The Indianapolis 500 is the crown jewel of American auto racing. It’s cosmopolitan, with a starting grid that reads like a United Nations roll call. It’s loaded with tradition—the brick section of the track, the ceremonial swig of milk in Victory Lane, Jim Nabors—and familiar names like Foyt, Andretti, Unser, and Mears. And it’s faster and sleeker—maybe even a little classier—than its stock-car racing counterpart.
This year’s edition, the 92nd, seemed to have everything going for it even before the start: The two competing North American open-wheel racing leagues, the Indy Racing League and CART, announced in February that the 12-year-long feud between the two had been settled, with the once-dominant CART declaring bankruptcy and being absorbed by the upstart IRL; fan favorite Danica Patrick won her first IRL race in April, setting her up as a contender for the Indy 500; and more than 300,000 people showed up, the biggest turnout in more than a decade. Even with two of the last three winners racing stock cars now, a sport that just a few months ago seemed to be barely hanging on looked to be headed in the right direction.
Sunday’s race played out like a classic, too. New Zealand’s Scott Dixon led more laps than any other driver and won from the pole position, but his victory was more dramatic than that sounds. The unheralded Brazilian driver Vitor Meira and Indy 500 royalty Marco Andretti seemed to be closing in on Dixon in the final laps, until lapped traffic gave him a cushion. And there was even more drama back in the pack—an aggressive move by Andretti got his teammate, Tony Kanaan, wrecked, and Patrick’s car was bumped on pit row by Ryan Briscoe with 29 laps to go, breaking the suspension and forcing her out of the race.
All of it, however, seemed muted during ABC’s broadcast. A missed opportunity, considering the newfound stability of the league, Patrick’s fan-friendly profile, and the annual Memorial Day showcase. The network offered little to enhance the race beyond a split screen during commercial breaks. Crucial sequences—both Kanaan’s and Patrick’s wrecks and Dixon’s final push back into the lead included—were missed by the live cameras and only shown in replay. ABC missed the chance to offer the kind of add-ons that have made watching NASCAR seem like a virtual-reality video game in recent years: on-screen graphics, multiple on-board cameras, pit and garage reporters, and those fantastic little ground-level cameras that capture the thundering force and volume of 43 800-horsepower stock cars barreling through a corner at more than 150 miles an hour.
And that’s why Fox’s broadcast of NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday night, immediately following the conclusion of the Indy 500, was better as televised spectacle. Fox just plain knows how to broadcast a car race better than ESPN and its parent company, ABC. Watching NASCAR on Fox is immersive. It can’t ever feel exactly like being at a track, at least not until home theater sound systems go to 120 decibels and burning-rubber smell-o-vision is added. But it’s a smart and effective approximation. ABC is stuck in the Wild World of Sports model—not enough cameras, not enough commentators, nothing to make the viewer feel the race.
The visceral quality of Fox’s broadcasts, even when marred by the corn-pone commentary of Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip, is a big part of the league’s massive success in the last 10 years. You don’t have to know much about cars or racing to appreciate the show. Knowledge doesn’t hurt—the Fox crew rarely panders to the audience that just wants to see wrecks—but it’s not necessary. Open-wheel racing is too technical, too strategic, too precise, too cerebral to compete with the behemoth that NASCAR has grown into.
Fox and NASCAR were lucky to get a race at least as dramatic as Indy: Tony Stewart, running in first place, hit the wall and blew a tire with three laps left to hand the win to Kasey Kahne; Jimmie Johnson fell victim to a late-race engine failure; and Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. gambled on fuel to steal places in the top five.
NASCAR’s got its own off-track difficulties. The sport seems to be reaching the limits of its decade-long expansion into the mainstream; the new car specs for this season remain controversial; and auto racing’s environmental impact seems sure to rouse resentment this summer, as gas prices inch even higher. It’s still miles ahead of its open-wheel competitor, though, and Sunday’s head-to-head showdown shows why.