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As Indy 500 Cars Go By, Sponsors Scream ‘Go Buy’

Jim Mateja Chicago Tribune

The Indy 500.

The Super Bowl of automobile racing.

It is to cars as the Kentucky Derby is to thoroughbred nags.

The Big Three automakers all emphasize the importance of racing. Their long-held belief is “Race on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Consumers support the winners with their hardearned dollars.

Chevrolet, for example, has invested a few wheelbarrows full of money - as well as a few truckloads of cars - to win the bragging rights that come with supplying the pace car for this year’s race.

The automaker is hoping consumers think: Pace car! Must be fast. Better run out and buy one of those.

To witness the Indy 500 spectacle is almost as eventful as actually being on the track with the 33 contenders for auto racing’s most coveted crown. Want a ticket? You practically have to inherit one.

On Sunday, TV and radio will broadcast that famous sports incantation: “Gentlemen and lady (Lynn St. James),” start your engines, start your engines.”

Goose bumps will form. Sweat will start beading on the forehead.

On race day, however, we think we’ll cut the grass.

Trouble is, the Indy 500 no longer refers to the number of miles the driver needs to travel to win, but the number of product logos plastered on his or her person and car.

Are we supposed to pay homage to Andretti, Rahal and Sullivan? Nope.

Now it’s Marlboro, Pizza Hut, Goodyear, Duracell, Pennzoil and Gumout.

It’s no longer a test of driver endurance - dodging missiles traveling at 220 mph for over 3 hours. Rather, it’s become a test of how long the viewer can tolerate the blur of advertising passing before his or her eyes before they reach for the Murine and go lie down.

What once was a race, a test of man or woman and machine has become a test of advertising, the bang for the buck. The 33 competitors no longer lose sleep the evening before the race because they are plotting strategy on how to approach the banked turns, increase speed along the stretch or conserve fuel for a final burst at the flag. Instead, they review the game plan with each sponsor’s marketing representatives on the importance of not being seen on TV without the mandatory sponsor’s hat.

Racing, of course, isn’t the only sport in which competition has become secondary to commercialism. For example, we tuned in a baseball game on cable the other night, and a sign was positioned to the side of the batter so that with each pitch you not only waited for the ump’s call but also for the pizza phone number to flash.

Basketball is no better. It’s no longer a matter of which number Michael Jordan wears or who wins. Who gets to watch the whole game anyway? At the end of each quarter you have to run to the nearest shoe outlet to purchase the several brands appearing on signs in front of the scorer’s table.

But auto racing is the worst offender. There must be a contract that states any driver seen without logo hat on and who doesn’t mention his sponsors at least 12 times during every interview is banished to spend the rest of his or her racing career running over junked cars in pickup trucks.

It’s not the thrill of the race, the speed, the bravado, the stamina of the drivers or the staying power of the cars - it’s how many companies a driver can get to sew a patch on his or her racing togs and hat.

So, on race day we’ll hop on the riding mower - with nary a decal - and attack the lawn. We’ll pick up the newspaper the next day to learn who won: Andretti or Sullivan or Marlboro or Pizza Hut.Money talks.

The world’s fastest profession isn’t all that far removed from the world’s oldest.

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