Embrace the controversy?

Purists may cringe, but Helio’s meltdown is getting buzz from mainstream press


There’s an old saying that tells us to never look a gift horse in the mouth, to never be ungrateful for good fortune.

After Helio Castroneves’ post-race meltdown following Sunday’s Honda Indy Edmonton, it would appear that the attention-starved IZOD IndyCar Series has found some good fortune in the form of a spike of mainstream media interest.

While ESPN continued to immerse itself in the Brickyard 400 one day after, the Worldwide Leader’s anchors and sportswriting acquaintances were also giving their two cents on Castroneves’ decision to grab two League officials while profanely protesting his blocking penalty at the hands of IndyCar president of competition Brian Barnhart  — which took the win from him and gave it to Scott Dixon.

Most of their opinions fell in with my own: While Castroneves had a right to be angry with Barnhart, he went over the line in his interactions with Kevin Blanch and Charles Burns, the two officials that felt his wrath up in Canada.

The three-time Indy 500 champion has since apologized but he still needs to be hit with something solid, like a fine or a loss of championship points. As for Barnhart, well, it seems he’s getting hit with every bit of vitriol imaginable for his role in the saga. He’s covered. But while the buzz generated from this comes from a dubious penalty and an even more dubious rule, it’s still buzz.

Diehards and purists may not like it, but if you’re IndyCar, you have to make something of this.

For two weeks now, the series has had post-race fireworks. In Toronto, Alex Tagliani and Tomas Scheckter took each other out for the second year in a row and afterwards, they had it out on Twitter (as did Graham Rahal and Ryan Briscoe for their own contact with each other earlier in the race). And now, Castroneves, one of the series’ most popular drivers, has lost a win and his marbles after being on the receiving end of one of the tougher calls in Indy Racing League history.

Would most IndyCar fans prefer if their series got more hype from clean, hard, good ol’ wheel-to-wheel racing? Of course. But the mainstream demands characters and controversy. They need compelling figures and attention-grabbing conflicts.

I’m reminded of something Jeff Olson wrote after the whole Eddie Cheever Jr. vs. Marco Andretti brouhaha atWatkins Glen in 2006: “Selling open-wheel racing in this era is like selling Cristal to a Cro-Magnon. He’ll have no idea what it is or how enjoyable it can be. Show him how to bash the bottle over his buddy’s head, though, and you’ll sell case after case. Never try to sell a complicated product to people with the attention span of a fleas. You’ll only annoy yourself and piss off the fleas.”

That’s how it’ll have to work for IndyCar. If more controversy ensues from here on out, the series and its partners (especially Versus, who took over the TV broadcasts after ESPN on ABC bowed out for 2010 in Toronto) are obligated to use it and try to turn it into more viewers and butts in the seats until either ratings start hitting 1.0 or more networks cover the sport with regularity. Even if coverage is in a truncated form, like what the NHL has been on SportsCenter since they went to Versus and NBC, it’s better than not getting on the air at all.

Would the Edmonton race have gotten a sniff from ESPN if Castroneves hadn’t been penalized and subsequently let his celebrated emotion get the better of him? Somehow, I doubt it, and I know I’m not alone in sharing that opinion. The on-track product is not enough to warrant attention. It needs to be part of a ‘total package.’

And if IndyCar chooses to embrace controversy in creating that ‘total package,’ so be it. Again, you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.