In the final installment of the Ten Best of 2019, we look at what we watch, who we watch and why we watch. Let the countdown conclude:
Think back to 2008, when news that some IndyCar races would be shown on a network called Versus. Remember the cackling and derision? Only a short time before that, Versus was the Outdoor Life Network. Surely this would be the beginning of the end of the series on television, people said. A lower-tier cable network? What will become of it?
Little more than a decade later, the NTT IndyCar Series is available to more than 80 million American households with cable or satellite connections through NBCSN, and far more are able to see the biggest races over the air on NBC. The production quality is first-rate, the second-by-second coverage as events unfold is outstanding, and the on-board views are stunning.
To wit, the coverage of a messy beginning at Portland last month stands out. The visuals and commentary are sharp and clear. The melding of audio and video are as good as this form of racing has experienced. It’s a solid team effort -- a complicated effort at that -- that’s reaching a larger audience with each race.
WATCH: Highlights of NBC's Portland broadcast
Is it perfect? Of course not. The grumbling about a lack of international access continues, and rightfully so. A lengthy loss of transmission marred the season opener at St. Petersburg. But whenever you find yourself complaining about a telecast, repeat these words: Outdoor Life Network. IndyCar could’ve been a pelt in a cabin somewhere in Manitoba. Instead, it made a nice recovery with a massive assist from a competent television partner.
3. A proper rivalry
As the season began to wind down and Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi became the front-runners, sportswriters inquired about their relationship. Were they friendly? Did they hang out together? Did they like each other?
The answer was a resounding meh, but we respect each other.
Not every sports rivalry has to be filled with loathing, and not every sports rivalry is a buddy movie. Often it’s in somewhere in the middle. As in, “We don’t socialize outside of work, but we do respect each other.”
Here’s what’s captivating about the Newgarden-Rossi dynamic: Both are intense. Both want to win many championships and Indy 500s. Both are capable of doing just that. Both are exceptional representatives of their teams, sponsors and the series. But more than anything, both are ridiculously talented and race each other hard but fair.
Take, for instance, the final laps at Barber Motorsports Park in April. With three laps left, Newgarden locked up and bumped his way past Rossi for fourth place. As Newgarden came to a stop in the pits after the race, Rossi pulled alongside. Instead of drama, though, Rossi extended his hand in congratulations.
“I ran him harder than I would’ve liked to,” Newgarden said. “To be fair, he was very nice. He did a really good job making it work. Hats off to him for making it clean.”
As the season came down to the finale at Laguna Seca, Rossi trolled Newgarden’s #riseabove theme with this:
To which Newgarden responded:
I literally just laughed out loud 😂😂 I love it! #RICEABOVE https://t.co/LYazSgmxfk
Brilliant. Racing needs its rivalries to be passionate without being nasty. We need these two characters. They don’t have to go to dinner together, but they also don’t need to throw punches. This is appropriately intense, clever and entertaining. Let’s hope it continues for years to come.
2. The series’ unique connection with the past
When he stepped out of the two-seater piloted by Mario Andretti at St. Pete in March, former NFL coach Tony Dungy was thrilled and relieved at the same time. When asked if he would do it again, Dungy laughed. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Once is enough.”
That's the beauty of this form of racing. At any race, you have a chance to see a dozen or more of the top 15 in all-time wins -- and three of them will be on track. You’re likely to see Mario, A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Dario Franchitti, Al Unser Jr., Johnny Rutherford or Paul Tracy. On track, you’ll see Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power -- all among the top seven on the all-time list.
On Sunday, Mario congratulated Kyle Larson on Twitter after his NASCAR playoff win at Dover. To which Chip Ganassi said what we were all thinking:
Let’s just take a moment and appreciate this guy! World Driving Championship, Indianapolis 500 winner, Daytona 500 winner. And he takes time to congratulate @KyleLarsonRacin. How cool is that?!?! https://t.co/xpaT4aAyRe
Without question, it’s a good time to be a race fan.
1. An inspiring soul
The first time I interviewed Robert Wickens during a test at Sebring in March 2017, I had no idea a new electronic device and my unfamiliarity with it were about to embarrass me. He was driving his friend James Hinchcliffe’s car as part of a promotional ride swap, and I was there to type about it.
It was a bright, sunny day. I pressed the record button on a new digital voice recorder. You can rightfully assume where this story is headed. I learned that day that the screen on this particular device is impossible to see in direct sunlight. As I walked away and hit play to listen to the recording, there was nothing. Just five wasted minutes.
When I returned to explain and beg for a do-over, Wickens found it amusing.
“So, you want me to repeat everything I just said?” he asked, laughing.
“Basically, yes,” I said.
As I hit the record button, he couldn’t help himself. “You sure it’s on?” he said with a grin. “Absolutely sure?”
It’s not so much that Robert Wickens is inspiring -- he is, of course -- but there’s more to him than the struggle he’s sharing with us. He’s kind and witty and intelligent and honest. He’s a good soul. The racing community rallied around his effort to recover because people were inspired by him before his accident. He gives us optimism for ourselves and humanity because of who he is.
If there is a point to all of this -- to the human spirit, to hope, to the meaning of it all -- it’s watching a guy stand at his wedding, say his vows, and then joke about it afterward.
This is the best thing that happened in 2019. Possibly the best thing that ever happened.
OLSON, PART 1: A look at what made 2019 so memorable
OLSON, PART 2: A loveable dog, competitive balance and fast rookies