Finding the poop in a field full of unicorns

Sometime around when I first joined RACER midway through 2015, I was scrolling through the comments under an IndyCar story. I don’t recall what the story was, other than it was relatively inconsequential news of some kind that the comments section immediately found every possible downside to.

This was a thing for a while, to the extent that it was a regular segment on early episodes of the Dinner with Racers podcast ­– ‘click on a random story, scroll down to the comments, and see if the first one is negative.’

Anyway, this particular story followed that pattern: IndyCar announced something; lots of people in RACER’s comments section were outraged. Somewhere in the thread, someone noted the direction the vibe was taking, to which somebody else responded that ‘IndyCar fans could find the poop in a field full of kittens and unicorns.’


I’ve thought about that post many times in the years since, and particularly over the last few days since IndyCar announced its exhibition race at Thermal Motor Club. The gaps in the schedule are too big… but now we don’t like what they’ve filled it with. IndyCar doesn’t think outside the box… but now it did something different and we don’t like it.

Attendance at Californian races other than Long Beach has been pretty modest during the modern era of IndyCar, and there’s little to suggest that a championship round in the desert a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles (or more, depending on traffic) would have bucked that trend.

A relationship between Don Cusick and Stefan Wilson that was forged through Thermal Motor Club blossomed into an Indy 500 entry. Part of IndyCar’s aim with next year’s Thermal exhibition race is to see what other Don Cusicks might be out there. Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

That said, it’s likely that some of the grievance stems not so much from the idea of someone who might otherwise have gone to the Thermal event not being able to get tickets as it does the fundamental notion of any part of IndyCar racing being put behind a paywall at all. It’s easy to have sympathy for that, because it raises the obvious question of, where might fans be shut out of next? The answer, hopefully, is ‘nowhere.’ This is a special, targeted event aimed at a very specific demographic for a very specific purpose. But the series can’t blame fans for asking the question.

The upside is, fans are getting more IndyCar than they had this year – the event will be carried by NBC – at zero cost to them. It doesn’t replace a race that they might otherwise have attended. It’s not clear at this point what IndyCar means when it says that limited tickets will be made available to ‘its most ardent fans’, to quote Marshall Pruett’s story from a few days ago. ‘Ardentness’, which I didn’t know was a real word until I checked Miriam Webster a few moments ago, seems like a hard thing to measure. But regardless of where we might register on the Ardent-o-meter, it’s more IndyCar for us to watch. How can that be bad?

For some, one answer to that particular question highlights the fact that when IndyCar (or its previous iterations) has run similar non-championship events in the past – notably the Marlboro Challenge that ran between 1987 and 1992 – the races were accessible to ‘real’ fans, as opposed to the country club set. But the operative word there is ‘Marlboro’. The reason that event went away is that Marlboro pulled its backing. If Groovemouse Energy Drink stepped up to foot the bill for a non-championship pre-season race on the Daytona road course, the paddock would be booking tickets for Florida in late February. But it hasn’t, and no has anyone else.

There’s also been some backlash against Thermal Club members being embedded with teams for the weekend. Granted, to an invested fan, that looks hokey. But at worst, it’s harmless; at best, one of these people might be so taken by the experience that they convert cosplaying as a team member into some kind of concrete investment into a team, or a driver, or the series. Stefan Wilson forged his relationship with Don Cusick at Thermal, and this event is a mission to see how many other Don Cusicks might be out there. Formula 1 teams sometimes give celebrities a pair of headphones and let them stand on the pitwall and pretend they’re about to tell Oscar Piastri to push. Think of this as the same thing, except it might ultimately benefit IndyCar in the long run if the members have a good time. Their presence will have zero impact on what happens on track.

I am not privy to how this event will be structured financially, and at this early stage I have no idea whose back is getting scratched by whom to make it happen. Ditto for the charity aspect, which is fantastic on paper but probably delivers benefits on the accounting side that I’m not smart enough to understand. But as fans, we get a couple of additional days of track time to enjoy. As a series, IndyCar gets to play with different formats in a low-pressure environment, and open its doors to well-capitalized individuals that might be tempted to take their involvement further. And in an era where on-track testing is hugely limited, teams get an additional chance to put extra miles on cars and drivers.

IndyCar’s concept for Thermal isn’t perfect, but it has way more upsides than drawbacks. It’ll be fun to see how it plays out.

Story originally appeared on Racer