but that’s not the stuff that sells to a mainstream audience anymore.
“We all know that drama sells in this country, how the Kardashians are so popular is proof,” Graham Rahal said.
Remember, IndyCar’s 2011 season peaked during the late summer when Will Power and Dario Franchitti sparred on the track at Toronto and it carried over onto Twitter after the race. Power lost his temper with Alex Tagliani in the same event, and Power was caught making an obscene gesture toward race control on live television at New Hampshire. Helio Castroneves went on an angry Twitter rant about race control after Japan.
All of this brought attention to the series, created tension between Power and Franchitti during their championship battle and gave IndyCar some much-needed momentum.
And then it fizzled out.
Why? Because every good rivalry needs a villain, and IndyCar is missing a bad guy.
“You mean like Kyle Busch?” asked Marco Andretti of NASCAR’s polarizing star. “I guess I should get out and punch somebody in the face after the next race because in Kyle’s case, people can be all over his case, but at least they are talking about him. Obviously, he’s got a huge fan base, too. So I guess it’s easier to keep the buzz going when you have a villain.”
IndyCar doesn’t have any obvious candidates, at least not since Paul Tracy called it a career. Tracy was comfortable playing the bad guy — he actually enjoyed it — and nobody has stepped into that role since.
“Does anybody want to be the villain? That’s the thing, it doesn’t sit well on just anybody’s shoulders,” said Franchitti. “PT loved being the villain. I’ve been portrayed as the villain for some things I’ve done in races, but it’s not something I’m particularly comfortable with. Some guys love it, but it just doesn’t sit well with me.”
It could, however, fit Graham Rahal, the 24-year-old son of Bobby Rahal. He understands how deep the rivalry ran between his father and Michael Andretti, and how it carry upward to Mario Andretti, too. It’s his duty to beat Marco Andretti on the track, and if disliking him helps the series, well, that’s a bonus.
The second-generation (twice removed) rivalry almost got some legs last season when the two wrecked at Long Beach. Asked what happened, Rahal replied: “What’s Marco’s last name? I’ve said enough.”
Mario Andretti took umbrage to the quote and said as much on Twitter, and the feud was nearly on. IndyCar essentially squashed it with six races of probation for Rahal for blocking and initiating avoidable contact.
Rahal said it took the wind out any potential feud for the rest of the season.
“You weren’t going to see any clashes the next weekend because they said they’d sit me. If they’d let it go, who knows what would happen,” Rahal said. “So in that case, the air was sucked out because I get a call with what’s essentially a rest of the year penalty. So what, you want me to be a good boy the whole year?
“Drama is part of it, but our sport in many ways tries to be too clean,” he said. “Not from the driver side, but from (management and race control) because anytime you did anything, even if it was small, it was a penalty. We need to let some of that go. I don’t want it to get dangerous, but if we want to build drama for the sport, then they need to help.”
Rahal would need a willing combatant, and there doesn’t seem to be a long line of drivers looking for a good rivalry, including Marco Andretti.
“If you Google or YouTube rivalries, I think it’s me and Graham that comes up and it’s like one crash,” Andretti said. “I don’t particularly enjoy it, but man, it’s crazy. People like to see that stuff. I don’t show up trying to beat Graham.”
And some even question how sincere some of the rivalries these days really are. Tony Kanaan said while NASCAR’s incident last November between Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer was entertaining, he found it interesting to see the drivers joking about it last month when the series was back at Phoenix.
“Is that really a rivalry or not? Because if you want to fight with me, I will never speak to you again if you try to punch me,” Kanaan said. “We have plenty of rivalries here, but the way we take care of them versus the way they take care of them — they can take someone out there in NASCAR and no one says anything. Here, we can actually hurt people pretty bad. ”
Rahal is willing to do his part, with one small problem.
“My dad would kill me if I became the villain,” he said.