Every sport has its Golden Era. For the Indianapolis 500, it essentially encompassed the growth to maturity of the post-World War II "Baby Boom'' generation, but if you could pick just one decade, "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing'' truly grasped the imagination of American sports fans in the 1960s.
There was a cadre of great American drivers -- Parnelli Jones, Rodger Ward, A.J. Foyt -- and they clashed with the British invasion of Formula One drivers led by Scots Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart and Englishman Graham Hill. This fertile ground then spawned two American drivers, Mario Andretti, whose family immigrated from Italy, and Bobby Unser, who came from the hardscrabble dirt tracks of New Mexico, and their families would help shape Indy history over the next four decades.
Approaching Sunday's 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500, Unser reflected on what it was like when Clark arrived with a rear-engine Ford Lotus to challenge the conventional Offenhauser roadsters in the mid-1960s.
"We saw it as a really good thing and a challenge,'' Unser said. "It brought about innovation. Everybody said, 'Yippee! Look at this. A new reason to make more money, a new reason to have more races and better race cars. We left the old roadsters, and now, we've got really neat little rear-engine cars.'
"It was exciting. We used to have 200,000 people or more for the first day of qualifications. It was a super-good era. Those were the golden years.''
Unser's wistful tone was reminiscent of Burt Lancaster playing the role of a small-time crook in "Atlantic City'' when he tells a young protege, "You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.'' That lament for the faded glory of the Boardwalk could apply to the Brickyard, as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is known.
The combination of the split in 1996 between CART and the Indy Racing League that caused many of the best open-wheel drivers to boycott the 500 for several years coincided with the growth of NASCAR's expert marketing of stock car races run by primarily American drivers to eclipse Indianapolis, which even began staging its own NASCAR event.
But the political divide was bridged with the 2008 merger of the two warring factions; Randy Bernard left the Professional Bull Riding circuit to become the new CEO of the Indy Racing League, and plans call for a new set of rules in 2012 that will bring innovation back to the sport instead of forcing every team to race with the same set of spec equipment.
Combined with a fresh IRL circuit sponsor in Izod and the marketing opportunity presented by the 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500 won by Ray Harroun in 1911 with an average speed of 74.602 miles per hour, things again are looking up for an American tradition.
"We enjoyed our 'glory days,' but I'm very optimistic that the glory days are coming back,'' said Andretti, whose grandson Marco is in Sunday's field. ''There was a political aspect we had to deal with for about 15 years. The series was split in two and you didn't necessarily have the best talent at Indianapolis. The fans became disenchanted to some degree.
"But all of that has disappeared, and it's regaining its original luster. All of a sudden, the place is a sellout again. It's a matter of re-creating the tradition by embracing the product and educating your fan base about how rich the history of this series is. They will embrace it. I'm seeing the difference.''
A major part of the Indy 500's problem is the sense that the driving talent hasn't been as deep as it was before the split in 1996. After the British invasion in the '60s, fields remained strong with four-time winners Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears and three-time winners Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford, not to mention two-time winner Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti, who continued his family's hard-luck tradition by becoming the driver to lead the most laps without winning.
By coincidence, they faded from the scene just before the dry spell hit.
"People retire from football and baseball, and those sports don't have the same problem people put on motor sports with name change,'' Mears said. "It just so happened a bunch of us retired around the same time. I got out; [Bobby] Rahal got out, the Unsers started getting out. So that made a bigger change all of a sudden. It's going to take time to build the newer names, and it takes winning.''
Mears stayed active with owner Roger Penske, whose 15 wins are the record for one team. Penske returned to Indy in 2001 with driver Helio Castroneves and has won five of the past 10 Indy 500s. In an effort to hold down costs, the IRL went with "spec'' car kits, and that leveled the playing field to create closer competition.
Getting away from car kits
"Running the same cars for a number of years allows teams to come in without having to have completely new and full-blown expertise -- engineer, designer, development staff,'' Mears said. "So it's much better costwise than it's been. Everybody can get the same blocks. Now, it's figuring different ways of stacking the blocks, a more efficient way, a different combination to come out with an advantage.''
Despite the cost savings, many believe the lack of development and creativity has contributed to dwindling interest in the Indy 500 even though its cars go much faster than NASCAR. This year's polesitter, Alex Tagliani, averaged 227.472 mph for four laps.
The new formula in 2012 provides for both four- and six-cylinder engines with displacements up to 2.4 liters -- a big change from the spec 3.5-liter Honda V8 everyone uses now. The new engine will be turbocharged, and multiple manufacturers will be permitted.
"Next year, with the rules of multiple engine manufacturers and, hopefully, body kits for the cars with different aerodynamics, that is going to open up the sport again,'' defending champion and two-time winner Dario Franchitti said. "We'll get to see cutting-edge technology come back in. That's going to help the manufacturers and bleed its way into road cars again, and innovation will come back.''
Three-time champ Castroneves said: "This year, we have 40 cars for the Indianapolis 500. It's been a long time since 1995 when things used to be up there. Next year, we're going to go for a new car. Now, we have to take the momentum and, not stop, but continue pushing.''
There's no bigger proponent of the need to bring back technical innovation than Bobby Unser, who was the first to top 190 mph in qualifying. He recalls how the "tire wars'' between Goodyear and Firestone pumped money into the sport, and he's in favor of more freedom to develop all aspects of the car.
A path for Americans
Another area Unser wants addressed is the sensitive issue of providing a path for American drivers to take part in the Indy Racing League. This year's 33-driver grid included only 10 Americans until Ryan Hunter-Reay's team bought his way into the field, displacing Brazilian Bruno Junqueira.
"Try not to take this the wrong way because it's not meant that way, but the foreign drivers have just about totally taken over IndyCar racing,'' Unser said. "There's no way for American drivers in midget and sprint cars to come into IndyCar anymore. It's progressed to the point where you have to have money and you have to bring it with you. There are some exceptions, but it's a bad deal.''
Just as he welcomed the British invasion of the '60s, Unser explained: "We always should want the foreign drivers, but via the rulesmakers, we must have a way to design it to where we still can have Americans and not let NASCAR get almost 100 percent of them. If we knock guys like Franchitti and Castroneves, we're sick people. We always want them to be here, but we need to get a balance. People want Americans in an American race.''
The best-known American driver at the moment is Danica Patrick, who became the first woman to win an IndyCar race in 2008 in Japan and has five top-10 finishes at Indy. Her presence as one of four women in this year's race says much about the diversity question.
"In the old days, there definitely was discrimination,'' Patrick said. "From what I hear, it didn't sound like a warm environment for women. But I feel like I'm around in an era where people are embracing difference. Perhaps it might take a little longer to convince people of what I can do -- and maybe some people will never be convinced -- but the same could be said for guy drivers, too. Everybody has to earn their respect.'''
'The purest form'
At Indy, respect is earned by how drivers manage the highest sustained speed in motor sports, which always has been at the core of Indy's appeal to a mass audience. Mario Andretti calls open-wheeled racing the "purest form of the sport'' because it's not derived from everyday stock cars.
Whether or not Americans recognize many of the names in the 100th anniversary field (this is not the 100th race because Indy was dark for six years during two world wars), surely they must recognize the sheer speed and thrill Indy cars bring to the table compared with NASCAR, which barely tops 200 mph in the restrictor-plate era.
"I hope they understand the difference,'' Franchitti said. "In qualifying, we reached 235 in Turn 3. That's one thing, but it's when you're reaching 226, 227 through the middle of the corner, that's where IndyCar separates itself from any other form of motor racing. When you watch it in person -- even for me who has been doing this a long time -- I watch a car go through Turn 1 at Indianapolis, and it blows my mind.''
It's a message the Indy 500 is hoping will translate for the "YouTube'' generation.